What Made Lizzie Borden Kill?

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In the last thirty years much research has been done on family violence. In 1962 an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association documented a “battered-child syndrome.” Not long after, the women’s movement began to focus on the “battered-woman syndrome.” This new focus on physical violence and neglect has turned up controversial but alarming data on the number of children who are sexually abused in the home and the impact of that abuse on their adult lives. Only twenty years ago the psychiatric community estimated that perhaps one person in two hundred thousand was a victim of incest. A well-respected 1985 study by the sociologist David Finkelhor put the figure at closer to one in five. Part of this almost inconceivable increase has come about because of a broadening of the definition of incest: today incest is often defined as sexual abuse by a relative or someone else—stepparent, baby sitter, family friend—whom the child would be expected to trust and obey. But current statistics also suggest the extent to which incest may have been underreported in the past.

The link between sexual abuse and parricide came forcefully into the public consciousness in 1982, when the sixteen-year-old Richard Jahnke killed his father after enduring years of physical abuse and witnessing the physical and sexual abuse of his mother and sister. According to Paul Mones, a lawyer who specializes in defending abused children who kill their parents and the author of a book on the subject, the Jahnke case was “the first parricide to attract intense national attention since Lizzie Borden.” In 1986 a Long Island teen-ager named Cheryl Pierson paid a classmate to murder her father. When she was caught, Pierson told authorities that she had been abused by her father since she was eleven and that she feared he was about to turn on her younger sister. These two cases drew attention to abuse in respectable middle-class families, families in which the abusers, as Mones writes in his When a Child Kills , are “successful wage-earners, regarded by their peers as honest, hardworking people,” people, in other words, “generally indistinguishable from the rest of us.”

In the nineteenth century the connection between sexual abuse and homicide was simply not part of the public consciousness. A rare example came to light in Boston in 1867, when the seventeen-year-old Alice Christiana Abbott poisoned her stepfather. According to the correspondent for The New York Times , she claimed he had had “improper connection” with her from the time she was thirteen. She had told others about it, but most believed “something was the matter with her head.” When her stepfather threatened to put her in a reform school if she revealed the abuse, she killed him. Her case came before the Suffolk County Grand Jury in August 1867. That body committed her to the Taunton Lunatic Asylum without further investigation. Buried in the records of the Magdalen Asylum, a home for “fallen women” in Philadelphia at the turn of the century, are other reports of women seeking refuge from their fathers. The administrators of the home told these women to work hard and to pray hard; little other recourse was available.

Sigmund Freud himself met with disbelief when he raised the issue of incest. In Vienna in 1896 he presented a paper suggesting that the hysteria in the women he was treating was caused by childhood sexual trauma. So outraged were his male colleagues that Freud recanted and constructed his seduction theory, incriminating fantasizing daughters instead of their abusive fathers. He did so, he told a correspondent, with a sense of relief. If he had been right the first time, he added, it would have meant that “perverted acts against children” were a general occurrence in society.

Recent work by historians suggests that they were. In Heroes of Their Own Lives , published in 1988, Linda Gordon analyzed the case records of one of the many child-protection organizations at the turn of the century. She identified one hundred cases of incest. According to her sources, the average age of the victims at the time the incest was reported was ten. About onequarter of the episodes took place in households in which the mother was absent. In another 36 percent of cases the mother was “weakened” by illness or fear of violence from the male in the household. Some of the victims resisted the abuse by running away. When they did, they entered the files of other social service agencies as “delinquent girls” or prostitutes.

The way the killings were committed seems telling. All the hatchet blows directed at Mr. Borden were aimed at his face.

In the early 1980s Denise Gelinas, a co-founder and co-director of a medical treatment center for incest victims in Springfield, Massachusetts, documented certain conditions under which incest is most likely to occur (although the conditions themselves are not causes of abuse). A father may turn on his children when the mother is unavailable and his sense of entitlement is strong or when he has sustained an important loss. Children between the ages of four and nine are particularly vulnerable because they are trusting, deferential to authority, and eager to please and because they cannot always distinguish between proper and improper actions. The likelihood of incest can also increase if there is a strong sanction against extramarital sexual activity.