July 1874. Fall River, Massachusetts.
1. Taking Her Fancy
Amidst a sidewalk sea of bowler hats and frilled bonnets, frock coats and flounced bustles, two women walked from opposite directions along the main street. One came from the north, City Hall rising behind her, where the center of Fall River banking and government sustained itself within its imposing granite tower. This woman was quite young, full in the face, with light hair and a cheery little smile that curled at the edges as she soaked in the life about her. She walked with an upright and dignified posture, a lofty attitude of certainty.
The other woman was considerably older and came from the south-west. She was gaunt and sallow, covered in a threadbare print dress and a worn bonnet; her gait was clearly more rushed and less-directed, as if she had been seized with some nervous energy that had driven her compulsively into the streets. At each step, she seemed in danger of pitching forward upon the ground. No one around her seemed to notice her condition.
The two women, complete strangers, came together in the doorway of Hodges & Son, a fabric store near the corner of South Main and Columbia. The young girl was paying more attention to her surroundings, and so had time to avoid the imminent collision. The elderly woman stared wildly at her more-youthful counterpart as if she were looking down upon a disobedient domestic. Then a stark change swept over her face, her features rapidly composing themselves, and she said in a whispery Irish voice, “I am sorry for this, Miss. Please take your way and I shall follow.” She raised a shaking hand, bidding the young girl to pass.
The woman’s sunken eyes looked filled with sorrow and danger, the young girl thought, but she refrained from showing any overt concern. With a deft lifting of her skirt, she pranced into the store and went about her business.
As she picked through bolts of fabric looking for some choice material to bring to her dress maker, the young girl kept an eye on the strange figure that had followed her in. The elderly woman was fidgeting about, her fingers quivering over fabric samples, but her eyes remained unfocused. The store owner, old Hodges himself, a beefy man with large hands and an even larger set of muttonchops that expanded his head liberally in both directions, carefully walked near her, unobtrusively keeping a close eye upon his merchandise.
Feeling that the store was now safe in the competent hands of Mr. Hodges, Lizzie Andrew Borden, the young girl in question, gave up her surveillance of this most suspicious woman and went about examining a few choice samples. She poked about on a table where some bolts and sewing materials were laid out, then sidled alongside the notions counter to admire some cards of mother of pearl buttons, when her eye rested upon a resplendent silver plate pin tray. A few common pins rested within, which must have been a convenience for the shop girl who was wearily winding up fabric on bolts at the other end of the counter. Lizzie’s appraising eye noted the little repousee pansies, the unfurling ribbon bowknot, and the quality quadruple plating. Gorham—Yes, surely it was Gorham silver plate—and quality too!
Lizzie sniffed the air appreciatively and nonchalantly turned her back to the counter while holding up a card of buttons to the light for inspection. With one deft movement of her right hand, the silver tray found a snug home inside the back waistband of her skirt. The oval contours of the tray rested undetected over the accommodating shelf of her bustle.
As if the fates were conspiring to stroke Lizzie’s guilty conscience, she spotted the elderly woman not two tables away at the cutting implements. Mr. Hodges, distracted by a flurry of activity at the front counter, had ceased to monitor her; and lo, she was also passing something small into the folds of her dress. There was just a brief flash of light on something metallic; the woman stood motionless with her arms by her sides.
“Oh, my,” Lizzie thought. “If it is true that this woman has taken her Fancy as I have, I dare not raise an alarm for fear that they shall suspect me as well.” She mused briefly upon her predicament. “This fabric sale will last all day,” she concluded. “I shall simply come back when she is gone from the premises.”
Then, as Lizzie strolled towards the front, preparing to escape into the streets, the elderly woman darted forward, running noisily to the front register behind which a young Mr. Hodges, a thin and weedy version of his father in appearance, the same beady-eyed face, but lacking the hairy embellishments, stared straight at her. The woman reached over and, without any attempt to conceal her action, grabbed the cash box, removing it from the counter and headed rapidly for the door. At that moment, both Hodges the Father and Hodges the Son raised a general alarm by shouting: “Stop that woman! Oh, do not let her get away!”
The assembled customers, mostly women holding samples of cloth and bolts of fabric, looked up with startled cries. There was a scuffling and the elderly woman dropped the cashbox to the wood-slatted floor as if she were coming out of a trance. She raised a hand to her forehead and swooned downwards, landing with a pronounced crackling of her stiff bustle, directly at the feet of an increasingly nervous Lizzie Borden.
Lizzie raised her hands instinctually above her head, as if proclaiming her innocence to all about, thus proving somehow she had nothing to do with the attempted robbery. Many a time in the past when she had taken her Fancy, whether it was in fabric stores, apothecaries or flower boutiques, being at the center of everyone’s attention while the Fancy was concealed in her clothing had caused great anxiety; and often at night her dreams were turned to dread nightmares in which a thousand eyeballs stared unblinking at her while silver wear, pearl mirrors and hat pins tumbled to the ground from beneath her skirts.
As Hodges & Son ran for the street to call a policeman, Lizzie glanced around, trying to perceive where, in the confused midst of the disturbance and the large number of customers surrounding her, she could dump her silver tray. Divesting herself of any incriminating evidence was, at that moment, her chief concern. She abandoned the thought of getting rid of the item only when a young police officer entered the store and ran to the collapsed woman.
“What is this?” the officer asked, bemusedly. Hodges & Son, with arms flailing, hastily gave their perspective on the preceding events. The elder Mr. Hodges pointed at Lizzie, which caused her heart to skip a beat. “This girl can verify what I have said. She was not three feet from the crime when it happened!”
“Here, this is young Miss Borden,” the young officer grinned. “Hello, Lizzie. How’s the family?”
“Fine,” she replied, hoping to be as monosyllabic as possible. She recognized the officer as Peter Gaskell Bence, not her favorite policeman, but a happy enough fellow.
“What did you see?” he asked. “Are the Hodges telling it straight?”
“Why,” Lizzie said, tossing explanations about in her head, “I did see this woman up close, but from my vantage she seemed very nervous, almost starved. I would say if you examine her, you’ll find evidence that she is positively malnourished. Perhaps she hasn’t eaten in quite some time, two days perhaps, or an interval that you and I would find intolerable. I would say from her vestments, that she is a cloth doffer at one of the mills, or even possibly a domestic on the Hill, perhaps removed from her job and failing to find a situation that would sustain her life in the meanwhile. I would say she came in here hoping to find a soul who would take pity on her, and, sensing only the indifference of commerce, she gambled away her liberties by plunging for the till, hoping beyond hope that she could steal the money and save her life.”
There was a thundering silence. All eyes in the store glared at Lizzie Borden. Mr. Hodges broke the calm: “You seem too clever for your own good, young Miss. While you are seeing suffering and starvation, I’m just seeing hard earned dollars being filched from under my nose! ‘Tis not my business that she was sacked from the Mill!”
“Well,” Officer Bence said with a broad smile, “let’s arouse this lady and get her side of the story. Then we’ll take her down to the station house and see if justice can be distributed one way or the other.”
They made an attempt to awaken the woman. As they pinched her cheeks and slapped her chin and pulled at her shoulders, Lizzie saw a few twitches and eye movements suggesting that the woman was feigning unconsciousness. But she kept quiet about it, being mindful of the silver tray in her dress, hoping that it would not slide out over her bustle pouf and reveal her perfidy.
A few customers from the store stepped forward and offered to help haul the woman to her feet and carry her down the street to the police station. However, without warning, the fainted woman’s eyes fluttered and, for the first time since her outrage, they opened.
“Oh, have pity,” she said in a whispery voice. “Have pity on poor Fiona Conway. Ah! Have pity on the hungry!”
“There, there,” Officer Bence said. “Justice shall pitch her scales and we shall balance the weight of the matter.”
For a moment, the woman gazed perplexedly at the policeman’s smiling face as if trying to untangle his curious metaphors, then she quickly fell back into a deep slumber. It took two men to support her weight, but they managed to move her out the door and into the street beyond.
“And you, Miss Lizzie,” Officer Bence said, crooking a finger at her. “I’d like you to come along to make a statement and identify this woman before the Marshal.”
Lizzie’s heart sank again. With a helpless shrug, she followed the men out of the store and up the street—towards the last place on earth where she wanted to be with a pinched Fancy in her bustle.
2. Mutiny on The Durfee
The Central Police Station on Purchase Street was not a building that Lizzie Borden had ever wished to visit. In her childhood imagination, it had always been a place inhabited by all the monsters of society that she wanted banished from her world. Its tall tower rose over the surrounding buildings like an ominous fortress of torture and the stench from the nearby horse yard was quite wretched. As her official escort led her to the tall iron doors, she froze, pressing her feet tighter against the ground. The silver tray in her bustle suddenly felt heavier.
“Forgive me,” she muttered to Officer Bence. “I have not a sense of where I am going or for what reason.”
“Don’t fear,” he said gently. “We’re only going to book Miss Fiona Conway, if that is indeed her name. We need you here as a material witness.”
Summoning her strength, she advanced forward and entered into the main hallway. All about her were policemen in their shell helmets, many of them conversing with each other, paying no attention to her presence. However, in her mind’s eye, they were all staring suspiciously at her weighted bustle, looking for traces of her Fancy. Lizzie nervously paced herself down towards the squad room between a gauntlet of officers, and was relieved when Officer Bence offered her a seat on a bench near the Marshal’s office, leaving her quite alone. Here she was able to retreat back into the role of spectator, where she could simply observe people and not be compelled to take part in any action. She felt safer that way: being unseen but all-seeing.
The squad room was crowded, buzzing with activity. A sporting boy and his fancy girl were seated behind an untidy desk, being shouted at by an irate detective. A few Portuguese laborers were trying to make sense to a stupefied policeman who did not speak their language. Several other citizens of Fall River were present, apparently there to make complaints, or having been summoned to address matters of urgent police business. And a tall, long-haired man in a black frock coat sat near the filing cabinets in a gloomy solitary meditation.
Lizzie was about to turn her attention toward the open doorway of the Marshal’s office, through which she had heard some muttering, but quickly snapped her gaze back to the tall man in the black frock. At that very instant, he stared back at her, and both of them bolted upright in their seats.
“Father!” Lizzie shouted, then slouched downward, pressing her lips together as if trying to prevent her blurted word from advancing too far towards anyone’s ears.
Andrew Jackson Borden rose to his full height and advanced stealthily across the room. His daughter bravely stepped up to meet him, her chin rising to just below his bristly beard.
“Yes, Daughter,” he said grimly. “I must confess that I have police business this afternoon. But I am shocked to see you in these premises. I don’t suppose you are here because you have been taking a bit of … uh … your Fancy.”
She waggled her slack face. “No, Father. You need not fear; there shall be no visits to the shops today. I have cleaned my hands of that habit.”
“I am glad to hear of it.”
As he spoke, Andrew was reaching towards his face as if to scratch it. He did this several times before Lizzie realized that he merely did not know what to do with his hands. “So,” he said, “what exactly is your business here today?”
Lizzie fluttered her lids. “I can honestly say, Father, it is of the most perplexing nature. I am an innocent observer this time, purely a victim of circumstance. For upon my visit to Hodges & Son, a Maggie lost her reason and tried to pilfer the till. She was seized by the younger Hodges and brought here to this very station where no doubt she is being interrogated in the back rooms as we speak. They claim that I saw the offense, that it happened right before me, and are asking me to make a statement as to her guilt.”
“And what would be the girl’s reason to do such a rash act?” he asked. “Does she not get paid well by her employer?”
“I believe she has lost her situation. Hunger, despondency, and despair have driven her to such a gesture.”
Andrew grunted. “Well, if there is justice in this town, she shall hang!” He turned from her to retreat to the bench; Lizzie followed behind, anxiously.
“Father!” Lizzie shouted, pulling at his arm. “What a brutal thing to say.”
“She robbed a concern,” he said casually. “There are laws for that. I pay enough tax money to put our peace-keepers into office. I’d like to see them stick to the letter of the law for once.”
“But hanging! She is certainly not innocent, but I can honestly say the circumstances were quite understandable.”
“How much was in the till?” Andrew asked.
“I do not know, but Hodges was doing a brisk business on a bolt sale.”
Andrew snorted. “Enough for a scaffold, sounds like it.”
“Father, I will not continue this debate with you. You know nothing about this crime and can’t pass judgment on broad facts. I shall see that her offense be put into perspective.”
“To each his own,” Andrew said resolvedly. “The whole affair means nothing to me. I am here on matters that shall deserve the gallows.”
“What may that be?” Lizzie asked, holding her breath.
“I am hesitant to tell you since I do not want to alarm you, Mrs. Borden, or your sister Emma.” He glanced both ways to ascertain their privacy, then lowered her onto the bench, seating himself next to her. “I do not think that you know about the brigantine, the B.M.C. Durfee, that sailed from New Bedford upon two Aprils past?”
“I know a little, Father. The ship fell into evil times. The crew mutinied and murdered the Captain before tossing him overboard. They were captured off Barbados and brought back to New England in irons.”
“Yes, they were evil men who did evil things. They did it all for money, imagine that. Captain Coffin is now resting in his watery bed, and his wife is despondent because of the nefarious deeds of Joseph Shove, Samuel Howe, and Oliver Fleet.”
Lizzie screwed up her eyes. “But Father, were not Shove and Howe the two men who were hanged in New Bedford this past summer for their role in the affair?”
“Why, yes, Daughter.”
“You mentioned a third man.”
“Fleet, yes. He was the third man, and, of the three, he was the most seething with devilish fire. He escaped from custody, killing two officers, and was last heard from in a taunting letter to the New Bedford police department, saying that they could sooner catch the Devil himself than Fleet-Footed Fleet. This angered the Governor to no end, and the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been keeping a harsh vigilance for him.”
Lizzie lowered her face, bewildered. “I have heard of the sorrows of Sarah Coffin. I did not know that her solitude was the result of her husband being murdered.”
Andrew’s already bitter stare grew darker. “It is said that in the mutiny, Fleet picked Captain Coffin up over his head and snapped his limbs like twigs, and when the Captain’s cries were so pitiful that the Great Advesary himself would have wept to hear it, Oliver Fleet fiendishly laughed through his teeth.”
“So they believe that he will return to Fall River?”
“Daughter, now we get to the heart of my business here. Fleet-Footed Fleet yearns for nothing but to be reunited with a fallen woman of this city who had taken up with him. Not only has he returned to Fall River, but he is in this very building!”
Lizzie felt a deep shudder and clung her arms tight about her shoulders. “Dear Lord,” was all she could say. “Are we safe?”
“As safe as the City Marshal and his gallant lawmen can make us,” he said assuredly. “For the man is in shackles in the lock-up. I have not seen him yet, but I shall within the hour.”
“You?” Lizzie asked. “Why you?”
Once more he glanced about to certify that no one could hear. “Here is where I am most ashamed, Daughter. I must confess that four years ago I invested heavily in the B.M.C. Durfee. I own a hearty portion of its stock. Its success would have meant a valuable expansion of my capital. The dividends from its sugar and molasses run would have been quite handsome for me. The mutiny was a savage blow, from which, financially, a part of me has not since recovered.”
“So are you here to give Mr. Fleet a piece of your mind?”
“My Daughter,” Andrew said sternly. “The officials merely want me to look him in the face and say Yea or Nay as to his identity. I may be one of the few men in Fall River capable of fingering him. While others have seen his likeness, he has changed it through alternation of his whiskers. But I have heard his voice, a deep tone, which can shudder your bones when you hear it. The police believe my testimony will be binding, and they will be assured that they have their man. It is a heavy burden.”
“Yes, Father. A heavy burden, indeed, which I share. For I am also here to identify a prisoner, although I am determined to prevent Fiona Conway from hanging as long as I can testify to her sorrow! Just because she is a Maggie, that doesn’t mean… ”
Andrew stiffened and his eyes turned to marble. “Did you say, Fiona …Conway?”
“Why, yes. We heard her name from her very lips as she swooned on the floor of the fabric store.”
His face brightened. “Why, she is our woman! She is our woman!” He threw back his head and cackled.
“Father, is your reason unhinged? What do you find amusing?”
He got to his feet and fingered his lapels. “Why, I have found a way to lighten my burden. Fiona Conway is not a Maggie, as you put it, but Fleet-Footed Fleet’s lady of the night, his fallen woman of Fall River!”
A shaft of light descended inside Lizzie’s mind. “I have been such a fool,” she announced. “Father, you have handed me the missing piece of the puzzle! Fiona Conway did not attempt to lift the till because she wanted to steal the money. It was an act of desperation, yes, but not one of passion. She knew that her long-lost lover, one whom she despaired of ever seeing again, was within police custody, and she deliberately broke the law in order to join him in the cells!”
“You are sure of this?” Andrew said hastily, “Perhaps it is not her but …”
“There is only one way of finding out,” Lizzie shouted, and then darted across the room to a desk where Officer Bence was taking statements from Hodges & Son.
“Violate my peaceful business, she did!” the elder Hodges was shouting. “On the day of the bolt sale, no less! Now I have a half-witted tide-waiter tending till and a bumbling Bristol man walking the floor while we waste our time here! The store will be in chaos by the time we get back!”
“Officer Bence!” Lizzie shouted in a shrill and startling voice, causing Mr. Hodges to bury his loud words inside the waggling of his side chops. “I know this is a strong cause to advance,” Lizzie explained, “but the Maggie known as Fiona Conway can exonerate herself if only the truth will out.”
“Are you mad?” Hodges the Son said. “You saw what she did, you were right there!”
“Yes, but I have information that you must consider.” She turned and motioned for her father to advance.
Andrew crossed over nervously and stammered, “She is right, Lizzie is right. We do not believe that she intended to steal the money. We believe she intended to be caught before she left the store.”
Mr. Hodges pulled at his chin. “What? Of all the preposterous monkey-dash!”
With a quivering voice, Andrew explained his story to the astonished assemblage. He paused a few times, blushing at his public admittance that his own money had once sunk like rocks to the bottom of the ocean instead of providing him with healthy dividends. While he related his tale, Officer Bence’s face grew lighter and less ponderous, while the faces of Hodges & Son grew more gloomy and despondent.
When her father had finished, Lizzie completed the picture with her interpretation of the events in the fabric store. “The Maggie’s plan was to get inside the cell with her lost lover. What she plans to do, whether she plans to help him escape, or she merely wants to lay one more look upon him before she next sees him dangling from a rope, I cannot say. But it is certain that she is not what she claims to be.”
The Officer was hurriedly on his feet and headed for the City Marshal’s office. “He must hear this,” he said bemusedly. The tall, ponderous Marshal had soon joined them, stroking his beard, while Officer Bence repeated Andrew’s story.
“By Jupiter, this is fire indeed,” the Marshal nodded. “The girl is a crucial part of our prosecution, we must see to this immediately. Officer Bence, please advance an invitation to all our guests here to join me in five minutes in the interrogation cell. Both Fleet-Footed Fleet and our Irish scullery maid are in for a momentous surprise.”
“Aye, Marshal,” Bence said, and then turned to Lizzie, Andrew, and Hodges & Son with a chuckle. “You’re all coming with me to the Tower,” he announced.
“Now, Daughter,” Andrew said, patting the back of her hand. “We shall witness the sinking of Fleet-Footed Fleet.”
“May God have Mercy on the Maggie,” Lizzie intoned.
3. A Heart Unveiled
They climbed the wooden stairs into the station tower where sunlight flooded the hallway, coming in over the rooftops of the smaller surrounding buildings. A short ten minutes previous, Lizzie would have been horrified beyond sensibility to walk this far into the station, no matter how secure the locks. From the street, she had always glanced up at this tower as if it were Fall River’s dark castle, deeper and more haunted than the currents of the hidden river below the mills.
But now, as she entered flanked by her father and the City Marshal, accompanied by Officer Bence and Hodges & Son, she swaggered with a sense of excitement, experiencing a desire not only to be a spectator, but also a direct participant in the drama that was unfolding about her. Her mind no longer lingered on her bustled fancy.
Entering the lock-up, Lizzie immediately was overpowered by a harsh odor. To the far right was a barred cell, inhabited by a few drunken vagrants. Their strange aromas, mixtures of various scents typically absent from Lizzie’s comfortable and reasonably clean surroundings, mingled with those wafting from the horse-yard below, and filled the whole interior of the tower with a palpable wave of unbearable air.
To the left was a solitary lock-up inside of which an indistinct form was silhouetted against the light flooding through the back window. An officer was already on guard nearby, and he stood to attention as the Marshal gave a barked command. Lizzie’s eyes were adjusting to the contrasting shadows and now she could make out, within the confines of the cell, an imprisoned man perched on a cot like a braced animal; she could discern two angry eyes and a savage mouth surrounded by thick black hair.
“Stand to attention,” the officer-on-duty said harshly. “The Marshal will address you.”
“You can tell the Marshal,” a deep voice sounded from the darkness, “that he can kiss my bottom’s beard!”
“Do you see?” Andrew asked excitedly. “How brutal! For that alone he must hang!”
“Hang?” barked the man. “And who are you that you shall judge me?”
“Andrew Jackson Borden,” said Lizzie’s father. As he puffed up his chest and thrust out his whiskers in a mild attempt at confidence, his voice crackled and his trousers trembled.
“Never heard of you,” the man said with a dismissive sneer. “How can I be judged by a complete stranger?”
“I am not a complete stranger. I personally recruited you from the Iron Works to be first mate on the schooner. Do you not remember? I came to your apartment …”
“Nope,” the man said lightly.
“I brought you round to the shipping office. I was there when you signed your lay commission.”
“I am not the man! But wait, I have heard of you, Andrew Borden. You’re a furniture maker. You made my cabinet. Perhaps I recognize you from the day you carried it up my back stairs like the servant you are!”
“God’s wounds!” Andrew shouted, and curled his fists.
The Marshal stepped forward. “Fleet, be still. We shall corroborate with one more witness. If two people positively identify you, then we shall ignore your claims that you are Horatio Phelps of Boston.”
“Then you shall be a poor policeman, for I am Horatio Phelps. My business is real estate. I have witnesses!”
“A drunken card sharp and two prostitutes,” shouted the Marshal. “And the only real estate you own is currently being used as a brothel.”
“Stuff your witnesses,” Officer Bence added. “We have your girlfriend.”
The man, full of swagger and boisterousness, went strangely silent. Then his voice returned with a disoriented scatter in its rhythm. “What are you talking about?” he asked. “I don’t have a girlfriend. Perhaps you are mistaken…”
The metal door to the prison opened with an ominous squeak, and two officers entered guiding Fiona Conway between them. She was dull in her senses, her eyes barely open, her face slack and pale. She moved forward like a senseless thing, stepping where the two officers urged her to step. They stood her before the lock-up.
“Fiona Conway of County Galway,” the Marshal explained. “I believe that you know this man?”
Fleet muttered the name, “Fiona…”, then choked and broke out into a coughing fit. “You had me over for a bit! I know not this woman.”
The woman calmly lifted her face and peered into the dimness of the cell. “But I may know this man,” she said in a bitter voice. “Let me a little closer …”
Lizzie came forward and took the woman’s hand in hers. She held it gingerly and stroked it with her other, while saying gently into the woman’s ear, “I know what you did in the store, Miss Conway, and I know why. I beseech you, help us to bring a bad man to justice today. If anything, for the sake of Captain Coffin’s widow.”
The Maggie turned her head and looked at Lizzie with a strange light in her eyes.
“Let go of this man,” Lizzie continued, “and live the rest of your life in peace. He shall be sent to the gallows by a jury of his peers.”
“He shall go to the gallows?” The light sparkling in her gaze seemed almost like hope.
“Yes,” said Lizzie still holding her hand. “You need not lie and let him go free. For then he would forever rule tyrannically over your life, and you shall always be his slave. Do what is best for yourself. My father shall take care of you.”
“I shall?” Andrew asked.
“Yes, and I shall make sure you are housed and fed and the rest of your days shall be lived in peaceful happiness. Why, you can even come and work for us! We are looking for a Maggie!”
“We are?” Andrew asked.
The woman smiled with a curious twist in her lips, and then said to Lizzie, “Have no fear. All shall be as it shall be. My love lies deep.” Then she turned to the Marshal and said with a renewed sense of vigor, “Let me in to examine him at a closer range. I shall tell you if this is your man or nay.”
The Marshal nodded to the police guard, who produced the key to the cell and opened the iron gate. Conway’s hand slipped from Lizzie’s fingers, and as they did, Lizzie sensed something odd. There was something about her hands. Something…
My love lies deep, Lizzie repeated in the privacy of her head.
As the door swung open, the river of reason that flew through Lizzie’s buried mind burst free and in a split second she understood what was happening. With a hair’s breadth of time as the interval, Lizzie and the Maggie leapt forward, both women flying as if they had been hurled off their feet by some demonic energy. Someone was yelling, and Lizzie was certain it was herself. Perhaps she was raising an alarm, making an inhuman inarticulate noise, because to explain in rational words would have taken too much time. One split second delay and Fleet-Footed Fleet would be dead.
What Lizzie had seen, or rather felt, all in a flash, were the smooth, white, soft hands of the Maggie, hands that were accustomed to no heavy housework, but instead had enjoyed a lifetime of silk gloves and rose water and glycerin cream. She did not feel the chapped, work-worn calluses of a Maggie, or see the red splotches that would have been impossible to disguise. These were the hands of a lady, not of a servant. These were the hands of a Captain’s wife.
My love lies deep.
Before anyone else in the jail cell could move or breathe, Lizzie Borden was tossing her body through the dark air towards the disoriented Fleet, closing the distance between them. As she fell across his body, she saw a flash of light glisten on a pair of scissors: the same scissors that Lizzie had seen disappear that very morning off a cutting table at Hodges & Son and into the bustle of Sarah Coffin when she was disguised as an Irish scullery maid. It was only as the teeth of the scissors plunged with deadly accuracy towards Lizzie’s back, when they were about to penetrate into her body with a speed and ferocity that nothing but Providence seemed capable of aborting, that she did recall that Coffin had been standing at the sewing table. In that brief flicker of memory, Lizzie recalled the flash of light off the hard steel disappearing into Sarah Coffin’s clothing for concealment.
“For my Captain!” screamed the forlorn widow.
Then the scissors struck home and Lizzie felt as if she had been punched hard in her kidney. For a brief moment, she screamed, hearing loudly the cries of a dying woman, perhaps herself acting as observer to her own murder.
Within the briefest of intervals, Fleet-Footed Fleet had sprung to his feet and tossed Lizzie to the ground like he was dumping his slops onto a midden heap. He roared with a voice filled with fire and savagely grabbed Sarah Coffin about the throat with a massive, knuckled hand. The scissors scattered to the floor and the couple stood silhouetted against the dark light. No one could move, such was the paralysis of fear within the cell. The only sound that could be heard was Sarah Coffin choking as she struggled for her life.
Andrew Jackson Borden broke the tension by stepping forward into the cell. He walked up to Fleet, who barely paid attention to him; such was his intensity upon strangling the Captain’s widow. With a strangely casual gesture, Andrew lifted his index finger and pointed it towards Fleet’s head.
“Sink my investment, you will!” he shouted, and then, as Fleet’s face turned toward Andrew, the finger shot forward and jabbed full force into his eye.
“Gee-yah!” the man screamed, letting go instantly of Coffin’s throat. The girl slid down senseless to join Lizzie on the ground.
Fleet danced about with both his hands to his eye, his feet tapping along the stone floor, his movement much like the convulsions of a dying chicken. Then Andrew kicked him in the shins and sent him crashing back down on the prison cot.
Police officers darted forward and all became a chaotic blur. Hodges & Son ran about screaming, raising an alarm. The vagrants in the common lock-up were laughing and hooting, shaking their toothless faces. Somewhere in the middle of a dimly lit dust, the blue pewter-buttoned coats of the officers and the heavy boots of the City Marshal were rolling upon the ground, clashing with the dark patched jacket and wild black hair of the screaming maniac.
“A pestilence upon you all!” he was shouting.
In the midst of the melee, Andrew slid to the floor and found Lizzie. She was shaking her head as if trying to remove cobwebs that had blurred her vision.
“Father,” she said.
“Lizzie,” he said gently, and pressed a palm against her face. “You are unharmed.”
“No, Father,” she said, amidst the tumult of the police officers, frenzied mutineer and fabric store owners, “I feel a pain, as if the moments of my life are numbered. Ah! The darkness descends!”
She paused and glanced down at her torso, and then furrowed her brow. Reaching back behind her bustle, she pulled out the silver pin tray that she had completely forgotten since she had entered the police station. There was a hefty ding in its surface as if something hard and metallic had attempted to penetrate it.
“Lizzie!” Andrew said, pointing at the tray. “You have been taking your Fancy, I knew it!”
She held the item up to the light where it shone with an almost-spiritual air. Then Mr. Hodges, snatching it from her hand, turned it over and examined it with a distended eye.
“Young lady,” he said, his face reddening. “You’ll have to pay for this!”
Lizzie reached up and snatched it back. “Monkey-dash!” she spat. “Just put it on my Father’s account!”
4. New Dawn for the Maggie
Lizzie Borden woke the next morning in her own bed in her tiny room on Second Street. The northern light came down on her, drawing her up towards a new day. As she dressed, she felt the bruise on her backside, a cold reminder of the events of the previous afternoon.
She left her room, alighting directly into the spacious bedroom of her sister Emma. The older sister was standing by the bed staring at Lizzie, her long face betraying no inner thoughts.
“Why, Emma,” Lizzie said with a flutter of her lids. “Out and about so early?”
“There are visitors,” her sister said plainly.
Lizzie looked about the comfortable room with its quaint rose wallpaper, generous sunlight and fainting sofa. Perhaps one day, Lizzie thought to herself. “I shall have it,” she completed the thought out loud.
Emma stared puzzled, opened her mouth as if about to speak, then glided out into the hallway, retreating down the stairs without another word.
Lizzie went down to the sitting room, where, to her surprise, she found Mr. Hodges & Son, sitting with her father and heartily smoking cigars. There was an affable and cheery disposition to all, and Lizzie was warmed to see her father so jovial. When he spotted her, he slapped the empty side of the couch on which he sat.
“Come Lizzie! Come sit!” he bellowed, and she slid into place beside him.
“The girl of the hour,” Mr. Hodges said and his Son nodded, almost reluctantly. “Why, if it wasn’t for your fast action we would have been in quite a barrel of spindles, eh, Andrew? Yes, it was fortunate indeed that you are such a keen observer. I never would have guessed that Sarah Coffin was attempting to enact her higher purpose.”
“If you mean murdering a man in cold blood,” Lizzie said, “then I would consider another phrase besides ‘higher purpose.’”
The younger Hodges waved a finger. “The man was a devil. He deserves death regardless of how it comes. I say it would have been best to let him be killed by someone who held a passion for it.”
“Her hands are clean of blood,” Lizzie said. “If I … if we … had not stopped her, she would have been as tainted as the man she hunted.”
“Now, Lizzie,” Andrew said, blowing a hefty cloud of smoke into the air. “We need not engage in any philosophical triffling. We are all alive and healthy and happy. Are we not?”
The room was exploding with a round of head nodding and hearty calls of “Yes, ‘tis true,” when there was a knock upon the front door. As the men conversed, Lizzie went to answer it, and, to her surprise, she saw two women standing on her front stoop. One was Sarah Coffin, now dressed in her blue satin finery and her Lady’s cap, and the other, to Lizzie’s even greater astonishment, was a young woman dressed in the plain dress of an Irish scullery maid with thread-bare bonnet.
“Miss Borden,” Sarah said gracefully, holding up a gloved hand for Lizzie to touch. “Forgive me any trespassing in your privacy, but I thought it best to come to your home and thank you personally for the great good you have done for me.”
“I am honored,” Lizzie said, her lips touching upon a smile.
“I have talked at great length with the City Marshal and I am pleased to say that he is satisfied with my disposition. Yesterday, I was not in my right mind. I was driven by an inner madness that I can barely identify as having come from myself. In my rage and clouded passion, I fear I could have committed murder.”
“I am glad that I was instrumental in stopping you,” Lizzie said.
“I don’t believe anyone can understand a loss such as mine, and what unhealthy state of mind into which it can put one. I am truly sorry if I have caused any inconvenience in your health, either physical or mental.”
“I am doing a’right,” Lizzie said, with a slight nod.
There was a moment of awkward silence while Sarah Coffin struggled to maintain eye contact with Lizzie, then she stepped back a pace and raised a hand towards the girl behind her. Her small mouth was pressed tight, her eyes cast downwards, her hands thrust into her side pockets.
“May I introduce Fiona Conway, late of County Galway.”
The Maggie dipped her knees in a slight bow. “M’am,” she said.
“I have sought her out,” Sarah Coffin said, “to explain to her my role in the affair, and to beg her forgiveness.”
“There is nothing you need to apologize for,” the Maggie said in an explosive, unexpected burst. “I have told you that in my youth I was glamorized by the man, but now in my clear sight I see him as much the devil as you do. I am glad to see him hang.”
“That makes things easier,” Sarah Coffin said with a weak smile, then turned back to Lizzie. “I have taken Miss Conway on as my domestic. I will provide for her a bed and a job. She shall not be wanting.”
“That is very kind of you,” Lizzie said. She reached over and took the Maggie’s hand and looked her in the eyes. “The very best of luck to you!” she said.
“Thank you, M’am,” the Maggie said, blushing a faint red, and pulled her hand back.
“Well,” Sarah Coffin said, staring up at the sky. “It is a beautiful day, and I do believe I have some fabric shopping to do!”
“Good day to you both,” Lizzie said smiling. “And if there is anything I can ever do for either of you, please let me know.”
“I shall,” Sarah said, and turned to leave. At the bottom of the steps, she paused and turned and looked up at Lizzie.
“Miss Lizzie,” she said. “If I had done the deed, and become a murderer, would you have judged me?”
Lizzie thought for a moment, a bit distracted by the open-eyed stare of the Maggie, then said carefully, “We all do what we must do…at the exact time that we do it.”
Sarah nodded and stared into space as if digesting the words. “Yes,” she said finally. “That is a good philosophy of life. I must remember that. Good day to you, Miss Lizzie.”
They turned and headed upstreet. Lizzie watched them as they receded into the crowd, crossing through the bustle of the horse-drawn carts and vegetable peddlers. In the distance, a factory yard bell was tolling and the sky overhead was clear blue without any clouds.
All is well in the world, thought Lizzie Borden. And I have made that happen. All I needed to do was to pay attention to the details. How easy it was to stop evil from happening. Perhaps if I apply these powers to other situations, other people in trouble, I shall stop more bad things from occurring.
All was indeed well, for due to the mental and physical actions of Lizzie Borden, two tormented women of Fall River have just found their peace. Perhaps three, she added.
“I must think further upon this,” she concluded, then closed the door and walked back towards the smoke-filled room of loud, laughing men.