“There lived a certain man, in Russia long ago – He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow!”
Hello, friends and foes! You voted on Twitter and Instagram, and this month’s strange history subject is none other than Grigori Rasputin. The man, the myth, the legend. And what a bizarre legend it is. It’s nearly impossible to discern the truth from the fantastical myth surrounding the infamous mystic to the royal family. But I did my best, so let’s get into it.
Grigori Rasputin was born on January 22, 1869 in Siberia as Grigori Yefimovich Novykh. He earned the surname Rasputin (which is Russian for “debauched one”) due to his reputation for, well, debauchery. He had no morals, no restraint, and a great disregard for the rules of correctness at the time.
He went to study at a Khlysty monastery at 18 years old but was ultimately unable to become a monk due to his belief that, to reach God, you must experience total sexual exhaustion through prolonged debauchery. Groovy.
At 19, he married Proskovya Fyodorovna Dubrovina, who gave him four children. Unfortunately, only three survived; Maria, Dmitri, and Varvara. Despite his marriage and family, Rasputin wandered across Greece and Jerusalem as a starets (self-proclaimed holy man), alleging to heal the sick and see the future.
In 1903, his wandering landed him in St. Petersburg, where he was welcomed into the courts. This was a time of great entertainment and fascination in mysticism and the occult. Those of high-society were enamored by the strangeness of Rasputin and his (alleged) healing and prophetic abilities.
In 1908, the royal family invited Rasputin to the palace to heal their son’s bleeding episodes. Czar Nicholas Romanov II and Czarina Alexandra had one son, Alexei, who was diagnosed with hemophilia; a disease in which blood does not clot properly, resulting in spontaneous bleeding. After his initial success in curing Alexei of his ailment, Rasputin left the Romanovs with an ominous warning; the fate of their son – and the dynasty – were linked to him in ways beyond mortal control. And they must have believed him, because Rasputin was an integral part of the royal family for the next decade.
Did he really heal Alexei of his hemophilia, though? And if he did… how? Magic? It’s widely debated, but historian Douglas Smith says, “[he] calmed the anxious, fretful mother and filled her with unshakeable confidence, and she, in turn, transferred this confidence to her ailing son, literally willing him back to health.” So, maybe he just willed it to be so. Other historians cite the fact that Rasputin demanded all doctor prescribed medicines for Alexei to be thrown into the fire and destroyed. These medicines probably included aspirin – a blood thinner that would have exacerbated Alexei’s hemophilia. This change in medication probably appeared as a miraculous recovery to the royal family.
By 1911, Rasputin was a total scandal. He had countless mistresses under the guise that his touch had a healing and purifying effect. And, apparently, his wife was totally cool with it. Proskovya was quoted as saying, “he has enough for all”. Russia’s greatest love machine, indeed. Despite this, Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra were enamored with him. So much so that any members of the court that spoke out against Rasputin were transferred to remote regions of the empire, or outright fired from their positions.
During World War I, when Nicholas II went to the troops on the front lines, Rasputin served as Alexandra’s personal advisor, appointing his own selection of church and court officials. It is from this time one of Rasputin’s greatest myths emerged; his alleged affair with the Czarina. However, historians say there’s no substance to this myth and it was an exaggerated rumor spread by Rasputin’s political enemies.
Rasputin was blamed for much of the calamity of the Russian government during his time in the imperial palace, and many attempts were made on his life in an effort to eliminate his influence. Hell, people were trying to kill him years before his actual death. In 1914, a peasant woman stabbed him in the stomach for seducing too many young women. Not groovy.
In 1916, a group of extreme conservatives invited Rasputin to a private dinner. Legend states he was fed a plate of poisoned tea cakes but did not die, so his enemies then shot him no less than three times. When the gunshots did not kill him, they bound him and threw his body in the freezing Neva River, where he finally drowned. It was this recounting of events that gave Rasputin the reputation of being unkillable. One of his assassins, Felix Yussupov, wrote about the murder in his 1928 memoir. He said, “This devil who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil. There was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die.”
Rasputin’s daughter Maria (who fled Russia after the revolution and became a lion tamer in the circus, by the way) renounced these claims in her own 1929 book. Maria stated that her father didn’t even like sweets and wouldn’t have eaten a plate of tea cakes, poisoned or not. The actual autopsy lists shooting as cause of death, with no signs of poison even found in Rasputin’s system. There was allegedly a small amount of water in his lungs, which led to the theory of his drowning after surviving the poison and multiple gunshots.
One of the most prominent myths surrounding Rasputin’s strange life is that he actually rose from the dead. It was reported that after he was thrown in the river, he was fished out by a group of passersby who found that he was still alive! The truth is that his (very much dead) body was discovered by police several days after his death because the water of the river was frozen.
Rasputin’s assassins thought his murder would lead to a change in the Czar’s politics. Instead, it symbolized the corruption of the imperial court and was recognized as a desperate attempt by Russian nobility to disallow any common person to become influential in the government. Mere weeks after Rasputin’s death, the Romanovs were overthrown in the Bolshevik Revolution and, eventually, murdered.
It seems perhaps Rasputin was right, and the fate of the dynasty was tied to his own, after all. Spooky.
Want more Rasputin? Here are some versions of his story worth checking out:
Anastasia, Dreamworks film (1997)
This film is really about the lost princess Anastasia who miraculously escaped during the Bolshevik Revolution and is trying to reclaim her position on Russia’s throne… but the real star of the show is Rasputin. He and his albino bat sidekick Bartok are on a mission for revenge, hunting down Anastasia in an attempt to kill her. Rasputin is voiced by the incomparable Christopher Lloyd, songs sung by Jim Cummings (who also sang as Scar in Disney’s The Lion King. Fun fact.) You can listen to Jonathan Young’s cover of In the Dark of the Night here: https://open.spotify.com/track/2sXChp7RKB6AOWBCO9f0X9?si=98d7cbd613e74ae9
Rasputin’s Daughter by Robert Alexander (2006)
This is an historical fiction account narrated by Rasputin’s daughter Maria, recalling her father’s final days in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Intrigue and conspiracy abound, revealing a shocking “truth” about the identity of her father’s killers, and those who conspired to have him killed. It has mixed reviews, most citing that you never really get a sense for Maria’s character, or who she is. But if you’re looking for Rasputin-centered historical fiction, this is a good place to start. Alexander has another novel set in revolutionary Russia called The Kitchen Boy.
Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison (2012)
Here’s an almost completely fictionalized tale about Rasputin’s daughter, with most historically accurate names changed but the setting of the Russian Revolution remaining. After the murder of her father, Masha is sent to live with the Czar’s family in the imperial palace. The Czarina hopes Masha has inherited her father’s healing abilities, so she can continue to heal the prince’s ailment. During the course of the Bolshevik Revolution, Masha and the Czar’s son take solace in each other, and telling stories about Rasputin and other fantastical characters of Russian history – embellished or not.
The Rasputin File by Edvard Radzinsky (2001)
This one’s steeped in actual truth. In 1995, a lost file from the State Archives of Russia mysteriously turned up, containing the testimony of both Rasputin’s inner circle and those who kept him under close surveillance. Radzinsky reconstructs Rasputin’s life (say that five times fast), dispelling myths in a true story just as fascinating as the legend.
Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and Instagram so you can have a hand at choosing next month’s strange history subject. And, as always; Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or, not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
Hello, friends and foes! Today we’re talking all things werewolf. Where do werewolf stories come from? And what are werewolves, anyway?
A werewolf is a man (rarely, a woman) who turns into a wolf at night and hunts animals and/or humans. In parts of Europe and Northern Asia, the creature is believed to be a bear. In Africa, it’s a hyena or leopard, and in India and China, it’s a tiger. You can be turned into a werewolf (bear, hyena, or tiger) via a bite from another werewolf, or the gene can be passed down from your werewolf parents. Some people throughout history have truly believed they are werewolves – and these people were subsequently diagnosed lycanthropy. Lycanthropy is a mental illness that typically only appears in people who believe in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. It’s often linked with belief in animal guardian spirits, totemism, and witchcraft.
Stories involving these half-man, half-wolf creatures go way back. Ancient Greece was rife with werewolf tales. The legend of Lycaon tells of a man who angered Zeus enough to make the god turn Lycaon and his sons into wolves. If you’re an etymology nerd like me, you might have noticed what “Lycaon” and “lycanthropy” have in common – the root “lykos”, which is Greek for “wolf”. Go figure.
In Nordic folklore, the Saga of Volsungs tells the story of a father and son who don wolf pelts that turn them into wolves for 10 days; they then go on a brutal killing spree in the forest. The father eventually deals his son a lethal blow. Luckily, with the help of a raven’s healing feather, the son is able to survive.
The first ever werewolf story is arguably The Epic of Gilgamesh – which is literally the oldest known Western prose. Like, ever. It dates back to 2100 BC and includes a female character who allegedly turned her ex-lover into a wolf. Much later came Leitch Ritchie’s The Man-Wolf in 1831, and Alexandre Dumas’ The Wolf Leader in 1857. Some scholars claim Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) has implicit werewolf subtext. Food for thought.
Were there any real werewolves? Obviously (and sadly), no. But there have been several fascinating cases of mistaken identity throughout history. In 15th century Germany, Peter Stubbe allegedly turned into a wolf-like creature at night and killed and ate many citizens of Bedburg. When Stubbe was arrested, hunters claimed they saw him shape-shift from wolf to human. He was tortured into confessing to killing and eating numerous animals, men, women, and children. Stubbe also allegedly claimed to have a belt that gave him the power to turn into a wolf. The belt was never recovered.
Picture it: France, 1521. Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun alleged to have an ointment that turned them into wolves. They confessed to murdering several children while in “wolf form” and were burned at the stake for their crimes.
There were also several cases of feral children that sparked werewolf rumors. The most famous of these is Peter the Wild Boy, a child discovered in a German forest in 1725. He was thought to be a werewolf, or at least raised by wolves. He was eventually adopted by King George I as a “pet” (this is the source’s term, not mine). After recent study of medical notes made about Peter during his short and tragic lifetime, it is now believed he had Pitt-Hopkins syndrome- a condition that causes distinct facial features, difficulty breathing, and intellectual challenges. As it turns out, there are several medical conditions that are similar to werewolf-ism. Lycanthropy (we talked about this before), hypertrichosis (excessive hair growth), and rabies.
Let’s check out ten werewolf books that don’t bite (yes, I used the joke again). I haven’t read enough werewolf literature and, as we dive headfirst into spooky season, some of these will certainly be added to my To Be Read Pile.
The Devourers by Indra Das (2015)
Das’ stunning debut has been compared to the work of Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood. It takes place in both 17th century and modern Kolkata, India. A stranger tells professor Alok Mukherjee a tale about shape-shifters that feed on human souls. Skeptical but intrigued, Alok translates and transcribes a collection of skin-bound notebooks to learn the rest of the fascinating tale. It’s been called “violent and vicious” by more than one source.
The Wolf Leader by Alexandre Dumas (1857)
In French, Le Meneur de loups, this book is allegedly based on a folktale local to Dumas’ hometown of Villers-Cotterets. Peasant man Thibault encounters a huge wolf, walking on his hind legs, who eventually offers him vengeance upon his enemies. Thibault enters a partnership with the wolf-man and finds that he is able to command the local wolves, hence gaining his own reputation of being a werewolf.
Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King (1983)
Would it really be a list of horror books if there wasn’t a King entry? This is a novella featuring illustrations by comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson. It tells a rather classic story of a werewolf that haunts a small town during the full moon. Marty, the wheelchair-bound, 10 year old protagonist, encounters the werewolf on the Fourth of July. The townspeople don’t believe him, but Marty vows to find out what – or, who – the werewolf really is.
The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore (1933)
This story is told through the lens of an American doctoral student who has found a French court document regarding the strange case of Sergeant Bertrand Caillet. According to the court document, Caillet was born into a cursed and tumultuous family and claimed to have nightmarish recollections of sadistic and sexual violent instances, within which he has transformed into a wolf. It’s a thinly veiled political commentary about the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, but is still a must-read for werewolf literature fans.
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy (2013)
A thriller set in the American west, this book follows several point of views of people who are confused and slowly changing… but into what? In Percy’s werewolf reality, the threat of the beasts has so far been controlled by laws, violence, and drugs. As the night of the red moon draws near, more people are changing, and the horror will eventually culminate in an epic battle for humanity.
The Book of Werewolves: Being an Account of a Terrible Superstitionby Sabine Baring-Gould (1865)
This is a collection of werewolf lore written by a man often described as “eccentric”. It covers over 1,000 years of lore, ranging from the berserker of Norse legend, French folklore, as well as some modern (for the time) accounts of cannibalism, madness, disease, and various crimes. It is regarded as the first serious academic study of werewolf and shape-shifter folklore by most cryptozoologists.
Cabal by Clive Barker (1988)
Horror literature icon Clive Barker tells the story of Boone, a young man with an unspecified mental disorder who is told by his psychiatrist that he is responsible for a series of brutal murders. Following a suicide attempt, Boone begins a search for Midian, a semi-mythical city that he has seen in his dreams that is supposed to offer sanctuary to monsters like him – the Night Breed (aka werewolves and the like).
The Were-Wolf by Clemence Housman (1896)
Housman’s first novel is described as a gruesome, erotic fantasy. Housman was a leading figure in the suffragette movement of the time. This story follows a woman named White Fell who struggles to maintain her role as a dutiful wife and successful woman because, well, she’s a werewolf. It’s widely regarded as an allegory for the conservative ideas of the time and their distaste for the New Woman and her strength and progress. Suffragette feminism and werewolves? Hell yeah.
The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan (2012)
This first book in a wildly successful trilogy follows Jake Marlowe, the last werewolf in the world. He is 200 years old and just your regular guy – he loves a good scotch, is super horny, and goes crazy with hunger for human flesh on the night of every full moon. While Jake is losing his will to live, there are two dangerous organizations – one new, one ancient – that want to capture him alive. But… why?
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones (2016)
A finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Bram Stoker Award, this spellbinding horror tells the tale of an unusual boy and his family that live on the fringes of society – for the outside world fears them. At its core, it’s a coming of age story, as the boy learns if he belongs in the shadows of regular society, always on the run in the night, or if he will make his way into the world, carving out his own place, away from the mongrels like him.
Well, there you have it. 10 werewolf books worth checking out as we inch our way into spooky season and, inevitably, Halloween. If you like this type of post, I did the same one with vampires not too long ago. You can check that out here: http://www.littlebookblogofhorrors.com/2021/09/a-very-brief-history-of-vampires/. Do you have any suggestions for the creature I should study next? It might be hard to find 10 Chupacabra books, but I’m up for the challenge…
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
Hello, friends and foes! Today we’re talking all things vamp. We’re all familiar with vampires; sparkly or creatures of the night, immortal or un-dead, sexy or terrifying (or both). Where do vampire stories come from? Who started writing them, anyway?
According to most of the stories, vampires are either immortal or un-dead – the distinction there being whether or not they were revived after death (hence, un-dead). They consume human blood or the human ‘essence’, i.e. psychic energy. Their looks can vary but they are usually described as pale skinned with large, sharp fangs. Sometimes they sleep in coffins (probably just for the aesthetic, because how much sleep could you really need if you’re un-dead?).
To become a vampire, you can be ‘turned’ by an existing vamp with a bite to the neck or other part of the body. There are other reported ways to become a vampire, depending on the region. In parts of Southern Europe, they believe if a cat jumps over a grave, the corpse will return as a vampire. These types of myths are the reason many corpses were buried with a stake through the heart… just in case. Greek vampires are believed to be created when babies are born during the week between Christmas and New Years. Killing a vampire usually involves a wooden stake through the heart, though sometimes decapitation is necessary, or burning with sunlight (unless they’re the sparkly ones, then this method is less than effective).
Vampire stories date back to Ancient Greece. In medieval Europe, they blamed most plagues of disease on vampires. This is believed to be linked to the vampire-adjacent symptoms of many diseases at the time. For example, tuberculosis caused pale skin and weight loss, porphyria caused sensitivity to sunlight, and rabies caused aversion to water and garlic (and biting).
Were there ever any real vampires? Sadly, no. However, there are some instances across history that might make you think differently. Take Vlad the Impaler, for instance. We’ve referenced him before as the possible inspiration for Stoker’s character Dracula. And you can’t blame people for thinking that – his name was actually Vlad Dracula. Like, before it was cool. He earned his nickname of Impaler because he enjoyed impaling his enemies on wooden stakes. He also allegedly enjoyed dipping his dinner bread in his enemies’ blood.
Later on, in the 18th and 19th century, there was what can only be described as a Vampire Hysteria. In 1817, college student Frederick Ransom of South Woodstock, Vermont, died of tuberculosis. His father exhumed his body in a misguided attempt to save the rest of his sick family. It was believed that someone who perished of disease (especially terrifying diseases like tuberculosis) could return as a vampire after death and spread the disease to other members of the community. The body would be exhumed and subjected to various methods of vampire murder – a stake through the heart, decapitation, or burning). Frederick was exhumed and his heart was burned in a blacksmith’s forge. Unfortunately, this ritual did not succeed, and most of Frederick’s family soon perished. Frederick’s case is interesting because it illustrated the spread of Vampire Hysteria, or Vampiric Panic, from uneducated and rural families to educated, well-off communities.
One of the most famous instances of corpse exhumation on the basis of vampire suspicion is that of Mercy Brown. In 1892, the Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island was ravaged by tuberculosis. The mother and two daughters, one being 19 year old Mercy, tragically died. When the son of the family, Edwin, became sick, his father and the Exeter townsfolk blamed a vampire for spreading the disease. All of the Brown family bodies were exhumed, and all showed the normal signs of decomposition – except Mercy’s. Was it because she was kept in freezer-like conditions in a crypt in the middle of New England winter? Or was it because she was a vampire? Who can say. Either way, they cut out her heart, burned it, and fed the ashes to her sick brother.
Vampire poetry flourished during the early days of the Vampire Hysteria, like in Heinrich August Ossenfelder’s Der Vampyr (1748). The first English language depiction of a vampire in poetry is believed to be in The Vampyre (1810) by John Stagg. Then the vampire appeared in prose with John Polidori’s The Vampyre in 1819. I guess they didn’t have titles copyrighted back then.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is arguably the most influential vampire book (and was allegedly inspired by The Mysterious Stranger, written by an anonymous German author in 1823. It is so fascinating to me that the writer is still unknown to this day!). In 1931, Dracula was adapted into film, starring horror icon Bela Lugosi. The book also inspired the 1922 film Nosferatu… but it was apparently *too* inspired, as Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement.
With Anne Rice’s sympathetic portrayal of vampires in her novel Interview With a Vampire (1976), a new era of vampire tales was born. They were written with heart, with emotion, as blood-sucking romantic icons. I’ve made a list of ten examples of vampires in literature, from horrific to romantic to gothic to modern. There’s a vampire for everyone.
Interview With a Vampire by Anne Rice (1976)
Yeah, we just talked about this one, but it still has to be included. Rice ushered in a new age of vampire tales with her sympathetic and erotic tale of immortal vampires coming to terms with their tragic pasts and unending, inevitably tragic futures. The 1994 film version is also worth checking out, if only for Brad Pitt in period costume.
Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
I know, we just talked about this one, too. But Stoker really started it all, and it’s worth checking out. It’s the now-classic tale of a mysterious Transylvanian noble, Count Dracula. There have been many film adaptations made, though I’d have to recommend the 1992 version, directed by Francis Ford Coppola with an absolutely stacked cast (Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, and MORE!).
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005)
This one is a historical take on vampires, particularly Vlad the Impaler, who allegedly was a big inspiration for Stoker’s characterization of Dracula. Vlad III ruled over Wallachia with such tyranny that even Pope Pius II was informed of his cruelty! This book is a fantastical tale of a young woman who must decide if she wants to follow in her parents’ footsteps into a labyrinth of the secret history of vampires – including Vlad’s terrible reign.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix (2020)
The first of the Sookie Stackhouse series that inspired the HBO show True Blood, this book follows the misadventures of the mind-reading Sookie and her vampire friends, steeped in charming, small-town southern gothic imagery and accents. True Blood ran for seven seasons between 2008 and 2014 and starred Anna Paquin as the titular Sookie Stackhouse.
The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez (1991)
Set in 1850’s Louisiana (there must be something in that southern water that brings out the vamps), an escaped slave is introduced to the world of the un-dead while employed in a brothel. The story branches across several different decades and highlights the important life events of Gilda, the black and bisexual vampire heroine. The novel won two Lambda Literary awards – one for fiction and one for science fiction – and was hailed by Oprah herself as one of the best modern vampire books.
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (2005)
Hear me out! The era of Twilight changed the way we look at vampires in literature and film. This four-part series is worth checking out for the examination of its cultural impact alone. If you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know why this is controversial – the saga follows Bella Swan, a conservative teen who finds herself in a love triangle between a vampire and a werewolf. The series was stretched into five films, also worth checking out if you want a good laugh. Plot holes, confusion, and poor acting abound. But the books actually cover some dark material… just in really strange ways.
The Ancient Ones by Cassandra L. Thompson (2020)
The first of an oncoming trilogy, this is a true gothic horror vampire tale. It follows the story of David, the last vampyre alive, as he looks back on his tragic and tumultuous past. Flowery, impressive prose is married with gut-churning horror and an un-dead love story for the ages. It was published through the emerging dark literature publishing house Quill & Crow.
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Lefanu (1876)
Another alleged inspiration for Stoker’s Dracula, this novella (first published as a serial) is about a young woman who falls victim to a female vampire. It also created the idea of a female vampire, femme fatale, with homosexuality portrayed as morally ambiguous rather than evil. There have been several film adaptations, some faithful to the source material – The Vampire Lovers (1970),and others not so much –Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009).
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (2010)
A re-written biography of American president Abraham Lincoln, but if he dedicated his life to killing vampires after the vampire-related death of his mother when he was just a kid. Grahame-Smith also wrote the screenplay for the 2012 film adaptation starring Benjamin Walker and Rufus Sewell.
Well, there you have it, friends and foes. A glimpse into the history of vampires and a few vampire stories to choose from, depending on your taste and preference. Stay tuned: I’m doing this same post with werewolves in a couple of weeks.
What’s your favorite vampire book, movie, or legend? Let me know in the comments below!
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
“Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one!”
We all know the story of Lizzie Borden: a big house in Massachusetts, a lonely spinster woman, and two hacked up parents. Lizzie Borden took an axe… well, you know the rest. On August 4th, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found murdered in their home on 2nd Street. Andrew was napping in the sitting room and Abby was in an upstairs bedroom, presumably cleaning. What really happened on that fateful summer day? And why did it happen? Did Lizzie really do it?
She was acquitted, so legally she didn’t. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
TRIGGER WARNING: CRIME SCENE PHOTOS (NO BLOOD)
Andrew Borden was a native to Fall River, Massachusetts. He had a huge net worth – almost $10 million in today’s money (a whopping $333,000 back in the day). He came from humble beginnings but became successful later on in life. He owned a considerable number of income properties and worked on the board of several large banks. He was frugal despite his fortune; the Borden house on 2nd Street didn’t even have indoor plumbing, despite it being available to the wealthy, and it still used kerosene lamps instead of electricity. His first wife (Lizzie’s mother), tragically passed away. Two years later, he married a woman named Abby Gray.
They lived in a wealthy area of Fall River, though not the wealthiest. Much of Andrew’s family lived in a neighborhood called The Hill, where all things high and society took place. It is said that Lizzie very much longed to live there, to be a part of high society, but her father refused. Their house on 2nd Street was close to town and shops and much of Andrew’s business dealings. The area was also home to a population of Irish immigrants, which was certainly considered undesirable.
Lizzie was born on July 19, 1860 (she’s a Cancer, of course) and she had a sister Emma, nine years her senior. When their mother was on her death bed, she made Emma promise to always take care of Lizzie, as if she was her own. This contributed to Emma’s ‘spinsterhood’, as she did not have time to marry and move away because she was raising Lizzie. She even dropped out of college after only a year to return home. Lizzie was described as a “moody” and “average” student in school. She was a sensitive child with problems meeting new people. She dropped out in her junior year of high school and spent the majority of her time involved in the local church. The Borden sisters were in their 30’s at the time of the murders, and were both considered ‘spinsters’; unmarried, childless, living in their father’s home.
This is neither here nor there, but Lizzie was also apparently a known shoplifter at the local stores in town. She would simply take things from the shelves and racks and walk out of the store without paying. The shop owner would then charge the cost of the items to Andrew Borden’s account, so technically it wasn’t “stealing”… but it still feels a lot like stealing.
The Borden sisters’ feelings toward their stepmother are recorded as being… not good. They resented Abby and never called her “Mother” or even “Mrs. Borden”, which was incredibly disrespectful at that time. Several months before the murder, Andrew Borden purchased a house for Abby’s sister, and Lizzie and Emma were reportedly irate. They hardly ate meals with their parents, which was essentially unheard of back then. Both Borden sisters would ignore Abby’s family when they greeted them in public, another act of Victorian disrespect. The Borden family maid, 26 year old Irish immigrant Bridget Sullivan (whom the Borden sisters called “Maggie” for no apparent reason), stated during the trial that there was palpable tension in the Borden household. She had even attempted to resign from her position because of it, but Abby paid her a hefty bonus to stay.
Lizzie is reported to have loved animals, often taking in stray cats and going horseback riding. A flock of pigeons had come to roost in the barn on their property, and Lizzie had taken to calling them her pets and feeding them. One day in early 1892, Mr. Borden killed all of the pigeons and made Bridget pluck them and put them in a stew. He claimed he did this to keep the neighborhood children from throwing stones at the birds, thus breaking several barn windows. Nonetheless, this fueled Lizzie’s mounting rage. (I have to put a note here that some Lizzie Borden scholars believe this situation to be more of a legend than reality, though I’ve come across it as part of the narrative in nearly every source I used for this research.)
The night before the murders, Lizzie went to visit her friend Alice. She told Alice that the whole family had recently fallen violently ill… except for her. It was later revealed that Lizzie had attempted to purchase prussic acid (poison!) from the local pharmacy several days prior, but the pharmacist refused to sell it to her. Did she poison her parents (and poor Bridget) in an attempt to kill them? Or perhaps just make them ill and weak? Lizzie also mentioned to Alice that she was worried someone might want to hurt her father. The home had been broken into several days prior to August 4th, and the only things stolen were sentimental items of Abby’s (and, according to some sources, Andrew believed someone within the home stole the items). Lizzie claimed to be worried that the intruder might return.
Also, Lizzie and Emma’s uncle John Morse was visiting the day prior to the murders. He slept in the guest room on the second floor. The reason for his visit is still unknown, but he was allegedly not involved in any part of the crime.
Let’s go over the timeline for the morning of the murders:
6:00 AM : Andrew and Abby Borden and John Morse wake up, go downstairs and have breakfast.
6:30 AM : Bridget wakes up, still feeling ill, and begins her work in the kitchen
8:45 AM : John Morse and Andrew Borden leave the home to go into town for business
8:50 AM : Lizzie appears for breakfast and coffee
9:00 AM : Abby Borden tells Bridget to clean all windows in the home, outside and inside *1
9:30 AM : (this time is approximate) Abby Borden is killed
10:45 AM : Andrew Borden returns from town early, feeling ill. Lizzie tells Andrew that Abby has been called away to tend to a sick friend, and has left the home. *2
11:00 AM : Bridget is in her room, resting but not asleep
11:15 AM : (this time is approximate) Andrew Borden is killed
11:30 AM : Lizzie Borden calls for Bridget to get a doctor upon “discovering” Andrew Borden’s body
(*1 it should be noted that, at this time, Lizzie asked Bridget if she had any plans to leave the home that day. Bridget said no, because she was not feeling well. Lizzie then informed her of a big sale taking place at a local shop, and suggested Bridget leave the home later that morning to go check it out)
(*2 it should be noted that, in court testimony, Bridget reported that Andrew could not get into the home when he returned, as there were multiple latches locked from the inside that were not typically locked. Bridget had difficulty getting them all unlocked to allow Andrew inside, and during this time she reported hearing Lizzie Borden giggling at the top of the stairs)
Lizzie screamed for Bridget to go across the street to their neighbor, who was a doctor. Bridget ran across the busy street only to find the doctor was not home. Lizzie then told her to go fetch her friend Alice (the same Alice she had met with the night before) because she did not want to be alone in the home, as the intruder could still be present. Eventually a nosy neighbor noticed Lizzie standing on the porch, distraught, and asked what was wrong. Lizzie told the neighbor about her father’s demise and the neighbor hurried over to check it out. When the neighbor asked Lizzie where she was at the time of the attack, Lizzie stated she was in the barn. Then, she told her neighbor that she might have heard Abby come home, but she wasn’t sure. Abby might be inside the house!
Alice arrives to the Borden home shortly after Bridget sends for her. Lizzie immediately insists someone search the second and third floors for Abby. Bridget and the nosy neighbor ascend the stairs to the second floor. From the landing they can see Abby Borden’s feet, outstretched behind the bed in the guest room. The neighbor flees in tears to tell Lizzie that they found Abby’s body. Bridget enters the guest room to confirm, and what she finds is absolutely horrifying.
The brutality of the crime was unmatched in Fall River history. Andrew Borden’s face was essentially chopped off; he was unrecognizable. Abby was attacked from behind, wounds gathered on her upper back. And, for the record, the nursery rhyme has the count wrong: Andrew was hit ten times with a hatchet (not an axe), after Abby was struck nineteen times.
Two police officers arrived at the scene. A large portion of the Fall River police force was actually out of town, at Rocky Point in Rhode Island, for some kind of event – not really relevant, but kind of funny that they were all at the beach when this happened. They immediately questioned Lizzie, who had trouble accounting for her whereabouts during the attack. She claimed that she had been sitting in the loft of the barn on the property, where she ate three pears, then spent twenty to thirty minutes looking in the barn for sinkers and fishing lures. She then insisted to have heard a scream or groan (she couldn’t remember which) from inside and ran into the sitting room to discover her father. This point is particularly interesting because Bridget, who was inside the house, reported having heard no sound whatsoever.
Lizzie had lots of stories for the police. She said she had once come home at night to find a shadowy figure slinking around the house… but she couldn’t elaborate further than that. She was quick to correct them when they referred to Abby as her mother, too. She was Lizzie’s STEP-mother. Big difference, especially to Lizzie. When the doctor finally arrived, he took Lizzie to her room to relax with the aid of morphine (which they were just handing out back then, apparently).
The police searched the entire home and barn. They recovered two hatchets and two axes, though none were believed to be the murder weapon, as they had no blood on them. In the barn, they noticed there were no footprints in the thick sawdust in the loft where Lizzie reported to have sat during the time of the murders… interesting. That night, Lizzie, Alice, and John Morse (the uncle, remember?) stayed IN THE HOUSE where two people were just MURDERED, while their DEAD BODIES were on slabs in the sitting room. (Were all the hotels full??) A cop was watching over the house and, in the middle of the night, he saw Lizzie go into the basement and kneel beside the sink for one to two minutes, though he could not see exactly what she was doing. A few days later, Alice saw Lizzie burning scraps of a dress in the fireplace. She said, “I wouldn’t let anyone see me doing that if I were you”. Suspicious.
The funeral was held on August 8th. Emma came back to town (she was away, visiting a friend, at the time of the murders) and stayed in the house on 2nd Street with her sister and uncle. On August 10th, the police informed Lizzie that she was a suspect in the murders. She was reported to have said, “I am ready to go at any time”. (Read: “I dare you to arrest me.”) Then, on August 11th, Lizzie Borden was arrested on two counts of murder. There’s a shocker.
Lizzie had her daddy’s money, and she bought the best attorneys it could buy. They were quick to deny Lizzie’s guilt on the basis of two main points, the first being lack of forensic evidence. They called in a Harvard chemist who claimed to have found no blood on any of the axes or hatchets that were recovered from the Borden house. There was a teeny tiny drop of blood on the hem of the dress Lizzie was ALLEGEDLY wearing on the day of the murders (was the dress she actually wore burned in the fireplace?) Further, fingerprint testing was in its infancy in the late 1800’s, and the police did not perform any kind of print collection at the scene or on any of the potential murder weapons.
The second point of denial was on the basis of Lizzie’s gender and social class. Yeah, that was a legitimate defense. She was well-bred, virtuous, and in the words of the national president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union at the time, a “Protestant Nun”. In other words, she was a tiny little Victorian spinster who totally couldn’t kill her old and sick (hell, one of them was asleep!!) parents. Women’s suffrage groups turned out in droves to support Lizzie in her innocence. And Lizzie played the part of their heroine- dressed tightly corseted and in all black, a fan in one hand and a bouquet of flowers (seriously) in the other. She would sigh or act faint from time to time throughout the proceedings, just as any distraught Protestant Nun would.
The trial was a circus. The first true media frenzy surrounding a high profile trial (the Lizzie Borden case walked so the OJ Simpson case could run). Testimony was given before a packed courtroom. Bridget’s story never changed, from the initial inquest to the formal trial to follow. Lizzie’s story wouldn’t stop changing. Let’s review:
It was confirmed by the coroner that Abby was killed between 9 and 10 AM. Lizzie claimed to be setting up an ironing board at that time, but couldn’t remember how long it took. Bridget was seen by neighbors cleaning the outside windows during this time frame.
At 10:45 AM, Andrew Borden came home. Lizzie claimed she was in the kitchen at this time, reading a magazine. However, this directly contradicts Bridget’s testimony that Lizzie laughed at her from the top of the stairs! When questioned further about this inconsistency, Lizzie said she couldn’t remember if she was upstairs or not. Convenient.
Lizzie told Andrew and Bridget that Abby received a note, calling her away to tend to a sick friend. When police asked who the note was from, or for the note itself, Lizzie didn’t know and couldn’t find it. Also convenient. Even if the note was real, why didn’t Abby leave to tend to her sick friend?
The prosecution argued that it would be nearly impossible for an intruder to sneak into the Borden home, kill Abby, stay in the home for an additional sixty to ninety minutes, then kill Andrew. No neighbors saw anyone come in or out (remember the nosy neighbor from before? Yeah, they didn’t see anyone). And the pure rage used in the attacks suggested someone close to the victims had perpetrated the crime.
Lizzie’s attorney gave a five hour closing argument to a jury of twelve men – farmers, tradesmen, factory owners (and a single Irishman – not sure how he passed through the selection process). They quickly acquitted Lizzie of all charges, then waited an hour to come out of the jury chambers so it looked like they really thought long and hard about it. Women’s groups cheered! The presses of the high society were thrilled – justice was served, justice for the innocent Lizzie! Working class papers and immigrant-run papers, however, were dubious.
Either way, Lizzie was innocent. Well, she was acquitted, at least.
Lack of forensic evidence and her Victorian femininity led to Lizzie’s release as a free woman. I’m paraphrasing, of course, because there are a myriad of cultural and legal reasons for her to walk free when all signs point to her guilt, and I just don’t have the time to dissect them all. I’m not even convinced there are many people reading to this point.
Lizzie and her sister Emma inherited their father’s millions and moved into a large house on The Hill. Lizzie was infamous, “Fall River’s curio”, gawked at in public and shunned by many in the town. Though she did manage a nice life of travel up and down the East Coast, dotted with fine dining and trips to the theater. She and Emma had a falling out in 1904, and reportedly never saw each other again. They died within days of each other in 1927.
Turns out, there might be more information than we once thought (by the way, all court transcripts and testimonies can be read in full online). In March 2012, researchers at the Fall River Historical Society discovered the handwritten journals of Andrew Jennings, Lizzie’s defense attorney. I haven’t been able to find the contents anywhere public online, but I have been in touch with the Fall River Historical Society to see what’s up with them. They’re only an hour away from me, and I’d be happy to make a trip out there if it means taking a look at these secret notes.
And because Fall River is only about an hour away, I could easily stay at the Lizzie Borden House Bed and Breakfast! That’s right! It’s the original house where Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered by Lizzie Borden an unknown assailant. Under new ownership as of May 2021, they’ve apparently been going through some pretty sweet upgrades. And, of course, the house is haunted. Guests have claimed to hear voices, experience strange odors, objects moving on their own, footsteps, even full-body apparitions! You can just book a tour if you don’t want to spend the night. Rooms are around $300 a night with your choice of the Lizzie & Emma Suite, the Andrew & Abby Suite, or the John V. Morse Suite (where Abby as murdered!). You can also book out the whole house for weddings, so… that’s cool. September and October are almost fully booked, so you better hurry and make a reservation!
If you’re looking for more Lizzie Borden related media, there’s a true treasure-trove of options for you. Lizzie Borden Took an Axe (2014) is the only good Lifetime film ever made, starring Christina Ricci as Borden. It was followed up by a Netflix series The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (2015). This retelling of the murders is super fictionalized, but still fun to watch. Lizzie (2018) is a feature film starring Chloe Sevigny as Borden and Kristen Stewart as Bridget Sullivan. Another retelling steeped in fiction, this one portrays Lizzie and Bridget in a lesbian affair that eventually leads to the murders.
All jokes aside, the Lizzie Borden case is a fascinating piece of American legal history. Do you think she killed her father and step-mother? If you’re looking for motive, most people claim resentment of Abby and a longing to use her father’s money to enter high society, specifically The Hill. If you’re looking for forensic evidence, it’s long gone. Though I’d love to know if Lizzie did burn the dress she wore at the time of the crimes in the fireplace. And I’d love to know what she was doing in the basement sink in the middle of the night.
I guess you could always call her up on the Ouija board on your next visit to the B&B.
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
Hello, friends and foes! For my first-ever blog post I thought it would be fun to do a brief timeline of horror literature and try to figure out who might have planted the horror family tree. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Horror: who started it? There are several obvious contenders; H.P. Lovecraft, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe. When I dove into this research rabbit hole I began as any self-respecting researcher would – I Googled it. The answer might shock you.
While this search result is hilarious, it’s not exactly what I was looking for when I set out on this quest for an answer. So I, living my armchair anthropologist dreams, decided to dig (read: Google) a little further.
The encyclopedia Brittanica defines a horror story as “a story in which the focus is on creating a feeling of fear”. This definition is important because, for the sake of keeping this a brief timeline of horror literature, I won’t be delving into the different branches of the family tree (i.e. gothic horror, paranormal horror, body horror, etc.). With this simple definition in mind, who do you picture of when you think of horror? Stephen King? Anne Rice?
Stephen King’s reign of terror began in 1974 with the publication of the now-classic Carrie. Since then he’s published over 80 books so, sure, I’d consider him as a contender for Father of Modern Horror. (For the record, R.L. Stine has published over 300 books. Just sayin’.)
Anne Rice rose to fame around the same time as King, as Interview With a Vampire was published in 1976, a whopping 26 years before Stephanie Meyer published the insanely popular vampire series Twilight. Since 1976, Rice has published over two dozen books, including both Christian and erotic literature. She even cites Stephen King as an inspiration for her work (Billboard interview, March 11, 2016). The 1970’s saw an upswing in horror literature that has led all the way to present day, but that’s not where the genre began.
Let’s talk about Shirley Jackson. You know The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix? Yeah, she wrote the book back in 1959. It’s often cited as one of the first haunted house novels in America. She also wrote We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Even before that, Jackson published her short story The Lottery in 1948. If you’re anything like me, you’ll remember this as being the single most traumatizing piece of assigned reading in your middle school English class.
Jackson was also a general badass, regarded as incredibly witty, confident, and successful in a field that did not grant easy access to women at that time. She also read tarot and allegedly practiced witchcraft. Spooky. I read her biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, and you should, too. While she didn’t cite a specific author of literary influence, Jackson seemed to be inspired by the darkness of every day – sometimes hidden, sometimes right under your very nose.
I’d say it’s typical for horror writers to be drawn to and inspired by the dark intricacies of life. Take a look at H.P. Lovecraft, for example. A fellow New Englander and anti-anthropocentrist (anthropocentric: regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals). Lovecraft’s claim to fame is widely regarded as his short story The Call of Cthulu from 1926 which eventually became the staggering Cthulu mythos that most horror (or in Lovecraft’s terms, “weird”) literature fans have come to know. Lovecraft’s first known writings began in 1897, a staggering 77 years before Stephen King’s Carrie. His legacy in the literature realm is abundantly clear, as his Cthulu mythos has been adapted into film, TV, board games and more. And, while 1897 seems like a really long time ago, I wanted to know who inspired Lovecraft. So I kept digging.
Lovecraft’s influence is another pretty obvious contender for starting the horror genre as we know it: Edgar Allen Poe. Another New Englander (I blame the gloom) that became an instant success with the publication of The Raven in 1845 but had published horror shorts since the early 1830’s. Poe was a student of cosmology, another influence of Lovecraft’s work (cosmology: the philosophical study of the origin and nature of the universe). Poe is widely regarded as a pioneer of “gothic” and “gothic horror” literature. An interesting anecdote about Poe’s history that I might do a whole post on in the future (would you be interested? Leave a comment below!) is the case of Lizzie Doten in the 1860’s. Doten was an imitator of Poe’s poetry after his death and claimed to hear Poe’s spirit dictating new poetry from beyond the grave.
Anyway, anyway, anyway. Let’s get on with it.
Poe was a popular (and ultimately very tragic) figure in horror literature, but not the first. Before him came another one of our obvious contenders: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her 1818 classic Frankenstein. Shelley ushered in the age of science-fiction and horror during what can certainly be called a “Golden Age” for spooky literature. The early 1800’s saw the Brothers Grimm collection of short stories for scaring your children and other classics, like Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
At this point in my research, I truly thought I was nearing the finish line. A big boom of horror literature in the early 1800’s meant someone had started the genre in the not-so-distant past, and I was determined to figure out who it was. I made it back in time to 1764 with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. FINALLY. Several sources claimed this to be the first gothic horror novel. And it was quite controversial at the time of its publication; it was initially published under the guise of being a romance story.
Finally, I had reached the end. Or… the beginning. I made it to the first ever horror story ever written!
Just kidding. Common sense tells us that horror has its roots in folklore, superstition, and myths from all over the world for as long as history has been recorded. Even real life events have been inspiring terrifying works of literature for hundreds of years. A serial killer inspired 1697’s Bluebeard, and noblewoman Elizabeth Bathory inspired 1729’s Tragica Historia and the character Madame Delphine LaLaurie in American Horror Story: Coven, portrayed by horror film icon Kathy Bates. And although we didn’t talk about Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic Dracula, it’s thought that his inspiration came from the Prince of Wallachia Vlad III who terrified all who knew him in the 15th century.
It wasn’t just vampires back then, either. Werewolf literature was popular as far back as the 12th Century, way before Leitch Ritchie wrote The Man-Wolf in 1831. If you want to get technical, there was a werewolf in The Epic of Gilgamesh and that dates back to 2100 BC. Werewolves were also prominent figures in ancient Greek and Roman horror stories.
Now, here’s the thing. Horror stories as we know them go back basically forever. I’m talking before the year 1000. Hell, maybe even before the year 100. Euripides wrote stories about ghosts and necromancy that inspired Mary Shelley. Pliny the Younger wrote about a haunted house in Athens over 1800 years before Shirley Jackson was even born.
I guess the conclusion is that there is no conclusion. At least, not one I could come up with on my armchair anthropology expedition into the roots of horror literature. Horror’s roots are ancient, tying back to the oldest superstitions, folklore and ghost stories from all over the world. You can give Walpole credit for the first gothic horror novel, and Shelley for the first sci-fi horror, and H.P. Lovecraft for being straight-up weird, but it’s impossible to find a single originator of horror. And, I think I like that answer better. Ghosts, witches, vampires and demons have haunted humans for as long as we’ve been able to tell stories about them. And reading a good ghost story never gets old.
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.