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Thursday, November 19, 2020

November 19, 2020: Serial Killer Studying: Lizzie Borden

[On November 17, 1894, infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes was arrested in Boston. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Holmes and four other murderous histories, leading up to a special weekend Guest Post on true crime from one of my favorite scholars!]

[NB. I know Borden, whatever she did or didn’t do, wasn’t exactly a serial killer—but she definitely became a celebrity murderer, and since this is one of my favorite prior posts I was happy for a chance to re-share it!]

On what we’ll never know about the famous crime, and what it can help us understand nonetheless.

Barring some miraculous recovery of new historical evidence, the simple truth of the matter is that we will never know for sure whether Lizzie Borden killed her stepmother Abby Gray Borden and father Andrew Jackson Borden in their Fall River (Massachusetts) home on the morning of August 4th, 1892. Despite being the first to discover and report their murders, Lizzie was the police’s prime suspect in the crime and was indicted by a grand jury in December 1892; yet after a 15-day trial in New Bedford in June 1893, she was acquitted on all charges. The Commonwealth never charged anyone else with the crime, and so despite a range of subsequent theories Lizzie remained the prime suspect for the rest of her life (which she chose to live out in Fall River, despite significant ostracism from that community). She has been likewise portrayed as the killer in numerous popular culture texts, such as the famous nursery rhyme, a 2014 Lifetime movie starring Christina Ricci as Lizzie, and (apparently) the theatrical film Lizzie starring Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie (and featuring Kristen Stewart as the family’s maid Bridget Sullivan, with whom Sevigny’s Lizzie is having a lesbian affair in a melodramatic version of one of the many theories about the crime).

While its fundamental mystery will likely remain forever uncertain, however, there are some aspects of the Lizzie Borden case that are quite clear. For one thing, the immediate and ongoing public and nationwide fascination with the crime should put to rest any ideas that Americans have become more morbid or driven by sensationalism in recent years. Indeed, one of the first blockbuster stories in the 19th century’s newspaper boom was the 1836 murder of Helen Jewett, a New York City prostitute whose accused killer (19 year old Richard Robinson) was also acquitted but remained a prime suspect. In truth, as I argued in this post on the Menéndez brothers, it is simply the technology and media that have changed over the years, rather than the morbid fascination; the small number of daily newspapers in 1836 gave way to the tabloid, yellow journalism of Borden’s 1892 era, and then to the Court TV coverage of the Menéndez case a century later (with many stages in between, of course). Each of these cases has particular contexts all its own, but I’m not sure that those contexts matter much for the public fascination—as long as we’ve got a grisly killing and the heated trial of a controversial accused murderer, we can’t seem to read or watch enough about the case. Perhaps that’s something in America’s violent nature, or perhaps it’s just human nature; but Lizzie reminds us of it in any case.

A second, less well known aspect of Lizzie Borden’s case interconnects with that public fascination, and has its own echoes down into our present moment. In the aftermath of her acquittal, Lizzie and her sister Emma became wealthy celebrities; using their inheritance from their father’s and stepmother’s estates, the sisters moved into a large house in Fall River’s elite “Hill” district. Lizzie named the house, which featured live-in maids, a housekeeper, and a coachman, Maplecroft, and the sisters hosted parties there for local elites and celebrities such as the silent film actress Nance O’Neil. All of that was of course entirely within Lizzie and Emma’s rights, but it nonetheless foreshadows the many subsequent American figures who became famous and even wealthy due to crimes (accused or convicted). This too seems an inescapable part or at least direct effect, of the American fascination with true crime: alleged but acquitted famous murderers like Lizzie are unlikely to ever have a normal life again, but quite likely to achieve a new level of prominence as a result of their controversial fame. The nursery rhyme and films might all portray Lizzie as the killer, that is, but they also have reflected (and helped extend) her celebrity status.

Last serial studying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other serial killer histories or stories you’d highlight?

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