Lizzie Borden took an axe,
Gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
Gave her father forty-one.
THE MURDER AND THE TRIAL
In August 1892, Fall River, Massachusetts, a prosperous town of 75,000, was rocked by a gruesome double murder. Seventy year old Andrew Borden, a miserly and wealthy self-made man and president of a town’s bank, and his sixty-four year old wife Abby were found butchered to death in their own house. The murders were particularly brutal, with Andrew hacked eleven times and Abby receiving nineteen blows. The initial investigation focused on a visiting uncle and various mystery men who had been spotted around the area. Andrew’s two daughters from his first marriage, Emma, forty-two, and Lizzie, thirty-two, as well as the family’s young maid Bridget Sullivan, were also in the vicinity at the time, but remained outside of suspicion. The investigators believed that the ferocity of the crimes excluded female suspects, as no woman could possibly muster the kind of fury and strength needed to commit them.
Thanks to new technology—specifically, the Teletype, which allowed transfer of typed text via wire system, and the Linotype machine, which speeded up typesetting, and circulation of the daily newspapers—the murders quickly drew national attention. Competing for readership, newspapers across the country, began printing all sorts of rumors and speculations about the case. Both police and the press thoughtfully analyzed the Borden family dynamics, their financial dealings, and the living arrangements for clues as to what might have happened.
Although there had been no reports that Abby was the proverbial “wicked stepmother,” both Lizzie and Emma disliked her. Lizzie was nearly five years old when Andrew married Abby, but stopped calling her “mother,” in the years shortly before the murders, instead referring to her as “Mrs. Borden.” Each time Andrew indulged Abby’s material wants, the daughters reportedly accused him of squandering their inheritance. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that Andrew and Abby lived in a separate part of the house, accessed via a different flight of stairs, away from Lizzie and Emma. The icy relations between the daughters and their parents, and the contentious financial arrangement between them, provided a possible motive behind the murders. Eventually, the investigation pointed towards the younger daughter, Lizzie, who appeared as the only suspect without a credible alibi.
On Monday, October 10, 1892, two months before she was indicted by a grand jury, the Boston Globe published an exclusive story about Lizzie. The newspaper purchased the story from Edwin D. McHenry, a detective hired by the Fall River police, who chose to sell the story to the Globe. The Globe claimed that Lizzie was pregnant, and that her father ordered her to “name the man or leave this house by Saturday.” The Globe also claimed that Andrew Borden disinherited Lizzie. The next morning, however, all hell broke loose when the story was disproved. On October 11, the Globe retracted the story and ran a full and sincere apology to Lizzie. As a result of the Globe’s false accusation, a competitive Boston Herald proclaimed, “Public Sympathy Aroused for the Accused.” Lizzie’s arrest came as a shock to both media and the townspeople—a Victorian woman of upper class, Lizzie seemed too frail, too genteel, and too feminine to be capable of such vicious murders. Thus, the trial started with Lizzie’s presumed innocence, and with the public and media on her side.
Though Lizzie was the only viable suspect, the prosecutor’s case against her was built around circumstantial evidence. There was no proof, no witnesses, and no confession. Lizzie gave contradictory statements as to her whereabouts on the day of the murders, but it was argued that her confusion might have been the result of morphine, prescribed by her doctor to calm her nerves after the murders. Since the Borden family was very prominent within the extremely close-knit community, the prosecutor and the judge found it quite distressing having to try Lizzie.
During the trial, Lizzie’s dislike and contempt for Abby was thoughtfully analyzed, with various witnesses testifying to her refusal to call her “mother.” It was noted that relations grew cold when Andrew gave Abby half of the house where Abby’s sister was living, which seemed to have infuriated Lizzie. The findings suggested that greed might have been the primary motive behind the murders. What appeared as a strangely close relationship between Lizzie and her father (his only piece of jewelry was not a wedding band, but the ring he received from Lizzie as a token of their bond) also supported the narrative of a daughter’s jealousy of her father’s affection for his new wife, thus further explaining Abby’s murder. That argument however, seemed to contradict the motives behind the father’s murder—why would Lizzie kill her father, with whom she was so close?
The issue of gender, particularly the Victorian ideas about what a woman was and how she should behave, played a large part in Lizzie’s trial. During the nineteenth century, the unhappy wives’ weapon of choice was poison, and the fact that Lizzie attempted to buy poisonous prussic acid a day before the murders was one of the most damning pieces of evidence. The stereotypical image of a nineteenth-century woman suggested that although women could kill, they killed in a “feminine fashion.” Lizzie’s lawyer argued that no genteel woman of her position and disposition could commit such a violent crime.
Lizzie’s emotional state and character became the main issue of the trial. Lizzie was the “new woman”—unmarried, but not a “spinster,” engaged in housework, but not domestic in a traditional Victorian sense. She traveled, pursued various hobbies, and belonged to female social clubs. Her psychological self-sufficiency and independence was viewed as somewhat unnatural for a woman. Lizzie was also not a particularly emotional woman. In fact, the most damning argument against her was her “unnatural,” “unwomanly” demeanor following the murders. Instead of crying, as expected from a woman of her social class and breeding, she appeared surprisingly calm and collected. Lizzie’s doctor testified in her defense that one of ladies who watched Lizzie right after the murders fetched him to administer Lizzie some medicine, since she appeared extremely distraught. The doctor’s testimony suggested that if other women judged Lizzie as sufficiently upset to require sedation, then, her “femininity” was legitimized as appropriately emotional and thus, within socially acceptable gender bounds. Lizzie’s defense characterized her as “a good church member, a loving daughter, a fragile spirit, and someone who wept appropriately.”
When Lizzie was acquitted, most newspapers across the nation rejoiced at the verdict, with headlines heralding a triumph of justice: “A Day of Sunshine for Lizzie,” “Back in Her Old Home,” “Friends Warmly Welcome Lizzie Home,” “Church and Charity May Claim Her.” Overnight, Lizzie became a national heroine. Condemning Lizzie would mean questioning the Victorian ideas of women’s moral superiority, female virtue, and piety. Such a verdict would have also shattered the idea of a home as sanctuary under female domain. Nearly all cases of domestic violence in the nineteenth century involved men as the perpetrators. The fact that a woman, and a rich woman of genteel breeding at that—not a man—was capable of horrifying violence was too much for the public to accept. Soon enough, however, public opinion shifted. If Lizzie didn’t commit the murders, who did? Protests against the verdict erupted, and the two clergymen who supported her became subjects of public scorn.
The Borden case illustrates the deep tensions over the changing gender roles in rapidly modernizing America. The Women’s Suffrage Movement was in full swing. The nineteenth-century Victorian image of traditional femininity was cracking, and the idea that a woman was incapable of any brutal impulses was no longer accepted as a given. Thus, more and more, Lizzie was perceived as a vicious manipulator who got away with murder. Although acquitted in a court of law, Lizzie was convicted in the court of popular opinion, spending the remaining thirty-four years of her life ostracized by Fall River society. The shift in perception contributed to Lizzie’s growing status as a folk figure, shrouding the case in even more mystery and heightening the fascination with Lizzie and her family. The case has inspired many legends, rumors, and interpretations. To this day, however, even with the use of modern forensics, it remains unsolved.
Special thanks to Stefani Koorey, Ph.D., Fall River historian, expert on the Borden murders of 1892, co-founder of the Fall River History Club, and the author of several books, including Fall River Revisited, Arthur Miller’s Life and Literature: An Annotated and Comprehensive Bibliography, Story Programs, and several books on the Lizzie Borden case. Dr. Koorey also manages the website www.lizzieandrewborden.com, a virtual museum on the Borden case.