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.

Carcass

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“Body parts are nice, so long as they are attached to the body. Fingernails, hairs, a human tooth. But detach it from the body, and suddenly it’s not that okay. Hair on the bathroom floor, fingernail clippings on the counter, a tooth on the table. Suddenly they aren’t so charming.”

I had to agree with my ex-wife Megan’s observation, though she meant it in jest. Nobody wants errant body parts laying around.

Her words came back to me as I stood outside the taxidermist shop in Coalville, Utah. I had needed to get out of town for a bit, clear my head, so I drove to an unfamiliar city and walked up and down the streets, watching the locals and reading the signs. After an hour in the creepy yet impressive local museum of the courthouse, where the right combination of motion-sensor lights and blank-faced manikins had created a strangely terrifying atmosphere, I had walked a bit and found myself in front of the taxidermist shop. Right there on the main street in town, right across from a burger joint, an apparent draw for the locals.

My thoughts immediately turned to my sister Sheri, the amateur ghost hunter, whose one and only true fear is dead and stuffed animals. Sheri and my other sister, Susan, take an annual trip to a ghost house, hotels known to be haunted. Neither of them gets truly scared, and they seem to enjoy the titillating sensations of being in locations that frighten others. They have gone to Salem, home of the Witch Trials, for Halloween; they have spent the night in the room where Lizzie Borden violently murdered her parents with an ax. And yet I have only seen Sheri truly frightened a few times.

I joined Sheri and Susan one weekend in Soda Springs, Idaho, a small town locally famous for its man-made geyser and mountain springs that taste like soda water. We had checked ourselves into an old wooden hotel with barely any air-conditioning. A particular room in the hotel was said to be haunted, with a ghost who might turn on your bathroom water or hover above your face as you woke up. Sheri was excited as she walked in until she discovered the decor of the hotel: dead animals. Mounted deer and elk heads, squirrels, bobcats, rabbits, raccoons, mice, pheasants. On the ground, on counters, hanging from the ceiling. A hunter’s paradise, and Sheri’s worst nightmare. I watched her face get ashen, her hands clutch her stomach, her feet step back toward the door. “Oh, hell no,” she muttered. We teased her enough to get her inside, checked in, and up the stairs to the room. Framing the hotel room door, three dead ducks, one above it and one on each side, their wings spread as if in flight. “I don’t care if that damn ghost pokes me in my sleep, but if it puts one of these ducks in bed with me, there will be hell to pay.”

Another time, visiting Sheri in Boston, we went to a local university museum and were surprised to see dozens of glass cases filled with these animals, but these had been stuffed decades ago. There were small tears in the fur, some of the marble eyes were loose and falling out. These immortal animals were decaying in their own way. Sheri couldn’t even enter the room.

At the taxidermist’s, I found myself momentarily frozen with fascination. A strange dread crept up in my insides, like the feeling I get when I stand on the edge of a ledge, knowing I’m safe yet nervous still the same. I don’t feel like this when I see dead animals, though I wouldn’t say I enjoy the experience. But this is a place where people bring their carcasses, their hunting trophies or roadkill, and they pay a man to take a lifeless animal, empty it of blood and guts, stuff it, and stitch it back together. He places a couple black eyes in place of the originals, mounts it in some sort of action pose, and the carcass gets placed somewhere for people to see and admire. And this is the place where it all happens. A man in this building has built his career turning dead animals into… art? And I’m sure he had to get some sort of certification for this.

And the money that must go into this business. Bottom scale, a man catches a trout and wants to keep it. He throws the dead fish in a bucket, brings it in to the shop, and spends 150 to have it stuffed and mounted. On the upper end of the scale, a man shoots a water buffalo in Africa on safari, he pays to have the creature stuffed and mounted, maybe 20 thousand, and then pays another 5 grand to have it shipped to his home. (I’m guessing at the numbers here). Who would ever want to work in this business? Images of Duck Dynasty suddenly run through my head.

I am not quite sure what happens to the spirit of an animal after it leaves the body, but the body left behind, it is organic waste. It rots. The skin shrinks over the bones, the bowels loosen, the blood runs free, it smells, it literally rots and decomposes, leaving only the bones behind. Who would make that their business?

I walk to the end of the shop and look down an alley. There is an open garage back there and I can see a few animal bodies in my peripheral vision. I’m not sure what they are. I turn, my dread intensifying. I’m contemplating why I am still standing here when I hear an electric whirr, something less like a chainsaw and more like a motorized knife, like one used to carve a turkey at Thanksgiving. My mouth goes dry as I think the taxidermist must be cutting some creature open right now.

And then it hits me. The smell of death itself. Whatever odors were inside that animal come washing down the alley and hit me right in the nose. I cock my head violently to the left, coughing loud and gagging. My hands clutch my stomach and I wrinkle my face up in revulsion, quickly rushing away from the shop and down the street a bit more. I find a small park there and step into the grass, doubled over with disgust as I try to clear the sound and the smell from my psyche. Had I really been contemplating the process of taxidermy?

That’s what I get for standing outside a taxidermy shop in smalltown Utah.