LIZZIE BORDEN TOOK AN AX: SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE

One of the cases that has long fascinated me is the question of what Lizzie Borden might or might not have done in connection with the murders of her father and stepmother.  Most people have heard the children’s rhyme, “Lizzie Borden took an ax, gave her mother 40 whacks, when she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one,” but what most people don’t know is that Lizzie was in fact charged with murder and acquitted (I know this because I’ve read a lot about the case).  People have speculated for ages about what really happened in that house (a wonderful, fictional re-visioning of the case is Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest, which you should also read if you have any interest in the case and an interest in H. P. Lovecraft).  A new novel, See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt, leaps into the story with both feet.

It’s a gruesome enough story: while there weren’t actually “40 whacks”, let alone “41,” both the father and stepmother were murdered by multiple blows with an ax, and at least Abby, the stepmother, seemed to have been facing her attacker when she was killed.  The police investigation was woefully inadequate, even for the time (why didn’t anyone check Lizzie for bloodstains when the police questioned her shortly after the murders?), and Lizzie’s statements during the investigation and the trial were all over the map.  The two people were definitely murdered. Someone must have done it, but who?

See What I Have Done tells the story from four points of view: Lizzie’s, Emma’s (her older sister who lived in the house with her), Bridget (the maid), and the enigmatic stranger, Benjamin.  Slowly the details of what life in the Borden household was like emerge from these conflicting perspectives: what it was like to live with a controlling, stingy, violent man like Andrew, what kind of woman Abby really was, what the relationship between the spinster sisters was like, and what led up to the murders and the aftermath.  

Of course, we will never actually know what happened, and there’s a certain amount of evidence that points to Lizzie (who was probably acquitted because the jury couldn’t believe a well-bred young woman could do something so gruesome), but if you’re interested in imagining what might have gone on in that house in Falls River on that terrible morning, See What I Have Done should be on your To Be Read list.

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