Lizzie Borden took an axe
gave her mother forty whacks;
when she saw what she had done
she gave her father forty-one.
So goes the old folk rhyme, which is slightly mangled in the opening credits of Lifetime’s TV series loosely based on the true story of one Lizzie Borden, who was acquitted of the brutal murder of her father and step-mother, but likely did it. The show misquotes the rhyme as ‘when he saw what she had done/she gave her father forty-one’, which puts Lizzie’s murder of her father more squarely as a reaction to him catching her in the act, as opposed to the more ambiguous motives of the original rhyme.
As is my wont when these historical adaptations arise, I was immediately drawn to investigate the truth. In this case… the truth is uncertain, and has been the subject of many wild speculations, but Lizzie is still the number one suspect. The Wikipedia article contains a good summary of the theories and evidence.
Lizzie Borden had motive – she and her sister had been on very poor terms with her father and step-mother, had recently quarrelled, were in the middle of a property dispute, and stood to inherit a very large sum of money. There’s also speculation that Lizzie was sexually abused by her father, and that she was caught in a tryst with the maid, Bridget Sullivan, although there is little evidence for either. There were rumours that Lizzie was a lesbian, and she seems to have been very close to actor the, Nance O’Neill, who came to live with her in later life, but there is no such connection to Bridget.
Lizzie gave inconsistent testimony, although this may have been influenced by the morphine she was taking to calm her nerves. She was also found destroying a stained dress, and a plausible candidate for the murder weapon was found on her property.
So, in as much as it is very likely that Lizzie Borden killed her parents; was very close to her sister, Emma; plausibly had a relationship with Nance O’Neill; and inherited a lot of money, the series has some basis in fact. But from there the Lizzie Borden Chronicles and the truth part ways. For the most part, I don’t mind.
It is perhaps obvious to say that if you ever wanted a show about Wednesday Addams growing up and brutally murdering people, you’ll enjoy this show. Obvious, but nonetheless true. This thought is undoubtedly behind the apt casting of Christina Ricci, best known for her childhood role as Wednesday, in the role of Lizzie.
In fact, casting for the show is perfection all round. Clea DuVall is exquisite as the tight-lipped, dour, but good-hearted sister, Emma Borden. Cole Hauser pulls off a difficult balance of both charming and deeply dubious in his role as Charlie Siringo, the private investigator and ‘Pinkerton man’ whose investigation of the Borden murders pulls him dangerously under Lizzie’s radar. Genre fans will also enjoy performances from Chris Bauer (True Blood, The Wire), Jonathan Banks (Community), and especially Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) as the mobster matriarch, Aideen Trotwood.
The Lizzie Borden Chronicles present a joyfully bloodthirsty and original vision. Whilst it doesn’t attempt to be true to the facts, its basis in them gives the heroine stature. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a character like her. Women simply aren’t allowed to play such unequivocally dangerous and brutal, yet still feminine, roles. When I try to think of others… Dexter‘s Hannah McKay reflects the stereotype of the female poisoner. Sure, she’s feminine, but this only serves to underscore the idea that women can only overpower men by ‘underhand’ or ‘deceptive’ means. At the other end of the scale, Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones is a skilled and powerful killer, but she is a knight, killing in the name of justice, and anything but feminine. Strength, brutality, physical threat, these are reserved as masculine characteristics, and they back up the idea of women as fundamentally defenceless; although the truth is that social mores and morality are the chief reasons most of us are not a threat to each other.
We are fleshy, vulnerable animals in our day-to-day lives. Knives, axes, pitch-forks, and the like, can all be wielded with deadly force regardless of whether you are male or female or neither. Historical evidence suggests that the real Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her step-mother 19 whacks, and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 11. She was not particularly strong or tall. Just really, really angry.
The fictional Lizzie Borden goes on a killing spree that the real one did not. But it’s no more implausible than Dexter‘s Bay Harbor Butcher, and that’s important. Impressions of strength and physical threat, whether we want them to or not, affect how vulnerable we appear. It matters that we see a normal, feminine woman can be just as dangerous, if not more so, than many men.
I’m not on board with all the deviations from likely historical truth. It’s heavily implied that she killed a bunch of cats – something the real Lizzie Borden, an animal lover, would have been unlikely to do. And, sad to say [spoiler], I wouldn’t get your hopes up for Lizzie growing old with Nance, or Adele, Lizzie’s other love interest. The trend of lesbians dying on film continues in grim fashion. Not that the fictional Lizzie is a partner I would wish on anyone, but if Dexter can find love and Hannah McKay can end up alive and well in Argentina, there was room for a different choice.
If you’re not aware of what’s wrong with yet more lesbian deaths on television, a Google search can show you dozens of articles on the subject in seconds. The issue came to prominence last year, when fictional lesbian and bisexual women were dropping like aging popstars. The short answer is that lesbian and bisexual women lie at the intersection of mainstream misogyny and homophobia, with a hefty dose of queers die for the straight eye. You’re allowed to admit women who love women exist these days, but only if they die. Bonus points if their deaths make straight men sad and motivate them towards action (aka fridging). It’s no more inevitable that Lizzie Borden should kill her love interests than it was for Dexter, but it was just such an easy choice.
I’m not the first person to say it, but this needs to stop being the go-to for writers. There was a great moment when I thought Nance was going to join Lizzie in a murder-road-tip – this was an option, and one that would have skewed just a little closer to reality. But the writers chose to move away from the real history, where Lizzie’s relationship with Nance drove a wedge between the sisters, in favour of strengthening the sister-bond story. An opportunity lost in favour of heteronormitivity and the tired trope that platonic female relationships are the only kind that provide strength and solace.
That aside, I still think this show is very well made and as much of a romp as a drama about a serial killer can be. Bonus points for some really delightful period costumes. And full love for Mama Stark (Michelle Fairely) reprising her role as a formidable matriarch herding sons who are not her equal.
The Lizzie Borden Chronicles was refreshing and enjoyable – one of the best things I have seen in a long time.