After Andrew and Abby Borden, of Fall River, Massachusetts, were found viciously hacked to death with an axe in August 1892, no one could have predicted the widespread—and lasting—fascination the case would generate. Their murders would not only fracture a family and its local community, but would reverberate through the country. The wealthy couple’s much-publicized slayings triggered nursery rhymes, in-depth essays, films, books and even a museum. But…why?
That’s primarily thanks to Lizzie Borden, 32, one of Andrew Borden’s two adult unmarried daughters. She and her older sister Emma both lived at the family home, where tensions about money were reportedly running high in the days before the murders. Aside from Bridget Sullivan, the family’s maid, Lizzie was the only person in the Borden household at the time the bodies were discovered, and she was swiftly arrested and charged for the crimes.
Still, Lizzie’s reputation as an upstanding Christian woman preceded her, as did the fact that, at trial the following summer, most of the prosecution’s evidence against her was circumstantial. (For instance, though a witness claimed Lizzie tried to buy poison the day before the murders, this was not definitively proven.) Lizzie also gained public sympathy—and earned potential points with jurors—when she fainted after Andrew and Abby Borden’s chopped-up skulls were exhibited in court.
Her trial was one of the first “trials of the century,” as reporters flocked to the courtroom and people speculated about Borden’s innocence—or lack thereof. The court proceedings are the focus of lawyer Cara Robertson’s new book, The Trial of Lizzie Borden, which walks readers through the murders and their aftermath using a variety of primary-source materials, including court transcripts and recently uncovered letters from Lizzie.
A&E Real Crime spoke with Robertson about the most intriguing elements of the case.
Why do you think Lizzie Borden’s murder case has captured the public’s attention for so long?
There is a lurid fascination with the idea of two people, in the privacy of their own home, on an otherwise normal summer day, ending up dead before noon. When you add that the accused person is their daughter, who’s a completely ordinary-seeming unmarried woman, active in church works [and] ticks all the boxes of respectable womanhood for that period—the idea that she could have done such a thing is so horrifying that it brings it to another level.
It has the locked-door mystery fascination (where a murder is committed under seemingly impossible circumstances), which is the same thing that [intrigued] many people at the time [of the crime]. They [even] followed along, looking at the maps and the house’s floor plans.
How did your own interest in the case develop?
I started out looking for a senior thesis topic. I was a history and literature person with a strong interest in women’s studies. I thought it was an interesting mystery, and a great public trial. Trials are terrific for giving you a window into a period; the Gilded Age in America is such a fascinating time. This crime in particular really gets at people’s conceptions of what women were capable, or not capable, of [doing].
I went to law school, and the Borden case just kept calling to me over the years. I realized that what I wanted to do was a longer [project] that covered the case from the beginning to the aftermath and was as close to the primary sources as possible. Because so much of what gets written about is often based on secondary sources or local gossip, rather than trial transcripts.
Can you talk about public misconceptions of the trial or the murders?
First of all, it wasn’t ’40 whacks.’ That’s a kids’ rhyme, obviously, but it has a distancing quality. Second, Borden was acquitted, so technically it’s an unsolved crime. And third, a lot of the more lurid explanations for what might have been going on in the household really aren’t based on any evidence [from the time].
The temptation is to pile on the motivations: that there was incest, there was epilepsy, there was an illicit affair between Lizzie and Bridget. There are a [lot] of extra motivations [people tack on] to make the crime seem comprehensible. We want a reason.
Was it difficult to select a jury because Borden’s family was so well known in the community?
I would have expected that too, but it went a lot more smoothly than [the lawyers] expected.
What were a few of the trial’s more shocking moments?
The trial was really about whether or not someone like Lizzie Borden could have committed the murders, not whether she actually did so. The moment the skulls were produced was shocking, and the moment when Lizzie Borden faints.
Also, the questions of whether her inquest testimony or her alleged attempt to buy prussic acid [a poison] would make it into the trial were moments of extreme drama. The stakes were really high for the defense. You can imagine what the tension was like in the courtroom.
What about the Fall River police—what was their role in how the case played out?
They were criticized for their handling of the case. First, for taking so long to arrest Lizzie Borden. Many local journalists, particularly those who were Irish Catholic, thought she was getting special treatment—that had it been a millhand, the person would have been clapped in irons much sooner. And then police faced the contrary claim, by Lizzie Borden’s defenders, that they’d rushed to judgment.
They also didn’t secure the crime scene. People were walking in throughout the day. It’s entirely possible, from the [defense’s] perspective, that an outsider could have come in. [Police] were also accused of removing evidence. There’s also a question about whether or not they found the handle to the hatchet in the basement of the Borden house or not, which would have been a sign that Lizzie Borden had not gone to the barn during the critical time her father was killed.
How did Lizzie’s arrest affect the community? Did she have supporters?
Her friends and larger kin group backed her during the trial. They visited her in jail, they supported her throughout. But it was a case that definitely split the town.
In your research, did you come across anything that contradicted your previous beliefs on the case?
There were many more primary sources available by the time I was ending my research than there were at the start (in 1990). Some of those relate to the journals about the trial kept by the defense lawyer, Andrew Jennings. He was a socially prominent local lawyer who had been Andrew Borden’s lawyer.
I also was able to see the papers of the lead prosecutor, Hosea Knowlton, and the chief of police. Those files, in addition to containing correspondence about the case, were full of what you might call ‘crank communications’ (messages expressing ludicrous ideas or theories) from the public, so I got a much deeper sense of what ordinary people thought about the case.
There was a lot of information about Lizzie Borden’s life afterwards; there are birthday greetings from an older Lizzie to the children of her domestic staff, signed ‘Auntie Borden.’
What was Lizzie’s life like after she was acquitted?
Initially it was the life she probably always wanted. She and her sister moved to a much larger and grander house in a better neighborhood. She went to the World’s Fair in Chicago, and was an independently wealthy woman. But very quickly after her acquittal, she was frozen out of the church. The church leaders had provided the bedrock of her support during the trial, and that pretty much set the tone for her treatment in the polite circles of town. [But afterward] she was left with a dwindling number of friends. People began to wonder, if she didn’t do it, then who did?
But she chose to stay in that town, when she could have gone somewhere else and lived out her life in more comfortable anonymity. That struck me as one of the most intriguing aspects of her character—that she chose to stay there, shunned by the people she most wished to know.