An Axe to Grind – A Look at the Historic Lizzie Borden Case and the New Movie “Lizzie”

Lizzie Borden Had an Axe…

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

…or so the rhyme goes. But did Lizzie really hack her parents to death? Was Lizzie a Victorian Jeffrey Dahmer?

Setting the Scene

Lizzie Borden was born on July 19, 1860 to Andrew and Sarah Borden. The Borden family line helped found the city of Fall River, Massachusetts, where they lived. Andrew did not inherit his family’s wealth but managed to build several prosperous businesses on his own. He was a strict Christian and extremely frugal to the point where he didn’t allow modern plumbing and electricity into the family home. Lizzie and her older sister Emma, followed in their father’s saintly ways. They frequently attended church services, taught Sunday school, and helped in various religious activities.

After Lizzie’s mother died, Andrew married Abby Gray, who Lizzie reportedly called “Mrs. Borden”. By late springtime of 1892, the Borden household was broiling with turmoil. Neither of the Borden girls liked their stepmother. Rumors swirled that Abby married Andrew for his money. Andrew took a hatchet to pigeons that Lizzie kept in a roost in the family attic despite her protests. He claimed that they were a nuisance to the neighborhood children.

Summer Arrives

By July, both sisters took long vacations in New Bedford and returned only a week before the murders. Even then, Lizzie reportedly stayed in a boarding house for a few more days.

Andrew had given several of Abby’s family members’ money and property, much to the disdain of the Borden sisters. They demanded their original family home, which Andrew sold to them for one dollar. But they resold the house back to their father for $5,000 (roughly worth $135,000 in modern times). Lizzie’s uncle, John Morse, had also visited the home to discuss strained financial matters.

The weather that summer was particularly hot, and without electricity and modern plumbing, it was difficult for the members of the Borden home to remain cool.

An additional blow to the Borden home was a strange intestinal illness that plagued the family. Some claimed spoiled mutton had been used over a period of several days. Abby, the stepmother, was concerned that someone was trying to poison Andrew for his fortune.

The Fateful Day

On the morning of August 4th, Andrew and Abby Borden were slain. John Morse had vacated the guest room and left the home. Between 9am and 10:30am, Abby went upstairs to clean John’s room. She was first struck on the side of her head above the ear and most likely saw her attacker. She fell face down and was hit an additional 17 times to the back of the head.

Andrew and John had breakfast that morning. Afterwards, John left to buy some oxen and visit a niece around 8:45am. Andrew went for a morning walk and returned around 10:30am. His key wouldn’t work in the door, so he knocked. The maid, Bridget Sullivan, tried to open it, and cursed. She would later swear, under oath, that she heard Lizzie laughing upstairs at the struggle to open the door. It would be noted in court that Abby would already have been dead at this time.

Lizzie would deny this allegation, stating that her father asked where Abby was, and claimed that a messenger had been sent to call on Abby to help a sick friend. She also said that she’d helped her father remove his boots so he could take a nap on the sofa. However, it is clear from crime scene photos that Andrew died with his boots on.

Lizzie then allowed Bridget to leave to go shop a store sale, but the maid felt sick and stayed home to nap instead. At 11:10am, Lizzie woke Bridget to tell her that Andrew had been attacked.

Andrew’s fate was just as disturbing as Abby’s. He was still bleeding when his body was discovered, one of his eyeballs cut in half, and the rest of his face crushed by an estimated 11 blows.

Not a Clear Cut Investigation

Lizzie’s explanations to detectives about the murders were contradictory. She thought that Abby was gone. Then she said Abby had returned and went upstairs to rest. Lizzie said she’d heard noises in the home after leaving briefly, but then said she hadn’t heard anything. The police did not like her overly calm demeanor. To complicate matters, they never checked Lizzie’s clothing for blood stains, as Lizzie claimed she was sick and needed to rest.

Two hatchets, two axes, and a hatchet head with a broken handle were found in the basement. The hatchet with a broken handle appeared to have fresh dirt and saw dust applied to make it appear as if it had not been used in a long while. The tools were foolishly left in the home for a days as the investigation continued.

Abby and Andrew’s stomachs were tested for poison, as was the family’s milk, but all results were negative for poison. Lizzie was reportedly seen in the basement the next day. And two days later, she was tearing up a dress in the kitchen. But couldn’t someone do as they pleased in their own home?

Inconsistencies

On August 8th, Lizzie was brought in for questioning. During this time, she was reportedly given high doses of morphine to calm her nerves. This made her answers only more indeterminate. The aggressive district attorney filed charges and on August 11th, Lizzie was arrested and jailed. By her trial in June of the next year, her initial inquest was ruled inadmissible due to her physical condition at the time of questioning.

Lizzie’s trial was started in New Bedford on June 5, 1893. In a bizarre twist, on June 1st, Bertha Manchester, another Fall River resident, was hacked to death in her kitchen. However, Jose Correa deMello, a Portuguese immigrant was later found guilty of the Manchester murder in 1894 and it was determined he was not in Fall River during the time of the Borden deaths.

The Trial

The trial was full of dramatic moments. When the skulls and hands of her parents were brought in as evidence for the jury, Lizzie fainted. And again, the evidence was muddled. The murder weapon hadn’t been properly obtained. Lizzie’s dress never tested. Reports that Lizzie had procured an acid to treat a cloak could not be satisfied. And Lizzie’s physical and mental states were called into question.

After an hour of deliberation, a jury acquitted Lizzie Borden of the murders on June 20, 1893. Lizzie called it “the happiest moment in her life”. No one else was investigated or tried for the murders. Lizzie and Emma split a substantial estate, and moved into the upper class Hill neighborhood. But the specter of their parent’s deaths followed them for the remainder of their lives. Neither married or had children. In yet another odd twist, Lizzie was accused of shoplifting in Providence, Rhode Island in 1897. Very strange behavior for a wealthy woman.

The Aftermath

Emma eventually was tired of the publicity, moved to New Hampshire in 1905, and never saw Lizzie again. Bridget, the maid, married and moved to Butte, Montana. It was widely rumored she had a deathbed confession that implicated Lizzie. Lizzie died on June 1, 1927 of pneumonia. Nine days later, Emma died of chronic kidney disease. They were rejoined in death, laid to rest in the family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery. Each left small fortunes valued at several hundred thousands of dollars (by today’s estimates).

Today, many theories abound about the Lizzie Borden. Many of Lizzie’s defenders claimed she couldn’t possibly have the strength to hack her parents to death. I decided to do a little light investigation on my own in this matter.

Tossing the Blade

When a YouTube clip of the buff and charismatic actor Jason Momoa pitching an axe went viral, interest in tossing sharp objects spiked. Momoa’s toss, with the greatest of ease, a wink, and a smile, garnered a bull’s eye. Wanna be Paul Bunyan’s have been lining up to try and duplicate his feat.

I headed over to Top Notch to learn how to throw one of these bad boys. Top Notch is just around the corner from my apartment building, so on a lovely early autumn afternoon, cosplaying as Lizzie herself, I strolled in to check out this trend.

I was warmly greeted by Stephen Prinster, proprietor and manager of Top Notch. First I watched a lovely couple take some fun hacks while enjoying adult beverages. Suddenly, I wanted the feel of steel and hard wood in my hands. After a few instructions and photos, there was no doubt in my mind that there’s a certain thrill to lobbing a heavy tool and watching the chips fall where they may. Stephen gave me some video pointers here:

Victoria as Lizzie

The proprietors at Top Notch can also show you how to throw shuriken (Japanese for “hidden hand blade”) or “moon” or throwing stars, weapons that were historically first used by Samurai’s. The blades on the axes are sharpened one to two times a month, and the wood targets and backing are replaced every three to six (consecutive) hours depending on the amount of throws and users.

In my own opinion, I believe any woman (or person) angry enough could let out some serious stress, or have the strength to swing really well. Which brings us back to Lizzie…

A New Look at Lizzie

“Lizzie”, an independent film starring Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, premiered in the US on September 14, 2018. This version of Miss Borden, portrays Lizzie as an austere spinster trapped under her strict Christian father’s control. Lizzie detests her stepmother, is estranged from her sister, Emma, and her father kills Lizzie’s “pet” pigeons, which leaves her without any friends or family for comfort.

When a desperate young woman, Bridget Sullivan, becomes the Borden family maid, Lizzie finally finds more than just friendly companionship. The film plays the two troubled ladies as disturbed partners who seek revenge on Lizzie’s father after he abuses his household power. Tensions build over property and inheritance disputes, a hot summer, bizarre epileptic seizures, and possible food poisoning. The result is a gruesome ax murder of two adults that remains unsolved.

I wonder what Lizzie would think of this new interpretation of her life? Would she want to take an axe to it? I’ll review this film in a future post and see if it is as sharp as the previews.

Historic photos and information on Lizzie Borden courtesy of the New York Times/Mary Cantwell. Historic cover courtesy of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. Jason Momoa clip courtesy of YouTube. Special thanks to Top Notch for lessons and use of their facility, more information can be found at www.topnotchaxethrowing.com or email info@topnotchaxe.com.

_____

Victoria L. Szulc, “The Countess”, is a multi-media Steampunk artist/writer working on her fourth Steampunk novel, “Lafayette to London” and is the resident artist and a tour guide for Haunted STL Tours. You can follow her works at mysteampunkproject.wordpress.com.

 

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