Ask someone about Lizzie Borden, and chances are you’ll get a schoolyard rhyme. You know the one: it begins with the title of this very episode of Lifetime Theater. There are regional variants (mine finished with the verse, “when she saw what she had done/she picked up the phone and dialed 911”), but it is overall remarkably constant. Both of my readers probably have it rattling around in their heads at this very moment. Ask someone about Lizzie Borden, and you’ll get that chant, but chances are you’ll get very little else. Lizzie has transcended her actual life to become a creature out of folklore: the deranged, axe-wielding madwoman who butchered both her parents. This week’s episode of Lifetime Theater, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, agrees.
I got to know Lizzie in the same way as most others: I heard the rhyme at school and dutifully repeated it because it was the ‘80s and there was fuck all else to do. Eventually I learned that Lizzie was a real person, but it was not until I read a full account of the Borden case that I got arguably the most important aspect of the story: that she was acquitted. That’s right. Lizzie Borden was found not guilty of both murders. And yet, she persists as little more than shorthand for a parricidal butcher. I’m not suggesting that the courts are infallible, but it does seem to be a striking case of the reality of what transpired butting up against the folklore. The bulk of what I know from the case comes from Rick Geary’s The Borden Tragedy, part of his larger series on true crime. I can’t recommend these books highly enough. The highlight of Comic-Con every year is getting the newest book from the man himself and immediately devouring it on the sunny deck behind the convention center. All of these works are primary sourced, and The Borden Tragedy comes exclusively from the diaries of a local woman familiar with the Borden family. Whenever I interject about facts from the case, this is my source.
The year is 1892. Creepy local businessman Andrew Borden (Stephen McHattie) has two daughters: young and wild Lizzie (Christina Ricci) and elder and quiet Emma (Clea DuVall). They all live in a large home in Fall River, Massachusetts with Abby (Andrew’s second wife) and their maid Bridget Sullivan. One afternoon, Lizzie wanders into the living room to find that someone has thoughtlessly carved a hole in her father’s face. Much later, after the police have arrived and questioned everyone, they check upstairs to find that Abby has been murdered as well, which conflicts with Lizzie’s statement that Abby had gone off to visit a sick friend. The investigation immediately focuses on Lizzie, who had the means, motive, and opportunity to do it. The motive they ascribe in both the film and in history is money. Andrew had made a habit of helping Abby’s family financially and the two Borden sisters (spinsters both with little opportunity for respectable marriage) were watching their inheritance disappear. Though Bridget was at home, Lizzie had ample time to go in, beat both to death, and then “discover” the bodies.
Both the movie and the real case focuses on what, to my mind, is the most damning bit of evidence. Abby’s death was pinpointed to having occurred around 9:30, while Andrew’s happened around 11. This means that the killer murdered Abby, then lurked around the house for an hour and a half (never touching Lizzie or Bridget, both of whom were home at the time), before hopping out of hiding ninety minutes later to kill Andrew. Or (and this seems even odder), the murderer killed Abby, then left and came back to kill Andrew. Granted, this evidence is entirely circumstantial and based around the medical examiner’s findings (which could be flat out wrong), but when combined with Lizzie’s story of Abby receiving a note and going to visit a sick friend — when no note was ever found and Abby was in the house — it becomes a little more compelling.
The movie never gives us any other suspects. One character, dubbed by Mrs. Supermarket as Scruffy McHandsome, is shown lurking around the farm (and at one point making out with Lizzie), but he’s never named, never explained, and never given a single line of dialogue. There is a brief interlude in which a second axe-murder is mentioned, occurring while Lizzie is incarcerated, and then the film drops it completely. In real life, the murder was committed by a man who wasn’t in the country when the Bordens were killed. An early scene shows Andrew arguing over a debt, though nothing comes of this in the narrative. The movie even omits the stranger seen multiple times loitering outside the Borden home on the morning of the murders. Motive is similarly fuzzy: an earlier scene hints at the possibility of incest, though never strongly enough to make a dent. Lizzie herself is displayed as a rebellious party girl with a shoplifting habit (there is real world support for at least the second trait), though at least in the early going there’s some appeal to be found in her Disney Princess longing for “something more.” (You could almost chalk up this week’s Very Special Lesson to, “Want to grow as a woman? Murder your parents!”) The movie treats Lizzie’s burning of a dress as blatant destruction of evidence, when in reality there was a bit more nuance than that.
The film strips away the ambiguity of the actual case to frame it more as a straightforward situation of justice being undermined. I’m fine with this — historical accuracy is not what I look for in a Lifetime movie. The essential problem with this approach is that it should have been a TV version of something like Jagged Edge or Presumed Innocent in which evidence keeps piling up on both sides of the case until the end features a stunning reveal of the true culprit. There is even the perfect chance for this with the bloody nightgown Lizzie wore during Abby’s murder, which she kept and stashed in a woodpile. (At the time, the hypothesis was that she had committed the murders the nude, thus explaining the lack of blood on her clothes. I’m certain this stemmed from responsible journalism and not the salacious image of a naked woman carrying an axe.) Instead, Lizzie comes clean to Emma in the closing moments. It’s treated as a shocking twist, yet for the entire movie, we’ve seen shots of a naked or nearly naked Lizzie clubbing both people to death. We knew it was happening, so it barely registers.
Whatever flaws there are in the movie do not extend to the cast. Ricci and DuVall are always great, and McHattie has carved out a welcome niche as a skull-faced baddie. Gregg Henry, Shawn Doyle, and Billy Campbell also appear in supporting roles. With a cast like this, I can’t help but wonder if the movie was intended for major release, or at least a more respectable channel. It’s possible the editing, which is the worst part, is due to this last minute change. The gore FX lend credence to this film having another intended home as they are entirely too good for Lifetime. While the unrepentant horror fan in me loves that they took the time to carve a convincing wound on Andrew, I can’t imagine the same was true for Lifetime’s intended audience. Finally, the music, all modern white guy blues and roll, was a baffling choice. Played at top volume, it was a contemporary sheen the proceedings did not need.
Like the case itself, the Lizzie of the movie is a question mark. We’re told a motive — money — but never see any evidence that this is fact. Another motive, Lizzie’s murky sexuality, is teased at, as we see her flirt with her father, Scruffy McHandsome, and a female party guest introduced in the third act who qualifies as this movie’s Stephen. Lizzie’s character might be in question, but her guilt never is. From the minute the movie begins to the smug confession she whispers in Emma’s ear at the end, the Lizzie of the film is an unrepentant monster. She’s not the Lizzie of history; she’s the Lizzie of that schoolyard rhyme.