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February 19, 2001

Nickerson to wax on Borden case

By Eric Rangus

Long before the birth of Court TV or even radio, this country could be spellbound by sensational crimes.

One of the first highly publicized criminal cases in the United States was the Lizzie Borden murder trial of the late 19th century. The daughter of one of the richest men in Fall River, Mass., Borden was acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with an axe—although the question of whether Borden was actually guilty has spawned many debates over the past 100 years.

Catherine Nickerson will discuss these debates at her presentation, “Lizzie Borden and the Fascinations of the Past,” as part of Emory’s Great Teachers Lecture series, Thursday, Feb. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Miller-Ward Alumni House.

The title is also that of a book Nickerson is working on and hopes to complete sometime next year.

“I’m actually less interested in the question of whether she did it or not,” said Nickerson, associate professor of English and director of undergraduate studies in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts. “I’m more interested in the way other people get involved in the question.”

And the bulk of Nickerson’s discussion will center on the many ways this involvement manifests itself. For instance, Thursday night Nickerson will show part of a documentary film shot at a Lizzie Borden convention in which people from around the country meet to discuss the case. Some attend in period costume. The Borden case has inspired a ballet, an opera and many stories.

“I think one of the things that is sustainingly interesting about this case is that it’s so difficult to imagine her having done it,” Nickerson said. “One of the big questions of the Victorian era was, ‘What are women capable of?’”

The Borden case is part of American lore, particularly in New England, where the murders took place. On Aug. 4, 1892, Lizzie found Andrew Borden and his wife Abby hacked to death with an axe in their Fall River home. Lizzie was charged with the murders three days later, and her trial began June 5, 1893. After 14 days of testimony—none of which came from Borden, who did not testify—the jury acquitted her.

Nickerson said much of the state’s evidence against Borden was circumstantial—no weapon could be tied to Borden, for instance. Nickerson added that a few years ago a class at UCLA held a mock Borden trial, and Lizzie was acquitted once again. Her opinion, though, is that Lizzie committed the crime. Along with older sister Emma, Lizzie inherited all their father’s money after his death.

“After her acquittal, she never published anything; she never spoke to newspaper reporters about her side of the story—she just maintained her silence,” Nickerson said. “There were anecdotal stories about her talking to neighbors, but very little even of that.

“She maintained that silence and I think that’s very unsatisfying,” Nickerson said. “We want to know [what happened]. It creates this space in which you can imagine all sorts of possibilities. People are always trying to retell the story.”

Nickerson became interested in the Borden case while researching a book on detective fiction by American women. She has been on the Emory faculty since 1992 and received the Excellence in Teaching award in 1999.


Back to Emory Report Feb. 19, 2001