Writing The Secrets of Lizzie Borden was a fascinating experience for me. I am always drawn to the flawed and damaged figures from history, but it is the perceived villains who interest me most of all. I have been reading about unsolved mysteries and murders almost since the time I first learned to read, and in all that time, one thing has never changed—I always want to understand why.
Lizzie Borden seems, at first glance, the most unlikely of murderers—if murderer she indeed was—a nice, church-going, god-fearing spinster lady; a dutiful daughter living at home with her aged parents in an era when most girls didn’t leave home without a ring on their finger. A jury of twelve men simply could not believe that such a creature could commit a gory double axe murder—though being accused was enough to ruin her life forever. She would spend the next thirty-five years under an umbrella of suspicion. Think then how much greater the tragedy if Lizzie Borden were truly innocent as some believe.
Were the tensions simmering inside the house at 92 Second Street enough to make Lizzie explode in a murderous rage one sizzling summer morning? Rumor has it—there were bad feelings between Lizzie, her sister Emma, and their stepmother. One might even say that in that household, money truly was the root of all evil. Andrew Borden was said to be a hard man who, despite his wealth, embraced frugality with a startling passion. Both his daughters became old maids with no gentleman callers or social life beyond church and charitable activities.
Did Lizzie secretly yearn for more? Did she dream of the liberation that would come with her inheritance? Did pent-up frustrations, some sudden fury, or even suppressed carnal desires light the fuse and cause her to reach for the hatchet?
Did she simply get tired of waiting, watching life and youth pass her by? Or was she actually content with her life as it was, until the murders of her father and stepmother, by some known or unknown perpetrator, changed it all forever? We will probably never know for certain, and speculation will likely never die.
The Lizzie Borden depicted in the pages of my novel is a character drawn from many sources: years of reading, opinions of her that have come down to us both good and ill, gossip from her lifetime, speculation that has come after, and my own imagination. I think the real Lizzie Borden was a guarded woman who let very few get truly close to her, especially after the trial, when her every deed was deemed newsworthy. She has always seemed, to me, a woman who was more at ease with animals and small children. The other characters are also a similar blend of fiction and fact.
I will say nothing here of the infamous August day as depicted in my novel, since I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. The book was not written because I believe any particular theory; each one that emerges rekindles my interest, which began as a child when I saw one of the then frequent television showings of The Legend of Lizzie Borden starring Elizabeth Montgomery. I find the story and the characters that fill it fascinating. Lizzie’s life did not end with the murders forever linked to her name, and I find the aftermath just as interesting; what happened afterwards is, in its own way, also a tragedy—whether one believes in her innocence or guilt, and even if one believes it a comeuppance or karma.
My novel begins with a quote from Oscar Wilde:
“In this life there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants. The other is getting it.”
I’ve always felt those words fit Lizzie Borden like a custom made glove.
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Based on the true crime tale of the unsolved mystery of the Borden murders, Brandy Purdy's new book, The Secrets of Lizzie Borden, is a sort of reimaginging of the real events that took place in August of 1869 and after.
Read this exclusive excerpt of The Secrets of Lizzie Borden by Brandy Purdy, and then make sure you're signed in and comment for a chance to win a copy of this historical fiction about one of the most notorious unsolved murders of all time!
Exclusive Excerpt from The Secrets of Lizzie Borden:
I am sorry to disappoint those who have been salivating all these years for a blow-by-blow account of what happened that blistering August morning, but I cannot provide one. There were moments when I felt as though I were living under deep murky water like a lazy catfish, when everything seemed to happen sooooooo sssssss -lllllllooooooowwwwwwwlllllllyyyyyy, and others when everything seemed to speed up so fast and pass in a dizzying blur. In spite of what some might think, my vagueness about that day has never been intentional or feigned.
I remember Abby sharply expressing her disappointment in me, her shame and disgust at me and my wanton, whorish ways. Her kindness was a thing of the past; a gift I had disdained once too often, now it was gone forever. I stood there, lost for words, blundering and blubbering, desperately wringing my hands, feeling the blood oozing out from between my thighs, in a silent mockery, proving that I was not carrying David Anthony’s child. But that didn’t matter now; my dirty linen was lying on the sofa, proving that my chastity and good name were both things of the past.
At one point, I fell on my knees and caught desperately at Abby’s hands, groveling and weeping, begging and pleading, but to no avail. Abby pulled her hands away from me as though my touch might give her leprosy. Unclean thing! her eyes screamed, telling me that I was not a smidgen better than the painted whores who walked the streets on the wrong side of town. I called her “Mother”— “MOTHER, PLEASE!”—I sobbed, but this time it was Abby who coldly reminded me that she was not my mother, only my stepmother. Now it was she, not Emma and me, who had no mercy, no pity, no kindness in her heart. When I told her I did not want to be David Anthony’s wife, she told me I should have thought of that before I opened my legs to him.
Abby said I was “cheap” and “lucky” that David was “willing” to marry me. “Most men won’t bother to buy the cow if they can get the milk for free. That’s the trouble with you; you’ve never realized just how lucky you are, Lizzie. So much has simply been handed to you, but you’ve never shown a mite of gratitude for anything.”
“You’re a COW and I HATE you!” I blurted out before I could stop myself, then clamped a hand tight over my mouth after it was too late to take the words back.
“Well then, there’s nothing more to be said, is there? Until your father comes home,” she added pointedly.
And then Abby turned her back on me. That was the end. She no longer wanted me to be her little girl. She no longer wanted to be my mother. Talking with David Anthony had transformed her into the wicked stepmother Emma and I had imagined she was all along. The doughy-soft sugary-sweet Abby was gone; now she was like a gigantic granite boulder glazed with ice that was determined to crush me. I heard her going up the stairs, her heavy, lumbering tread just like an elephant’s, leaving me alone to contemplate my dishonor and disgrace and the unhappy future that lay before me as Mrs. Anthony. I snatched up those damning linens, furiously wadding them into a bundle, as tight and small as I could make them, wishing I could just make them disappear. But what good would that do now? Abby had already seen them. Father would believe her . . . and David. I didn’t stand a chance against them. I was trapped. Trapped! Just like David had said.
I had to get out. I was suffocating. I couldn’t breathe in that house! I felt the walls closing in on me. I needed air; I needed to think, to clear my head. Hazy red stars danced maddeningly before my eyes and I felt so hot I thought surely I was going to die if I didn’t get out. As I rushed through the kitchen I shoved my shameful bundle into the fire. Let it burn! Devil take the damning evidence against me straight to Hell! I didn’t want to see it, touch it, or think about it! I just wanted it to disappear! Abby could tell Father what – ever she liked, but at least now he couldn’t see the evidence with his own eyes. I ran outside, gasping frantically for air, gulping it in hungrily by the mouthful, but I couldn’t stand the open space of the backyard either. Suddenly I felt so exposed and vulnerable, like a woman about to face a firing squad.
I darted desperately into the barn, seeking some sort of haven there, though I knew it would be hotter than an oven inside, and dreadfully dusty, and I hated it now for all the memories it held of
David. As I slumped light-headed against the wall, willing myself not to faint, to stay alert and think—Think, Lizzie, think! Find away to save yourself!—a silver gilt glimmer caught the corner of my eye.
The hatchet! It was practically new. It had been used only once as far as I knew, when Father had killed my pigeons. I took it up. I felt its weight in my hands. In a peculiar, perplexing way I can’t truly explain, it was almost comforting. It gave the illusion of power back to me; it made me feel that I was in control of my own destiny, that it was my own sense of powerlessness that was truly the illusion. The power was in my hands, not theirs; no one else had mastery over me unless I was meek and allowed it!
The funny pattern in the wood grain of the hickory handle almost coaxed a smile and a chuckle from me. Bridget and I thought it resembled the late President Lincoln’s profile, and she had called it “the Great Emancipator” in jest because in the right, or wrong, hands, given the circumstances, it could set souls free. It occurred to me then that it could, like Lincoln freeing the slaves, also set mefree.
Save me; save me; set me free! I prayed to it, like a silver gilt idol, with all my might, and a little voice in the back of my head began to sing, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—repeating over and over again the verse that went: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free”—free as I ached, body and soul, to be, to live by my own will and whims, not wholly at the mercy of Father’s, or some other man’s, sufferance!
Gripping the handle tight, holding on for dear life, I walked slowly back to the house, with the hatchet’s glistening blade hidden in the folds of my skirt. When I glanced down and saw it nestled against the part that was stained with paint it occurred to me then that the reddish-brown color looked just like dried blood.
I went upstairs to my room. I laid the hatchet down reverently upon my bed. I stood and stared at it with heavy, drowsy suddenly very sleepy eyes, swaying like a woman mesmerized. As the sunlight pouring in through the open window played over the silver gilt like sunshine reflecting upon a river, I thought of water and baptism, of being cleansed of my sins, renewed, reborn. I began to take off my clothes. I just wanted to lie down and go to sleep and never wake up, and if God was truly merciful, I thought, that was what would happen. He would gather me to His bosom instead of foisting me into David Anthony’s arms.
Through the thin wall I heard Abby singing in the guest room. David’s visit had interrupted her before she had finished tidying it up for Uncle John. That was Abby’s way; I knew she was trying to distract herself and put all the unpleasantness out of her mind until Father came home.
I tossed my paint-stained housedress onto the bed—sky-blue diamonds merging with navy, like ripples of water, light and dark, in sunlight and in shadows. I pulled my chemise up over my head and peeled off my petticoat and stepped out of my slippers and drawers. I scowled in annoyance at the single pinprick-sized spot of blood on the back of my petticoat; it was the kind of stain the women of Fall River discreetly referred to as a flea bite. I think I meant to change the heavy, blood-sodden towel for a fresh one. I even pulled the pail out from under my bed. I heard . . . saw? . . . the slosh of bloody water and the soiled napkins swirling inside the pail. It sounded as far off as the sea, the vast blue waters that had once carried me away to another continent, another life, another world, and given me one sweet, sweet taste of freedom.
My head felt unbearably heavy. I thought my neck would surely break beneath its weight, like a pile of bricks balanced upon a toothpick. My sight was shrouded by a rolling red mist and exploding stars, bright bursts of light popping against the red, making me fear that one of them would extinguish my sight forever and leave me stone-black blind. I wanted to lie down, I felt so sleepy and faint, heavy and light-headed all at the same time, but my feet were already moving with a mind and determination of their own and the hatchet was in my hands, hell-bent on securing my freedom. Now was not the time to waver or succumb to weakness like some swooning heroine in a romance novel waiting for the hero to save her. There was no “hero born of woman” to “crush the serpent with his heel” (the little voice in my head was still singing random snatches of “The Battle Hymn”: only it wasn’t one voice anymore. It was a whole chorus all singing different verses and snippets at the same discordant time so I could hardly think, only intuitively understand what they were telling me I had to do). There was only me . . . that song, and the hatchet, “the Great Emancipator.” “His truth is marching on. . . .”
Wearing only the bright red-flowered pink calico belt that held the cumbersome towel in place between my raw, red thighs, with the silver gilt of the hatchet’s head cold as ice against my hot, sweaty breasts, I approached the guest room door. I laid the hatchet down on my desk while I lifted and shifted the end that partially blocked the door just enough for me to open it. I vaguely remember my nipples puckering as I paused on the threshold and stared down at my feet as though I had never seen them before. I wiggled my toes, sweaty and pink, against the faded flowers of the ancient carpet.
I hefted the hatchet in my hand and shivered as it grazed my breasts. I closed my eyes and let myself dream I was the truehearted heroine whose hope sprang evergreen being caressed by her long-lost love, one of over a hundred souls presumed perished on an ill-fated Arctic expedition. I felt so weak, and then, as I stood upon the threshold of the guest room, I tingled with a surge of sudden strength, like a jolt of electricity, that made my spine snap erect.
Abby was still singing. “From this valley they say you are going/ Do not hasten to bid me adieu/Just remember . . .” She had her back to the door; she was bending over the bed, plumping a pillow she had just put in a fresh white slip and adjusting the coverlet. She never sensed that anything was wrong. The hairs never tingled warningly on the nape of her neck. No guardian angel tapped her shoulder to alert her that Death was sneaking up behind her.
“He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible, swift sword. . . .” I raised the hatchet high, I felt its heaviness in my shoulders, and I brought it down HARD. It pulled and hurt me too as the blade bit deep with a terrible crunch into the back of her head. This hurts me just as much as it hurts you. . . . I wanted to tell Abby, and maybe I did; I just don’t know if the whisper was only inside my own aching, pulsing, pounding head. I wish it didn’t haveto be like this. . . . Then I did it again. And again. Again and again and again and again . . .
The popular singsong rope-skipping rhyme that came afterward says I did it forty times, but the coroner counted nineteen blows. But I wasn’t counting; I only know I did it several times. After the first blow, or maybe two, she fell facedown, jarring the whole house. I half-feared she would fall crashing through the floor. I almost wish she had; maybe they would have thought her death was just a terrible accident? But she didn’t; she just lay there twitching and bleeding on the floor, her blood reviving the faded flowers on the carpet. I’d never seen them look so bright before.
Copyright © 2016 Brandy Purdy.
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Brandy Purdy is the author of several historical novels. When she's not writing, she's either reading, watching classic movies, or spending time with her cat, Tabby. She first became interested in history at the age of nine or ten when she read a book of ghost stories that contained a chapter about the ghost of Anne Boleyn haunting the Tower of London. Visit her website at www.brandypurdy.com for more information about her books. You can also follow her via her blog at brandypurdy.blogspot.com where she posts updates about her work and reviews of what she has been reading.