‘Ten Minutes in Murderland’. Horror and Sensationalism in The St Andrews Citizen, Week 1: Lizzie Borden
One of the most enjoyable parts of working in Special Collections is, for me, answering the myriad of enquiries we receive from all over the world. Some of these are straightforward requests for information about staff or students who attended the University in days long gone by, while some more obscure questions challenge us to scour less well-trodden areas of our collections for those elusive answers.
It was for a relatively routine enquiry that I was perusing the August 20, 1892 edition of local newspaper The St Andrews Citizen earlier this year. Whilst scanning the densely-packed newsprint for an article about a former University professor, I chanced upon a headline that immediately caught my attention.
The article itself told a story that is familiar to many modern-day readers; the brutal axe murder of Andrew Borden and his wife in Fall River, Massachusetts, allegedly by his daughter Lizzie. For those formerly pleasantly unaware of this infamous case: Lizzie Borden was tried and eventually acquitted of the murders, despite strong evidence indicating that she was the perpetrator, and no other suspects. Following her release, she lived out the rest of her days in Fall River, before succumbing to illness at the age of 66. The murders and subsequent trial caused a huge sensation in the USA, and soon became cemented in the country’s popular culture, even inspiring bizarre tributes such as this ominous-sounding nursery rhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Lizzie’s shock acquittal and determination, despite her notoriety, to continue living in her home town, as well as the fact that no alternative suspects were ever named, ensured that the mystery of the Borden murders remained at the forefront of the public’s imagination. Lurid fascination with the crime has endured to this day, and the story of Lizzie Borden has been immortalised in print, film and even as an opera. Central to the speculation is, of course, Lizzie herself; an enigma to the end. Female-perpetrated patricide is one of the most atypical and shocking of crimes, almost unheard of even today, and the question of whether Lizzie is an innocent victim or rarest aberration has sparked lengthy debate.
The Citizen is often an invaluable resource for researching local history, its busy pages brimming with articles about the town and University. But I was intrigued to find this contemporary report of a now legendary crime, recorded in a provincial newspaper over 3000 miles away from where it was committed, and hidden among innocuous stories about
Fife, agricultural reports and an installment of a romantic serial. Of course, Victorian newspapers were eager to exploit their readers’ penchant for the macabre, and by the late 19th century, syndicated news agencies were well established, which allowed for the reporting of international events.
Reading through the article, it is clear that the writer does not hesitate to reveal that the victims were ‘’terribly mutilated’’, while ‘reassuring’ readers that they ‘’were insensible when murdered’’. However, the text is brief and gory details sparse, perhaps because the distribution of long-distance news by telegraph demanded a particular economy of style which often resulted in concise, no-frills copy. The misspelling of ‘Borden’ as ‘Border’ further serves to demonstrate the limitations of disseminating information via wire, but also seems to add a sense of immediacy to the reporting, which gives it the feel of ‘breaking news’. I was not able to find a report of Lizzie’s subsequent trial and acquittal, perhaps suggesting that while the murder itself was considered newsworthy, the editor did not think local readers would be interested in pursuing the story to its conclusion.
As a huge true crime fan, the discovery of this article prompted me to consider whether other now infamous crimes might have found their way to the pages of The Citizen, gripping the 19th century residents of this remote little corner of Fife with horrifying stories which must have seemed as remote in nature from them as they are in time for us now. Curiosity aroused, I took the opportunity when using the newspapers for research to scan for similar reports, hoping to unearth other well-known stories captured from a Victorian perspective. My discoveries will be shared in this mini blog series.
Reading Room Team