Monday, August 04, 2003

Dateline--Fall River, Massachusetts

Today is the eleventy-first anniversary of the Borden murders. How do you plan to celebrate?

For the record: I am opposed to chopping up even the most obnoxious living family members. It's tacky at best. So don't celebrate Lizzie Borden Day by hacking apart your miserly father and agoraphobic stepmother.

In the light of Lizzie Borden Day, the commonest tasks are fraught with risks. Don't think of making a bed today. Don't lie down on the couch for a nap. You never know if a family member is creeping through the hot, still house with murder in her mind and a hatchet in her hand. Of course, you're probably not at risk--unless you personally took a hatchet to all your daughter's pet doves, or demanded that the slaughtered birds be cleaned and plucked for your dinner. Bridget protested when her mistress ordered that; Bridget survived. Is there a link?

You'll be sorry for different reasons if your breakfast features elderly, probably spoiled mutton broth. (On a 90-degree morning! Many people consider the breakfast menu justification for the double homicide.) Looking for lead sinkers in a boiling-hot barn loft is also a bad idea. And I personally would never eat the pears from under the pear tree, not because I have anything against windfall pears, but because the maid just emptied the slop buckets there, and God only knows what's on them. No wonder the whole family had been sick and vomiting the past few days.

The house at 92 Second Street was small, inconvenient, and uncomfortable, but its physical disadvantages were magnified by the repressed emotional turmoil within: greed, lies, secrets, silent rages, possessive love, jealous hatred, and unspoken terror.

There's a theme of breakage connected with the murders: a broken lock, a broken hatchet, two heads broken open in the most dreadful way. And, of course, the breaking of the law. Someone in that house--probably Lizzie, possibly Bridget, maybe both together--snapped the tension violently. Someone struck Mrs. Borden nineteen times with a hatchet, chopping a five-inch hole in her skull. Ninety minutes later, someone slammed a similar hatchet ten times into Mr. Borden's head and face.

Lizzie was acquitted. There are still plenty of questions about timetables, motives, notes, weapons, blue dresses, and almost everything else about the case. But Lizzie lives in our dreams, the embodiment of daughterly rage. The Borden story is a classic family drama, almost Greek in its simplicity, inevitability, and violence. No wonder it goes on fascinating people.

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