Willoughby: A murderous sense of place
Legends & Legacies
Many from my generation remember the lines “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done she gave her father 41.” Perhaps due to the horrific jingle or because her name flows off the tongue, we sense a place and story behind the Borden name.
The sad saga of Lizzie Borden, one of our nation’s most infamous characters of the 1890s, captured newspaper headlines for months, including those of The Aspen Times. Borden’s father and stepmother died August 4, 1892, in their home. Someone had struck them multiple times with an ax. After other suspects didn’t match the evidence, authorities arrested Borden. The Times reported Aug. 22, “prisoner’s (Borden’s) innocence is still strong especially among the church element, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of which she has been an active member.”
Borden remained in jail while the investigation proceeded. Every two or three days throughout the month, the Times printed the latest discoveries. For instance, the family had fallen ill prior to the murder. Borden had traveled to another town, where she tried to buy dangerous medication. Some thought she might have attempted to poison her parents. Her wealthy father appeared to favor the stepmother’s family, and Borden had been consulting an out-of-town attorney about inheritance.
The grand jury considered the evidence for several weeks that fall. Although suspicions arose about the housemaid, the grand jury indicted Borden.
With a circuit judge, proceedings did not kick off until April 1893, and the trial began in June. More than 60 press members attended the trial throughout much of the month, and their stories prompted the entire nation to engage in debate over Borden’s guilt or innocence. In the end, the jury acquitted Borden. The Times reported “all dignity and decorum of the court room vanished. A cheer went up which might have been heard half a mile away through the open windows.”
Lizzie continued to live in her hometown, Fall River, Massachusetts, until her death in 1927. In 1899, the Times reported that Lizzie and her sister, who lived with her, “take part in no church matters, and many of the church people have cut them off forever.” Visits to Fall River still bring Borden to mind.
Aspen enjoys a reputation for top and unique distinctions. And we decry any connection to murders such as those that befell the Borden family. But consider Aspen’s association with Ted Bundy. Although Borden’s 81 whacks may earn her a respectable place in the Serial Killer Hall of Fame, Ted Bundy admitted to more than 30 killings and mutilations of women and girls as young as 12.
Bundy’s trial in 1977 garnered less attention than did his escape from Pitkin County Courthouse. He had started work in Utah and Colorado in 1975, and committed three murders in Colorado: one near Grand Junction, one in Vail and one in Snowmass. He landed in the Glenwood jail and then traveled to Aspen for a hearing.
Far from watchful eyes, Bundy found an unlocked window in the Aspen courthouse and leaped two stories to freedom. A six-day nightmare followed for the city’s residents, with the vicious predator on the loose. The incident earned the city a spot in national news all week. And then, after Bundy’s capture and return to the Glenwood jail, he escaped again.
A year and three more murders later, the law caught up with Bundy in Florida. After his trial and conviction there, execution followed in 1989.
A town doesn’t get to choose whether it deserves national notoriety. After more than a century has passed, Lizzie Borden’s tale still haunts Fall River. After another hundred years, Aspen may shed its connection to Ted Bundy. That is, unless a new slogan catches on: Ted Bundy leapt here.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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