Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.
There are certain mysteries over time that never seem to lose their appeal. Earlier this summer, I was having dinner with two newspaper colleagues and an author, all three of whom are serious mystery fans, and it wasn't long before the discussion turned to several of the old classics.
They and other enthusiasts of the genre never seem to tire of talking or reading about the 1920s disappearance of Judge Joseph F. Crater (never found); Jack the Ripper, whose identity remains unknown; and the Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo, who was murdered in 1973 in his Massachusetts jail cell with a knife to the heart.
There was also talk of the grisly 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress in Hollywood, whose mutilated and nude body was gutted of all its organs. The killer had also taken the time to wash the body of all blood and shampoo her hair.
Better known as the "Black Dahlia Murder," the unsolved case has baffled the Los Angeles Police Department for 56 years and inspired several books, including Steve Hodel's recent Black Dahlia Avenger.
William J. Hyder, a retired Sun reporter and copy editor at whose Columbia home we were dining, brought up Lizzie Borden. On a recent trip to Cape Cod, he and his wife had dropped by Fall River, Mass., to investigate all the sites associated with the ax-swinging Lizzie, whose murderous act against her father and stepmother was a national sensation in 1892.
Called "one of the most diabolical" murders in the history of Massachusetts, it became known as the "Fall River Tragedy."
He also mentioned Victoria Lincoln, the late Baltimore novelist, whose 1967 book, A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight, he thinks is one of the best on the subject.
"She had a lot of insight that no one else had. If you're thinking about the case, you shouldn't ignore this book," Hyder said in an interview the other day. "She brought a woman's view to many things in Lizzie's life that had been overlooked by earlier authors, many of whom were men."
A Sherlock Holmes scholar, Hyder is also a member of Baltimore's Six Napoleons, a club for Holmes enthusiasts, and is currently writing a scholarly commentary on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Six Napoleons.
"Who would suddenly go mad and take an ax to their parents?" Hyder said. "Lincoln submitted medical evidence to a Johns Hopkins physician who diagnosed [Borden's] seizures as epilepsy."
This was also a classically dysfunctional family. Whatever Borden's father did for his wife, he had to do something of equal or more value for his daughters, who loathed their stepmother.
What probably triggered Lizzie's rage was learning that her father was considering transferring a farm he owned near Swansea, Mass., to his wife, Hyder said. "It just set Lizzie off. And the reason she killed Andrew, her father, whom she really loved, was because she couldn't bear him seeing what she had done when he came home that afternoon."
Lincoln, a native of Fall River, grew up only a block away from Maplecroft, the house Borden moved into after she was acquitted. Borden lived out her remaining days as an aging spinster and village curiosity.
"When I was very small I stopped and talked to her in her yard," Lincoln said in a 1967 interview in The Evening Sun.
"She was always out there feeding peanuts to the squirrels and filling her birdfeeding station. I would always try and talk to Miss Borden. But there was something always remote about her. She was pleasant but didn't seem to know you were there," she said.
Lincoln recalled in school that whenever Borden's name came up, the students would nervously giggle.
"I asked Mother why and she answered, 'Well, dear, she was very unkind to her father and mother,'" she said.
Lincoln dispelled many myths in her book, including one that Borden enjoyed giving toddlers cookies. "But no toddler in his right mind would take one from her," she said.
Several days before Borden went berserk, Lincoln wrote, she had tried to purchase prussic acid from the local drugstore. The pharmacist refused. "Poisoning was the way women did things in those days," Hyder said.
Lincoln also suggests that the tight-knit society of Fall River was also a character in the murder. "The background is so essential to the foreground. The establishment who lived up on the hill did not want to feel that members of their circle did things like that," said Lincoln in the 1967 interview. "They didn't want anyone else to know. It was a private disgrace."
There was also confusion as to what Borden was wearing that day and when she wore it. Lincoln asserts that she changed out of her bloodied dress and hid it in her closet on a clothes hanger under another dress.
"And when the police came, they couldn't find it. It was never found because she burned it several days later, claiming it was an old dress with paint spots," Hyder said.
With the absence of physical evidence and identification of a murder weapon, Borden was acquitted after a two-week trial.
Shunned by Fall River society, Borden remained in the city until her death from complications of gall bladder surgery in 1927.
Lincoln, who wrote more than a dozen books and many short stories, lived on Cloverhill Road in Baltimore's Tuscany-Canterbury. She was married to Victor Lowe, a Johns Hopkins University philosophy professor.
On the business of writing, Lincoln told The Evening Sun in 1949, "I sit down before my typewriter, arrange everything before me in strict symmetrical order, sniff several times, stare meditatively at the ceiling and then plunge at the typewriter for several paragraphs without looking away from the ceiling."
Lincoln, who died in 1981, was modest about her accomplishments. At parties, she said, "When someone mentions that you're a writer, it's as if they'd said you're quite nice but you have six toes on each foot."