Saturday, August 03, 2019

Bridget on the stairs: a post for the Lizzie Borden anniversary

This post is for the anniversary of the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, husband and wife, killed August 4, 1892. Andrew's daughter Lizzie was accused and underwent a trial that was in all the newspapers of the day, a huge national spectacle that ended in her acquittal.

I had long been fascinated by this case and the idea that Lizzie might've "gotten away with murder," for surely she was convicted by the jury of the Public, if not by the jury of her peers (well, actually, the jurymen were not her peers; I blogged about that here).

The more I learned about the case, the more my interest circled around one individual whose role was consistently downplayed: the Irish maid Bridget Sullivan. Bridget had been in the employ of the Borden family for several years, had tried to quit a few times, and was the only person in the house that fateful day besides Lizzie and the victims.

Why was Bridget's role not larger in the trial? Because of her immigrant status. In the cartoon above, originally from Harper's Weekly and found in the book Out of Ireland: The Story of Irish Immigration to America, you can see how the Irish were deplored as they arrived in the 1800s, often hungry and poor.

This cartoon ran April 28, 1883, almost a decade before the Borden murders, but is a good example of how Americans viewed the arrival of the Irish. The cartoon's title reads, "The balance of trade with Great Britain Seems to Be Still Against Us" and its text says, "650 paupers arrived at Boston in the steamship Nestoria, April 15th, from Galway, Ireland, shipped by the British Government." The sails on the dinghy rowing out to meet the ship say, "From New York, the DYNAMITE," which I initially thought to be the wish to blast the immigrants into oblivion, but has a more complex meaning, referring to Irish-American activists who used dynamite in the fight for Irish independence from Britain.

At right is Bridget Sullivan.
At left is Kristen Stewart playing her in the movie Lizzie.

Sentiment was strong against the Irish. Many shops had signs in their windows stating, "Irish Need Not Apply." On the day of the Borden murders, Lizzie called out to Bridget to fetch Dr. Bowen across the street, but when he was not available, Lizzie did not then send her to the Irish physician who lived next door (nor the French one through their orchard on the next street). No. She sent Bridget to fetch her friend.

Hosea Knowlton who led the prosecution's case against Lizzie said that he felt Bridget knew more than she was telling, and yet there was no true surge of pressing her for information.

Bridget testified for the prosecution, and yet I'm mystified why she wasn't grilled to the point that she could let go of some very interesting information. Lizzie was seen burning a dress soon after she was told (in a blunder by the mayor) that she was suspected. Where did that flammable dress come from? It had been secreted in a kitchen cupboard next to the stove in which she burned it. The kitchen was Bridget's territory. How could something wind up in one of her cupboards without her knowing? Bridget knew about the tensions in the household and erratic behavior, yet held her tongue. Why? Politeness? Misplaced loyalty to... well, Lizzie wasn't her boss. The two victims were. Who knows what was in Bridget's mind?

The door with the clock is the cupboard in question.
The stove isn't original but stands where Bridget's stove stood.

I titled this post, "Bridget on the Stairs," because this is the most compelling detail of the case to me. Mrs. Borden was killed first, and lay undiscovered upstairs. Mr. Borden then came home from his morning errands, and could not seem to make his key work (hm, inside job?) so he ran the bell and Bridget let him in. As the two were at the door, Lizzie on the stairs behind them laughed. Bridget told the court so.

At a certain point on that staircase, you can see directly into the guest room where Mrs. Borden was then dead, halfway under the bed, crawling to get away from the blows that ruined her head. One's eyes, when one stands on the stairs, are at floor level with the victim. Perhaps Mrs. Borden's eyes were open, staring in terror at whoever stood on the stairs and laughed.

Me a few years ago on the stair where you can see the upstairs floor

Well, that is Lizzie on the stairs, not Bridget. Except that...after Mr. Borden's body had been "found" downstairs by Lizzie and the alarm given (and Bridget ran to fetch the best friend)...time passed and people began to wonder aloud where Mrs. Borden was. Lizzie actually asked Bridget to go upstairs and see if she was there. Bridget wisely refused to go alone, and neighbor Mrs. Churchill accompanied her. At the same place where Lizzie had stood and laughed, Bridget saw Mrs. Borden's body. She continued up and into the room to verify that Mrs. Borden was dead, perhaps hoping she was only injured and could be revived. Yet anyone who saw that crime scene would know Mrs. Borden would never rise again.

What you see standing on that stair. That's the bed the visitor is walking towards,
and the docent is lying on the other side. She isn't, however, halfway under the bed
as the real Abby was found.

I've spent a lot of time contemplating Lizzie on the stairs, but not so much Bridget. And now as the anniversary comes around again, I think about the betrayal involved in Lizzie forcing her servant to go upstairs to find Mrs. Borden's corpse (or...was it collusion? Or was Lizzie truly innocent? Agh, we will never know). After the autopsies --performed in the dining room-- the bodies remained in the house overnight. As did the living: Lizzie, Bridget, Lizzie's sister who came back into town upon receiving a telegram, and the friend of Lizzie's whom Bridget had fetched). Did Bridget again climb those stairs to aid the sisters? Or did she shun the staircase forever? (Her stairs, to the attic, were off the kitchen...the same stairs Andrew and Abby used).

Stairs have long been held to be symbols of transitions. If you dream of stairs, it can mean you are thinking of transition and change. For sure, the staircase played a dramatic role in the Borden murders. The jury, in fact, went to visit the house during the trial and each paused on the staircase to see the view that possibly meant Lizzie laughed in exultation looking at her victim. You too can climb the stairs if you visit the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast in Fall River, Massachusetts.

My novel The Murderer's Maid tells the story from Bridget's point of view, as well as including a modern-day narrative focusing on the issue of immigration.

 “A complex and riveting parallax view of domestic crimes, decades apart.” -Kirkus

“Those interested in the Lizzie Borden tale…will appreciate Mailman’s research and be rewarded with this new perspective.” -Booklist

“Erika Mailman writes a page turner of a thriller that will fascinate as well as terrify….Don’t read this at night; it will give you nightmares.” -New York Journal of Books
“Erika Mailman’s kaleidoscopic narrative melds true crime, historical fiction, and elements of a psychological thriller, all hinging on a singular question: ‘Who isn’t a survivor from the wreckage of childhood?’” -Foreword Reviews


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