Why Lizzie Borden’s Murder Case Will Remain Forever a Mystery

There is a picture of Lizzie Borden which must accompany every piece about her. I want to get that out of the way first, so there it is, above. The picture does tell you something about the woman, whom a neighbor up the street liked to describe as “jowly.” But because it is black and white, it doesn’t show how blue her eyes were — that same neighbor wrote of them as being “an almost colorless ice-blue…. I have heard many people speak of them as dead eyes, but the eyes of the dead are dull; Lizzie’s had the shine of beach pebbles.”

A vivid image, but in the writing personal memories get embellished, and cultural memories even more so. There’s no longer much empirical truth in the way we talk about Lizzie Borden. I have not yet seen the made-for-television movie about Lizzie Borden which Lifetime will air this Saturday. Early reviews are mixed. But the decision to make such a film, at least, is easy to understand.

That Lizzie Borden may have murdered her father and stepmother to gather that “fiscally gratifying fruit” for herself has been argued over for more than a century now. She was acquitted by a jury, but the result didn’t quash the interest. The spinster daughter, the resented stepmother, the 40 whacks, the locked doors and blocked walls of the family living quarters, and a crucial sojourn under the pear tree: the elements of the alleged crimes of Lizzie Borden are just too good to resist. As in just about every Great American Crime, any revulsion for blood and gore got overtaken by the devouring curiosity of amateur sleuths. And, you know, literary writers like Angela Carter, whose “Mise-en-Scene for a Parricide” at the LRB made the story’s feminist appeal explicit:

Five living creatures are asleep in a house on Second Street, Fall River, Massachusetts, USA. They comprise two old men and three women. The first old man owns all the women by either marriage, birth or contract. His house is narrow as a coffin and that was how he made his fortune – he used to be an undertaker but he has recently branched out in several directions and all his branches bear fruit of the most fiscally gratifying kind.

Lizzie’s own story, as she tried to tell her inquest, was comparatively simple. She was at home on August 4, 1892. She sent the maid out to wash the windows, and began stoking a fire to do some ironing herself. While she waited, she leafed through an old issue of Harper‘s magazine. Her father came home and she went into the sitting room to greet him. He lay down on the sofa. She asked him if he wanted the window left open, and then left the room. She had a thought about about needing lead to act as a sinker on her fishing line. She was planning on going out to fish the following Monday. There was, she thought, perhaps lead in the barn behind the house. Out she went, and stopped at the pear tree for a few minutes. And when she returned, she found her father still on the sofa, but with the famous axe taken to his head. She called to the maid. The police came. And the aftermath was blurry. She did not have the faintest idea that her stepmother was dead upstairs, too.

Image via "The Trial of Lizzie Borden."
Image via “The Trial of Lizzie Borden.”

Reading the testimony the other day, I was struck both by how well-prepared Borden sounded as a witness in her own defense. But also, by the way, her acerbic attitude towards the proceedings actually kind of endeared her to me. It was clear that she was a person who liked to be precise in her terms:

Q. You have been on pleasant terms with your stepmother since then?

A. Yes sir.

Q. Cordial?

A. It depends upon one’s idea of cordiality, perhaps.

Q. According to your idea of cordiality?

A. We were friendly, very friendly.

Q. Cordial, according to your idea of cordiality?

A. Quite so.

Q. What do you mean by “quite so”?

A. Quite cordial. I do not mean the dearest of friends in the world, but very kindly feelings, and pleasant. I do not know how to answer you any better than that.

It was also clear that she found some of the examiner’s questions downright annoying, to the point of seeming almost self-defeatingly honest:

Q. Why did you leave off calling her mother?

A. Because I wanted to.

Q. Is that all the reason you have to give me?

A. I have not any other answer.

The acidity of that reply, palpable all these many years later, might be evidence of a guilty conscience. But it could equally just be the anger of someone who has been harassed and demonized for her grief, and in particular for not grieving in the “right” way. Bordeniana is littered with observations that Lizzie didn’t feel the right way about anything. She always either appeared either too calm or too upset. Everyone else’s opinion of your sincerity matters a great deal in a murder case.

We’re familiar with this sort of grief-parsing as armchair criminal investigation; a version of it goes on every day on television. It also happens on crime message boards, and in the comments section of crime blogs. People are not wrong to speculate about matters of credibility; there’s a reason the law of evidence has a whole set of rules on that subject alone. What you learn from hanging around courtrooms and trial transcripts, though, is that there is no way of knowing for sure. A certain comfort with uncertainty sets in.

I mean, after all, it wasn’t like I walked away from that transcript convinced by Lizzie Borden’s story of her August afternoon, exactly. Although there is some evidence that she was under the influence of drugs during this conversation, certain aspects of her story just… don’t add up. There is the fact, for example, that the conceit of the fishing trip, which necessitated the trip to the barn that was Borden’s abstract alibi, seems rather conveniently timed:

Q. How long since you used the fish lines?

A. Five years, perhaps.

And then there is this question of lingering by the pear tree:

Q. How long were you under the pear tree?

A. I think I was under there very nearly four or five minutes. I stood looking around. I looked up at the pigeon house that they have closed up. It was no more than five minutes, perhaps not as long. I can’t say sure.

It’s hard not to wonder about these four or five minutes. The 19th century was a long time ago, and things were slower then. Perhaps people did this, linger under trees and look at pigeon houses for moments they thought they could afford to lose. Maybe they did later live their whole lives in some regret of it, even if it ostensibly saved their lives from vicious, axe-wielding murderers. We don’t know.