Lizzie Borden Took an Axe...

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was an editor for the New York Daily News.

Lizzie Borden at Eight O’Clock
WorkShop Theater Company
312 W. 36th St.
New York, N.Y.

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.

On August 4 in the stifling hot summer of 1892, Lizzie Borden was accused of the brutal, bloody axe murders of her mother and father in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. The murders, and the sensational trial that followed, a media circus, inspired the above poem, one of the most remembered in U.S. history.

Since the double homicide in the Fall River home at 92 Second Street there have been more than a dozen books on the case, poems, movies, TV specials and even a rock musical. Many of the people who studied the murders thought Lizzie, 32, committed them. Many did not. The real truth lies somewhere in the bloodied house and amid the swirling winds of history.

Now, we have a one-woman play, ‘Lizzie Borden at eight o’clock,” by Mitch Giannunzio, that opened last week at the WorkShop Theater Company in New York. The play presents an aging Lizzie, 50 or so, giving a talk at the Fall River Historical Society in 1911. The talk, Lizzie tells the audience when she walks on to the stage dressed in somber black, is being given to clear her good name and explain, in detail, why she was acquitted of the two gruesome murders in 1893 after a jury deliberation of just over an hour.

Does she clear herself? Maybe.

Ellen Barry, a seasoned actress, gives the audience an at times riveting and at times haunting portrayal of Borden in a performance that could easily be entitled ‘Law and Order: Fall River.’

Just after introducing herself, Barry launched into a defense in which she was at times Lizzie and at times a detective. She smiles at the people in the audience and tells them that she knows that people still salivate over the Borden case, now 119 years old.

Then she launches into the story of the case, detail by detail, moment by moment, in a good piece of storytelling. According to Lizzie, she was in the barn when her parents were killed. The family’s servant girl, Bridget, 26, was outside, washing the windows of the home. An uncle was shopping in downtown Fall River. Lizzie walked into the first floor living room and discovered her father’s body, chopped up with an ax. She screamed and Emma, in her room, rushed downstairs to find the startled Lizzie standing over her father’s body. The police found her mother axed to death upstairs when they arrived.

Lizzie said, and Bridget swore, that there was no blood on Lizzie or on the nearby walls, as there should have been if she was the killer. Lizzie was arrested, though, and tossed into a tiny, seven foot by seven foot jail cell in nearby Taunton and held there for ten months, until the trial. There were no lights in the cell at night, the food was bad and Lizzie hated it.

At the trial, the prosecution presented what it thought was a solid case. The prosecutor said Lizzie was the only person in the house. No strangers were seen entering the home or leaving it. Lizzie burned the dress she wore that day. She did not like her stepmother and had several arguments with her. She gave police conflicting statements during her interrogation. The day before the axe killings she tried to buy poison at a local drug store. Motive: Lizzie was said to have longed for the $500,000 in her father’s estate (millions in today’s currency) and resented her father for being tight with his money. Why was there no blood on her? She committed the crimes naked and then took a bath to wash the blood off her skin.

Lizzie had top lawyers, though, including the former Governor of Massachusetts. Her defense: she did not burn the dress she wore on the day of the slayings; it was another dress. Conflicting statements: she had been sedated with morphine and it caused her mind to wander. Naked killer: she could not undress, kill one parent, bathe to wash the blood away, then dress, kill the second parent, undress, bathe and dress again in such a short amount of time. Poison: everybody bought poison to kill rats. The motive of money? She didn’t need it. Her parents gave her lots of money and had recently even sent her on an expensive trip to Europe. Also on motive, she loved her parents. Why murder them?

In ‘Lizzie Borden at eight o’clock,’ Barry sails along nicely in a believable defense. Anyone could have killed her parents. The side door to the house was unlocked and anybody could have walked in, committed the crimes and walked out and disappeared. She did well.

But Lizzie has a number of weak spots in her defense. In each of them, the rock hard personality of Lizzie turns fragile.

Why did she burn that blue dress anyway?

Why did the family servant girl, Bridget, leave their employ, never to be seen again, right after she gave very positive testimony on Lizzie’s behalf? Was she paid off?

Why, at the end of the play, does Lizzie fly into a rage when she re-enacts the double murders, a rage so intense that it causes her to babble and breath in a frightening manner?

If she is so certain that a man who tried to rent her father’s store and was turned down, going away angry, is the killer, why didn’t the police investigate him thoroughly?

In fact, the police had no other suspects except Lizzie.

“There was not one shred of evidence against me. The prosecution’s case was all circumstantial,” she said triumphantly following her acquittal.

Barry did a fine job of playing one of history’s most famous (alleged) killers. Director Kenneth Tigar kept up the pace of her legal case, turning it into a detective story, and moved Lizzie around the stage to blunt the problems of any one person show. Tigar put a lot of drama into the production, through Barry.

Historically, the Lizzie Borden case was famous for several reasons. Prosecutors and defense attorneys made liberal use of extensive autopsy findings, the slain parents skulls were shown to a shocked courtroom, new skulls were manufactured, dress fabrics tested and poisons studied. Most importantly, it became the first nationally famous murder case, written about by correspondents from all over the country. It was the foundation for press coverage of murders for the next 120 years.

Did Lizzie do it? The 1892 case seems still unresolved. Somebody is going to have to bring the CSI Vegas team to Massachusetts and send them back in time to crack this one.

The future of the Borden stories? Never ending. As Lizzie said in the beginning of act two:

Close the door and firmly latch it;
Lizzie’s got a brand new hatchet.


WorkShop Theater Company, producers. Lighting: Duane Pagano, Stage Manager: Alma Negro, Photography: Gerry Goodstein, Production Manager: Cecily Benjamin Hughes.

The play runs through April 2.

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