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An Ax Well Ground : FORTY WHACKS: New Evidence in the Life and Legend of Lizzie Borden, By David Kent (Rodale Press: $19.95; 256 pp.)

August 16, 1992|Florence King | King's article on the Lizzie Borden centenary is the cover story of the Aug. 17 issue of National Review. Her most recent book is "With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy."

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he missed the boat. American history really began on Aug. 4, 1892, when Lizzie Borden sailed into our national psyche on multitudinous seas incarnadined. At least that's how we Lizzie junkies see it. We can turn any topic around to our favorite gal, even the dominant issue in the current presidential campaign: Lizzie did not go out and murder strangers on the street, she practiced family values.

The first Lizzie junkie was Edwin Porter, whose "Fall River Tragedy" was rushed into print in 1893 after Lizzie was acquitted on charges of ax-murdering her father and stepmother. Next came "The Trial of Lizzie Borden" (1937) by the anti-Lizzie Edmund Pearson, followed by "Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story" (1961) by the pro-Lizzie Edward Radin, who accused the maid, Bridget Sullivan.

Then we had "A Private Disgrace" (1967) by Victoria Lincoln, a Fall River native, who posited that Lizzie committed the murders during an epileptic seizure. "Goodbye Lizzie Borden" (1974) by Robert Sullivan was based entirely on the memories of a 90-year-old woman who said Lizzie killed her kitten. In 1984 there appeared two books, both titled "Lizzie": In one, Frank Spiering pinned the murders on Lizzie's older sister, Emma; the other, by Evan Hunter, featured a lesbian Lizzie who murdered her stepmother after Abby found her in bed with Bridget, and then had to murder her father to keep him from finding out about the first murder.

That's just the short list. Never has a plump, pop-eyed spinster stirred so many people's emotions. Radin attacked Pearson's book so harshly that the Widow Pearson demanded an apology; Victoria Lincoln attacked Radin for writing that she took cookies from Lizzie as a child; and now comes "Forty Whacks" by David Kent, who attacks Porter for deleting testimony favorable to Lizzie. He claims neutrality--"There will be no attempt in this book to persuade you of either her innocence or her guilt"--but his chivalrous blasts at Porter make it clear that Lizzie has acquired yet another beau.

Like other Lizzie junkies, David Kent doctors testimony when it clashes with the images he wants Lizzie to have. Asked at the inquest in what ways Abby was not like a mother to her, Lizzie replied frostily, "I decline to answer," but Kent skips that and goes to "I did not call her mother ," which came out later.

He also makes painfully obvious stabs at political correctness, finding "sexism" in the fact that Andrew's body was examined before Abby's ("The investigation of Mrs. Borden's death would have to wait; priority went to the man of the house"). Andrew's body was discovered first, that's all.

In an attempt to straighten out the conflicting stories Lizzie and Bridget told about their household activities on the murder morning, Kent conducted a one-man reenactment. "The distances and times cited hereafter were calculated by the author on the site, using a stop watch," he writes confidently, and then promptly gets as bogged down in dreary details as did Edward Radin, who also constructed a timetable.

This, not which body was examined first, is the real feminist angle: the all-too-forgettable boredom of household chores. What woman could remember the exact order and times she devoted to sewing, washing and ironing on any one day when she did these things over and over, day after day, year after year? Where was Lizzie when her father came home--upstairs, downstairs or in the kitchen? A woman who is up and down the stairs all day long couldn't possibly say for sure. The men who questioned Lizzie and Bridget never grasped this, and male students of the case have evinced the same blind spot.

The 19th-Century woman's domestic life was an underdone pudding wherein one day's household duties ran indistinguishably into the next. Timetables and stopwatches prove only that women take longer to do some tasks while giving others a lick and a promise, and men still don't know which is which. What really saved Lizzie was the crushing dullness of the evidence itself; it simply does not lend itself to linear thinking.

Kent defends Lizzie against charges that she showed no emotion, but again his chivalry is misplaced. Self-control was considered admirable in 1892; many descriptions of her sang-froid were meant as compliments, but he misses the distinction.

He also omits or fails to address several vital elements of the story. On the night of the murders a policeman guarding the house saw Lizzie creep down the cellar stairs with her slop pail and put something in a cupboard under the sink. On the murder morning a young man in a light suit knocked on the Bordens' door, only to have it slammed in his face by whoever opened it. What about the horse and buggy with two men in it seen waiting by the Borden gate that morning? Or the significance of Andrew's Prince Albert coat found where he never would have left it?

Kent's only new evidence concerns the testimony of the Harvard pathologist who found gilt powder behind Abby Borden's ear, consistent with the decorative edging of gilt that manufacturers put on new hatchets in ornate Victorian times. Therefore, the old rusty hatchet long thought to be the murder weapon may not be.

Finally, Kent quashes the longstanding story that Lizzie was buried at night by black pallbearers. She was buried, he states firmly, "on Saturday afternoon by four white men: Fred Coggeshall, Ernest Perry, Norman Hall, and Edson Robinson."

David Kent understands Lizzie's appeal and articulates it adroitly: "The Ripper dealt in quantity, the Borden murders dealt in quality. . . . What kept interest fever-hot was the conflict between the two competing convictions: Lizzie must have done it--yet couldn't have done it."

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