One hundred years of Lizzie Borden.
There is a peculiar black humour which inevitably -- and perhaps just as well -- attaches to the notion of a Sunday School teacher who could make what the Scottish criminologist William Roughead called such |family arrangements'. And this, despite the tragic nature of the subject, was never far from the proceedings of the Lizzie Borden Centenary Conference, held from August 3rd to 5th, 1992, at Bristol Community College in Fall River. The gathering attracted lawyers, authors, literary historians, librarians, rare book dealers, forensic scientists, feminists, sociologists, psychiatrists, film makers, playwrights and journalists -- plus more than 400 Lizzie students from all over the US and from London, Glasgow and Melbourne.
A remarkable occasion, not least because many Fall River-ites would still prefer their city to be remembered for its once having been the largest cotton producing centre in the world, or for its magnificently restored fairground carousel, or for its naval museum with World War Il battleship, destroyer, PT boats and submarine.
The celebrations began on Friday, July 31st, with the Fall River Herald News publishing a 20-page broadsheet pullout section devoted to the city's most illustrious daughter. In the evening there was a play and a welcoming party at the college, at which several ladies accepted the invitation to wear period dress. The Lizzie |wannabees' included one Barbara from New Bedford, in a blue Bedford cord cotton dress -- just such as Lizzie burned in the stove three days after the murders, on the grounds that it had paint marks on it. Barbara wore the dress for a few days, then it was seen no more, leading to the inevitable inferences as to its fate.
Any pilgrimage to Fall River must include visits to several shrines. First to gaze at the outside of the cramped, clapboard house in Second Street that was the scene and perhaps part of the cause of the killings; second Maplecroft, the spacious, elegant house |on The Hill' to which Lizzie graduated with her elder sister, Emma, not long after being cleared of the murders in 1893; third, the Oak Grove Cemetery, where the Bordens--including Lizzie -- lie buried side by side; and fourth, the Fall River Historical Society. This building contains such exhibits as the handleless hatchet which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts believed Miss Borden may have used, photographs of the victims' horrifically damaged skulls, and the stool on which Lizzie sat in her prison cell as she awaited trial.
The society's most precious treasure, however, is their 93-year-old tour guide, Mrs. Florence Cook Brigham. This frail old lady -- her mother-in-law was a character witness for Lizzie -- is the proverbial walking encyclopaedia on Fall River and the case. She indicated that the illness the Bordens were suffering from before the tragedy was clearly a case of food poisoning rather than prussic acid, that celebrated last breakfast of four-day-old mutton soup making its presence felt. Mrs. Brigham will be finally persuaded that Lizzie was guilty only when some author comes up with a book convincingly exonerating Uncle John Vinnicum Morse, Andrew Borden's first wife's brother.
The conference began with a keynote speech by Joyce Williams of Indiana University, co-author of the useful 1980 book, Lizzie Borden: A Case Book of Family and Crime in the 1890s. Dr. Williams paid tribute to Pearson, Lizzie's foremost biographer in America, for keeping alive the fascination of the legend in his five books that deal with the murders. She drew attention to the amusing and informative correspondence between
Pearson and his Scottish alter ego, Roughead, as documented in the recent biography of Roughead by Richard Whittington-Egan. Pearson, who read the newspaper reports of Lizzie's trial as a boy of twelve and who died in 1937, was convinced of her guilt. He himself was accused in 1961 by an American newspaperman, Edward Radin, in his book, Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story (Lizzie was innocent, Bridget the maid did it), of bias and omitting anything that might tend to exculpate Lizzie. However, Professor William L. Masterson of Connecticut University, pointed out at the conference that -- whatever one thinks of Pearson's objectivity -- he was a superb writer.
Masterson set a question-mark against one of the most widely-accepted |facts' of the case: that August 4th, 1892, was a hot day. In his recent, posthumously published Forty Whacks, David Kent, a Lizzie apologist, says it was a very hot day. Victoria Lincoln's A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight (1967) says it was hot even at dawn. The former judge, Robert Sullivan, author of the perhaps definitive Goodbye Lizzie Borden (1974), said |Already at 6.15 am the newly-risen sun was blazing hot'. But the prize, said Masterson, goes to Frank Spiering in his 1984 Lizzie (Emma did it, Lizzie was a lesbian): |The temperature at 7 am was 89 degrees'.
In fact, said Masterson, the newspapers of August 5th, 1892, reveal that the hottest temperature in Fall River the previous day had been 72 degrees.
But the most thought-provoking presentation came from a forensic scientist, James E. Starrs, of George Washington University, who eschewed |the rank speculation, the pyramiding of surmise upon surmise and the sorely-unfounded factual assertions that have so inordinately characterised the case'. Professor Starrs, who is also a lawyer, addressed himself solely to the scientific evidence. His verdict: Lizzie was not provably guilty on the scientific evidence submitted at the trial. |It completely missed the mark, in today's understanding of scientific evidence.'
Starrs has examined the handleless, or |hoodoo' hatchet. The prosecution alleged that this implement -- one of a number of axes and hatchets found in the Bordens' cellar -- was the murder weapon, although, he said, they knew they could not prove this directly. The blade is just under three-and-a-half inches long, and curved. Starrs criticised the expert testimony -- or lack of it -- given regarding the wounds inflicted on the victims' skulls, which were severed from the bodies by the prosecution and presented in court at the trial.
Before the trial one of the experts, Dr. Frank Draper, indicated that the cutting edge of the weapon had to be not more than two-and-a-half inches wide. Yet some of the wounds were five-and-a-half inches; it would be very difficult to conceive how this hatchet could make these wounds, without a pulling or sliding action.
Starrs dismissed the prosecutor's contention, which was backed up by police Assistant Marshal Fleet, that one could tell that the break in the handle was fresh. Photo-micrographs of the hatchet blade, displayed on a large screen, show distinctive marks that would be translated to the skulls. There are also marks on the hatchet end, but it is not possible to say whether these caused the handle break, or if the break was deliberate.
Starrs also outlined his use of ground-penetrating radar to determine --not without considerable local opposition--whether the skulls were reburied at the graves of Andrew and Abby. His triumphant verdict: |We have found the missing skulls, speaking scientifically'.
But perhaps his most striking point concerns one of the great articles of faith in the case--that there was a one-and-a-half-hour gap between the murders, with Abby being killed about 9.30 am and Andrew, on his return to the house, at 11 o'clock. No way could they prove this, said Starrs. In today's terms, as to what they used then to make the determinations -- examining the stomach contents -- they could not say there was an hour-and-a-half gap. There are so many variables in the digestive process that one cannot rely on this method. Similar objections also apply to blood clotting and blood drying.
The one-and-a-half-hour gap was so important to the prosecution, he said, because, if true, the likelihood of the killer being an intruder was very remote; an intruder would hardly hang around for such a time, waiting to kill a second person. But if the gap were, say, only 15 or 20 minutes, that objection would not stand.
Miss Borden was everywhere this August in Fall River. On bookmarks, on mugs, on paperweights and, of course, on tee-shirts: from the tasteful |Axe me where I've been. Fall River, Massachusetts, home of Lizzie Borden and the original Top 40 hits!' to the stark |Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie,' with hatchet rampant, to the political |Lizzie says axe Bush.' She was even in the supermarket. As I bought a copy of Yankee magazine the checkout girl remarked: |That's the one with the Lizzie article. I was Lizzie once in a high school play!'
And the week saw |Miss Lizbeth Borden,' graciously inviting us to take tea at the Victorian Cafe, an arts centre located at the former church where Lizzie once taught the gospel to Chinese children. After chopped ham sandwiches and throttled strawberries in cream, Miss Borden -- an actress whose identity is a closely-guarded secret -- allowed questions from her guests. She proved an articulate and charmingly evasive young woman.
Later in the week I was invited to dinner by a family who -- among other ventures -- run a sanctuary for ferrets, which prosper on a sonic diet of big band jazz. My host had another secret for me. A few years ago a friend of his, who ran the Fall River Animal Rescue League, awoke in his tied house at 2 a.m. He was aware of a presence. The rocking-chair beside his bed was gently rocking. At the foot of the chair, moving in sympathy, was a pair of blue, tie-up ladies' boots. After a while the rocking gradually came to a stop, and the boots faded from sight. The gentleman was convinced that his nocturnal visitor had been the lonely spinster who bequeathed $30,000 in cash to the Animal Rescue League, and who died at her home in French Street on June 1st, 1927.
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|Title Annotation:||centennial celebration of the Lizzie Borden trial at Fall River, MA|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1992|
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