Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles.

The infamous Lizzie Borden now has her own television series and for the next several weeks she will be terrorizing her hometown, Fall River, Massachusetts. Set in the months after her acquittal for murdering her father and stepmother, Lifetime’s The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, unlike their made for TV move, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, is a self-proclaimed work of fiction. Apparently Lizzie Borden has become a generic villain, like Jesse James or Jack the Ripper, capable of adventures of her own, beyond the bounds of history. The series does not attempt to portray actual events, and those not attuned to turn-of-the-century fashion will probably not notice the anachronisms (a room full of cops and no mustaches?) so is it really necessary to point out the inaccuracies? Of course it is.

With an unresolved story like Borden murders, the smallest bit of fiction has a tendency to become popular “fact.” For example, people still believe that Lizzie was naked when she killed her parents, because that is how Elizabeth Montgomery did it in her TV portrayal of Lizzie Borden. Although The Lizzie Borden Chronicles is fiction, it necessarily touches on people and events that are historically real, and to anyone familiar with the story, those interactions have a tendency to strain the credulity. Here are the problems I found after watching the first episode:
  • Lizzie’s bastard half-brother William. The evil bastard shows up in the first episode to get his share of the loot. William Bordon is a fairly recent addition to the Lizzie Borden legend, first appearing in the 1991 book Lizzie Borden: the Legend, the Truth, the Final Chapter, by Arnold Brown, but somehow missed by every other researcher. By popular acceptance William has become part of the story (just as Rudolph became one of Santa’s reindeer) though he probably did not exist.
  • Charlie Siringo. This is an interesting choice for the detective pursuing Lizzie. Charlie Siringo, in real life, was a famous Pinkerton operative, known as “The Cowboy Detective.” In 1892 he was infiltrating a miner’s union in Idaho, and later in the decade he chased Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid through the southwest, so he probably did not visit New England in 1893. By the 1890s the Pinkerton’s were viewed as a private army for union-busting robber barons, but they had a code of ethics stronger than most private detectives (or police, for that matter.) They were forbidden to accept rewards and wherever possible they brought their men back alive. To kill a man for convenience and carry his head back for proof, as Charlie did in the first episode of LBC, would be unthinkable for a Pinkerton operative. By the way, the real Charlie Siringo carried a walking stick that concealed a sword, so keep an eye out for that.
  • Andrew Borden’s Debts. Contrary to the central theme of the first episode, Andrew Borden did not die in debt. He was a shrewd businessman with several sources of income, and at the time of his death he was president of a bank. Andrew left Lizzie and Emma plenty of money to buy Maplecroft, the mansion where the series takes place. In any case, why would she kill the creditor? Then as now, it would not make the debt go away.
  • Violent Lizzie. There is no evidence that Lizzie tortured small animals as a child. There was mention at the trial, of Andrew Borden wringing the necks or cutting the heads of pigeons; somehow this story has been turned around against Lizzie. There is also an unsubstantiated rumor that Lizzie killed her stepmother’s cat, but in general Lizzie was known to be an animal lover. After her acquittal she was never accused of any violent crime. Her only brush with the law involved shoplifting, an old habit of hers which Andrew had been able to hush up.
  • The baby skeleton in the basement. Pure fiction. No comment necessary.
All that said, Christina Ricci and Clea DuVall do an excellent job as the fictional Lizzie and Emma Borden, and, taken on its own terms, the show is fun to watch. Since it does, sometimes, reference true events, expect a visit from Lizzie’s (real life) actress friend Nance O’Neil, and some Sapphic innuendo.
In the meantime, "She's got an ax to grind." Who will Lizzie murder next?


Unknown says:
April 20, 2015 at 2:24 PM

It's incredible how quickly a fiction can become a "fact," and the internet and television only fuel the rumor mill. Thanks for setting some of the facts straight.

And I loved the Rudolph analogy!

MovieLover4Life says:
November 26, 2019 at 6:43 AM

Crazy fun to watch!! She saved the dog from Mrs. Henney...Totally binge watched! Loved it!

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