Internet Find of the Week: Pre-Internet Trolling!

Happy post-4th, everyone!

So lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on Lizzie Borden.  You know: she of the “Took an Axe / Gave Her Parents Forty Whacks” fame?  How I found myself researching a long-dead (alleged) murderer is sort of a convoluted story.  I think after months of lethal shootings and watching “Fargo” the TV series, I got an itch for some gloomier stuff.

Actually, I was pretty pissed about the end of “Fargo.”  I don’t want to be blabbing any secrets for anyone who has a backlog of shows on his DVR, but




the writers/directors/producers of “Fargo” did not have the balls to let Molly, the pregnant deputy, shoot anyone, even though she’s clearly the sole competent law enforcement official in the upper Midwest.

Figures.  It’s TV.



After steaming about that great fictional injustice for a while, I looked up the Wikipedia page for “Fargo” the movie and discovered that the Coen brothers were inspired by a real-life murder case in which a Connecticut man, Richard Crafts, murdered his wife and fed her body into a wood chipper.  (He rented the machine and took it and his wife’s remains to a nearby river, presumably because he thought the water would flush away all traces of her.  Turns out it’s much harder to mangle a human being out of existence.)  Reading about Richard Crafts led me to a true crime web site, which then (such is the fickle nature of the Internet-thirsty, 21st-century mind) got me looking up famous horrifying murders, which finally landed me on a lengthy description of the Lizzie Borden case.

What I found out after that: man, is there a lot of stuff on the Internet about Lizzie Borden.

One of the benefits of today’s digital technology is that old documents can now be scanned, stored, and made accessible to everyone with relative ease.  I can’t tell you how many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books and periodicals I’ve found on Google Books alone, and all of them free.  Online document collections are a gold mine for anybody looking to see how the average writer, the literary critic, the book critic, and the ordinary reader perceived culture, current events, domestic life, and everything in between.  And one of the things I was surprised (and amused!) to discover is that there were trolls LOOOOOOOONG before there was an Internet.

Case in point: this letter  sent to Dr. William Andrew Dolan, the medical examiner of Bristol County, Massachusetts, who worked on the Borden murder investigation.  Specifically, Dr. Dolan performed the autopsies on Abby and Andrew Borden, the elderly victims in the case.

For anyone not up on their Massachusetts history at the turn of the twentieth century, a bit of background: at roughly 11:00 am on August 4, 1892, Abby and Andrew Borden were found hacked to death in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts.  The wounds the couple sustained were primarily to the head (Abby suffered eighteen in the back of her head and one in her spine; Andrew had ten on the side of his face).  Andrew’s daughter Lizzie, aged 32, who lived in the house, had been the only one with any real access to the victims at the estimated time of death for each.  Yet, despite the fact that there was no evidence of a break-in, no witness who claimed to have seen anyone unfamiliar enter or leave the house (an important detail, since the Borden home was on a busy downtown street in Fall River, with neighbors, passersby, and workmen constantly orbiting the modest two-story structure), and virtually no blood anywhere in the house except near the bodies, Lizzie, the only person who could possibly have committed the murders, was tried and acquitted.  Lizzie also gained a considerable following of upper-class citizens outraged that she had been arrested in the first place, and many, many people to this day still consider her innocent.  I’m guessing that John E. Gray, the man who “wrote” this letter, is one of those die-hard Borden backers, since his message has in it all the frothing outrage that any true Internet troll worth his spit can produce in a five-line post.

The reason why Mr. Gray is upset with Dolan has to do with how the good doctor treated the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Borden in the course of the autopsy.  Dolan focused much of his attention on the two skulls which he–how do I put this delicately?–rendered down to the bone so he could get a better look at them.  (If you really want to know what Dolan did, you can find the story here.  But I should warn you, the account is pretty disgusting, and there are a couple of grisly autopsy pictures posted along with the text.  Definitely not something to peruse over your lunch break.)  The skulls were presented in court as evidence, and because there were so many big-name newspapers covering the story, many Utterly Outraged Individuals caught wind of this atrocity and began writing bile-filled letters to Dolan about what an awful, awful human being he was.  To be fair, Dolan was just doing his job: there was no obvious murder weapon found in the house, and the invention of the first primitive x-ray machine was still four years down the road.  The only way Dolan was going to determine the extent of the damage done to the victims’ heads was to examine the skulls directly, and that meant removing them from the bodies, etc., etc., trying hard not to visualize any of this for fear of barfing.

Of course, your garden-variety troll, even in the nineteenth century, didn’t give a rat’s ass about fairness or reason or correct spelling.  He simply wanted to spew out his self-righteous vitriol in the fastest and most inflammatory way possible.  Which resulted in this little gem of hate mail, brought to you in all its minimally informed glory!   Behold, my own unabridged transcription of…


Dover, N.H. Aug. 29/92

Dr. Dolan, Sir,

Looking over the Boston Herald, I saw an article describing your brutal mutilation of the bodies of Mr. & Mrs. Borden.  You and Gen. Pillsbury are a disgrace: not only to Mass, but to the whole country. [Here, Gray is talking about Andrew G. Pillsbury, Attorney General of Massachusetts.  Isn’t that cute?  Sort of makes you think of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in his dress blues at press conferences.]  You are not fit to be with decent people.  You should be shot like a mad dog: You grave robing Dr.’s have so dulled the sencerbilitys of the people by the exhibition of human bodies in court, and elswhere, That you are responsable for murders! People have become so accostomed to seeing bodies cut and hacked up by the Doctors, that they are redy to cut the living!

I presume that if Gen. Pillsbury told you to cut off the heads of the Borden Girls [ages 41 and 32] you would do it, you thick headed idiot!  The right place for you and Gen. Pillsbury is Afraca! there among the savages is the place for such brutal dogs!

There is no law giving our State Official the right to hack thoes bodies without the consent of the Borden’s!  And that you did not have!  You should be punished you vile wreatch.  But what can people expect of a State where the Medical Students are alowed to tan the skins of Women!  And the bodies of the friendless poor are sold to the doctors!

There is work for [illegible]* in Massachusetts!

Yours sincerely,

John E. Gray

(*For the life of me, I can’t make out this particular bit of scribbling.  There’s a typed copy of the letter below it in the PDF file at the link, and even the conscientious transcriptionist, who corrected all the misspellings among the bilge, couldn’t figure out what the word is supposed to be.  My best guess is that it’s a VERY phonetic spelling of “missionaries” [“Mishoneryes”?], which would fit with the overall You Are a Savage from “Afraca” blatherings.  If that’s the case, though, it’s pretty abysmal, even for Mr. Gray.  For his sake, I hope the force of his furious pen scratching didn’t bring on a stroke.)

Now, then, don’t you feel better knowing that if you had a time machine, you could go back at least 140 years and still find yourself arguing till you were blue in the face with a batshit-crazy ideologue bent on harassing the universe with his opinions?

No…I guess that wouldn’t make you feel better, would it?  It might even make you weep for humanity.

Okay, fine.  But before you start reaching for a box of tissues, remember that, at the very least, we can now rest assured that trolling is not  a 21st-century phenomenon, nor is it a side-effect of that monstrous, soul-sucking creation, the Internet.  Our generation and its vast information addiction is in fact not to blame for pissy people missing out on manners classes.  Nope, it’s just the human condition, grasping for stones to buttress the wall of their world-view a few seconds more.  How could a rich, white, Christian woman massacre her father and stepmother in their own home on a sunny Tuesday morning in a Massachusetts mill town?  The same way, I suppose, a mother-to-be could set aside her duty as a police officer so that a man might get a chance to collar a violent criminal.  Or the way a woman’s body could blow away like wood shavings when her presence on the planet becomes an obstacle.



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