Saturday, January 06, 2018

Wash on Monday, but not if you're Lizzie Borden's maid

Hungarian women washing clothes, NYPL Digital Collections

There's an old nursery rhyme that once helped addled housewives remember their duties:

Wash on Monday,
Iron on Tuesday,
Bake on Wednesday,
Brew on Thursday,
Churn on Friday,
Mend on Saturday,
Go to meeting on Sunday.

But not in the Lizzie Borden household. At least not during the week in which Mr. and Mrs. Borden were murdered. We know Irish maid Bridget Sullivan did the washing that week on Tuesday, breaking with a major tradition. Of all her failings, this is surely the one that upsets me the most. ;)

How do we even know such a bit of minutia?

Well, because there happened to have been a bucket of bloody cloths in the basement after the murders. Menstrual cloths, Lizzie told the police investigators. But could they have also included crime scene blood and the rags used to clean it up?

Washing clothes, NYPL Digital Collections

Before disposable pads existed, women used real cloth to catch their flow. Victoria Lincoln, author of the Lizzie Borden book A Private Disgrace, first introduced me to the idea of birdseye fabric being specifically used for this purpose. The used fabric would be put to soak until wash day, when the family maid would boil water and begin the arduous task (I initially wrote "harduous," which made me laugh) of washing with soap flakes and multiple rounds of rinsing, all while lifting heavy fabric. I think things are heavy when I move them from the washer to the dryer; I can't imagine being responsible for them when absolutely dripping.

So, Lizzie had her period and was bringing cloths to the basement for soaking. But the timing was interesting. Officer Medley of the Fall River Police Department said he spoke with Lizzie on August 4, 1892, the day of the murders, about the bloody towels. She told him the pail had been there three or four days (i.e., she started menstruating Aug. 1 or 2) and that everything was copacetic; she had already told the doctor about it. Appeal to False Authority, right? The doctor can excuse possible crime scene cleanup materials because he knows all about lady parts.


When Medley talked with Bridget Sullivan, she said she had not noticed the pail until the day of the murders, and it could not have been there on Aug. 2 because that was the day she did the washing. August 2 was a Tuesday; the murders were on a Thursday.


Well, the most important thing obviously is that Bridget didn't follow that housekeeping rhyme. The second most important thing is that all these men were way too squeamish about the bucket, trusted Dr. Bowen's dismissal of it, and failed to follow through with Bridget's assertion that the bucket had only appeared that day.

You can learn more about that bucket, and about Lizzie's midnight visits to the basement (several of them, in the dark, by lantern light) the night of the murders. Her poor friend who accompanied her reported that she walked right past the bloodied clothes of her father and stepmother, left in the pile on the floor, without any concern. Where can you learn more, you ask? Why, in this well-researched novel:

Thanks for reading. More Lizzie facts tomorrow!

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