Lizzie’s Labrys: The Murky Sexuality Behind the Borden Murders

We all know the immortal rhyme created after the horrific Fall River double homicide in 1892: “Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her mother forty whacks…” It was (allegedly) a hatchet, of course. And certainly not the double-headed ax adopted by the lesbian feminist movement in the 1970s. While the symbol has no connection to Lizzie or the murders she allegedly committed, it’s hard to ignore some coincidental connections when you delve into the history of the symbolism behind the labrys and Lizzie’s shadowy private life.

Adopted by many of the radical lesbian organizations which blossomed from civil rights uprisings in the 1960s, the labrys (a Lydian word for “double ax” or double-bladed ax often associated with female goddesses in ancient Crete) was an emblem of strength, representing both the creative and destructive forces of feminism and their ability to “cut through” the patriarchy, forging and blazing new paths without the necessity of men. In the words of radical (and controversial) lesbian feminist Mary Daly from her book Gyn-Ecology, “The A-mazing Female Mind is the Labrys that cuts through the double binds and doublebinding words that block our breakthrough to understanding radical feminist friendship and sisterhood.

mary-daly
Lesbian feminist writer Mary Daly wielding a decorative labrys.

It’s no secret that Lizzie’s father Andrew Borden was insufferably “frugal” (or, more fittingly, a “miser”). At a time when indoor plumbing was becoming more commonplace in upper-class households, Andrew refused to spend money on it even though he was one of the wealthiest men in Fall River, requiring his family to use chamber pots and an outhouse despite their wealth. And his penny-pinching ways were well-known throughout town. Local gossip said that Andrew, during his years as an undertaker, would bend the legs of the deceased (or cut off their feet, depending on who you asked) when measuring for coffins to save money on a few inches of lumber. He was by all accounts a stingy man with many enemies at the time of his demise on August 4, 1892. Far from a sympathetic character, epitomized the greedy, old, white heterosexual domineering male despised by progressives today, even giving Lizzie his own first name as her middle name.

Recent films like Lizzie (2018) have made a point of emphasizing her plausible same-sex secret love life, emphasizing the possible relationship and co-conspiracy with the family maid, Bridget Sullivan. Although the true nature of the relationship between these two women may never fully be understood, this was not the relationship gossiped about among Fall River socialites. Those rumors hinged upon a friendship that blossomed with an actress by the name of Nance O’Neil.

Borden-Lizzie_1905

Long after her murder trial, Lizzie met acclaimed silent movie actress Nance O’Neil in Boston at a summer resort in 1904. The pair quickly became close friends, much to the dismay of Lizzie’s sister Emma. The exact reasoning for Emma’s objection to the friendship are not known; perhaps her strong religious convictions were at odds with her sister doting on an actor (which at the time was not a respectable profession in the eyes of the moral public), or perhaps she, too, had heard the rumors circulating in theatrical circles that Nance was a lesbian. (Though Nance later married actor Alfred Hickman, love letters written to a female friend were discovered in her possessions following her death in 1965.) Whatever the reasons, the tension between the Borden sisters climaxed in June of 1905, and Emma moved out, never to see her sister again. (Interestingly, Emma fell down her basement steps on the night Lizzie died of pneumonia. Nine days later, Emma died of nephritis in New Hampshire.)

EmmaLizzie_1892
Emma (left) and Lizzie (right) Borden in 1892.

As far as paranormal activity related to Lizzie Borden is concerned, the focus for many people is on the Borden House, today known as Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast. Ghost hunters flock to the murder site in hopes of an encounter with the ghosts of Lizzie and her parents. But if you’re looking for Lizzie, you’re looking in the wrong place. You can find her on French Street instead in the house she christened “Maplecroft” where she lived after the murder trial.

Maplecroft also happens to be where Lizzie partied with Nance and butted heads with her sister over the actress.

maplecroft-front-steps
Lizzie had the name of her new home, Maplecroft, chiseled into the front steps: a defiant affront to her wealthy neighbors’ sensibilities.

For nearly 20 years, Lizzie Borden lived alone in Maplecroft. Few people ever visited. Nance O’Neil broke off their relationship a year after Emma left, and Lizzie never fully recovered from the loss. Carved into the front parlor mantle were haunting words from happier times:

And old time friends and twilight plays,
And starry nights and sunny days.
Come trooping up the misty ways
When my fire burns low.

Had Lizzie Borden lived in our modern world, she perhaps would have noticed—or even somehow admired—the unlikely similarities between the symbolism behind the labrys’ meaning for the Lesbian Feminist Movement and her father’s ax murder, a man who was surely a fitting symbol of the unbridled patriarchy and the suppression of women by male dominance. And in many ways, Lizzie would today be considered a feminist. She was fiercely independent (which undoubtedly didn’t help her standing trial in Victorian America) and very involved in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Given her ill-treatment and ostracism by society following her acquittal, she was also an animal lover who preferred them over their human counterparts. (When she passed away in 1927, Lizzie willed $30,000—the bulk of her estate—to Fall River Animal Rescue League.)

We may never know with absolute certainty if Lizzie Borden committed murder on the morning of August 4, 1892, just as we will probably never know the true nature of her relationships with Nance O’Neil, Bridget Sullivan, or any other women. If she indeed haunts Maplecroft, she remains as silent and reclusive in death as she was at the end of her life. Yet her good deeds shine on. In the hearts of any strong-willed, independent feminists—straight or otherwise—there can be found a greater understanding of her strife and challenges. And while an ax can be wielded as a tool of homicide, it can also become a symbol of defiance and hope.

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