Forty Whacks and a Mule: the Liberation of Miss Lizzie Borden

Posted: July 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

Last night, after cocktails with a friend who’s a bit of a radical feminist, I watched a documentary about Lizzie Borden and was struck by the feminist overtones of Lizzie’s (alleged) crime. In the past I’d always believed the genesis of the Borden murder to be rooted in avarice, much like the Menendez or Ewell family murders; but in reality Lizzie wasn’t acting out of greed, she was simply struggling to create an identity in a society that had written her off as worthless. Rather than being financially motivated, the crime could almost be viewed as an act of self-defense by a desperate woman locked in a life-or-death struggle with male hegemony.

Plain in appearance and saddled with a father too frugal to provide a decent dowry, Lizzie seemed doomed to a life of spinsterhood, bereft of intimacy, social standing and financial stability. After her beloved mother’s death Lizzie’s father Andrew married a much younger woman; Lizzie despised her stepmother Abby, and was horrified to learn that Abby stood to inherit Andrew’s entire estate—after her father’s death Lizzie could be cast from the Borden home much like the contents of a particularly odiferous chamber pot (Andrew, alas, was too miserly to install indoor plumbing). Lizzie had absolutely no control over her life or future—until she (allegedly) picked up the hatchet, that is.

I wonder when the first thoughts of murder crept into Lizzie’s psyche, flittered at the edge of her consciousness. At first the concept of homicide must have seemed overwhelming—Lizzie was a well-bred young woman, and acts of violence were as foreign to women of that era as edible panties or space travel. And the consequences of murder at that time could be dire—if she were found guilty Lizzie would likely dance at the end of a rope. How long did Lizzie ruminate, rehearsing the crime in her mind, looking for flaws in her plan?

To me, the iconic photo of Andrew Borden’s ravaged corpse, his face a stew of blood, brains and battered flesh, perfectly embodies the essence of the crime. From the neck down Andrew is attired as a perfect nineteenth century gentleman, but his face has been obliterated, much as he (as the embodiment of patriarchy) strove to erase Lizzie’s identity, to strip her of her individuality and power, to render her helpless.

Well-bred women in Lizzie’s era were not permitted to work outside the home; therefore the only means of generating income was through marriage. Brides’ families at that time, however, were expected to provide a dowry, and Andrew’s failure to comply with this tradition (despite his vast wealth) essentially sentenced Lizzie to a life of spinsterhood and poverty. Leaving his entire estate to his new wife and failing to provide for Lizzie’s future was unconscionable; I find it fitting that when Andrew signed this inequitable, unjust will he may have signed his own death warrant.

Although I can’t condone the slaughter of two human beings, I must admit that I admire Lizzie’s refusal to meekly surrender to victimhood. May her story serve as a cautionary tale for societal oppressors in perpetuity:

Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty one.
Close your door, lock and latch it—
‘Cause here comes Lizzie with her hatchet.

Rest in peace, Lizzie.

  1. Jocelyn says:

    This is a disgusting article! You “must admit that I admire Lizzie’s refusal to meekly surrender to victimhood.”!? She was not a victim! She was a spoiled, rich woman. You know NOTHING of her personality, or his, and to condone a violent murder because she didn’t want to end up poor, is repugnant. I hope you are not married, because I would be terrified for your husband. Anyone who thinks like this has a screw loose and is beyond selfish.

  2. Kp says:

    Relax. This is just another way to look at why the murders occurred. This slant on the case comes across as very believable and i can completely see how one could feel trapped and useless in such an environment.

  3. The irony here is that you mention (allegedly) twice, but then refer to Lizzie Borden as having thought of, planned, & carried out this crime (over the whole discourse of this blog). Truth is I do not believe that Lizzie Borden committed these murders, but she was obviously blamed for them because of her dire situation. She was a victim oppressed by society in her trials, it is true, but one thing never mentioned about Lizzie is how she ended up giving most of her inheritance settlement away to animal charities towards the end of her life. She may have an about-face at the end if her life, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The controversy that surrounded it (murders) back then still persists today. It has been a few years since I read up on this, but I do think that the timeline for Lizzie to have entered the house, took that many swings with a axe (in multiple rooms) would have been phenomenal. Chances of Lizzie still being in a barn (behind the house) as these murders happened seems more likely, and I am not a feminist.