THE LONELY VOICE #5, The Rumpus Short Story Column: We Are All Lizzie Borden


43005282This happens sometimes. I got murder on the brain this morning.

Early morning of the fourth of August 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts.

Hot, hot, hot…very early in the morning, before the factory whistle, but even at this hour, everything shimmers and quivers under the attack of white, furious sun already high in the air…

I know this Fall River August well. My brother and I used to spend our summers in a little house on Delcar Street with my grandparents. And everybody in Fall River – especially in August when there isn’t much else to talk about – has a Lizzie Borden story. My Uncle Dave’s might even be true. He used to say that he delivered The Fall River Herald to Lizzie when she lived on French Street. Normally he’d toss the paper on the porch and run away like all hell. But one day, Lizzie Borden beckoned to him from the door.

“Little boy. Would you come here a moment?”

My Uncle Dave was as a polite a kid as he was a man. He couldn’t refuse a lady. He went inside the house. Lizzie Borden gave him a quarter. And when he told this story, and he often told this story, my Uncle Dave would tell us again and again how her fingers lingered in his palm. How her fingers didn’t leave his palm after she deposited the quarter, how they remained for five, maybe even ten seconds as she gloomed her famous eyes on his. As if she was trying to communicate something without words.

Lizzie Borden took an ax
Gave her father forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her mother forty-one.

Now the crazy thing about this beloved song of my childhood (yours too?) is that the only mystery is in the second line. It is undisputed that Lizzie loved her father. The only mystery about her stepmother is why she didn’t kill her years before I892. Because she loathed her stepmother’s fat, gluttonous guts –

But why, why, why, Lizzie, did you kill your father on the morning of the 4th of August 1892?

We’ll never know. But for this Lizzie Borden junkie (I guess this is pretty clear by now – I confess I’ve been obsessed with Lizzie since the day I was seven and cradled, in my own little hands, the gashed skulls of her parents at the Fall River Historical Society) a person who has shed considerable light on the unanswerable is the late British story writer and novelist – Angela Carter. Her “The Fall River Ax Murders” is also one of the great examples of the use of actual historical fact in the creation of a beautifully twisted horror story.

Like my Uncle Dave (bless his soul, the man owned a cookie factory), Carter recognized that Lizzie Borden – like you, like me – is a human being. Here’s Lizzie getting ready for the day.

On this morning, when, after breakfast and the performance of a few household duties, Lizzie Borden will murder her parents, she will, on rising, don a simple cotton frock – but,under that, went a long starched cotton petticoat; another short, starched cotton petticoat; long drawers; woolen stockings; a chemise; and a whalebone corset that took her viscera in a stern hand and squeezed them very tightly…

The story is a steady freakish march toward the inevitable – but the genius is that there will be no carnage, no blood. Most of Carter’s story takes place in the early morning hours as Lizzie, the servant girl, Bridget and her parents – all sleep fitfully in the eighty-degree dawn. And we are there too. Up close. Very up close. In that terrible demented remorseless heat. Amid the intimate Borden household stink. “…ill-washed flesh; infrequently changed underwear; chamber pots, the slop pails, the inadequately plumbed privies; rotting food; unattended teeth…”

Carter revels in the details of the Lizzie legend. She’s read all the books. She’s read the trial transcript. She knows her stuff. She knows that two days before the murder the family ate twice-cooked swordfish. She knows that on Lizzie’s dressing table is a bone comb with three missing teeth. She knows the titles of the books on Lizzie’s shelf. Heroes of the Mission Field, What Katy Did.

She knows that Mrs. Borden wears a hairpiece to conceal the fact that she’s balding. And that Lizzie’s stepmother eats and eats and happily eats. She knows that Mr. Borden is so cheap he waters the pear trees with his own urine to save on water and would like to charge the cockroaches in the kitchen rent. Because Carter saves her best for the victims – for whom she as nearly as little mercy as Lizzie herself. And yet they aren’t dead. In our imagination, they are always hacked. But Mr. and Mrs. Borden and Lizzie are still alive this morning – as undead as you and me – the miser, the glutton:

Back to back they lie. You could rest a sword between the old man and his wife, between the old man’s backbone, the only rigid thing he ever offered her, and her soft, warm, enormous bum.

Not only the family as they sleep but the strangeness of the house is itself a character. It is a house of locked doors and private spaces, unspoken animosities, silent, boiling rage. Here people live on top of each other and yet rarely, if ever, do they connect. There is also one particularly peculiar architectural trait. There are no halls in the Borden house. All the rooms lead “in and out of one another like a maze in a bad dream.”

(Forgive me for affirming that Carter’s description is entirely true. But if I have any street cred in anything under the sun, it’s this subject. Might as well spend it now. Not only have I been in the house on Second Street, I’ve slept in the maid’s, Bridget’s, room in the attic. See for information on the, I swear, Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast. The séance was actually fun. Mrs. Borden asked for fried chicken.)

When you read this story, what might haunt you the most is Carter’s description of a burglary that occurred in the house a few years before – and the principal reason for all the locked doors. Someone broke in while Mr. and Mrs. Borden were away. (Lizzie was home at the time.) Someone stole some money and jewelry, ransacked Mr. and Mrs. Borden’s bedroom, and then ‘pissed and shat’ on the matrimonial bed.

The perpetrator also wrote a few obscenities, in soap, on the walls of the kitchen.

The fact that Lizzie was found by her sister on the day of the burglary, in the kitchen, holding a bar of soap, apparently didn’t dissuade anyone on the family from pinning the guilt on those damn Portuguese foreigners.

But think about Lizzie standing there, holding that bar of soap. Bewildered, alone, vulnerable, and above all – enraged. She’s got nowhere to put the fury. They call her an old maid. And she plays the part. Maybe a bit off, people say. But up to now she has always done what is expected of her, according to the strict conventions that govern the behavior of her sex. She wears the right (piles of) clothes. She associates with the right people. She works hard at charity. But who is she? What will it take to show her world who she actually is?

Carter suggests that the reason Lizzie Borden finally went over the edge and killed her father (and then, easily, afterthought, her mother) is because Mr. Borden had previously murdered her beloved turtledoves with a hatchet. You see, Mrs. Borden wanted to make a pie out of them. The most celebrated murder of the 19th Century was all about revenge over some pigeons?

Could be.

For what it’s worth my own theory is this: She killed her father first because she knew she was going to off her mother. She did love him. Her last act of love was making sure he was dead before she killed his wife. But my theory is neither here nor there. Because – again – it’s not the murders themselves – it’s unlocking the capacity to commit them. At what point does anyone’s capacity to kill cross the line from inconceivable to fruition? If the right combination of factors occurs, on one given day out of all days?

Consider Carter’s description of Lizzie’s photograph. You’ve seen it, I’m sure. This is Lizzie as she must have looked when her fingers lingered too long in my uncle’s palm. Was she nuts? Or was she one us us? Both?

In her old age, she wore prince-nez, and truly with the years the mad light has departed from those eyes or else is deflected by her glasses – if indeed, it was mad light, in the first place, for don’t we all conceal somewhere photographs of ourselves that make us look like crazed assassins?

Like any good story, Lizzie Borden’s resists easy diagnosis. And “The Fall River Ax Murders” is a story. Carter leaves us room to dwell on it, to recreate the scene in our minds. To be there. Because here’s the thing. You can’t read these pages and not feel for Lizzie the human being. And it goes beyond empathy. Maybe too far beyond. Maybe had you been Old Borden’s daughter, you too would have for whatever reason – in that demented heat, on that morning, the weary flies droning, the stench – gone down to the cellar and retrieved that hatchet yourself.

“Fall River Ax Murders” by Angela Carter from Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories (Penguin)

See also “Lizzie Borden, The Musical.”

Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →