Monday, November 14, 2016

When the scales (of justice) tell a heavy tale

Abby Borden, Lizzie's stepmother, was 64 at the time of her murder. She was 5'3" and weighed 180. The autopsy record describes her as "very well nourished and very fleshy." It seems like adding insult to injury to chastise her for her weight, but that is what some chroniclers have done.   

Abby Durfee Borden

Despite this, I enjoyed one of the iconic nonfiction books about the Lizzie Borden case, Victoria Lincoln's A Private Disgrace, which won an Edgar award in 1967. The author was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1904, twelve years after the murders took place in 1892. She knew the elderly Lizzie Borden as a several-streets-over neighbor but admits she had initially remembered her as living right next door.

The fan is a hatchet: clever book design

The book is confusing at times, with vague pronoun usage and a somewhat meandering through-line, but two things mark it as special:

1. Thanks to her banker grandfather, Lincoln has a piece of insider information that she feels explains the murders: Andrew Borden (Lizzie's father) was planning to transfer a beloved bit of seaside property to Lizzie's stepmother Abby, and Lizzie found out. It helps to know that an earlier and similar deed transfer of a house on Ferry Street took place to assist Abby's impoverished sister. Lizzie and her sister Emma were enraged for some reason, and at that point Lizzie ceased calling Abby "mother" as she had done since she was a toddler and her widowed father remarried. Lincoln thinks Lizzie got wind of the idea (literally on the wind: she believes Lizzie in her second story bedroom heard murmurings from the open windows of the sitting room below) and resolved she would prevent its happening. Lincoln thinks Lizzie only meant to kill Abby, but Andrew came home too early for her to figure out what to do with Abby's body.

2. Lincoln thinks Lizzie did the killings in an epileptic fugue state.

It's well worth a read, but what befouls the book for me is Lincoln's disparaging remarks about Abby's weight.

Another cover I saw online: interesting claw hand

The poor woman took 19 blows directly to her head and neck (not the 40 whacks of the jump-rope rhyme, but still a wretched volume that implies great rage on the part of the perpetrator)...and she's still getting hit. Lincoln cannot seem to describe Abby's walking as anything other than "waddling." Throughout the book, she scorns Abby's weight. Here are a few passages:

"The day is hot; the calico is damp and crumpled with the sweat of her 80 excess pounds of fat, and her pale face shines with it."

"At the inquest, Lizzie claimed that Abby waddled almost daily to market." (Lincoln argues that Abby was basically housebound, and Emma or Bridget did the marketing).

"She only wanted peace and quiet in which to eat her way on through her living death."

Not considering it enough to cast aspersions on her weight, Lincoln attacks her cleanliness too:

"Abby, enclosed in fat and self pity, was the kind who make indifferent housekeepers in any part of the world."

Lincoln even blames Andrew's murder on Abby's weight!

"The problem was, in essence, Abby's fat; if she had weighed 30 or 40 pounds less, Andrew Borden might well have died in his bed."

I read once that making fun of fat people is the last standing societally-acceptable cruelty. The Polack jokes from my childhood have vanished, but not acceptance of the lyrics from a polka I remember from then: "you can have her, I don't want her, she's too fat for me."

Another clever design: Lizzie is the murder weapon

Abby's post-mortem indignities continued: the contents of her stomach were compared to her husband's, a slim and reedy man.

Moreover, and sadly, the crime scene photos can be easily seen online. I won't link to them here, but you can google them. Andrew, thin, reclines on his lounge, his head destroyed, while Abby lies face down on the floor, a large woman felled by her assassin. I have spent a lot of time studying the pitiful sight of her upturned shoe soles with their humbled nails. I can only hope she rests in peace. 

Abby Durfee Borden

After a handful of Lizzie Borden posts (and many more to come!), I'm happy to announce there's a reason behind them. My novel The Murderer's Maid has been picked up by Yellow Pear Press and will launch in October 2017. There is a big coincidence with the press's name: pears feature prominently in the Lizzie Borden lore—she claimed to be eating pears in a hot barn loft while one of the murders was taking place in the house. It's kismet that the press's name and the novel match up.

I'll update here as news progresses, including a cover reveal in a few months.

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