CAROLYN'S COMPOSITIONS

March 2, 2008

LIZZIE BORDEN—A REENACTMENT


Lizzy Borden took an ax,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

I’m sure this childhood rhyme is familiar to you. The difference between us is that you weren’t talking about someone who shares your ancestry. Lizzie and I share common roots: both of us descend from Rebecca and Thomas Cornell, albeit our lines separated prior to 1700 (I only discovered this paternal thread of connection in January 2003!).

That’s why the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast in Fall River, Mass., was placed on my list of non-negotiable plans prepared for an extended New England visit in the fall of 2003. This, even though I suspected, rightly, it was a more pricey adventure than most things we chose to do.

The facility wasn’t open the mid-week day we wanted to schedule our visit. However, the owner relented, reducing the price after she said the breakfast wouldn’t be served. We signed on for the least expensive room.

After making the October first reservation I told the director why I chose to stay at 92 Second St. On hearing my reasons, she said we could choose any room we wanted—including the most expensive room, the room where Lizzie’s step-mother was done in—at no extra charge, due to the common genealogical thread. We were the only guests that night, and it’s obvious which room we slept in!

The tour guide, a young man named Michael, lived in a room on the third floor. He said many of the guests, who come from all over, are Lizzy Borden “groupies.” The strangest visitors during his two years of working there were three witches traveling to Salem, Massachusetts.

“I don’t think they were white witches either,” he said.

Another strange situation was a woman whose hair kept getting flipped over while she was trying to sleep. After yelling at her husband to stop harassing her she discovered he was sleeping. It wasn’t him.

The house maintains its original number, 92, but is in the 300 block of Second Street.

On August 4, 1892, Abby Borden, 64, and her husband, Andrew Borden, 70, were brutally axe-hacked in their home. Andrew’s body was discovered on the sitting room couch by Lizzie Borden, 32, his eldest daughter. Abby’s body was found later by Bridgette Sullivan, the maid, and Adelaide Churchill, the next-door neighbor. It laid on the guest-room floor between the bed and a vanity. Andrew received eleven blows to his face; Abby over a dozen to the back of her head.

Household members were Andrew; Abby, his second wife; his daughters, Lizzie and Emma, 43, and the maid.

The Borden’s were among the oldest, most respected and wealthiest town residents. Their estate was worth around $300,000 (equal to the total Massachusetts budget of that day and equivalent to $12-15 million today). However, Andrew housed his family in a starkly furnished house lacking indoor plumbing (the daughters were reduced to using chamber pots, an outdoor privy and a basement toilet) and electricity. It was in an unfashionable neighborhood.

At the time of the murders all the doors to the house were locked. Lizzie and Bridgette were the only ones home; Emma was out of town. The family physician, Dr. Bowen, was treating the rest of the family for what he thought was poisoning.

Lizzie was self-conscious, socially handicapped, polite, kind to animals, and a church-attender/Sunday school teacher. She was also a kleptomaniac. Having motive and opportunity, she became the prime suspect after police learned she’d unsuccessfully tried to purchase prussic acid. She provided a shaky, ever-changing alibi.

Lizzie, however, was one of four suspects: Bridgitte; John Morse (Andrew’s brother-in-law by his first marriage and the mother of his daughters) who’d slept in the guest room the night before and the night of the murders, and a young man who’d recently shown up at the house, claiming to be Andrew’s son by an outside affair.

Although Lizzie didn’t testify at the trial she told the judge, “I am innocent. I leave it to my counsel to speak for me.”

She was acquitted by a jury of twelve men after they deliberated for an hour. They felt it was inconceivable in that day that such a sprite woman could hack two people to death. However, society wasn’t so easy. Lizzie lived out a lonely, ostracized life in her hometown.

Did Lizzie commit the murder? Did she suffer so harshly under her father and step-mother’s rule so as to justify the violence of the murders? Or, as one theory suggests, did the grizzly murders grow out of Lizzy’s suppressed rage and powerlessness at being an incest victim?

If it was a case of incest, I can see the rhyme ditty being written as follows:

Lizzie’s father took an axe

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what he had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

The case compares to that of O. J. Simpson’s: a woman and a man gruesomely murdered in the same place; the existence of tense and unpleasant the family relationships; extensive press coverage from the very beginning; both defendants with exceptional financial resources and the slickest lawyers money could buy; defense lawyers mocking the police investigation and the implication of corruption was involved; judicial rulings that were much criticized after the trial. The lawyers played trump cards: O. J.’s lawyers had “the race” card while Lizzie’s lawyers had the “nice-respectable-girl” card. There were highly disputed acquittals, and tons of books followed the verdicts.

Monte and I enjoyed our stay at the Bed & Breakfast. The original house sits in a deteriorated inner city neighborhood, with a bus station just across the street. Parking is so limited we had to squeeze into the driveway. During the evening, after the tour and an interview of the tour guide, we read books and watched tapes on Lizzy’s case. When we left, we were not certain whether she was guilty or someone else was.

Perhaps I can offer a new theory: Did Lizzy see her father kill her step-mother and wait for an opportunity to do him in in revenge? This is as good as any of the other theories.

In ancestry, Lizzie and I are rooted in the Thomas and Rebecca Cornell genealogical line. Their son Thomas was hung in 1673 for the murder of his mother. His guilty verdict was based largely on the poor relationship between he and his mother; the testimony of a ghost and circumstantial evidence. After the penalty was completed in Newport, Rhode Island, police officials refused to interrogate other suspects for fear it would be the admission that they erred. I descend from Thomas’s son Thomas III. Lizzy descends from Thomas’s daughter, born after his death. Her mother named her Innocent, perhaps in objection to and retaliation for her husband’s guilty verdict.

Before we left the Bed & Breakfast I decided to reenact Abby’s death scene. Monte took macabre photographs of me laying on the guest room floor where her body lay, positioned according to original crime scene photographs, between the bed and the vanity. With that, we ended our trip.

A reenactment---Lizzy Borden's stepmother...

A reenactment—Lizzy Borden’s stepmother…

Monte is forewarned: I’m looking for my axe, and if I find it he’d had better scram out of my way!

For more information on Lizzy’s case, type in Lizzy Borden murders on the Google Internet search engine. For information on the Rebecca Cornell murders click on KILLED STRANGELY: A NEW ENGLAND MURDER STORY , type in Rebecca Cornell 1673, or read “Killed Strangely, the Story of Rebecca Cornell” by Elaine Forman Crane, 2002.

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5 Comments »

  1. Shouldn’t the date in the following sentence be August 4, 1892?

    On August 4, 1992, Abby Borden, 64, and her husband, Andrew Borden, 70, were brutally axe-hacked in their home.

    Comment by Lynette — September 1, 2008 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you for catching my error (a typo, for certain). I attempt to be accurate, but occasionally make errors. I always appreciate readers letting me know when there is an error so I can corrections. Carolyn

    Comment by carolyncholland — September 8, 2008 @ 3:26 pm | Reply

  3. This is really interesting. I was watching a ghost hunters episode about the murders so I decided to look it up.

    Comment by Taylor — November 27, 2008 @ 1:05 am | Reply

  4. Carolyn:
    I guess we are shirt-tail relatives as we both descend from Rebecca (Briggs) Cornell, as well as Lizzie. If Thomas and Lizzie are guilty I hope it’s not genetic as my Great-Great Grandmother, Caroline Briggs, and her son, David Briggs, were convicted of killing a teacher in Southern Oregon in 1874.
    Don Corsetti

    Comment by Don Corsetti — January 31, 2009 @ 6:17 am | Reply

  5. I find no evidence that she committed murder.

    Comment by Gabriella Gick — December 11, 2010 @ 8:43 pm | Reply


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