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Crime News

'Lizzie' Depicts America's Most Notorious Ax Murder As A Bloody Lesbian Melodrama

The film re-imagines the eponymous ax murderess, Lizzie Borden (played by Chloë Sevigny), as a lesbian anti-hero rebeling against her misogynistic family. But just how accurate is this interpretation?

By Eric Shorey

History has been unkind to the memory of the country's most notorious ax murderess, Lizzie Borden. In his new film “Lizzie,” Director Craig William Macneill attempts to reframe Borden as a queer anti-hero, driven not by insanity but by the cruelty of her time. But just how true to history is Macneill’s version?

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

The details of the IRL Lizzie Borden are at this point well-known, mostly due to her being the subject of a famous nursery rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an ax

And gave her mother 40 whacks

When she saw what she had done

She gave her father 41

On August 4, 1892, her father Andrew Borden and her step-mother Abby Borden were found hacked to death in their Massachusetts home, and Lizzie was arrested a week after on August 11, according to the New York Times. When interviewed by police, Lizzie was unable to provide a motive and gave confusing and contradictory answers about the killing.

After going on trial 10 months later, Borden was ultimately acquitted, with the jury believing that a respected society woman could never possess the brutality needed to execute such a crime, according to a Gizmodo investigation into the matter. She would die unmarried at the age of 66, donating the bulk of her massive wealth to the Humane Society, according to the film's post-script.

The film "Lizzie" stays true to many of the known details about the crime itself, even peppering the violent death scenes with important minutiae as explored in Sarah Miller's 2016 book "The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century"—down to the notes about Bridget Sullivan, the Borden’s live-in maid (played by Kirsten Stewart), hearing Lizzie’s mysterious laughter from the second floor after Sullivan helped Andrew with a jammed front door. The true story of Lizzie's pigeons, slain by Andrew months before the deaths, even becomes a central throughline in Macneill's minimalist exploration of the Borden family's private life, representing the venomous temper of Lizzie’s vicious father.

The embellishments that Macneill provides through the folklore surrounding Lizzie Borden are, strangely, relatively plausible and do not veer far from the facts of the case itself. His is a deeply feminist re-imagining of the myth, with Lizzie being driven to murder partially due to her father's controlling personality—he does not even let her leave the house unaccompanied, for example—and his repeated rape of Sullivan, an actual integral character to the real life story of the Borden massacre.

In "Lizzie," which was originally conceived of as an HBO mini-series, according to the Huffington Post, Sullivan and the killer Borden (played by Chloë Sevigny) are imagined as secret lovers, awakened romantically by their shared, unending misery. The two conspire against Andrew together, although Sullivan chickens out at the last second, leaving Borden to the heinous deed on her own. But, as in actual history, she later testifies in Lizzie's favor to spare her from being hanged.

Truly, if a gay seduction were a factor in the real deaths of Andrew and Abby it would have gone completely unmentioned in the annals of history, as homosexuality at the time was something so shameful and socially unacceptable and was dealt with as such (at the time of this case, Massachusetts had recently outlawed “unnatural and lascivious acts,” and punished them with up to five years in prison). Macneill's queer hypothesis about Lizzie isn't particularly outlandish given what we know about her life: Indeed, Lizzie truly lived and died as a single woman.

A key factor in her fall out with her sister, Emma Borden, late in life was a "close friendship" (and how many lesbian relationships throughout history have been described as such?) with another woman named Nance O'Neil, as Biography.com notes. And according to a 1905 article in the San Francisco Call newspaper written after Lizzie’s acquittal, “It was impossible to get a statement from Lizzie Borden regarding the quarrel with her sister, but the trouble originated from some disagreement during the winter after Lizzie Borden had given a dinner and entertainment at the Borden home to Nance O’Neill and her company. Lizzie Borden is an intimate friend of Miss O’Neill…”

Another motivating factor in the deaths in Macneill's film was a filial dispute between Lizzie and her uncle John Morse (played by Denis O'Hare). Morse, also a real historical figure, is depicted as a conniving blackmailer who attempts to frighten the starkly abusive Andrew into forfeiting his money in a will. Lizzie's attempts to undermine Andrew and John are dismissed due to her gender and perceived frailty. The extent to which this sub-plot is based on fact is somewhat questionable: in "The Lizzie Borden Sourcebook" researchers David Kent and Robert Flynn note that Lizzie's uncle had visited days before the killing, although speculations about the specific nature of Morse's visit to the Borden home shortly before the murders have been not led to any solid conclusions as to why he had been at the house. It may be that business discussions between the brothers had, in fact, exacerbated what was apparently a fraught family situation.

Despite the historical liberties his film takes, Macneill has explained in interviews his motivation for his particular depiction of the 19th century scandal.

"I was really interested in understanding what set of circumstances could have led to these killings and questioning how such dangerous urges might begin to manifest in her," he explained to Nightmarish Conjurings. "Was she born with this seed of darkness? Or was she pushed to that breaking point? I like keeping that a bit of a mystery - it leaves the audience room to draw their own conclusions."

Meanwhile, Sevigny has expressed her frustrations about the final release of the film, which downplayed much of the psycho-sexual aspects of the original scripts.

“So much has been said [about Borden]. But I think that we just really wanted to focus on how she went about finding [her freedom] and how important that was to her and what that meant to her,” Sevigny, who was also a producer on the film and was disappointed by some of the movie's more conservative revisions, told the Huffington Post.

“Whether it was through the relationship with [her maid] or ultimately killing her parents for money ― because money equaled freedom then. It still does. I wanted it to be this rousing, smash-the-patriarchy piece, and then she gets everything she wants monetarily — the capitalist dream. She gets the house on the hill, and Bridget leaves her. Her sister leaves her. She ends up alone.”

Nonetheless, the small cast of the film deftly and caustically acts their way through the spectacle. Showing a joyless and deeply misogynistic world, perhaps the real horror found in the universe of Lizzie Borden is that it in many ways frighteningly still resembles our own world. Do we really treat gay people or women that much better these days?

Ultimately, Macneill's "Lizzie" does not dramatically alter almost any of the facts of the true crime, but instead fills in the unknowns of the case with his own imagination, fleshing out the psychic lives of the protagonists and effectively filling in the facts lost to history with his own interpretation of the events.

Martinis & Murder recently discussed the Borden family murders. Listen to the podcast below:

[Photo via Roadside Attractions]