The Persistence of the Lizzie Borden Case in American Culture
In addition to the singsong rhyme, Lizzie Borden is fixed in the American imagination for a number of reasons. Hers was the first nationally prominent murder case in the United States. Despite all of the circumstantial evidence that Lizzie did indeed commit these murders, it remains at least technically an unsolved crime. Few cases since perhaps the Sacco-Vanzetti case, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Dr. Sam Sheppard case, and, of course, the recent O.J. Simpson case have the fascination of Lizzie Borden.
A number of "solved" cases, such as the Loeb-Leopold case, are equally fascinating, but it is that small group of unresolved murders that continue to persist in our memory.
Support for the contention that these murders will remain as part of our culture for a very long time can be seen in the "industries" that have grown up around each of them. Not only have a great number of books been written about each case, each with its own slant or theory, but these murders have inspired dramas, novels, poems, and, in the case of Lizzie Borden, even a ballet and an opera. The distinguished actress, Lillian Gish, portrayed Lizzie in a 1934 play, Nine Pine Street, although her character had been renamed Effie Holden and "Effie" had used a flat iron and a heavy walking stick as her weapons. In 1995, Lizzie was the subject of an A & E Biography, and recently she was "tried" (and found innocent) in a mock trial on C-SPAN.
But among these handful of fascinating cases, Lizzie Borden, in my opinion, remains preeminent. Each book some of which I describe below presents a different theory. Why? It is not only the unresolved nature of her case, but the inscrutability of her appearance, her light blue eyes staring back at us from her photographs, broad-shouldered, thin-waisted, broad-hipped, an unfathomable smile a very slight smile defying us, over a century later, to make sense of her. So potent is her appeal that an entire mythology has grown up about her. As she became more and more reclusive as she got older mostly as a result of Fall River's social ostracism of her legends grew. At one time, Lizzie had decapitated Abby's cat when it was annoying Lizzie's guests during a tea. A frightened deliveryman, bringing a wooden crate to Maplecroft, ran off in terror when Lizzie offered to get an axe for him. As she became the eccentric who was preoccupied with birds and squirrels and the welfare of animals in general, she became the seldom-seen legend who refused to leave Fall River, except for occasional and mysterious trips to Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., glimpsed riding in her chauffeured limousine. What is true, partly true, and entirely fictional? What is her secret?
Added to the attractiveness, the mystery of Lizzie herself, is the surrounding cast of characters and circumstances: A mouse of an older sister who was, in Lizzie's childhood, a surrogate mother and from whom she was estranged the last twenty years of her life; a strange and mysterious uncle; a set of judges and a jury predisposed to her innocence; a town in frenzy in its partisanship and support for this Christian maiden lady; and, for the first time in American journalism, coverage of a murder case that became in more than one sense her advocate.