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April 19th, 2005


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04:15 am - a followup
There's several reasons why the Lizzie Borden case has stayed in the American consciousness for over 100 years. For one, it was never solved -- Lizzie was acquitted in the criminal case, mostly due to the prosecution's failure to present anything other than circumstantial evidence, and when something's left open-ended like that, well, people tend to let their imaginations go to work. Lizzie was pretty much publically judged guilty and ostracized for the rest of her life, in spite of the acquittal, and her subsequent seclusion couldn't have not been seen by the citizens of Fall River as a silent and repentant admission of guilt. (Naturally, many myths sprung up after Lizzie shut herself away with her sister in their estate, such as the story of a delivery man who'd brought some crated goods up to the sisters, then ran away in fear when Lizzie offered to open the crates with an axe.) Even now, when people think about the case, and I've caught myself doing this too, quite often the question is not "Who did it?" but "Why would Lizzie do it?"

Second, the victims were a white upper-middle-class banker and his wife, murdered in a quiet white upper-middle-class area of town, shattering the feelings of complacency and faith in the status quo that so many Americans of that class held at the time. It fostered a very FOX News kind of fear: murder wasn't just one of those dirty problems that only happened to the immigrant classes in the big cities anymore, no, it could happen IN YOUR OWN WELL-KEPT BACKYARD! And worse yet, the chief suspect in the brutal killings was not some deranged psychopath, some uncivilized minority, but the victims' own daughter, a proper Sunday School teacher! There she is in our mind's eye: prim, proper, modest dress, calm composure, clutching a blood-stained hatchet after bashing in the skulls of her father and stepmother. That kind of character is just too compelling to pass by.

Third, the trial took place right before the turn of the 20th century, when cross-country communication was the fastest and easiest it had ever been, and so the newspaper coverage was unprecedented for its time. Suddenly a local murder in southeastern Massachusetts wasn't just covered by the Fall River papers, or even just the Boston papers, it was covered nation-wide. It was the first real media circus trial and paved the way for so many more in the next 100 years. Hell, as it happened in 1893, it could've been called The Trial Of The Century and justifiably so, if only anybody had thought to use that phrase back then.

And, of course, once the collective imagination has been captured and the creative juices start flowing, song and rhyme helps to keep it in our minds. The Chad Mitchell Trio wrote a little ditty about Lizzie in the 1960s, co-opting a by-then traditional schoolyard rhyme for the spoken introduction to the piece. The group was an interestingly versatile folk act, as comfortable performing traditional folk music and political tunes as they were performing savagely dark comic songs based on savagely dark yet not-so-comic pieces of American history. Songs such as Hang On The Bell, Nellie (daughter of condemned man, due to die when the prison curfew bell rings, sneaks into the prison and ties herself to the bell's clapper, acting as a human muffler so that her father may live. I'm still not sure if this story is true, but it makes for a hilariously dark ballad, done up overmelodramatically of course by the trio.) And, of course, this song, probably one of the first "twisted" songs I ever learned as a kid:

THE BALLAD OF LIZZIE BORDEN

One very exciting area in the folk idiom, in folk music to us, has always been the Hatchet Murders in Massachusetts. And I think that this quaint bit of suburban living can best be explained through the use of our Poet Laureate, Joe Frazier:
Elizabeth Borden took an axe
   And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when the job was nicely done
   She gave her father forty-one.

Yesterday in old Fall River, Mr. Andrew Borden died
And they got his daughter Lizzie on a charge of homicide
Some folks say she didn't do it, others say of course she did
But they all agree Miss Lizzie B. was a problem kind of kid!
Cause you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts
Not even if it's planned as a surprise (a surprise!)
No, you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts
You know how neighbors love to criticize.
Well she got him on the sofa where he'd gone to take a snooze
And I hope he went to heaven, cause he wasn't wearing shoes
Lizzie kind of rearranged him with a hatchet, so they say
Then she got her mother in that same old-fashioned way!
But you can't chop your mama up in Massachusetts
Not even if you're tired of her cuisine (her cuisine!)
No, you can't chop your mama up in Massachusetts
You know it's almost sure to cause a scene
Well they really kept her hopping on that busy afternoon
With both down and upstairs chopping while she hummed a ragtime tune
Well they really made her hustle, and when all was said and done
She'd removed her mother's bustle when she wasn't wearing one!
Oh, you can't chop your mama up in Massachusetts
And then blame all the damage on the mice (on the mice?)
No, you can can't chop your mama up in Massachusetts
That kind of thing just isn't very nice.
Now it wasn't done for pleasure, and it wasn't done for spite
And it wasn't done because the lady wasn't very bright
She'd always done the slightest thing that Mom and Pop had bid:
They said "Lizzie, cut it out" -- so that's exactly what she did!
But you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts
And then get dressed and go out for a walk
No, you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts
Massachusetts is a far cry from New York!
No, you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts--
   Shut the door, lock and latch it! Here comes Lizzie with a brand new hatchet!
No, you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts--
   Such a snob, I've heard it said, she met her Pa, and cut him dead.
No, you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts--
   Jump like a fish, jump like a porpoise! All join hands and habeas corpus!
You can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts
Massachusetts is a far cry from New York!</blockquote>

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Comments:


[User Picture]
From:signsoflife
Date:April 19th, 2005 12:03 pm (UTC)
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. .. I think the thing I like best about it is that it rhymes "walk" with "York". :)
From:lno
Date:April 19th, 2005 12:51 pm (UTC)
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I know I spent too many years in Boston when I think to myself, "'walk', 'New Yawk', yeah, that works."
From:mhaille
Date:April 19th, 2005 01:12 pm (UTC)
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The habeus corpus line gets me giggling every time.

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