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Lizzie Borden and Bridget Sullivan

Lizzie Borden and Bridget Sullivan

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Published by carolyn6302
Carolyn Gage's essay on Lizzie Borden and the Irish maid Bridget Sullivan.
Carolyn Gage's essay on Lizzie Borden and the Irish maid Bridget Sullivan.

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Published by: carolyn6302 on May 29, 2012
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Copyright 2003 Carolyn Gage
 A verdict is no more enlightened than the jurors who make it—jurors, whotend, more or less, to reflect the values, prejudices, and contradictions of the society to which they belong. For this reason, murder trials – especiallyhigh profile ones—can play out like Greek tragedies in the popular culture,providing a public arena for wrestling with emergent new paradigms, for reinstating a threatened status quo, or for enacting ritual atonement for historical wrongs—not always in the interests of a just verdict. A recent example of such a murder trial was the so-called "trial of thecentury," where football star O.J. Simpson was tried for the murder of hisex-wife. The U.S. justice system, having been devised and exclusivelyadministered by white men for centuries, has unfortunately had a tendencytoward sexism and racism. This has played itself out in a notorious laxity inprosecuting crimes of violence against women, especially crimes involvingso-called "domestic violence," and in scapegoating people of color,especially African Americans, and especially African American males. Theera of lynching the Black man for imagined depredations against whitesouthern womanhood is mercifully behind us, but the police and the courtscontinue to lock up a disproportionately high number of Black men, handingout longer sentences than to white criminals, and for less serious crimes.The Simpson case was archetypal, because it brought these twoentrenched paradigms into direct opposition. Although the domesticviolence was allegedly perpetrated by an African American male against awhite woman, in this case, the African American man represented atremendous personal, cultural, and financial investment on the part of millions of white men. O.J. was a national hero in that most macho and all- American of sports—football. He was an icon of manhood, a millionaire, acelebrity, and also a marketable commodity in terms of his ability togenerate substantial profits for companies by product endorsement.So, now we had an interesting question: Would the fraternal bondingamong white men around their sports heroes hold up and hold out againstthe traditional racism of the police and the courts
against an
increasingly vocal movement of women against domestic violence, whowere calling attention to Nicole Simpson's history of unsuccessful attemptsto gain police protection and who were demanding a conviction?In a fascinating and dramatic turn of events, the trial resulted in a nationalsoul-searching and breast-beating about the era of lynching, and O.J. wasfound innocent. African American women as well as white women wereoutraged. Was this an authentic coming-to-terms with racism, or just asmokescreen for business-as-usual, with the good old boys protecting their mascot? About a hundred years before the O.J. trial, there had been another "trial of the century." This one involved a daughter's alleged axe murder of her father and her step-mother. As with the O.J. case, the Borden trial broughtdeeply entrenched prejudices into conflict with each other. Unlike the O.J.case, however, there was a second suspect who had both motive andopportunity. This suspect was never accused or arrested. Why was thissuspect protected when Lizzie was not? And why is this suspect’s namestill forgotten, while Lizzie, officially exonerated, is still presumed guilty by avirtual industry of novels, films, plays, and ballets about the Fall River murders?Let's look at the facts:On the morning of Thursday, August 4, 1892, at the Borden house in FallRiver, Massachusetts, there were five people in the house: Andrew Bordenand his wife Abby, Andrews' daughter Lizzie, Lizzie's uncle who wasvisiting from out-of-town, and Bridget the maid. The uncle said he left thehouse at about a quarter to nine in the morning to make a social call. Hisalibi was solidThe murder of Abby Borden took place upstairs around 9:30 AM, and themurder of Andrew took place about ninety minutes later, in the downstairssitting room. Andrew had just returned from some errands in town. Duringthis time both Lizzie and Bridget were working in and around the house:cleaning up the breakfast dishes, ironing, and washing the outsidewindows. This means that whoever the murderer was, he or she wouldhave needed to enter the house unseen by the several folks out-and-abouton a busy residential street on a weekday morning, would have needed toconceal themselves in or around the Borden house for the minimum of an
hour and a half between the murders, and then would have needed toleave, again without being seen, only now smuggling out the axe and their blood-soaked clothing. Unless, of course, the murderer was one of the twowomen.Early in their investigation, the police decided that the murder had to havebeen an inside job. Both Lizzie and Bridget were summoned to answer questions at the official inquest. The day before the inquest, because of public pressure, a warrant was drawn up for Lizzie's arrest, but it was notserved until four days later. There is documentation that the prosecutor feltthere was not enough evidence to try her. Unfortunately for Lizzie, threedays after the murder, she decided to burn a paint-stained dress of hers,and when the story of the dress-burning was reported at the Grand Jury,the warrant was served and Lizzie was arrested. The rest is history – or,rather, legend.The origin of this legend can be traced to one Edmund Pearson, author of the standard reference work,
The Trial of Lizzie Borden
, which waspublished in 1937. There had been an earlier study by a newspaper reporter, published a year after the trial, but Pearson’s was the first study toinclude excerpts of the trial testimony. It was Pearson’s book that becamethe basis for the subsequent avalanche of books, articles, and films that stillcontinues today. In his book, Pearson states his belief that Lizzie was guiltyand includes excerpts from the trial to support his argument. Unfortunately,his excerpts are highly selective, including all of the testimony in support of the prosecution's case, but omitting all of the testimony discrediting it.In 1961, Edward D. Radin, a crime reporter who had covered hundreds of murder cases, wrote his own book about the case,
Lizzie Borden: TheUntold Story 
. He was the first author since Pearson to go back to theoriginal 1,930 pages of the trial minutes. More significantly, he had accessto the then recently-discovered four volumes of testimony from thepreliminary hearing. In his book, Radin states, "Pearson presented such abiased version of the case that it might be considered a literary hoax." According to Pearson, the source of the legend, the circumstantialevidence against Lizzie was overwhelming, and her miserly father's estateprovided ample motive for the murders of both him and his wife, Lizzie'sunpopular stepmother. At the time of Borden’s death, the value of theestate was estimated at what would currently be between six and eight

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