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Vengeful Daughter: How Lizzie Borden got away with murder

By Robert Booth
6/12/2017 • American History Magazine

THE MOST FAMOUS resident of Fall River, Mass., spent the last three and a half decades of her life as the mistress of a mansion on “The Hill,” the most exclusive neighborhood in town. Her small circle of friends called her Lizbeth, a name she adopted after she moved into the 13-room house she dubbed Maplecroft. In a photograph taken in 1916, Lizbeth of Maplecroft, plump, gray-haired and fashionably dressed in summer muslin at age 56, sits in a wicker rocker on her veranda holding her Boston terrier. She was obsessed with the welfare of birds and squirrels and made generous contributions to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Theater was her favorite pastime and she invited actors and actresses of the itinerant troupes that played Fall River to stay at Maplecroft.

Lizbeth’s given name was Lizzie Borden. In 1892, at age 32, she was charged with the horrific murders of her father, Andrew, 70, and her stepmother, Abby, 64. Both died from multiple ax blows that crushed their skulls. The Bordens were one of Fall River’s wealthiest families, and Lizzie was a churchgoing spinster who hardly fit the part of bloody ax murderer. She was ultimately acquitted, but widespread skepticism about her innocence magnified public fascination with the case and made it the most notorious crime of 19th-century America.

Time has since passed Fall River by. Located on the eastern shore of Mount Hope Bay at the border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the city of 90,000 was once the center of the American textile industry—a bustling symbol of the Gilded Age. Today, most of the mill buildings are gone, and nothing is manufactured here anymore. But the city has not completely lost its charm. Hundreds of Victorian homes line the streets of the main hillside. One, a granite mansion, now houses the Fall River Historical Society. In a high-ceilinged room, glass cases are filled with pictures of Lizzie as a young woman, as well as memorabilia from her friends and family.

Lizzie’s presence is most palpable in archival catacombs under the mansion, where two 40-something curators—Michael Martins and Dennis Binette—occupy a windowless office, buried in Fall River’s past. Martins and Binette devoted the last decade to producing a 995-page, 6.75-pound book titled Parallel Lives: A Social History of Lizzie Borden and Fall River. It is an exhaustive study of Lizzie Borden and her social milieu that includes a wealth of material about turn-of-the-century Fall River—letters and diaries, photographs and cards— much of it entrusted to the curators by descendants of Lizzie’s friends. “So many old families were keeping secrets,” explains Martins. “They were too important to lose when the possessor passed away, and so they have come to us.” The trove is a portal on a lost world. “Lizzie was the daughter of an old Yankee family in a city run by old Yankees, proper, self-disciplined people,” says Martins. She was also totally dependent on her rich father and stepmother to make her way forward in society. And therein lies the crux of her tragic tale.

The authors of Parallel Lives point to the reams of anecdotal information they gathered about Lizzie’s life after the trial as proof of her good character. “We found that with 35 more years to live, she did nothing criminal or even wrong,” Martins says. “She led a blameless life.” Martins and Binette are captivated by Lizbeth of Maplecroft—a character previous researchers have not examined in great depth—and consider it almost unimaginable that the same woman could have been an ax murderer in her younger incarnation as Lizzie Borden. The curators take great pride in having found previously unseen letters written by Lizzie, mainly from jail, that “show her as a feeling human being, not the monster that others made her out to be.”

At the same time, Martins and Binette will only volunteer evasive legalistic opinions about the evidence they gathered concerning the murders and Lizzie’s acquittal. “We spent years examining records of the case and nothing new about the crime emerged,” Martins says. “Based on our work, Lizzie is still not guilty.”

That remains a minority view. The legal case against Lizzie Borden was badly bungled by the police and prosecution, but most investigators have long believed that she killed her stepmother and father. The one fact that is difficult to ignore is that she was the only plausible suspect. When pressed about whether anyone else had either the motive or the opportunity to commit the murders, Martin replies, “No one knows.”

Martins and Binette are not the first gallant gentlemen to jump to Lizzie’s defense. Indeed, their overt sympathy toward her and eagerness to restore the reputation of the city she scandalized, as well as surprising nuggets that emerge from mining the encyclopedic collection of material they have amassed about her and Fall River, provide telling clues that help illuminate two enduring mysteries. One is what might have prompted Lizzie to murder her parents. The other is why a jury—of her father’s male peers—was apparently predisposed to let her get away with it.

 

IN THE LATE 19TH CENTURY, Fall River gained renown as Spindle City, home to 120 mills that made it the largest producer of cotton cloth in the country. It was, for its size, the richest city in the United States. Martins and Binette describe it as “a world of mill men, grand dames and spinsters; of social rivalries, cotillions and elegant balls; of Grand Tours and quaint country retreats; of titillating scandals and tragic, heart-wrenching losses.”

It was also a city of Dickensian hardship. The population jumped from 45,000 in 1875 to 74,000 in 1890. While the old-line Yankee mill owners lived in baronial mansions atop The Hill, the laborers on whom they depended—Irish and English immigrants and newly arrived French Canadians—were crowded into nasty tenement buildings downtown, along the waterfront, in what was known as “The Pit.” Many of the workers were barefoot children.

Lizzie’s father, Andrew J. Borden, was a rich Yankee but not an industrialist. Although Bordens were among the founders of Fall River, Andrew was from a lesser branch of the family. The son of a fishmonger, he was a casket-maker turned undertaker turned furniture dealer who co-owned a busy store on Main Street that furnished the new homes going up for the city’s ballooning middle class. Lizzie’s mother, Sarah, died in 1862, when Lizzie was 2 and her sister, Emma, was 12, and three years later Andrew took a new wife—a quiet childless woman named Abby Durfee Gray. From the outset Lizzie and Emma viewed their stepmother as an interloper. The family’s dressmaker later recalled that Lizzie “would not, and did not, dine at the same table with her father and stepmother.” Lizzie referred to Abby as a “horrid old thing.”

Lizzie grew up in a city that was awash with money. Dozens of businessmen bought or built mansions on The Hill, and privileged young Victorian women went to exhilarating masked balls and debutante parties. Many were courted and got married.

For Lizzie and Emma, however, the upper reaches of Fall River society were just out of reach. Andrew was a reticent man, with few friends, and a notorious skinflint. While his daughters longed to move to The Hill, he kept the family near his downtown business in an old Greek Revival house, which lacked a bathtub, hot water and gas lighting. Parents were expected to launch their daughters into the social whirl, but Lizzie and Emma’s mother was dead and their father and stepmother left them to fend for themselves. They did not have coming-out parties and were not courted. Both were spinsters.

Emma was apparently resigned to her lot, but not Lizzie. She rented her own pew at a Congregational church popular among residents of The Hill and, in the spring of 1890, when she was 30, she and three other wealthy single women went on a chaperoned grand tour of Europe. The 18-week trip dazzled Lizzie. On the steamship home, she told her friends how sad she was to be returning to “such an unhappy home.” In Fall River she experienced one great moment of gratification, as a guest of honor at a reception for the travel group given by the social committee of her church. It may have been the high point of her life.

 

FALL RIVER turned unbearably hot during the summer of 1892. As the heat wave began to peak, a fatal outbreak of cholera raged in the city’s teeming poor neighborhoods. In the last week of July, the disease killed 65 small children.

On the morning of August 3, Abby Borden crossed her tree-lined street to tell Dr. Seabury W. Bowen that she and her husband had been violently sick the previous night. Abby wondered if they’d been poisoned, perhaps by milk or mutton stew gone bad in the heat. The doctor examined Abby and pronounced that she was not seriously ill.

The next morning was another scorcher. Emma was out of town. Around 11 a.m., Lizzie told Bridget Sullivan, the Bordens’ housemaid, to go across the street and get the doctor. Meanwhile, Mrs. Adelaide Churchill, the Bordens’ next-door neighbor, noticed Lizzie standing in the side doorway and asked her if anything was wrong. “Oh, Mrs. Churchill,” Lizzie replied, “do come over, somebody has killed father.”

When she entered the house, Mrs. Churchill could not bear to look at Andrew Borden dead in the sitting room. The police arrived soon after and found the body of Abby Borden in the upstairs guest bedroom. Both Andrew and Abby had been hacked in the head with an ax. Curiosity seekers began to congregate outside the house. Lizzie remained cool and stoic.

Citizens of Fall River were horrified by the crime. The Reverend Edwin A. Buck lamented that “a vile creature, a butcher…was roaming at large.” Some speculated the murderer must have been a hobo or a crazed foreigner.

During the police investigation and inquest, Lizzie gave conflicting accounts of her whereabouts at the time of the murders. She placed herself in the kitchen, in her bedroom and in an adjacent barn, though police found the barn’s dusty floor to be undisturbed. Detectives subsequently discovered bloody towels in the basement of the Borden house, along with the head of an ax. The suspicions of investigators peaked when Alice Russell, a close friend of both Lizzie and Emma, revealed that Lizzie burned a dress in the kitchen stove the day after her parents’ funeral on August 6. “I wouldn’t let anybody see me do that,” she recalled telling Lizzie.

On August 11, Lizzie was arrested and arraigned for murder. At a preliminary hearing, a drugstore employee testified that Lizzie had attempted to buy prussic acid, a poison used to kill rodents, the day before the murders. Judge Josiah C. Blaisdell declared that the accused was “probably guilty” and ordered her held without bail.

 

ATER NEARLY A YEAR in jail, Lizzie went on trial on June 5, 1893, in the county courthouse in New Bedford. The court was packed with spectators every day. Many were “cruel hearted” ladies, according to one press account, who had come to “gloat over the lonely woman.” By contrast, members of the jury—all men—appeared to be sympathetic toward Lizzie from the start. Juror Allen Wordell later described the panel as a “jolly crowd” who enjoyed being sequestered during the two-week trial. “There were some mighty good storytellers among us,” he said. “Every evening we’d get together and have a fine time smoking, listening to the yarns and laughing over them.”

The prosecution tried to establish a motive for the murders by calling witnesses who testified that Andrew Borden planned to write a will that favored his wife, Abby. But their case quickly began to unravel. Lizzie’s contradictory statements about her whereabouts were deemed inadmissible (she did not have a lawyer during the inquest and had been on morphine to calm her nerves), as was evidence about her attempt to buy prussic acid. Her sister, Emma, the Borden’s housepainter and a dressmaker all testified that there were paint stains on the dress Lizzie burned. Moreover, Emma claimed she told Lizzie to get rid of the dress. The defense explained away the bloody towels by claiming that Lizzie had been menstruating. And the ax head? There was no blood on it.

On June 20 the jury delivered the verdict: not guilty. “Miss Borden’s head went down on the rail in front of her and tears came where they had refused to come for many a long day,” a reporter for the Boston Advertiser wrote. Meanwhile, there was bedlam in the courtroom. “A cheer went up which might have been heard a half mile away, and no attempt [was] made to check it.”

Members of the jury were apparently pleased with themselves for having rescued a damsel in distress. One juror later stated that he “did not believe a woman could commit such a crime.” And the panel demonstrated its collective sympathy toward Lizzie by giving her a framed photograph of the group.

The chivalrous gesture signaled that the men considered her a proper Victorian lady who deserved respect. In turn Lizzie sent members of the jury individual notes. “Please accept my grateful and cordial thanks for the picture of the honest men who gave me my liberty,” she wrote juror Frederick Wilbur. “I think of you all as my faithful friends and deliver[er]s.”

The recent prosperity of Fall River had lifted scores of men from the middle to the upper middle class. Most of them accepted that their newfound wealth carried an implicit obligation to see that their children benefited from a comfortable, cultured, affluent lifestyle in the right circles. But not Andrew Borden. The Borden sisters, with “more or less chagrin, saw girls whose fathers’ resources were one-tenth of theirs lapped in luxury,” one wealthy socialite, Mrs. George S. Bingham, told the Fall River Daily Herald.

Whatever stresses, jealousies and misery existed in their household, the Borden sisters evidently thought the cure was to move to a nice home amid the city’s social elite. Ironically, an entry in the personal journal of Andrew Jennings, Lizzie’s defense attorney, indicates that shortly before his death Andrew Borden had asked his financial adviser to look for a mansion on The Hill in order to mollify “my girls.”

 

MOST MEMBERS of the Fall River elite expected Lizzie to do the dignified thing: Quietly move away after the trial and let the scandal dissipate. Lizzie had other ideas. A month after the acquittal, Lizzie and Emma, with their $300,000 inheritance (about $8 million today), bought a Queen Anne house on The Hill. Lizzie soon added rooms and bay windows and a wraparound porch, and had the name Maplecroft carved into the top step at the front entrance.

Even though Lizzie had won her freedom and The Hill house she’d long coveted, she was largely shunned. But she opted to stay in Fall River. She bought a limousine, hired a chauffeur and dressed in a formidable black outfit with veil for her excursions into town. She knew people were whispering and pointing at her, but she carried herself like an actress on a stage.

Emma, quiet and demure, lived at Maplecroft for 12 years and stayed home when Lizzie made extended visits to Boston and to Washington, D.C., to visit museums, attend plays and hobnob with theater people. Lizzie’s flamboyant lifestyle eventually became too much for her older sister to take. After Lizzie began hanging out with Nance O’Neil, a young stage and silent movie actress, in 1904 and threw at least one lavish catered party at Maplecroft for O’Neil’s theatrical troupe, Emma packed up and moved to Providence. The two sisters never spoke to each other again.

Lizzie grew more reclusive in the years that followed, but was revered by several old schoolmates and other friends. She gave engraved gold rings to their sons, and loved to hear young children call her “Auntie Borden.” A heart condition eventually sent her into a downward spiral and she died at home on June 1, 1927, at age 67. Emma, then 77, died nine days later in New Hampshire. The long-estranged sisters were buried next to each other at Fall River’s Oak Grove Cemetery in the Borden family plot, together again in the silence of what they knew about the demise of their father and stepmother.

The Borden family home is one of the few old houses left standing in the area where Lizzie grew up; it’s now a bed and breakfast and museum that trades on its notoriety as a house of ghostly horror. Maplecroft still retains its spacious grounds, and it is not hard to imagine its mistress hosting a merry lawn party for a few friends and the high-spirited members of an acting troupe. But someone new will soon be casting shadows on the window shades. The house is up for sale.

 

Robert Booth’s Death of an Empire, about Salem, Mass., won a New England Society 2012 Book Award for History.

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.

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