Lizzie (2018)

We were talking about ax* murders after a visit to the Villisca ax murder house in Villisca, Iowa. Someone asked me if I’d ever been to the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, MA. I had to sheepishly admit I never had. Massachusetts is blessed with more cultural and natural attractions than southwestern Iowa, thus we didn’t have to fixate on one century-plus-old ax murder site, so I never made the pilgrimage.

Uncle-in-law Tony mentioned that there was a movie starring Kristen Stewart and Chloë Whatsername about the case. I was stunned, how could such a movie have passed me by?

Back home, I watched it immediately. I wouldn’t exactly race to see it, it’s a bit stylish and slow at times, but Kristen Stewart and Chloë Sevigny are fantastic in it. These are incredible actresses doing stunning work. The version of the case presented in the film (spoiler) seems somewhat plausible to me as a non-student: that Lizzie (Sevigny) and Irish housemaid Bridget Sullivan (Stewart) had a sexual relationship. Lizzie took the lead on the murdering, and Sullivan covered for her.

In Popular Crime, Bill James posits that Lizzie was innocent, or at least that she shouldn’t’ve been convicted, citing some timeline discrepancies. Lizzie had no blood splatter on her clothes. James dismisses the idea (presented vividly in the film) that she might’ve done the murders in the nude.

Again, this seems to be virtually impossible. First, for a Victorian Sunday school teacher, the idea of running around an occupied house naked in the middle of the day is almost more inconceivable than committing a couple of hatchet murders. Second, the only running water in the house was a spigot in the basement. If she had committed the murders in the nude, it is likely that there would have been bloody footprints leading to the basement – and there is no time to have cleaned them up.

I dunno, I think Victorians – should that term even apply in the USA? – were weirder and nudier than we may realize. And maybe there wouldn’t be bloody footprints, I’m no expert on blood splatterings and footprint cleanings. In my own life I’ve found you can clean up even a big mess in a hurry if you’re motivated. Even James concedes that it does seem Lizzie burned a dress in the days after the murders. This doesn’t worry him though and he refuses to charge it against Lizzie. He proposes no alternate solution to the case.

The famous rhyme is pretty strong propaganda. If you’re ever accused of a notorious murder, you’d be wise to hire the local jump rope kids to immediately put out a rhyme blaming one of the other suspects. It may have been too late in Lizzie’s case, but here’s what I might’ve tried:

A random peddler walking by,

Chopped the Bordens, don’t know why

or

Johnny Morse killed his brother-in-law,

Used an ax instead of a saw.

When he saw what he could do

He killed his brother-in-law’s wife too.

These are not as catchy. On the second one for instance you may need to add a footnote that Morse was brother to Andrew Borden’s deceased first wife, Lizzie’s mom.

True crime has never been a passion of mine, but I can see the appeal. You’re dealing with a certain set of known information which you can weight as you see fit, balanced with aspects that are epistemically (?) unknowable. In that way it’s a puzzle not unlike handicapping a horse race.

I’m reading Bill James (with Rachel McCarthy James) The Man from the Train now, centered on the Villisca murders. It’s very compelling. James is such an appealing writer, and he’s on to a good one here. One way or another, there was a staggering number of entire families murdered with an ax between 1890 and 1912. Something like 14-25 events with 59-94 victims. That is wild. In these ax murders, by the way, we’re talking about the blunt end of the ax. Lizzie or whoever did the Fall River murders as I understand it used the sharp side.

The people I spoke with in Villisca seemed more focused on possible local solutions, the Kelly and Jones theories in particular. Maybe they don’t want to admit that their crime, which did make their town famous, was just part of a horrible series, rather than a special and unique case. The Man From The Train put me in mind of the book Wisconsin Death Trip, which is nothing more than a compiling of psycho events from Wisconsin newspapers from about 1890-1900, awful suicides, burnings, poisonings, fits of insanity, etc., plus a collection of eerie photographs from that time and place. The thesis is that the US Midwest was having something like a collective mental breakdown during the late 19th century.

Anyway, if you like creepy lesbian psychodramas, Lizzie might be for you! The sound design is good on the creaks of an old wooden house.

* I’m using the spelling ax that is used on the Villisca house signage, although axe is more common in the USA