Lizzie Borden, Part Two: The Receptacle of Secrets

I am sure beyond a reasonable doubt that Lizzie dropped the axe down the hole of the privy.

The privy as receptacle of secrets. A medieval monk seduces a nun, who has an illegitimate baby. She sinfully disposes of the baby in the privy. From the Miracles de Nostre Dame, The Hague Kb. 71 A 24 (from the year 1327).

What better place to put something that you don’t want people to find than in a place nobody wants to look?

 The Borden house had indoor plumbing only to the kitchen sink.  The Borden privy was a one-hole seat in a little closet in the cellar, opening onto a large latrine pit.

 This disposal-place would not be new or unusual.  Throughout history people have cast murder weapons into latrines.  Indeed, they did not stop at murder weapons, but threw in anything unwanted, including murder victims themselves.  Readers of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, about a case from 1860, will remember that the body of the vanished boy Savile was found in the servants’ latrine.  (Those who remember who murdered the boy will also be alert to the murderous undercurrents in seemingly genteel middle-class life.)

Disposing of unwanted things in the latrine is a practice that goes back to Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Prioress’s Tale and further.  To cite one instance from dozens of medieval examples, in 1273 a Bedfordshire man named Raymond le Tailur murdered his new wife Emma, with the help of his son Robert and daughter Eve, and buried her in a dungpit.   There’s no mention of what inspired the family to such rage, but it’s a further reminder that families can hide the most lethal of secrets.

 For centuries, in fact, anything unwanted has gone into the latrine.  An archeological excavation has made this especially clear in one instance: in the 1280s a man named Richard of Southwick ran a large household on Cuckoo Lane, Southampton.  Excavation has shown that into his latrine went every kind of household waste: wooden bowls, rope, old shoes, baskets, metal objects, pottery, kitchen waste, and dead pets — nine cats, five dogs, two sparrow hawks, a ferret, and a Barbary ape.

 When anything extraneous went into the latrine, it was natural that something intended never to be retrieved should go there.  So it is absolutely nothing new that evidence of murder should go into the latrine.

But didn’t the police check the Borden privy?

No, they did not.  Investigations were not as thorough in the nineteenth century (though there’s lamentable evidence that they’re not inevitably thorough even now).  People simply didn’t suspect some things.  Houdini was able to get away with dodges no modern magician could, even though he was “thoroughly” inspected, just because it never occurred to anyone that he would hide pick-lock wires in his mouth along his gums, or on the soles of his feet or between his toes.   It’s likely that even the body of poor Savile would not have been found, or at least not found so readily, if it had not come to rest on a platform inside the privy hole.

So police claims that they made a thorough inspection — disproven at the trial itself — are no impediment.  The axe was hidden in the one place no one looked.   This means that the murderer does not have to be someone who ran out the door taking the axe with him.  Someone who stayed in the house committed the murder.  And that someone is overwhelmingly likely to have been Lizzie.

But no one could countenance executing a woman.  The previous — and only — woman executed in Massachusetts was Bathsheba Spooner, convicted of scheming to have her husband murdered in 1778.  But popular opinion in 1893 was unable to square Lizzie Borden, this self-contained, cultured middle-class woman, with murder and the punishment murder required.  Acquitted, Lizzie quickly sold the house and moved on.

That a well-spoken, decorous young woman had committed the murder was almost literally unthinkable for many. To look in a latrine pit was also unthinkable.  I can’t help but connect this with some modern cases, in which it seems unthinkable to large numbers of people that a particular person — whether a priest, a coach, or another untouchable figure — should commit a crime. Their history too becomes a receptacle of secrets.

[Pictured to the right: the hatchet-head with no handle found in the Borden cellar.]

  Part Two and a Half

 How did the police miss the hiding place of the axe?  Simply, they searched the house carelessly, overlooking the places from which one averts one’s eyes.  Dr. Dolan, the medical examiner, did try to claim, “We examined everything down to the slightest bump in the wallpaper.”  However, during the trial the interrogation of Assistant Marshal John Fleet, head of the investigation, embarrassed the police by showing how many things the investigators had missed.  Unfortunately the complete trial records have not yet been published: Edmund Pearson’s Trial of Lizzie Borden (1937) omits Fleet’s testimony.  So the unthinkable remains something that is, in every sense, difficult to get to the bottom of.

 Next Friday:

How Long Did the Battle of the Little Big Horn Last?  “As Long as it Takes a Hungry Man to Eat his Dinner.”


5 thoughts on “Lizzie Borden, Part Two: The Receptacle of Secrets

  1. Susan, that’s a good question. Theoretically it could. But it’s likely that when the sanitation was converted to plumbing — whenever that was, probably early 1900s — the householder had the latrine pit emptied without asking anyone to inspect the contents.

  2. Hello Prof Bayless,
    I hope you don’t mind that I’ve shared the fabulous baby-into-the-loo image and your text (crediting you) on my Rosalie’s Medieval Woman facebook page as we have been discussing the image and it’s generated quite a lot of interest. I also included your credentials, so followers understand you really know your stuff. Thanks for an interesting article!
    Kind regards

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