David Rehak,
Did Lizzie Borden Axe for It?
(Just My Best Book, 2005)

There have been many books written about Lizzie Borden, and David Rehak's Did Lizzie Borden Axe for It? makes for quite a unique entry in that list. It doesn't represent an attempt to prove that so-and-so did or did not commit the murders, nor does it delve deeply into the minutiae of all the evidence. It does, however, introduce you to a lot of ancillary yet quite interesting tidbits and speculations about the life of Lizzie Borden.

If you just want to know all the gory details of the murders and see someone make a case for Lizzie or some other suspect, this isn't really where you want to start your journey back to the Fall River of 1892. This is a book for those already knowledgeable about the case and firmly in the camp of the fascinated. Of all the unsolved murders that have taken place over so many years, why does this case captivate us so much? What is it about Lizzie that fascinates so many of us all these decades after her death? These are the kinds of questions Rehak tries to answer here, and that is what makes this book unique.

Naturally, Rehak first lays out the facts of the crime that left Lizzie's father and stepmother hacked to death inside their seemingly sedate Victorian home. The chronology is crucial to this case, as the murders took place over an hour apart, so Rehak naturally takes us through the timeline. Then he offers arguments as to why Lizzie did or did not commit the crime. This is what makes the case so fascinating. When you read all of the circumstantial evidence pointing to Lizzie, you think she had to be guilty; then you read the reasons why she could not have done it, and you would swear she had to be innocent. Rehak goes on to mention possible suspects and comment upon the solutions offered by a few Borden "experts."

The focus of the book then shifts from the murders squarely to Lizzie herself. Guilty or not, who was this woman? Rehak looks at the years she lived after her acquittal and tries to penetrate the mysteries of her personal life. He examines Lizzie as a romantic, addresses speculation that she had been a victim of incest, that she was a lesbian, that she was a kleptomaniac. He refers to rumors and speculation (one woman claimed she stole the underwear off a dead body, for instance) that you won't find in other Lizzie books because they are outside the bounds of fact. To really know Lizzie, though, you have to look at the image others had of her because image and identity do intersect at some point.

The most intriguing thing in this section of the book is reference to a possible collection of Lizzie's personal diary, poems and letters -- although there's no proof that the person making the claim is telling the truth. He later follows this up with a section of miscellaneous articles he has written about the subject -- a look at Nance O'Neil, the flamboyant actress who was rumored to enjoy a romantic relationship with Lizzie; speculation about some of the witnesses; a look at the likelihood that someone from outside the home could have committed the murders; a refutation of Arnold Browne's identification of Billy Borden as the killer, etc.

Those fascinated by the murders naturally have a great desire to visit the scene of the crime (which is a bed and breakfast now), and Rehak turns travel guide temporarily and points out all the Lizzie shrines you can visit in Fall River. In the final sections, he offers us a hodgepodge of material -- fiction, poetry and humorous musings written about Lizzie. These truly tangential sections proved less than interesting to me, but they certainly bear the mark of the author's obsession. Rehak is trying to get at the real Lizzie Borden every way he can, and that's something I can certainly understand and appreciate. That's also why I would recommend the book to those who are already familiar with the murders and the trial and remain fascinated by the woman at the center of all the controversy and speculation.

by Daniel Jolley
4 March 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.