Lizzie Borden in Context

Check out the adverb "frightfully."
Joseph Conforti's insightful and delightfully wry book Lizzie Borden on Trial answers several questions I have long had about the Lizzie Borden case:

Why did so many newspapers support Lizzie while one of her hometown newspapers did not?

Despite what Lizzie supporters--and Bill James--may try to tell you, there was a decent case against Lizzie for the murders. Conforti does not tackle Lizzie's guilt or innocence; he is more interested in context. His objective relation of events consequently carries more weight than popular books which attempt to solve the case. As a subjective reader of popular texts, I have long considered Lizzie guilty of the murders (although I would agree that proving her guilt absolutely is somewhat problematic; where's Gil Grissom when you need him?).

I could be wrong. My point is that Americans love a good murder mystery and they love crazy killers! So why was Lizzie defended by newspapers like The New York Times? Nowadays, the pundits would be climbing all over each other to speculate as to Lizzie's extreme innocence AND extreme guilt (see JonBenet Ramsey case). Why were the newspapers outside of Fall River so consistent in their defense of a middle-class, Protestant, Yankee, Victorian lady?

According to Conforti, I've answered my own question. Lizzie's class and gender--the perception of how a middle-class, Protestant, Yankee, Victorian lady was supposed to behave--largely protected her with the jury. After all, if a middle-class, Protestant, Yankee, Victorian lady could go off the rails and murder the head of a household (alongside his second wife), who amongst the owners of American's newspapers would be safe!?

The local newspaper was operated and written by non-Yankees, the Irish, who had a political investment in gaining precedence over their Yankee neighbors. And had no very high opinion of said neighbors who controlled (though that control was fading) the city's major industries.

Why wasn't Bridget Sullivan, the maid, accused of the murders?

Apparently, she was suspected. And there was little affection between her and the Borden sisters, who insisted on calling Bridget "Maggie" after their previous servant (a standard if distasteful practice). Bridget clearly preferred the Borden dad and stepmom (whom Lizzie loathed) both of whom called Bridget by her real name.

Yet Lizzie never accused Bridget. In fact, it is evident that Lizzie told exactly as much truth as she needed to and no more: her class and gender, she believed, would protect her (Lizzie was right).

Despite Lizzie's silence regarding Bridget, I have always pondered why she didn't come under more suspicion, not because I believe her guilty (I don't) but because she was Irish, a member of the lower working class, an immigrant of ambiguous status. The Irish got blamed for so much. Why not this?

Turns out, Fall River had immigrants of even lower status than the Irish. The first scapegoats weren't the Irish but the Portuguese. Bridget herself initially blamed a Portuguese worker for the murders.

And the case was investigated by Irish cops.

As mentioned above, Joseph Conforti is not concerned with innocence or guilt as much as with the social underpinnings of the event. He recommends the following article by Cara W. Robertson, "Representing Miss Lizzie: Cultural Convictions in the Trial of Lizzie Borden." I double that recommendation. It is fascinating.
I refer to this ballet, Fall River Legend in a paper
that I wrote for the ANES program.
Yes, there really is a ballet about Lizzie.

Speaking as someone who IS concerned with Lizzie Borden's guilt or innocence, after reading Conforti's objective analysis, I am impressed--all over again--by my entirely subjective feeling that the police and the establishment would not have proceeded at all if Fall River had not felt very, very strongly that Lizzie was in fact, to borrow a non-academic term, super-guilty.

Of course, because people feel strongly does not mean they should find a member of their society guilty (and Lizzie was acquitted). But Lizzie being brought to trial supports what Victoria Lincoln argues: Fall River believed Lizzie was guilty across class lines; the establishment knew more than it said yet closed ranks around Lizzie; the Borden family situation was such that no one was really all that surprised by the possibility of Lizzie as a murderess--despite what was proclaimed out loud.

FYI: Joseph Conforti was one of my professors in the American & New England Studies program at USM although my paper on Lizzie Borden was written for a different professor, Professor Ryden. Professor Conforti was my advisor on my thesis. One of the best writing/research courses I took as a college student (B.A. and M.A.) I took from him.

5 comments:

Joe said...

I believe Lizzie was a psychopath and "everyone" in Fall River knew it; you can hide psychopathy only so much. The notion of a person without a conscience is a hard concept to accept, let alone that a woman would be one. (Shakespeare got it though.)

One of the more bizarre notions even prevalent today is that "a woman isn't capable of [fill in the evil]" It's even weirder to hear feminists say it. Fact is women are just as capable of men of extreme cruelty for as big a myriad of reasons. (I actually find women more cruel in some ways. In college, I observed that when male roommates didn't get along, they either ignored each other or had a fight. Female roommates who didn't get along, got even in very nasty ways.)

The extreme violence of the Borden murders solidifies my conviction that it was Lizzie. Ironically, it's also [a big part of] what got her off.

Katherine Woodbury said...

Lizzie's reactions to things were definitely "off."

Lizzie HATED her stepmother, Abby. Several years prior to the murder, her father, Andrew, bought half-a house for the sake of Abby's sister and put the property in Abby's name. This is a completely normal action for a man towards his second wife (who had no other money or property in her own name). The property did not even fall into the category of property that his daughters would inherit since Andrew bought it outright. Later, he transferred some of his properties to his daughters to smooth the matter over.

Because, when they learned what he had done for Abby, Emma (to a degree) and Lizzie (to an extreme) were furious. They stopped speaking to Abby and refused to eat with the Borden parents. All this going on in a Victorian household where nobody actually argues out loud.

It is clear that Emma, the appeaser, would have let the matter go (eventually). But Lizzie never did--unless one counts the intense psychological release of battering Abby's brains in five years later. She vehemently insisted on calling Abby "stepmother" rather than "mother" in the presence of others--this in an age where the distinction was not made to the same degree it is now.

Keep in mind that Abby was the most harmless, mild, dumpy (if that matters), unpushy, undemanding person in the history of 2nd wives; Lizzie's "reading" of her stepmother as a conniving evildoer is, frankly, weird.

Plus Lizzie was a petty thief--but more about that in a later comment!

FreeLiverFree said...

I remember reading a story by Harlan Ellison where Lizzie Borden was condemned to hell unjustly because everyone believed she did it. Ellison said in an introduction that she had to be innocent since was acquitted. I believe Rex Stout also believed she was innocent.

I woundn't say it was impossible that she was innocent, but most of the time the person who was accused of the crime is the person who committed the crime. That's why they were accuse in the first place.

Katherine Woodbury said...

In her essay about John Herbert Wallace, Dorothy Sayers discusses the gap between legal guilt and actual guilt. Wallace--who likely didn't kill his wife--was found guilty by the jury but went free when his verdict was overturned by the Court of Appeal. There simply wasn't enough evidence to find him guilty, even if he was.

Dorothy Sayers argues that this gap occurs because the law's obligation is (only) to ask, "Is this particular person guilty?" while society--and detective writers--can't help but ask, "If this person isn't guilty, who else could it possibly be?"

In Lizzie Borden's case, the probability that a woman who had a history of arguments with her father and stepmother, who lied repeatedly during the inquest, who was--furthermore--one of only two people home when the murders were committed during the day in a house whose outside doors were usually locked and whose floor-plan was so oddly constructed that the murderer would have had to lurk undetected for an hour without being seen or heard . . . the probability that it WASN'T Lizzie was too improbable for Fall River to accept.

But the court only had to ask, "Is there a preponderance of evidence to prove her guilt?" And the jury decided, "No." Legal minds even now debate whether the judge was right or wrong to NOT allow the inquest transcript, in which Lizzie repeatedly lied, read at the trial. The judge did sum up in Lizzie's favor. However, all the evidence was circumstantial.

Which doesn't mean people can't be found guilty on circumstantial evidence--Scott Peterson correctly was--only that it is harder to get a conviction with circumstantial evidence, especially in today's society when juries say, "Hey, where're the forensics!?" Ah, the power of CSI!

(On a total side-note, I am always bothered during Murder She Wrote episodes when Jessica spots the murderer because of a verbal inconsistency. I sit there, grinding my teeth. Verbal inconsistency?! Do you know how easy it is to argue one's way out of that!? I prefer Columbo who backs up his instincts with a tangible, physical clue. I'm a CSI-er by nature.)

Katherine Woodbury said...

A little more about Lizzie: she was also a thief. A year prior to the murder, items belonging to Abby, the stepmother, were burgled when only Lizzie was home. There is no reasonable argument that the thief wasn't Lizzie, and there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that she was not only the thief but that everyone in the household knew she was, especially Andrew Borden, her father. He told the investigators on the day of the investigation that the culprit would never be found.

After the theft, all members of the household--except Bridget--began locking their bedroom doors when they were out (this in a house whose outside doors were also always locked). When home, Andrew would leave the keys to his and Abby's room on the mantelpiece in full sight of the household (including Bridget, a presumably objective outsider whom Andrew never blamed).

I think one reason the Borden case is such a case celebre is because it includes just about every Victorian cliche about upper-middleclass Victorian households that honestly didn't exist in all of them. Many Victorian families got along perfectly well!