Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: February 2017

Review: making music from murder – Lizzie, The Musical

Much has been written about the rise in dark tourism, where we visit historic sites that were once associated with crime and punishment.

From former prisons to the homes of past murderers, it seems we can’t get enough of imagining ourselves in the lives of past convicts and criminals, murderers and monsters.

I’m one of these people; I’m fascinated by these sites, and studying how people in the past lived and were punished by visiting those places where they resided.

And it’s undeniable that we are fascinated with murder not only as it is presented in these tourism sites, but in other forms too. Jack The Ripper, of course, has lent itself to tours and recreations; but what about a musical about a real-life murderer? Would we feel less comfortable about a singalong featuring a real case?

if you’re quick, you can find out. Lizzie, a musical about a notorious American double murder, is currently showing at the intimate Greenwich Theatre in London. Originating in Denmark, but having also played in the US, it is on a limited season in the capital, and is well worth a trip.

Lizzie Borden, photographed around two years prior to the murders

It is set in a scorchingly hot August in 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, where 32-year-old Lizzie Borden and her older sister Emma live with their frugal father, Andrew, and his second wife (their stepmother), Abby.

The tale itself is well-known; one morning, someone attacks Andrew and Abby with an axe, murdering them both. Lizzie is the prime suspect, but acquitted at trial, returning to live in the locality until her death in 1927.

The case was such a horrific one, and captured the attention of the public and press, to the extent that the famous rhyme is still repeated today:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

So how does a musical attempt to show the murders, and cover Lizzie’s motives and guilt? Not in a conventional way, it has to be said. This is basically a punk rock musical, starring four women, who play Lizzie, Emma, their maid, Irish Bridget, and Lizzie’s friend Alice (presented here as her lesbian lover – various theories have been presented over the years to suggest that Lizzie and Alice were more than just friends). So it’s loud and furious; irreverent and aimed clearly at a modern audience.

But it is also rooted in historical fact. Lizzie and Emma are concerned that their stepmother only married their father for his money; Andrew Borden kills the pigeons in his barn with an axe, ignoring the fact that Lizzie has befriended them, thereby greatly upsetting her. The claustrophobia of late 19th century life for single women is portrayed well; one senses Lizzie’s  frustration with her life and the limited options open to her.

It is also significant, perhaps, that the four characters are all female, representing Lizzie’s small circle of confidantes, and that the murder victims are largely absent from the story (and even when they do appear, it is not in the form that you might expect). This is very much about putting Lizzie and her life at centre-stage; but it creates a picture of four strong women trying to make their way in a patriarchal society.

Lizzie Borden’s house in Fall River, where her father and stepmother were killed

There are two acts; in the first, the women are all in fairly conventional 1890s dress, thus representing the outward conventionality of their lives, until the moment that closes the act – the sudden violence of the two deaths.

After the interval, there is freedom, of sorts, from convention, and thus the girls are now in gaudy burlesque fashions, their hair a riot of colour and styles, singing profanities, screaming. Lizzie’s trial is presented as a trial of four people, as the women line up behind their microphones to give evidence – before the “Not guilty” verdict is shouted out (appearing in large scrawled letters behind them at the same time).

The choreography, lighting and design of the show are great here, and Bjørg Gamst (Lizzie), Eden Espinosa (Emma), Bleu Woodward (Alice) and Jodie Jacobs (Bridget) put their all into their roles, singing with gusto and panache.

Obviously, a musical has to simplify events and characters. Lizzie turns the maid into a stock Irish comedy character, and the main character loses the complexity she looked like having in the first half once her father and stepmother are dead.

But overall, it’s an imaginative approach to depicting not only a famous crime, but also the life of the woman who is still widely believed – despite the verdict of her jury – to have killed two in that hot little house in Massachusetts over a century ago.

Lizzie continues at Greenwich Theatre until 12 March – buy tickets here. The musical’s UK website is here.

Plagium: how stealing a child in Victorian Scotland was punished

from the Morning Chronicle, 3 August 1855

In 1855, the Morning Chronicle in London published a list of capital punishments in Scotland (see above). The English media often covered Scottish affairs in a similar way to how it would publish stories about mainland Europe – highlighting its difference and ‘foreignness’ rather than claiming common ground with it.

So here, the list of Scottish capital crimes included several ones specific to Scottish law, with the speechmarks round them emphasising their ‘un-English’ nature. So we have hamesucken – a felony relating to a premediated assault, whereby a person was attacked in his own home – for example, and notour adultery.

Notour adultery, as opposed to the other offence of simple adultery, was, according to Henry Tebbs’ Essay on the Scripture Doctrines of Adultery and Divorce and on the Criminal Character and Punishment of Adultery (1821) , ‘the conduct of open and incorrigible adulterers, unreformed by the censures of the church, where they keep company publicly together, and procreate issue’ – in other words, adultery that resulted in the birth of children.

Stouthrief, also mentioned in the article, was a form of theft committed by force – so where a person was threatened with violence, or had violence committed against him, during a housebreaking.

Whereas hamesucken was where assault was the primary motive for a housebreaking, stouthrief suggested that the assault was incidental, or a secondary motivation, to the actual theft.

Furtum grave was an aggravated theft, deriving from the Latin ‘furtum’ (theft), where the amount of goods stolen might be particularly high.

The lack of understanding about Scots law was clear in the inclusion of ‘flagium’ as an offence; this was actually plagium, which was again a form of theft, but this time the theft of a person!

Detail from ‘French peasants finding their stolen child’ by P Calderon (Illustrated London News, 15 October 1859)

Akin to modern-day abduction, it commonly involved children, such as a case in 1844, when Helen Wade was charged with plagium at Glasgow when she ‘did, wickedly and feloniously, steal and theftuously carry away’ three-year-old Catherine Hamilton.

Catherine, an illegitimate child, had been living with her mother (although possibly another relative), hand-loom weaver Betty Hamilton, renting rooms with Helen Fleming on the Main Street of Camlachie; she was snatched from that road on 5 April 1844.

The next day, Helen Wade inquired for a ticket to board a ship to Liverpool. Viewed with suspicion by the ticket agent, she was asked about the child with her, and ‘declared that the child was her own, and told a false story about its father’.

They were still given a ticket, though, and it was only in Liverpool that Catherine Hamilton was retrieved and returned to her mother in Scotland.

Helen Wade was found guilty of plagium, but it was noted that in several previous cases of its type, the death sentence had been commuted to transportation for life.

Helen’s case was considered not as serious as others, and this, plus the rarity of convictions for plagium by the 1840s, meant that this defendant was ‘lucky’ enough to receive seven years’ transportation instead (case reported in Archibald Broun, Reports of Cases before the High Court and Circuit Courts of Justiciary in Scotland during the years 1844 and 1845, vol 2 (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1846)).

The types of capital offence listed by the Morning Chronicle show the continuing importance placed on property by the law. Although this article tried to make Scots criminal law sound alien, it actually reflected concerns both in Scotland and the rest of Britain, about looking after one’s goods, one’s livelihoods – and one’s relatives, too.

 

NB: Sir George Mackenzie’s 1699 book, The Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal, is a fascinating read if you’re interested in criminal offences in Scotland, and available for free on Google Books.

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