[UPDATE: Fixed broken link to Carter’s short story.]
Hey, all you Fickle Readers! Here’s a ghoulish holiday perfect for the doldrums of August: Lizzie Borden Murder Day! Today in 1892, at around 11:00 in the morning, Abby and Andrew Borden were found with their heads hacked to pieces in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie, was basically the only person who could have committed the crime, and yet a year later she was tried and acquitted. After the trial, she bought herself a big, new house in a shi-shi part of town, named it Maplecroft, earned the eternal condemnation of her friends and acquaintances for being so presumptuous as to give her house a name, and eventually lived to the ripe old age of 66. How’s that for good ol’ Yankee justice? To the end, she insisted she wasn’t the one who killed her father and stepmother, and many Lizzie boosters have argued in defense of her innocence. But don’t believe the hype. What freed her was a botched police investigation, sympathetic judges, an amazing team of lawyers who managed to get key evidence thrown out, and a jury of 12 men who were short on imagination. The only way I personally get any satisfaction out of this historical moment is by stating the obvious in the face of all those dead and living souls who just couldn’t/can’t wrap their brains around the image of a good Christian woman bashing in the heads of her family. She did it, she did it, she did it. As for the Good Writing part of this Break, take a look at an early version of Angela Carter’s “The Fall River Axe Murders,” here in its first incarnation called “Mise-en-Scene for a Parricide” (Here’s the full URL: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v03/n16/angela-carter/mise-en-scene-for-a-parricide.) A fabulous short story from one of the masters, the high priestess of the modern fairy tale. Carter includes all the important historical details of the case: the oppressive heat, the house with no hallways, the slop buckets, the pigeons, the pear tree. And, even more amazingly, she manages to write a riveting piece that’s entirely backstory. Technically, all she does it set the scene. Yet by the end, you’re immersed in the Bordens’ world, and in your gut you can sense the immanent explosion. On a side note, if you happen to be hanging out near Fall River, Massachusetts today, you can catch a performance of the Pear Players as they present their yearly reenactment of the murders at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum. Why is this of special interest? Because the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum is the Borden murder house. And yes, you can book a room there, or the entire house. (Although judging by their calendar, August looks to be a bit busy.) If the idea of a bed & breakfast murder house is hard to wrap your brain around, try reading this nice little essay by Nicole Cliffe. It should set you straight. ETA: Wait, really? Percy Bysshe Shelley, Romantic poet and radical, inspirer of “Frankenstein,” writer of “Ozymandias,” was born 100 years to the day before Lizzie went on her hatchet spree? Dang, that’s quite a double-header. Little known fact: Shelley wrote a tragedy called The Cenci about a woman driven to parricide. The circumstances, however, were much different: in the play, Beatrice is raped by her lascivious father. Nothing definitive is known about Lizzie’s motives, although most of the evidence points to money, a stifling (yet not abusive) household, and anger directed at her stepmother. The Cenci was way ahead of its time in terms of dealing with the realities of rape and sexual abuse. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s free online here and here.