Was Lizzie Borden Epileptic?

The most recent Real Crime Magazine Friday lunchtime Twitter case dealt with Lizzie Borden and her role in the Fall River Axe Murders. It set out the facts as they are known and then linked into the Magazine’s review of the case, which can be found online at http://www.realcrimedaily.com/realcrimefriday. The facts, briefly, are as follows:

Andrew Borden and his second wife lived in a large house in Fall River, Massachussets, with Andrew’s two daughters from his first marriage, Emma and Lizzie. Andrew Borden was known to be miserly despite being a successful businessman; yet both his daughters were heavily involved in charity work and philanthropy. In early August 1892, New England was hit with a severe heatwave and something of a drought. In the early afternoon of 4 August, Lizzie Borden called down to Bridget, their maid, saying that her parents had been murdered. Both bodies had been attacked with an axe in the front parlour of the house. Although Lizzie was always the main suspect in their murders, she was acquitted by the jury and nobody else has ever been charged. The evidence given by herself and other witnesses was so contradictory, any conviction “beyond reasonable doubt” would have been impossible.

The question Real Crime Magazine asked its readers (and Twitter followers) was – why was Lizzie Borden acquitted?

I was led on Saturday evening to Angela Carter’s short story, “The Fall River Axe Murders” in which she, like Real Crime Magazine, assumed that it is generally accepted that Lizzie did murder her father and stepmother. Interestingly, she not only offers motive – the oppressive behaviour of her father and the callous attitude of her stepmother – but an explanation. For Carter suggests that Borden may have been epileptic.

She reinforces this by recounting an earlier episode where the Borden house was burgled while Mr and Mrs Borden were away. The intruder had rifled through Mr and Mrs Borden’s belongings, soiled on the bedlinen and painted obscenities on the mirrors and windows with soap. Some jewellery had been stolen (and was never found) and Mr Borden’s suits were sliced with nail scissors – which had also been used in an amateurish attempt to jemmy open the safe. This burglary, like the murder, was discovered by Lizzie – who, at the time, was standing in the room holding a bar of soap and no idea why.

Many of Lizzie’s friends were well used to her “little turns”, when she would suddenly seem vacant and distant without realising. These, to me, sound like some form of seizure, where the sufferer is conscious and ambulant but not in control of his or her actions. They are sometimes known as a “fugue” state, and it is conjectured that Lizzie was in such a state both when she committed the burglary and murdered her parents. This would explain the incriminating evidence against her, but also her complete lack of knowledge of the events.

Unless, of course, she was just an exceptionally good liar.


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