Forty Whacks

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Lizzie Borden had an axe, gave her father forty whacks

When she saw what she had done, she gave her mother forty-one.

‘It’s amazing what can be lost to history,’ was my first thought on walking through the Lizzie Borden house. It’s been turned into a museum, and a bed and breakfast now. In fact, a few years ago, two of my sisters, amateur ghost-hunters, stayed in the room of Lizzie’s parents, Abby and Andrew, who were murdered in 1892 in their own home.

Lizzie Borden, their adult daughter, was put on trial for their murder, and the jury found her not guilty. But by the time the trial was over, ten months after the murders, Lizzie had become infamous, her trial being so sensationalistic that it made international news, everyone tuning in for daily updates in the newspapers.

And now, 120 years later, few know more than the fact that she was an axe murderer, knowing nothing of her life before or after.

It was gruesome and curious walking through the family home, where her father, who would have been considered a multi-millionaire in today’s terms, housed his family. His first wife had died, and his second wife Abby had raised the two girls, Emma and Lizzie (another sister had died at the age of 2) as her own. Lizzie and Emma lived in the small family home long after they became adults in Fall River, Massachusetts, staying in the same rooms that they had lived in as children. The sealed their door off from their parents, used chamber pots in the morning, and ate meals prepared by the family maid, Bridget, etching out a comfortable existence in  a small town where the father held the fortunes.

The tour guide shared theories of the murder, about the two daughters being angry against their parents for withholding their inheritance, about suspicion that Lizzie was trying to poison her parents, about Lizzie’s convenient excuses that while she had been home during the murders she hadn’t heard a sound. Was it Abby’s brother, John Morse, who had slept in the home the night before and had a convenient alibi, that killed them? Had he been having an affair with the maid? Had Lizzie been having an affair with the maid? Was an illegitimate son of Andrew’s who snuck into the home before fleeing, only to confess in a later letter?

All these years later, the truth remains unknown, but someone snuck into the house that morning and violently killed a helpless woman in her 60s, and then a few hours later killed her husband. There was no murder weapon, there were no witnesses, and there was no conviction.

And yet the infamy of Lizzie, an almost folk legend as a crazy murdering daughter that many picture as teenaged at the time of the crime, has endured in the country’s memory long past her death. Outside of the legend itself, the part that struck me as most fascinating about this story was not the story of the murders themselves, but instead the tenacity of Lizzie afterwards. She used her part of the inheritance to build a beautiful home. She changed her name to Lizbeth and she stayed right there in Fall River. She traveled and hosted parties, she donated to local charities, she paid for local women to get educated in college, she did charity work for lonely senior citizens, she wrote a book about her life, and she closed herself up in her home and avoided the public gossip and the taunts of the local children. Lizzie may have been a lesbian, but she never married, nor did her sister, and neither of them had any children.

After the tour, I walked the streets of her city for a time, and pictured the changes of the world over the past century. Then I thought a century ahead, and wondered how the streets would change again, knowing instinctively that at that time, the world would still remember her name, and still find her guilty.

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