'She is a masculine looking woman, with a strong, unsympathetic face'
March 12, 2015 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Over one hundred years ago, Lizzie Borden became infamous for supposedly brutally killing her parents with an ax. Few know that she was actually acquitted of the crime, and there was little evidence in fact suggesting that she had done it. Why was Lizzie maligned in history and the press? Some feminist interpretations, such as Carolyn Gage's, argue for another look at the story, suggesting that prejudice, not evidence, ruled the day. Fortunately for those interested, the advent of the internet has provided many opportunities for passionate scholarship and the presentation of evidence, providing the interested observer closer looks at the case, the trial [1] [2] , a potential plethora of suspects and at Lizzie herself.
She had taught a Sunday school class for Chinese men and had also taught classes for young women who worked in the mills. She participated in many women's groups at her church and had been a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, a hotbed of feminist organizing in its day. She had been elected a member of the board of the Fall River Hospital, a rare appointment for a woman, and in 1891 was a board member of the Good Samaritan Hospital... In other words, Lizzie had a full life outside the home at a time when employment opportunities for middle-class women were severely restricted.
posted by corb (32 comments total) 84 users marked this as a favorite
Rick Geary's book was the first time I remember hearing any claims that Borden might not be guilty; and while I liked it a lot I didn't follow up with any research to see how much his work was fictionalized. Thanks for this post.
posted by johnofjack at 11:46 AM on March 12, 2015

Why was Lizzie maligned in history...?

A catchy song works wonders.
posted by Segundus at 11:48 AM on March 12, 2015 [16 favorites]

From the first linked article, emphasis mine:

A story in the Boston Daily Globe reported rumors that "Lizzie and her stepmother never got along together peacefully, and that for a considerable time back they have not spoken," but noted also that family members insisted relations between the two women were quite normal. The Boston Herald, meanwhile, viewed Lizzie as above suspicion: "From the consensus of opinion it can be said: In Lizzie Borden's life there is not one unmaidenly nor a single deliberately unkind act."

It's kind of fascinating to see how often, historically, the fulfillment of what we now call gender roles (intertwined with class and race, of course) could constitute not just evidence but categorical eligibility for guilt or innocence.
posted by clockzero at 12:00 PM on March 12, 2015 [9 favorites]

I am guilty of not knowing that Lizzie Bordon was not.
posted by 724A at 12:04 PM on March 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

From the Evidence link, above: George Dexter Robinson’s file on the case is “probably the last great body of fresh historical evidence on one of the most sensational episodes in legal history. The papers are in a locked room inside a file cabinet on the 16th floor at the Springfield law firm founded by George Robinson.” . . . the firm continues to cite attorney-client confidentiality in their refusal to turn over the documents to researchers and historians.

So the successor firm to Borden's attorney won't release her file after 110 years (and almost 90 years after her death)? I so have a new attorney-client privilege anecdote for my Intro to Paralegal course.
posted by fogovonslack at 12:10 PM on March 12, 2015 [17 favorites]

If folks are interested in both Lizzie Borden and Lovecraft, I absolutely must recommend Cherie Priest's Maplecroft. She used the trial transcripts and available history to build the characters, but proposed a rather different reason for the murder. It's a neat epistolary novel and Borden is a great character.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:14 PM on March 12, 2015 [15 favorites]

I really enjoyed the "argue" link. A quick read and fascinating stuff! An Irish immigrant house maid was not the villain a community filled with Irish immigrants and rich folk who hired 'em wanted to think about!
posted by jillithd at 12:17 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

The quote used as the title makes little sense to me. I know that it was something used to drum up sentiment against her, but the pictures I see make her look just...ordinary. I have a horrible time in general judging appearances with old pictures, but still, it just doesn't match the description.
posted by happyroach at 12:19 PM on March 12, 2015

Anyone in San Francisco should know that Lizzie: The Musical is the second show in Ray of Light Theatre's upcoming season. I can attest that they do terrific work (I've seen a bunch of their shows and am not affiliated with ROLT) and if you're at all intrigued, you should give it a whirl.
posted by janey47 at 12:19 PM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Agnes de Mille went one step further in Fall River Legend (performed here by Virginia Johnson and the Dance Theater of Harlem): she revised the jury verdict to "guilty."
posted by thomas j wise at 12:23 PM on March 12, 2015

Few know that she was actually acquitted of the crime

I like to think the defense rested on "If it's Borden, it's got to be good!"
posted by octobersurprise at 12:26 PM on March 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

One of my mom's friends when I was growing up, Dr. Eileen (which is what I called her when I was seven), was apparently one of the leading experts on Lizzie Borden for a while (I think she was a neurologist and Lizzie Borden was a hobby but one about which she was very knowledgeable).

If I remember correctly, and I probably don't, Dr. Eileen had a theory that the case was related to abuse. Apparently (I am fuzzy on this but it was the crux of the issue) there was something unusual about the locks in the Borden house, like the rooms locked only from the outside or something. I believe she presented a paper on this theory to the Lizzie Borden Society or a similar organization at some point. I've tried to find it online but I can't which is a shame because it sounds really interesting.

Thanks for the post!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:30 PM on March 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

Why was Lizzie maligned in history...?
A catchy song works wonders.

"Why was Lizzie maligned in history" is kinda catchy too.
posted by automatic cabinet at 12:33 PM on March 12, 2015

Mrs Pterodactyl. Is it Dr Eileen McNamara? She believed it specifically was incest, rather than abuse.
posted by saucysault at 12:49 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've tried to find it online but I can't which is a shame because it sounds really interesting.

The full text is here.
posted by wreckingball at 1:16 PM on March 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

Rick Geary's book was the first time I remember hearing any claims that Borden might not be guilty; and while I liked it a lot I didn't follow up with any research to see how much his work was fictionalized.

His stuff is very, very good, but I do recall wondering the same thing when I read his take on it...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 1:20 PM on March 12, 2015

Wow, thanks guys! This post is great and the users reading it are great. Much appreciated all around!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:54 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I saw the made-for-TV movie, but I'm not sure if they said she was guilty- I think so. All I remember was Elizabeth Montgomery taking her clothes off. Not sure why I don't remember anything else...
posted by MtDewd at 2:18 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Wait, hang on -- there's a Lizzie Borden Quarterly? (wreckingball's link.)
posted by daisyk at 2:25 PM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

In case you don't know the catchy tune, this is the one I listened to when I was younger.
posted by MtDewd at 2:27 PM on March 12, 2015

Some other interesting items from the trial transcript:

1) When Lizzie was answering inquest questions - the 'contradictory answers' that many have used to decide guilt - she was apparently on what her doctor called 'double doses of morphine' to calm her anxiety.

2) Lizzie Borden was said to have been menstruating at the time - a pail containing 'napkins' with menstrual blood had been found, which might explain the one small spot of blood on the skirt. (p 518, Vol I)

3) This is actually fascinating in terms of how biased the police were - one of the police officers testified that at the very time they were looking all over the house for the note that Mrs. Borden was said by Lizzie to have received, they saw Dr. Bowen, the family doctor, with torn scraps of note paper in his hand, which he threw into the stove as they watched, with the name of Lizzie's older sister noticed on the paper, and they took his word that it had nothing to do with the case. (p 533)
posted by corb at 2:37 PM on March 12, 2015 [10 favorites]

I knew about Fall River Legend because ABT staged it in 2007 (my favorite photo from that production). Like thomas j wise said, in the ballet they find her guilty.

Wikipedia says "De Mille famously altered the historical record by finding Lizzie Borden guilty as charged. This came about as a result of a conversation she had with Morton Gould [the composer] over dinner at the Russian Tea Room in New York, in which she said she could not decide how to end the ballet. Gould said he only knew how to write hanging music, not acquittal music, and that she should have Lizzie killed off."

I just always assumed she was found guilty; it wasn't until I read up on the actual story after the ballet that I found out she wasn't. And I had honestly totally forgotten that she wasn't until this. Weird how false "facts" just lodge in your brain sometimes...
posted by gemmy at 2:54 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Those interested could do worse than to track down "A Wasp Looks at Lizzie Borden" by Florence King. It can also be found in the Florence King Reader.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:57 PM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Great post, corb!
posted by Drinky Die at 3:23 PM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I vaguely remember reading something when I was 12 or 13 that argued that Borden was likely guilty but that her aquittal was justified because there wasn't sufficient proof of her guilt. All these opportunities to take a deeper look at the case are great. I love that anecdote about Robinson's case file.

Thanks for posting!
posted by layceepee at 4:22 PM on March 12, 2015

I was involved in an excellent play called "Blood Relations"by Sharon Pollock. Based on fact, using the trial transcripts, evidence and interviews with Lizzie, the play speculates that the evidence was overwhelming that Lizzie did it. Although she was considered guilty by the court she was acquitted.

I am not certain that the quote below was actually made by the judge or one of the lawyers in the trial or if it was creative freedom. I do not remember the quote verbatim, but the gist of it was:

"If a little woman like Lizzy Borden actually killed her father so violently and is convicted, what man can sleep comfortably in his bed again."

Bloody axcellent post!
posted by smudgedlens at 8:27 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

One of the most interesting reviews of the case I've seen is a chapter from The Cases That Haunt Us, written by John Douglas and Mark Olshanker.

Their research suggests that:

1) The large number of wounds, and the fact that they were concentrated on the heads of the victims, suggest a "deep-seated and often long-standing anger" on the part of the person who killed them. Mutilating Andrew Borden's face served to eliminate the identity and power he represented in the killer's mind.

2) If the motive for killing was the inheritance (no will was found, though there were suggestions that Andrew Borden was preparing to draft one), then the issue of who died first became critical. If Andrew Borden died first, then Abby Borden would inherit (and her blood relatives would then have inherited some or all of the family's money and property). If they died at the same time, there was a possibility of a legal fight over the inheritance. Since Abby Borden had been killed first (her blood was congealed by the time her body was discovered), Lizzy and her sister Emma were the indisputable heirs of the family's money.
posted by 1367 at 12:12 AM on March 13, 2015

+100 for Cherie Priest's Maplecroft, as restless_nomad mentions upthread.
posted by LMGM at 1:14 AM on March 13, 2015

One thing that makes me think that either she did it, or knew who did and didn't fear them, is that once she found her father's body, she remained in the house, sending Bridget out for the doctor. Since there was only a very short window of time for the murder to have happened, why wouldn't she be terrified that the killer was still in the house?

But the idea of her doing it alone also seems farfetched because of the timeline, particularly for her father's murder. She kills her stepmother around 9:30 while the maid is on the premises, somehow manages to hide a bloody dress and clean or dispose of the murder weapon*, wash herself completely of blood in a place without indoor plumbing, and by 10:30 or so calmly greets her father, does some ironing, chats with the maid about a fabric sale, then when the maid happens to go up to her room a little before 11, and her father happens to have fallen asleep, she gets the weapon again, or a different one, either re-dons the bloody dress or bloodies a new one wacking her dad, then again disposes of dress and weapon and washes all the blood off her person, and at 11:10 or so raises the alarm that her father's been murdered. That just seems so unlikely.

* From what I'm understanding from what I've read, she probably had no reason to think that her father would necessarily be home before midday for dinner (he supposedly came home early, because he wasn't feeling well), so I assume she would have done all the cleaning and hiding things after the attack on her stepmother without the expectation that she was necessarily going to do it all again once he returned. Either way, she would have assumed her stepmother would be found by or before noon.

Her uncle was also expected back for dinner, but could have returned at any time earlier, too. Bridget could have come back inside (or back downstairs, in the second case) at any time.

So puzzling, so many questions.

Anyway, one thing that I had forgotten until seeing this post is that Elizabeth Montgomery is apparently a distant relative of Lizzie Borden's, and I think I do see some family resemblance.

Also, I just bought "Maplecroft," thanks for the recommendation r_n!
posted by taz at 8:04 AM on March 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

One thing that makes me think that either she did it, or knew who did and didn't fear them, is that once she found her father's body, she remained in the house, sending Bridget out for the doctor.

You know, I read this, and was actually thinking about it a lot on the way up I-5, and about a lot of other stuff, and what I wonder is - I wonder if two things are true - first, that Andrew Borden /did/ molest his daughters /and/ that Lizzie didn't kill them, but she knew who did and wasn't particularly sorry to see them go either? I'm thinking in particular about the connection between Lizzie and Bridget.

Evidence I'm thinking of molestation falls in lines with the Eileen essay - those locks on every door of the house from the outside are pretty crazy to say the least - plus the fact that the father wore a ring on his finger that he was given by the youngest daughter when she was 15, and the fact that there seem to have been some boundary issues between the girls and the stepmother. But then I followed the incest chain to its end.

First, in most cases of familial molestation like that, it tends to end once the children get older or to adulthood - and I'm thinking of that testimony that about five years before the murders, Lizzie seemed to brighten up and get more social, which tends to incline towards the theory that her life got easier in some way - I also think of how Andrew Borden deeded over their childhood home to the girls at this time, thus leaving them somewhere to go and something they owned to themselves.

But Bridget Sullivan was a young, attractive woman who slept in the same house and whose bedroom locked from the outside with a key Andrew Borden held - particularly in an age when sexual abuse of servants was not remarked, Bridget had no other family or support in the country, and Andrew Borden was a leading citizen of the city. And then I look at the Carolyn Gage essay, which talks about how window washing was not a common chore, and choosing one of the hotter days in the year to do this difficult work may have been punitory. And I wonder - why would Andrew Borden's wife want to punish the maid who all accounts spoke well of? Maybe because she knew that her husband was sleeping with her, and while she didn't protest his actions, she still took it out on the victim? Bridget was in and out of the house to carry water for the window washing - is it possible some sort of altercation could have occurred?

If so, she would have known that she would have had to kill Andrew Borden as well. Maybe she secured Lizzie's help in lulling her father into a false sense of security, or maybe she just waited until he was asleep and then had Lizzie steer clear - sent her off to stay in the barn until it was done.

This account from Bridget Sullivan's family seems to suggest that Bridget may have travelled back to Ireland after the murders - a trip that may have been funded by Lizzie Borden, which would be unnecessary if Lizzie did it, as she had already been acquitted, but maybe necessary if Bridget did it, as she could be tried at any time. I think also of how Bridget, a poor Irish maid, could have or would have afforded a lawyer to be by her side as she went to see Lizzie being charged and tried.
posted by corb at 9:29 AM on March 13, 2015 [11 favorites]

Hey, I found this transcript of the preliminary hearing, which begins with Bridget Sullivan's testimony. Here she says that she washed the windows once or twice a month:

Q. When you saw Mrs. Borden, where did you see her?
A. In the dining room, dusting. She wanted to know if I had anything particular to do that day. I told her no. Did she want anything? Yes, she said she wanted the windows washed. I asked her how. She said on both sides, inside and outside; they were very dirty.
Q. Did you have any usual time to wash the windows?
A. No Sir.
Q. How often did you use to wash them?
A. Sometimes once a month, and probably twice a month.
Q. Did you see Mrs. Borden after that?
A. No Sir.

I haven't read it all yet. Long!
posted by taz at 12:23 PM on March 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Anyway, one thing that I had forgotten until seeing this post is that Elizabeth Montgomery is apparently a distant relative of Lizzie Borden's, and I think I do see some family resemblance.

posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 6:15 PM on March 13, 2015

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