Forty Whacks: New Evidence in the Life and Legend of Lizzie Borden by David Kent

Forty Whacks: New Evidence in the Life and Legend of Lizzie Borden by David Kent

This non-fiction book was published in 1992, the centennial year of the Borden murders. The author (who died the same year) promised that this book would lay out all of the facts, without a presupposition of guilt or innocence on the part of the only person ever charged in the murders. I think he did a good job in his quest, and I very much enjoyed reading this book.

At some point in the mid-morning hours of August 4th, 1892, in a house on a fairly busy street in Fall River, Massachusetts, Andrew Borden’s second wife Abby was savagely murdered with an axe or hatchet to her head in the upstairs guest room. Her death was not discovered at the time (the family thought she had gone out, in response to a note from a neighbor), and at about 11:00 am Andrew Borden was savagely murdered, also with an axe or hatchet to his head, as he lay napping on the sitting-room sofa downstairs. The dead man was a man of some wealth and property in the town. John Vinnicum Morse, the dead man’s brother in law (the brother of his first wife, who had died some thirty years before) had come for a visit, but at the time of the murders was not in the house. In fact, the only people at the house (or outside, in the attached barn) were Andrew’s thirty-tw0-year old daughter Lizzie (by his first wife, as was her older sister Emma, who was out of town on a visit), and the Irish maid, who had been out and about washing windows on the house all morning.

The murders caused an unprecedented sensation in the town, and an investigation was immediately started by the local police force. When Assistant City Marshal John Fleet (in charge of investigations) asked Lizzie, “Do you know of anyone who might have killed your father and mother?”, she answered, “She is not my mother, sir. She is my stepmother. My mother died when I was a child.” This statement, though simple and quite factual, made Fleet think that she might have been an unnatural child enough to have done the murders. Five exhaustive searches of the whole property were made; no bloodstained clothes were found (save for those on the bodies), no note to Abby Borden from the neighbor was ever found, and four complete axes or hatchets were found in the barn, plus a hatchet with a broken-off handle.

The two major newspapers in Fall River called for the police to find the perpetrator of the murders, while the new paper in town, the Fall River Globe, in the person of its star crime reporter Edwin Porter, insisted that Lizzie Borden was the one who had done the murders. In the fullness of time, she was arrested after an inquest (she had asked that her lawyer be present, and her request was denied), and was put on trial for the murders. After the trial the first definitive book on the murders and trial was published in 1893 by Edwin Porter, whose account of the murders and trial was somewhat lacking in truthfulness. In 1924 a second book was published, which noted the faults of the first book, but which also abridged testimony and other matters with a presupposition that Lizzie Borden was of course guilty. Other books and movies have come out about the murders and trial, most of which attempt to figure out just how Lizzie committed the murders.

I cannot speak to whether the author of this book did indeed lay out all of the facts and later testimony (not being in any kind of position to know what might have been left out), but despite the rather lurid dust jacket of the book (my copy of the book, acquired second-hand, is sans lurid book cover) the account given by the author does seem to give all of the facts, without either attempting to blame or exonerate Lizzie Borden. (The book does include only one photograph of Abby Borden’s murdered body, taken from behind; one can find on the Internet, as I did, the photo showing her from the side, which shows the destruction wrecked upon her head by the axe or hatchet.) But I do think the book is fair and even-handed, and I very much enjoyed reading it.

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