What made Lizzie Borden kill? (2023)

On the 100th anniversary of the unsolved double murder of Andrew and Abby Borden, it's time to ask yourself: what was going on in that family?

A century ago, in Fall River, Massachusetts, a twelve-man jury deliberated for about an hour before acquitting Lizzie Borden of the murder of her father and stepmother. Lizzie's innocence was not so easily accepted by others, not in 1892 when the murders were committed, not even today. Since the trial, people have continued to question the evidence, police procedures, alibis, and the bizarre behavior of members of the Borden family. Amateur prosecutors have found other suspects. Still, the evidence against Lizzie is strong enough to keep speculation alive that she was the killer.

For many, the mystery depends on the reason. In the 19th century, only two motives could explain their actions: jealousy and greed. However, neither seems adequate to explain the extreme violence of the crime. Who Killed Mrs. Borden knocked her down with her first blow and then landed another eighteen blows to her back. Approximately ninety minutes later, the killer attacked Mr. Borden while he was sleeping, slashing his face beyond recognition. Was this just the work of a greedy and socially ambitious young woman?

Today, looking back a century on the events of that sweltering summer day, we would probably ask a slightly broader question: Why a ; woman kills her father and stepmother; j what happened to that family? Of course, all the participants are well beyond the scope of our speculation, and therefore it can remain just that: speculation. But a growing body of literature on women and family violence has given us a point of view that simply didn't exist a hundred years ago, or even twenty years ago. And by examining distant events through the lens of the present, we find an impressive body of circumstantial evidence that suggests, at work on that bloody morning, the awakening rage of the incest survivor.

Although almost anyone can recite the rhyme, not many people are familiar with the details of the case. Andrew Jackson Borden, 70, and his wife, Abby, 64, were respectable residents of Fall River, an industrial city divided into populous working-class neighborhoods and a more exclusive section for the upper classes on "The Hill." . The Lord. Borden was a retired businessman who had made a considerable fortune through a combination of ruthless financial practices and fanatical economics. With assets worth at least $500,000, he could have afforded to live in a better neighborhood, but he chose to live in the center of Second Street. His wife Abby was the second Mrs. Borden. She had few friends and spent her days quietly in the house she shared with Mr. Borden, Emma, ​​42, and Lizzie, more than ten years her junior. Lizzie led a more active life than her sister, teaching Sunday school and volunteering for local charities.

On the morning of Thursday, August 4, 1892, Mr. and Mrs. Borden and John Morse, a visiting relative, had breakfast together. around 9:00IN.Morse left to run errands and Mr. Borden went downtown, as was his custom, to take care of small businesses. Lady. Borden went upstairs to tidy up the guest room and was murdered there around 9:30 p.m. The Lord. Borden returned home and took a nap on the living room couch, where he died shortly after 11:00 a.m. Emma had gone to visit some friends and Lizzie and Bridget Sullivan, the maid, were the only people in the house that day. Not long after 11:00IN.Lizzie found her father's body and called Bridget for help. They discovered the body of Ms. Borden shortly thereafter. Forensics determined early on that both people were likely killed with an ax or hatchet.

In the 19th century, the connection between sexual abuse and homicide was simply not part of the public consciousness.

Fall River police, working under considerable pressure from an outraged and frightened public, were hampered in their search for the killer by the absence of witnesses. All the doors to the house were bolted shut, so it was unlikely that someone unfamiliar with the house could get in unseen. The absence of possible suspects encouraged wild speculation: rumors circulated about a tenant with a grudge against Mr. Edge; about a Portuguese farm worker who had previously been employed by the Bordens in nearby Swansea; about a shabbily dressed man running down the street on the morning of the murders, carrying what appeared to be an ax wrapped in newspaper. The Borden sisters have offered a $5,000 reward for information. But as the August 5 issue of Fall RiverHeraldHe lamented, there was not a single theory "against which some objection could not be made from the circumstances surrounding the case."

(Video) The Truth About Lizzie Borden

A story that surfaced would reverberate later. According to reports in various newspapers, Mr. and Mrs. Borden and Bridget suffered from stomach aches earlier in the week. Lady. Borden had consulted Dr. Bowen, the family physician, wondering if someone might be trying to poison them. After questioning Mr. and Mrs. Borden, Dr. Bowen attributed her symptoms to leftover food they ate at dinner the night before. Lizzie must have come up early as a possible suspect, because in the same interview that Dr. Bowen denied the poisoning allegations, he denied the possibility that she could have been involved in the murder. “I do not believe that a man of the hard world,” he said, “much less a gentle and refined woman, in her sober senses, devoid of sudden passion, could strike a blow with such a weapon as was used against Mr. Borden. and remain to examine the bloody deed. The police and many Fall River residents were beginning to think otherwise.

In the following week's inquest, Lizzie was unable to come up with a consistent story about her activities on the morning of the murders. Pressed as to her whereabouts at the time of her father's death, Lizzie first claimed that she was in the attic of the barn looking for iron to make sinkers for a fishing expedition, after which she was in the attic eating pears. Since the temperature that day was in the nineties, it seemed unlikely that anyone would choose to spend time in the attic for any reason. Lizzie also testified that a messenger called her stepmother the morning of the murders, but no corroboration of this story has emerged. Even more damning was the testimony of a local pharmacy clerk. The day before the murders, he said, Lizzie had gone shopping for prussic acid, a deadly poison. This, along with the family's illness the previous week, seemed to suggest that Lizzie had attempted the murders more than once. Eventually, the police produced what they said was the murder weapon: an ax found hidden in the basement, with a broken wooden handle, which might have contained traces of blood.

All this evidence seemed to point to Lizzie, but the only reason anyone could think of was simple greed: after the death of their father and stepmother, Lizzie and Emma would receive a sizeable inheritance. At the end of the investigation, Lizzie was arrested and charged with the crimes.

The following June, Lizzie stood trial in the New Bedford Superior Court. If convicted, she would be the first woman to be executed in Massachusetts since 1778. Although many people in the eastern part of the state believed her guilty, some newspapers outside of Massachusetts and fledgling women's organizations around the country portrayed her as an innocent victim. of incompetent police work. Much has been said about her activities in the church and her Christian character.

The prosecution's case, which relied almost entirely on Lizzie's inquest testimony, was dealt a severe blow when the judge declared it inadmissible as evidence because he felt she had not received adequate legal advice at the time it was filed. gave He also declared the pharmacist's testimony inadmissible, since the purchase of the poison did not prove that it would be used to commit murder. Both decisions were contested at the time and continue to be questioned by legal scholars.

Lizzie's own lawyers opened loopholes in the prosecution's case, but made no consistent attempt to incriminate anyone else; they also didn't put Lizzie on the stand to defend herself against her. Emma testified, but she seemed strangely passive. She supported her sister, but made no effort to proclaim her innocence, simply saying that the prosecutor's case had not been proven. Before long, Lizzie was acquitted.

In the century since the trial, several authors have reopened the case, finding new motives and new interpretations of the evidence. A kind of historiography of the Lizzie Borden murders emerged, depending on who she wrote and when. Lizzie was recast as a woman who kills for love, as a woman who kills in an epileptic fit, and as a loyal sister who covers for Emma, ​​the real killer. Others suspect Bridget Sullivan, the maid, and John Morse, the visiting uncle, as well as mysterious strangers in the neighborhood. Perhaps the most systematic and credible attempt to retry Lizzie was made in 1974 by Robert Sullivan, a Massachusetts judge. InGoodbye Lizzie Bordenargued convincingly that Lizzie was guilty and that she was acquitted of the actions of the biased judge in her case. Historians writing in the context of the growing women's movement have accepted Lizzie's guilt but have sought other explanations for her acquittal. Both Kathryn Jacobs, writing inamerican heritagein 1978, and Ann Jones inwomen who kill, published in 1980, argued that Lizzie was acquitted because she was a "lady" who, for a class age, simplyI could nothave done such a thing. But for all the controversy over whether Lizzie Borden did it, there has been little discussion aboutbecauseshe would have.

In the last thirty years, much research has been done on family violence. In 1962, an article in theJournal of the American Medical Associationdocumented a "battered child syndrome." Not long after, the women's movement began to focus on "battered woman syndrome." This new focus on physical violence and neglect has revealed controversial but alarming data about the number of children who are sexually abused in the home and the impact of that abuse on their adult lives. Just twenty years ago, the psychiatric community estimated that perhaps one person in two hundred thousand was a victim of incest. A respected 1985 study by sociologist David Finkelhor brought the number closer to one in five. Part of this almost inconceivable increase is due to the broadening of the definition of incest: today, incest is often defined as sexual abuse by a family member or another person (step-parent, babysitter, family friend) in whom the child is expected to trust. and obey. But current statistics also suggest the extent to which incest may have been underestimated in the past.

(Video) Did Lizzie Borden Kill her parents?

The link between sexual abuse and parricide came forcefully into the public consciousness in 1982 when sixteen-year-old Richard Jahnke killed his father after enduring years of physical abuse and witnessing physical and sexual abuse by his mother and her father. sister. According to Paul Mones, a lawyer specializing in the defense of abused children who kill their parents and author of a book on the subject, the Jahnke case was "the first patricide to attract intense national attention since Lizzie Borden." In 1986, a Long Island teenager named Cheryl Pierson paid a classmate to murder her father. When she was caught, Pierson told authorities that her father had abused her since she was eleven and that she feared he was about to cheat on her younger sister. These two cases drew attention to abuse in respectable middle-class families, families in which the abusers, as Mones writes in hiswhen a child kills, are “successful winners, regarded by their peers as honest and hard-working people”, people, in other words, “generally indistinguishable from the rest of us”.

In the 19th century, the connection between sexual abuse and homicide was simply not part of the public consciousness. A rare example arose in Boston in 1867, when seventeen-year-old Alice Christiana Abbott poisoned her stepfather. According to the correspondent forThe New York Times newspaper, claimed that he had had an "inappropriate connection" with her since she was thirteen years old. He had told other people, but most believed that "something was wrong with his head." When her stepfather threatened to send her to juvie if she revealed his abuse of her, she killed him. Her case was presented to the Suffolk County Grand Jury in August 1867. That body sent her to the Taunton Lunatic Asylum without further investigation. Buried in the records of Magdalen Asylum, a home for "fallen women" in Philadelphia at the turn of the century, are other accounts of women seeking refuge from their parents. The house keepers told these women to work hard and pray hard; few other resources were available.

Sigmund Freud himself was incredulous when he raised the subject of incest. In Vienna in 1896, he presented a paper in which he suggested that hysteria in the women he treated was caused by childhood sexual trauma. So outraged were his male colleagues that Freud backed down and built his theory of seduction, framing the fantasy daughters instead of their abusive fathers. He did it, he told a correspondent, with a sense of relief. If he was right the first time, he added, it would mean that "perverted acts against children" were pervasive in society.

Recent works by historians suggest so. InHeroes of their own lives, published in 1988, Linda Gordon analyzed the case records of one of the many child protection organizations at the turn of the century. She identified a hundred cases of incest. According to her sources, the average age of the victims at the time the incest was reported was ten years. About a quarter of the episodes occurred in homes where the mother was absent. In another 36% of cases, the mother was "weakened" by illness or fear of violence from the male family member. Some of the victims resisted the abuse by running away. When they did, they entered the files of other social service agencies as "delinquent girls" or prostitutes.

The manner in which the murders were committed seems revealing. All ax blows directed at Mr. Borden were directed at his face.

In the early 1980s, Denise Gelinas, co-founder and co-director of a medical treatment center for incest victims in Springfield, Massachusetts, documented certain conditions under which incest is more likely to occur (although the conditions themselves do not are the causes). abuse). . A father may turn against his children when the mother is unavailable and her sense of entitlement is strong or when she has suffered a major loss. Children between the ages of four and nine are particularly vulnerable because they are trusting, respectful of authority, and eager to please, and because they cannot always distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate actions. The likelihood of incest may also increase if there is a strong sanction against extramarital sexual activity.

All of these signs of a family at risk were visible in the Borden family when Emma and Lizzie were growing up. Two years before Lizzie was born, her mother gave birth to and buried another daughter, "Baby Alice." The first Mrs. Borden died two years after Lizzie's birth. Meanwhile, she suffered from a condition described on her death certificate as "uterine congestion", one of the non-specific female ailments that afflicted Victorian wives. Her victims were often bedridden for long periods of time. This, along with the death of one child and the birth of another, may have made Mrs. Borden sexually insensitive to her husband. Although there was a prostitution subculture in Fall River, Mr. Borden, an extremely private and strict man, may have been reluctant to resort to it. As provider and patriarch, he also expected his needs to be met in his own home.

Emma could easily have been urged to assume the role of her mother in a process therapists call "parenting." She was only thirteen when her mother died, and in Mrs. Borden's last two years, Emma took care of Lizzie. In the absence of other women in the household, Emma would have taken over the housework. The Lord. Borden refused offers of help from other family members, including her sister. He chose to keep her home in her own private domain, establishing a kind of family isolation well documented in the case histories of incest survivors.

(Video) Did Lizzie Borden Axe Murder Her Parents??! #Crimetober

As a result of a sense of entitlement and the absence of a suitable sexual partner, Mr. Borden may have abused Emma first, Lizzie second. Research on serial abuse is incomplete, but it can occur in up to 50% of all cases. The change from one sibling to another usually occurs when the older child begins to resist the abuse. In the Borden household, the transfer may have taken place when Emma was about fifteen and Lizzie was about four. This would have coincided with the arrival of the second Mrs. Borden.

The shadows of the first marriage haunted the second. Most followers of the case agree that the Borden girls did not react well to the arrival of a stepmother. There is no indication that Abby treated them badly, but from the beginning Emma refused to call her mom. Lizzie did not form a close relationship with her either, although she was young enough that Mrs. Borden had assumed the role of mother to her.

Abby Borden can be expected to have children; neither her age nor Mr. Borden prevented a second family. The absence of children raises the possibility that Andrew Borden's second marriage was sexless.

After seven years of marriage, the family moved into the house on Second Street, a building that has been the source of much controversy about the Bordens as a family. While it was a marked improvement over the previous house, it still lacked many of the conveniences that others in Mr. Borden's household would have demanded. If the change was made, as some have argued, to increase the Borden girls' chances of marriage, it was unsuccessful. Lizzie and Emma were normal-looking girls with above-average inheritance, but neither was ever engaged or married.

However, if the house was bought to allay Abby's suspicions, the choice was correct. The building was a long, narrow dwelling for two families. When the Bordens moved in, they made only minor changes, leaving the structure essentially divided. Mr. and Mrs. Upstairs Rooms Doors connecting various rooms upstairs were kept closed and blocked with furniture. The house effectively separated Mr. Borden from his daughters. As time passed, family divisions deepened, and at the time of the murders, the Bordens did not regularly eat together at a common table.

There was apparently little affection between any of the family members, with one exception: by all accounts, Lizzie and her father were once very close. The Lord. Borden always wore a gold ring that she gave him when she graduated from high school. He was using it when he died. Such affection between teenager Lizzie and her father would not contradict a past history of sexual abuse. Everything that happened between her and her father was her only experience of parental love. She did not know her mother or love her stepmother. She had been the "special girl" of her father. Confused feelings might also be expected if Lizzie had successfully repressed the abuse memories of her, as many incest victims do today. A powerful chronicle of another special girl who cracked down on abuse is Sylvia Eraser.My father's house, published in 1988. Fraser, a Canadian journalist and novelist, created an imaginary “twin”, another self who lived through his incestuous relationship with his father and the guilt that accompanied it. The twin's presence allowed Fraser to live a normal life when she was a teenager and loved her father.

No riot is enough to defend a family at war with itself. But seen as a pattern, the long absence of a wife-mother, the ages of the girls at the time of the mother's illness, the autocratic father, the isolation of the family, the failure of the family to come together as a unit when the new Mrs. Borden moved in, the timing of moving into the new house, the structure of the house, the special relationship between Lizzie and her father, the tensions between the two daughters and the stepmother: all these together suggest structural flaws that could have led to family violence and murder. Even the manner in which the murders were committed seems revealing. All ax blows directed at Mr. Borden were directed at his face. As the prosecutor described in his closing argument, the hand that held the gun “was not the hand of masculine force. It was the hand of a person strong only in hatred and the desire to kill."

What led Lizzie to murder, according to the prosecution, must have been greed. Evidence for this assumption was an earlier family feud that was made public at trial. In 1887, Andrew, normally extremely frugal, bought Abby a house for her sister to live in. Emma and Lizzie were upset by what they perceived as favoritism; Lizzie's anger was later interpreted as selfishness. But discussions about property and money are also often about position in the family structure. This disagreement may have even triggered memories of another time when Mr. Borden was sought out by both Mrs. Borden and Lizzie.

(Video) New Evidence on Lizzie Borden murder mystery

The awakening or emergence of memories about incest is a slow and unpredictable process. Sometimes a woman who has repressed victimization of herself for years will remember what happened when she became a mother. This phenomenon, well known to doctors treating incestuous patients, made national news recently when 29-year-old Eileen Franklin-Lipsker suddenly remembered that her father had raped and murdered her childhood friend. She was eight years old at the time. Her father told her that no one would believe her if she told what happened, and for two decades she suppressed the memory of her. Then one day, as she was looking at the face of her daughter, the memory surfaced. Psychologists call this awakening of memories "late discovery." Children deliberately forget as a way to distance themselves from the guilt and shame they feel. Once they remember it, they must not only believe in themselves, but also ask others to believe in them. Recent investigations into the late discovery have prompted lawmakers to extend the statute of limitations to prosecute child sexual assaults. The most liberal of these laws allows a victim to file charges 22 years after her eighteenth birthday.

The late discovery may have what Gelinas describes as a "time bomb quality." When such an awakening occurs today, a trained therapist can guide the survivor through the tangle of feelings. Dr. Judith Herman, a leading authority on father-daughter incest, recently helped a group of adult women through the healing process. The average age of the group was Lizzie's at the time of the murders, thirty-two. Most were white, educated, and single, and had suffered some degree of amnesia from their incest. Many were involved in "helping professions", the current counterpart to the church activities that were important to Lizzie in the 1890s.

But in the 1890s, the silence around incest could not be healed. The women who did remember were left alone to endure the pain, anger, and feelings of worthlessness and guilt that might arise. Some women acted strangely, became neurotic without knowing why. Lizzie herself recounted mixed feelings to her friend Alice Russell the night before the murders. “I feel low…like something is on me that I can't shake, and sometimes it comes over me no matter where I am…When I was at the table the other day…the girls were laughing and talking and having so much fun . time and this feeling came over me, and one of them spoke and said Lizzie, why don't you speak?

The 19th century victims who spoke up were not believed or were labeled crazy. In 1934, the jurist John Wigmore argued in his definitive classictreatise on evidencethat women and children were unreliable witnesses in sex crime cases because they were likely to bring false charges against men of good character. He even ignored the medical evidence supporting his testimony if he was in any way suspicious of the stories they told. Even today, when incest victims take matters into their own hands and kill their abusers, they are often portrayed as insane in the media. People are particularly disturbed because they don't seem to feel remorse for what they have done. Psychologists explain this lack of feeling as a defense. As Mones writes, incest victims are "forced to numb their real emotions for so long that, at the moment of parricide, they have no tears."

Parricide is the most extreme and rare reaction to incest. Why some victims kill their attackers and others don't is, of course, a mystery embedded in the deepest layers of human character, and this is where speculation must become most tentative. Today, most women of Lizzie's age who have a late discovery live outside the family home. Many of them experience homicidal rage, but they don't have to face their parents every day. Lizzie was still under her father's roof. With no means of earning a living and no prospect of marriage, she would have been trapped here as memories of her surfaced.

Why did he kill Abby too? Maybe because her stepmother knew about her incest and she couldn't stop it, or worse, she blamed Lizzie for it. What about Emma? She must have known that Lizzie had committed the murders and why. Otherwise, her eerie calm in the face of violent death is almost inexplicable. On the day of the murders, Emma and Lizzie were at home with the bodies on the dining room table. They remained there until the funeral, which was held in the room where Mr. Borden was murdered. Is it possible that one of the women would have done this if she thought that an unknown murderer had entered the house and committed the crimes?

In the months and years that followed the trial, Lizzie changed. She started calling herself Lisbeth; she moved into a stately new home she named Maplecroft. She began buying things for herself and living the life she felt was denied her. She befriended a Boston actress. Lisbeth's new way of life has worn her sister out. Over time, Emma left Maplecroft and Fall River, where the children still sang the insidious rhyme. The two sisters never saw each other again.

In a rare interview twenty years after the crime, Emma stood up for Lizzie and emphasized her duty to her sister. She had promised her mother that she would take care of Lizzie. "I am still the little mother," said the old gray woman, "and though we must live as strangers, I will defend 'Baby Lizzie' against merciless tongues."

(Video) Did Lizzie Borden Murder Her Parents?

Today, Borden's double murder is remembered as a bloody hatchet. We all nod in appreciation when a TV host reports that a Senate committee has done a "Lizzie Borden" on a bill. But if that same anchor were reporting the Borden murders today, it's not inconceivable that, a few days later, he would return to the topic with an even darker side to the story.



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