Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden coverThe Legend, the Truth, the Final Chapter

Nonfiction paperback.
Written by Arnold R. Brown. Published: 1992.


I wrote a horror script based on the legend of Mad Myrtle, an axe murderess said to roam the Shawnee National Forest of Southern Illinois since the 1930’s. In preparation, I decided to read about Lizzie Borden, who’s perhaps the most famous axe murderess of all time.

You may not have heard of her, but in her day, Lizzie was more infamous than O.J. Simpson. Children used to sing a rhyme about her that goes like this:

“Lizzie Borden took an axe.
Gave her mother 40 wacks.
When she saw what she had done,
she gave father 41.”

It all started on August 4, 1892, when Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their home. On August 12, Lizzie Borden, their daughter, was arrested for their murder. Lizzie was found innocent in the eyes of the law, and was released after an unusually rapid jury deliberation. However, because of the titillating nature of the case, and the lack of thoroughness among both investigators and trial members, Lizzie Borden’s innocence may never be resolved in the public’s eyes. Arnold R. Brown’s book purports to be the definitive explanation of what actually happened in the August of 1892. Brown believes that Lizzie was innocent and that the real murderer’s identity has been hidden all these years. In his arguments, Brown attacks the elements of economics, class, and gender roles, which combined to obscure the truth. Some of these arguments are more successful than others. With access to previously unreleased documents, Brown combines information from courtroom and newspaper accounts to give us the “real” murderer. However, Brown writes with a dramatic flair more suited to a novel than a work of nonfiction. He incorporates fictionalized scenes and the sensationalism of his approach stands forth as an obvious attempt to obscure gaping holes in his argument. Without this sensationalized style, much like a popular pulp murder mystery, we would not be nearly as quick to accept his arguments. It is ironic that Brown exhibits a mastery over slanted writing, a skill with sensationalist prose, and yet lashes out at the newspaper audience of 1892, who believed in exactly this type of writing. In reading his book, we find many valid, previously undiscussed points, but we must be careful not to be swept up in the dramatics of his arguments. In the end, the truth still remains unclear.

The economic status and social level of the Borden family undoubtedly played a great part in the investigation and trial. Brown carefully chronicles the long history of the Borden family from Fall River’s earliest beginnings. In doing this, he effectively shows the power and influence that the simple mention of the name “Borden” had.

Brown states: A member of the Borden clan was present with the group that joined Jane Hutchinson when she was ousted from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for heresy in the early 1600’s. By the early 1700’s, third generation Bordens owned everything on both sides of the Taunton River in the Fall River area.

The Battle of Fall River, in 1778, destroyed much of this wealth, and Andrew Borden was never as incredibly wealthy as his ancestors, but nonetheless, this history shows the power of the family name. In much the same way that political candidates depend on their name to carry them into office, the name of Borden carried great clout in Fall River society. The name was such an intrinsic part of the town’s history, that a bad reflection on the name of Borden was deemed to be a bad reflection on Fall River. This is one of the most compelling of Brown’s arguments.

However, the argument that the trial was bought and paid for, is one that lacks substantiation. Andrew Borden was wealthy and did leave in his will an excess of five-hundred thousand dollars, but Brown fails to provide us with hard evidence that any funds from this account made it into the hands of anyone associated with the trial, save immediate family members. Brown cannot prove there was a payoff, but he certainly has a way with words.

Brown states: In the then male-only world of Massachusetts politics, public officials who deviated from paths ordered for the common man were the norm; they were never accused of wrongdoing, much less anything criminal. Thus, there is nothing new or surprising in the actions of the Mellen House gang, Lizzie’s defense team, the prosecution team, or the court that sat on her trials. Their actions were not for Lizzie or for the Bordens. They acted for themselves and the monetary award, and they would have done the same for any of “their own”.

Although the earlier substantiation that Brown makes about the prevailing social bond is a sound one, nowhere does he give us evidence that these men were paid anything other than standard court costs.

Later, we’re told that Emma (Lizzie’s sister) died with an estate valued at almost half a million dollars and that at her own death, Lizzie’s estate was less than half of this, despite the fact they both inherited the same amount. Brown’s assumption is that Lizzie used half her fortune to make bribes. However, this is pure speculation. Maybe she gave the money to a charity, anonymously. Maybe Lizzie liked to bet on the horses. Maybe she buried it under the floor boards and it was never found. Without presenting us with a paper trail, Brown fails to prove the court members were bribed with cash.

As unsuccessful as Brown is at proving monetary bribes, he does succeed with his proof of sexual inequality and the role that gender played in hindering a fair and impartial trial. In many ways, this is his strongest argument. Certainly, it is the strongest theme throughout the book. The testimony of the murder investigators shows that Lizzie Borden was given time to change clothes, burn them, and clean up the murder scene. Brown chronicles this in detail and builds a good case that Lizzie was shown favoritism. Brown makes it seem reasonable that in Lizzie’s day, it was unthinkable that a woman could commit such a crime, and the investigators did not want to prove her guilty, for fear that would mean other wives and daughters in the community could also be capable of such acts.

My biggest problem with Brown’s writing is the style he has used to tackle this historical work. His attempt to validate the words of Ellen Eagan uses a method of fiction writing from the third person (central intelligence) perspective. This dramatic opening has the intended effect of creating sympathy for Ellen and her testimony. However, if seen in the cold light of reason, as are many other accounts in the text, Ellen’s words do not have the same effect. Brown bolstered her testimony to support his closing argument about the killer’s true identity. For someone who wants to believe the author, or who is only reading for light entertainment, this type of manipulation of writing style would have the desired, persuasive effect. For someone who is looking at the text as a serious work, with a critical eye, this manipulation of style sets off red flags and alarm bells. It screams out that Brown is disguising a weak argument with flashy prose. As in many cases, the success of a piece is defined by the response of its audience. Because this book was published around the hundredth anniversary of the murder, and Brown uses this style to bolster his arguments, it is safe to say that the intended audience is primarily a mainstream/commercial one, as opposed to a history-minded/ scholarly one.

A screenwriter could get away with it, but here, I expected more serious scholarship.

Pages 281-294 continue the fiction-style narrative that Brown began with his introduction of Ellen Eagan. This time she is referred to as “Mother Eagan,” and her sketchy testimony is transformed and elaborated into a stunning epiphany that the entire trial was staged in order to protect the unacknowledged, crazy, bastard son of Andrew Borden; William S. Borden. Oliver Stone should read this book! Instead of presenting us with incontrovertible facts, Brown layers speculation upon speculation to form a tapestry of conspiracy.

Brown is a good writer with an eye for detail. The success of this book is that it catches the imagination and spurs readers to do further research and try to verify his claims against the mysterious William S. Borden. The failure is that he invalidates his arduous research by stooping to melodramatic fiction techniques to boost his weak arguments.

In conclusion, Brown’s book is insightful, but hardly the definitive case study of Lizzie Borden that it claims to be.

Some things just have to remain a mystery…