HANSON – Well, Hanson thinks she was guilty.
By a vote of about 35 to 22, the audience at Camp Kiwanee’s Needles Lodge Thursday, Oct. 20 convicted Fall River resident Lizzie Borden of the murders of her father and step-mother in 1892, despite her acquittal of the crimes in her lifetime.
“District Attorney Hosea Knowlton,” portrayed by Lynn’s Delvena Theater Company actor Joseph Zamparelli then advised the residents to gather the appropriate lumber and materials to construct a scaffold in the center of town, as “Lizzie,” portrayed by Lynne Moulton protested her innocence.
The pair acted out vignettes about events surrounding the crime, in “Lizzie and the Forty Whacks,” which included Knowlton’s questioning of Borden during a coroner’s inquest and her defense attorney, George Dexter Robinson – also portrayed by Zamparelli. Both actors portrayed several roles.
The presentation by local author Richard Little on Thursday, Oct. 13 at the Hanson Public Library, meanwhile, revealed that the Rockland educator’s review of the circumstantial evidence of the case leads him to believe Borden was, in fact, not guilty.
That does pose a problem.
Where the productions agreed were some of the grisly details of the crime. While there were not 40 whacks for dad and 40-plus-one for the step-mother Lizzie wasn’t overly fond of – there were really 18 for step-mother Abby and 17 for dear old dad, Andrew Jackson Borden – both programs agreed that there had been two autopsies on the Bordens, including the exhumation of the remains, their decapitation and the boiling of the heads so their skulls could be examined in a coroner’s inquest and at Lizzie’s trial in front of her.
An ax blade missing a handle, found in the basement, was even fit into the cavity at the top of Andrew Borden’s head during the trial to demonstrate it was the alleged murder weapon.
During his Oct. 13 talk, Little focused on the business arguments between Lizzie’s Uncle John Morse and her father in his book, “Cold Case to Case Closed: Lizbeth Borden, My Story.”
“We’re here to talk about poor Lizzie and she can’t wait to tell her story,” Little had said to open his program.
“Despite what you’ve heard, it was not the hottest day of the year,” he said. “It was actually a rather cool Thursday morning – so cold, that when Bridget Sullivan [the Borden’s maid] got up early that morning, she had a shawl on.”
At the trial, however, and echoed in the Delvena Theatre production on Oct. 20, it was referred to as “one of the hottest days of the summer.”
“The summer had been hot,” Little said. “But in August, it had started to cool off.”
As Little, put it, 32-year-old Lizzie Borden had two lives – the one before Aug. 4, and the one after. She had been a world traveler, embarking on a European vacation famed at the time as “the Grand Tour,” along with some of her friends. Active in civic events, Lizzie had volunteered for the Hospital League and was treasurer of the Ladies’ Flower and Fruit Society – church group that sent floral and fruit baskets to people who had been in the hospital. She also taught English to immigrants.
“She was really involved in society, and was really a pillar of society, until Aug. 4,” he said.
Where the play refers to them as the murders, Little called the deaths “the tragedies” in his talk.
Little focused on the backgrounds of the people staying in the house that day – the victims, Lizzie, Bridget and Morse, who was the brother of the first Mrs. Borden, who had died when Lizzie was a small child. Morse and Mr. Borden were in business together, shipping horses and cattle from Iowa to Swansea.
Morse, Little said, being in the livestock business, was also trained as a butcher.
“He carried with him at all times, an implement to do that,” he said. “It really looks similar to a hatchet, but it’s a type of cleaver. … This is, who I think, was the culprit.”
He theorized that the murder of Mrs. Borden was an act of rage because she was trying to talk her husband into dissolving the business. Morse returned to Iowa after the murders.
“That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it,” Little said.
Lizzie’s father had been a successful businessman, as well as a slum lord by some accounts and his livestock business was having problems that caused an argument between him and Uncle John Morse, according to Lizzie’s testimony. Mr. Borden’s estate would be valued at close to $13 million in today’s currency.
Zamparelli and Moulton focused on the inheritance in much of their play, as they acted out a portion of the transcript of her inquest testimony before the audience, serving as the jury, were invited to ask their own questions.
Lizzie explained that her tearful, often contradictory testimony was due to the heavy doses of morphine she was given after the murders.
Little also spoke of the amount of morphine with which Lizzie had been dosed. He also mentioned that the annual Fall River Police Department excurison to Rocky Point – attended by half the department – rendered the police at half-strength that day.
In the play, Lizzie also, in a winking aside, reported that the judge in her trial, was appointed to the bench by her lawyer when he was governor of Massachusetts.
“He and the governor were very dear friends,” she said, on the audience’s promise not to tell anyone. “So, it made it a lot easier being put on trial in front of Justice Dewey.”
In character as a spoiled, well-connected woman of society before the suffrage movement, Moulton’s “Lizzie” told her lawyer that the women of the audience wouldn’t know what he was talking about as “Robinson” explained the cross-examination process at her trial.
Audience questions ranged from when and why Lizzie burned her clothes, who stood to inherit her father’s money before his death, where she was during the murders, why she was allegedly shopping for poison before the murders and why she was so heavily medicated.
“You ladies understand this, don’t you?” Moulton said. “Your husband puts you on lots and lots of morphine to keep you quiet.”
Little said a doctor had given Lizzie morphine for her anxiety.
He initially gave her four-grain tablets.
“Then he doubled the dose to eight to take as needed,” Little said. “She was on morphine on Friday and the funeral was Saturday.”
Motive has been a subject of conjecture over the years, with focus honing in on Mr. Borden’s estate and his past refusal to spend much on his daughters.
“My sister and I were single women – we’re unclaimed treasures, as they say,” Moulton’s “Lizzie” said, outlining her anger over Andrew Borden’s purchase of a house for their step-mother’s sister. “We were going to need that property to take care of us as we aged – we were quite upset about it.”
Older sister Emma Borden was visiting in Fairhaven at the time of the murders. With the death of both parents, the sisters divided the estate.
When an audience member asked about whether Lizzie was coming upstairs or going downstairs when her father’s body was discovered, she said – “Oh, my goodness, she was paying attention during the inquest! Were the rest of you paying attention during the inquest?”
The district attorney asked the woman’s name.
“Angie, it is a pity you are a woman, you could be an attorney, that’s an exellent question,” he said.
The murders have become the stuff of New England legend, and people may never agree on Lizzie’s guilt or innocence – so, what do you think?