My mind, as you may have noticed, works in rather unusual ways. This morning one of my favorite classical stations was playing Morton Gould’s “Fall River Legend” on which Agnes de Mille based her ballet of Lizzie Bordon.
Hearing the music set me off pondering yet again the unsolved axe murders, on August 4, 1892, of Lizzie Bordon’s father and step mother in their Fall River, Massachussetts, home. (“Lizzie Bordon took an axe and gave her father forty whacks; when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.”) The true story has always fascinated not only me, but much of the world aware of it.
An amazing tale of a singularly dysfunctional family, a summer of intense heat, and a last meal of three-day-old mutton stew all played a part. Everything pointed to Lizzie, but she was never tried for it. I don’t remember exactly how many books I’ve read on the case, but probably at least six, and finally came away with the conclusion that Lizzie did, indeed, do it, but that she did it while suffering a grand mal epileptic seizure and therefore honestly didn’t remember doing it. But there are enough questions and loose ends (including a burned dress, an axe handle, and a maid who claimed to be in the barn at the time of the murders) to keep people guessing for a long time to come.
Now, how I made the mental leap from Lizzie Borden to the Eastland and the Iroquois, I have no idea. If my mind knows, it isn’t telling me.
I have always been utterly fascinated with disasters, both for their drama and for the fact that it is often in disasters that the finest and most noble qualities of humanity emerge.
The Eastland was a popular excursion steamer based in the Chicago River. On July 24, 1915, it was chartered by the Western Electric Company for an outing for its employees and their families. While still partly moored to the shore, the weight of the more than 2,500 passengers assembled on one side of the ship forced it to capsize. Over 800 people died within a few feet of shore, making the Eastland not only the worst disaster in Chicago history, but one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history.
On December 30, 1903, Chicago’s Iroquois Theater was a matinee performance of Eddie Foy in a production of “Mr. Bluebeard.” The theater, supposedly fireproof, was filled to capacity, with large numbers of children in attendance. At one point in the show, a piece of scenery caught fire. Stagehands and the play’s cast struggled to lower the fire curtain separating the stage from the audience, but it became stuck halfway down. The theater’s lights went out as the panicked audience tried to flee, only to find the exit doors locked. 605 people died, and from the fire came sweeping mandatory safety rules for theaters across the country.
Disasters tend to quickly become simply footnotes in the history books, and the fact that their emotional impact dulls with time. Few pause to reflect that each involved real people, men and women and children who laughed and cried, had friends and family and dreams and often, swept up in inconceivable situations, displayed the selflessness, courage, and nobility which exists somewhere within all of us. The pity is that it often takes a disaster to bring them out.
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