Folklore not kind to Lizzie Borden Acquitted of ax murders

November 15, 1990|By Carroll Lisby

ONCE EVERY generation or so a person or event becomes so famous, so universally known and talked about, that it crosses the line from history into folklore.

This happened to railroad legends Casey Jones and John Henry. It's also happened to Lizzie Borden. Everybody knows Lizzie Borden.

At a young age I -- like most of my contemporaries -- became acquainted with Lizzie through a popular children's rhyme which went: Lizzie Borden took an ax

And gave her mother 40 whacks.

And when the job was nicely done,

She gave her father 41.

Later my impression of Lizzie and her ax-wielding indiscretion was deepened by a song called "Lizzie Borden," which the Chad Mitchell Trio recorded during the '60s folk revival. Composed by Michael Brown, it began:

Yesterday in old Fall River Mr. Andrew Borden died,

And they got his daughter Lizzie on a charge of homicide.

Some folks say she didn't do it and others say of course she did,

L But they all agree Miss Lizzie B. was a problem type of kid.

By chance I recently ran across a book about the Lizzie Borden affair. Entitled "A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight" (1967), it was written by Victoria Lincoln, who, like Lizzie, was born in Fall River, Mass., and had known Lizzie during her later years. Lizzie died in 1927 at age 67.

The book vividly illustrates something we all know: Folklore has little respect for facts. It changes them freely to enhance a story.

Lizzie, in particular, has not been treated kindly.

Note, for example, the Chad Mitchell Trio song's reference to Lizzie as "a problem type of kid."

We tend to think of Lizzie as a teen-ager or young adult when the murders were committed. But that's not the case. She was 32. Mr. Borden was 70, his wife 65. Lizzie's sister Emma -- also a spinster who lived at home -- was 42.

Lizzie was not unruly or disrespectful but a well-mannered young woman. Her only problem was occasional "peculiar spells," which Lincoln diagnoses as temporal palsy and may have been a factor in triggering the crime.

"Lizzie Borden took an ax." Not really an ax but a hand-held hatchet.

"Her mother." Not true. Abby Borden was Lizzie's stepmother -- an important distinction.

"Forty whacks . . . 41." Not true. Police medical examiners reported that Mrs. Borden died from 20 hatchet blows and Mr. Borden from 10. But of course this doesn't rhyme.

"Yesterday . . . and they got his daughter Lizzie." This implies that Lizzie was arrested immediately after the murders. Again, not true. Mr. and Mrs. Borden were slain on Thursday morning, Aug. 4, 1892. Police first suspected Lizzie's uncle. When it pTC turned out he'd been seen downtown about the time of the second slaying (Mrs. Borden died about 9:30, Mr. Borden about 11), suspicion turned to Lizzie. She was arrested exactly a week later -- on Aug. 11, 1892.

But the rudest treatment of Lizzie has concerned her guilt.

The children's rhyme, the song -- almost everything you read or hear -- declares that Lizzie killed her father and stepmother.

The fact is that Lizzie's trial in New Bedford, Mass. -- one of the most sensational of the era, heavily covered by the nation's newspapers -- ended in acquittal. The jury took only an hour to unanimously decide that she was not a murderess.

What's more, public sentiment both in Fall River and across the country was on her side. For example, the New York Times, in commenting on the verdict, condemned those who had put Lizzie through such a meaningless and brutal ordeal.

It's ironic that not merely folklore but every modern examination of the crime -- including Lincoln's -- has concluded that Lizzie was indeed guilty of hacking her father and stepmother to death.

Carroll Lisby is senior editor of the (Columbus, Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer.

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