Subject: I grew up in the town next to Lizzie Borden… where Lizzie Borden was. Lizzie Borden was from Fall River and I was from Tiverton, the town over. And I can remember I took pottery classes right near Lizzie Borden’s house. We all knew the story of Lizzie Borden. That she took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. She didn’t really like her mother apparently. But when she saw how sad it made her dad, she gave her father forty-one.
*Singing* Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one.
It was a nursery rhyme! As kids you know… because it happened so close to where we all lived and grew up… that was sort of scary. Somebody would smack their parent with an axe forty times… and then do it again forty-one times! Lizzie Borden!
Context: The subject is a white middle-aged male of Ashkenazi and Eastern-European descent. He was born and raised in Tiverton, Rhode Island with his parents and two siblings. He also happens to be my father, and we are currently quarantined together at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner one night, I was sitting with him in my dimly lit living room, and I asked if he would share with me any folk beliefs he had heard through his family.
Interpretation: I first discovered the Lizzie Borden nursery rhyme when I watched the biographical film Lizzie starring Kristen Stewart and Chloe Sevigny. It was a sort of feminist approach to the Lizzie Borden story. Lizzie falls in love with a woman and her parents are depicted as emotionally abusive and controlling. Though I’m not certain of the historical accuracy of the film, because it was my introduction to Lizzie Borden, whenever I heard the nursery rhyme, I always felt a bit defensive over her. The nursery rhyme obviously does not leave much room for nuance. Lizzie is a horrifying figure in it. Hearing my father’s account of how afraid he was of Lizzie, and how villainous she was to him as a child made me think about what other nursery rhymes have a more complicated background than how they are interpreted.