“Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.”
It took the jury less than two hours to acquit Lizzie Borden of the brutal ax murders of her father Andrew and stepmother Abby Borden. Her trial in 1893 was one of the most celebrated events of the time. The little rope-skipping ditty above was composed decades later by an anonymous writer. While keeping the heinous murder fresh in the minds of Fall River, Mass., residents, it was inaccurate. It was her stepmother, not her mother who was struck 18 or 19 times. Andrew was whacked 11 times.
Though never proven, the common belief is that Lizzie committed the crime. In her book “A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight,” author Victoria Lincoln theorizes Lizzie killed while in a “fugue” state of mind. It’s a psychiatric disorder like amnesia where the person doesn’t remember episodes during the past few hours or days.
This condition sounds similar to Colleen Ann Harris’s defense in 1986 when a psychiatrist testified she suffered from limited amnesia, as she could not actually remember shooting her second husband, James Batten. At the time she claimed he threatened to kill her and laughed about raping her daughter from a previous marriage. Harris, like Lizzie, was acquitted in less than two hours by a jury of nine women and three men.
Perhaps she was in a “fugue state” when she blasted him with a 410-gauge shotgun. And maybe she remained in that state of mind when she reloaded, repositioned herself and fired a second shot into his heart.
Harris testified during her trial that she wanted her husband to seek psychological help for his violent behavior. This came from the woman who dropped her charges against him for sexually assaulting her own daughter? And what about those convenient lapses in memory? Who really needed the psychological help?
Lizzie Borden volunteered with the Ladies of Fruit and Flower Mission, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing fruit and flowers to hospital patients and shut-ins. Colleen Harris vied for the title of El Dorado County Rose in 2008, and volunteered her time with appearances at Chamber of Commerce business mixers wearing her Lizzie Borden-like Victorian garb.
Harris now finds herself in another thorny predicament with her arrest last week for the alleged murder of husband No. 3, Robert Harris. This time she’s alleged of using another bigger shotgun, a 12-gauge, ironically at an address on the same street where husband No. 2 two was killed 28 years ago.
As prosecutors dig for evidence for their case, they might want to consider digging around Colleen Harris’ yard. Because now the question on everyone’s mind is: What happened to husband No. 1? The rose garden, if she has one, might be a good place to start their search.
History is full of notorious Black Widow killers. Many used poison as their favorite instrument of death. Amy Gilligan, owner of a nursing home in Connecticut for example, poisoned her guests for the insurance money. Blanche Moore from North Carolina used arsenic on her two husbands, father, mother-in-law and boyfriend. Janie Lou Gibbs from Georgia also found arsenic a convenient method of poisoning her husband and four members of the family before finally getting caught.
Not so with Colleen Harris, formerly Colleen Batten, formerly Colleen…? She may not live up to the celebrity status of Lizzie Borden or have a macabre poem written in her memory, but as Shakespeare so eloquently wrote:
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” — unless of course, that name is Colleen Ann Harris, the “Black Rose of El Dorado County.”
Richard Esposito is publisher of the Mountain Democrat. His column appears on Wednesdays.