MedHum Monday Presents: Lizzie Borden Took an Axe…

DailyDose_darkstrokeWelcome back to the Daily Dose and MedHum Mondays! As we enter the week before Halloween, it seemed only appropriate to season our series with the still-much-repeated tale of Lizzy Borden, a young woman accused of murdering her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts, 1892. Some suggest the matter had to do with transfer of property rights to the girl’s stepmother and her family. Some point to the killing of pigeons with a hatchet by Lizzy’s father (she was fond of them and had built a roost for their use). Others suggest that Mr. Borden had enemies outside his own household who may have perpetrated the crime. In any event, Lizzy was later acquitted, but speculation about the case remains to this day–and has been the subject of fiction adaptations as well. One of these has featured on the Fiction Reboot: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest. Horror at its finest so frequently borrows from reality, and today I’ve invited Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook to share with us a bit about body horror and the intertwining of fact and fiction. Welcome Hanna!

part 1

Lizzy Borden Took an Axe…

…And in Cherie Priest’s alternate telling of the tale of the Borden sisters, Lizzie has excellent reason to grab that axe. Maplecroft, the first of the “Borden Dispatches,” reimagines the murder and the after-lives of the Borden sisters as part of a much wider, much stranger, much scarier story.

9780451466976MI’ve never been a devotee of the ‘true crime’ genre, so I’ll admit right now that I’m no expert on the Borden story; I’m probably more familiar with the jokes made about it in The Man Who Came to Dinner. But I’ll give you the bottom line on this post right now: if you’re a fan of horror, if you’re a fan of Mythos horror, and you haven’t gotten to Maplecroft yet, do so. Library, bookstore, friend’s copy, whatever.

Priest pulls together a number of relatively disparate elements to create Maplecroft, including historical events, medical history, disability politics, and body horror; the world of Maplecroft is strongly influenced by the traditions of the Cthulhu Mythos created by HP Lovecraft. If you’re not familiar with the latter, I suggest picking up any good collection of Lovecraft’s short stories  or checking out this free ebook created by CthulhuChick. You can absolutely enjoy Maplecroft without knowing Mythos — but it’s more fun if you do.

Fall River

Regardless of your tastes in fiction, one of the strongest elements in Maplecroft is the interchange between the supernatural and disease. The core of the story, in fact, is wrapped around the (unwilling?) transformation of the human body into…something else. Some of the inhabitants of Fall River, Massachusetts, where the Bordens live are changing. Their bodies are altering over time into something inhuman and, as time goes on, inhumane. Part of the essential fright of the story, of course, as with any misunderstood or un-understood disease, is the horror of transmission: how do you get it? where do you get it from? what happens if you get it?

This might all sound familiar from recent news coverage — many of the same questions have been coming up in regard to the Ebola virus, along with a level of unease any horror writer would be proud to provoke. While the question of transmission is answered for Ebola, it isn’t for what is affecting Fall River. If you happen to come into contact with what might appear to be an everyday object — a fragment of beach glass, a washed up bit of sea life — than you will change. There’s no vaccine and there is no cure, at least not in this first volume; once exposure has taken place, the effects are sure to follow and not solely for the person affected: coming into contact with someone who is suffering the touch of this illness is damaging, enough to shake sanity if continued long enough.

Fear of the more direct contamination is compounded by the fact that the effects are not the same person to person: one person mutters “out” to herself all the time; one locks herself away and commits suicide; another begins to shamble and shuffle and change his physical shape in an almost Edward Hyde-like fashion. Once noticed, despite the prompt attentions of the town doctor, Owen Seabury, there’s no way to reverse these symptoms. The transformation from the healthy body of a teenage boy into a shambling, bloated horror is inevitable and incomprehensible and the change is not only bodily, but mental. The boy himself is gone, missing, changed into something so completely other that his family can no longer make sense of him. The transformation into something different and horrible is complete when water begins leaking out from under his bedroom door accompanied by strange, mechanical noises. I won’t spoil the reveal for you: suffice it to say, the young man who used to beach-comb for pretty bits of glass is gone forever.

Lizzy Borden on trial

Alongside this is the story of Emma Borden, Lizzie’s older sister and a survivor of the deaths of their father and stepmother years earlier. Emma is struggling with the late stages of what appears to be a tubercular infection (that will have to wait for a second post…stay tuned!) Meanwhile, of course, behind all  of this fiction we have the actual story, the real Lizzy and Emma Borden, their private lives and their family frustrations… and an entire town that, even after the acquittal, continue in their belief that Lizzy herself has changed into something “unnatural.” The line not only between fact and fiction, but between contagion and dread, victim and villain, are as deeply problematic today as ever they were.

Happy Halloween!


Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook works processing history of medicine collections at the Center for the History of Medicine of the Countway Library and as the Project Co-ordinator for the Medical Heritage Library. In between times, she’s an Irish history scholar, a crochet enthusiast, and a F/SF/Weird/Horror devotee. Find her at @CrowGirl42


3 Replies to “MedHum Monday Presents: Lizzie Borden Took an Axe…”

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