The remarkable new account of an essential piece of American mythology—the trial of Lizzie Borden—based on twenty years of research and recently unearthed evidence.
The Trial of Lizzie Borden tells the true story of one of the most sensational murder trials in American history. When Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally hacked to death in Fall River, Massachusetts, in August 1892, the arrest of the couple’s younger daughter Lizzie turned the case into international news and her trial into a spectacle unparalleled in American history. Reporters flocked to the scene. Well-known columnists took up conspicuous seats in the courtroom. The defendant was relentlessly scrutinized for signs of guilt or innocence. Everyone—rich and poor, suffragists and social conservatives, legal scholars and laypeople—had an opinion about Lizzie Borden’s guilt or innocence. Was she a cold-blooded murderess or an unjustly persecuted lady? Did she or didn’t she?
The popular fascination with the Borden murders and its central enigmatic character has endured for more than one hundred years. Immortalized in rhyme, told and retold in every conceivable genre, the murders have secured a place in the American pantheon of mythic horror, but one typically wrenched from its historical moment. In contrast, Cara Robertson explores the stories Lizzie Borden’s culture wanted and expected to hear and how those stories influenced the debate inside and outside of the courtroom. Based on transcripts of the Borden legal proceedings, contemporary newspaper accounts, unpublished local accounts, and recently unearthed letters from Lizzie herself, The Trial of Lizzie Borden offers a window onto America in the Gilded Age, showcasing its most deeply held convictions and its most troubling social anxieties.
The Trial of Lizzie Borden Chapter 1 SOMEBODY WILL DO SOMETHING
View of Fall River block, including D. R. Smith’s drugstore, courtesy of Fall River Historical Society
On the morning of August 3, 1892, Eli Bence was working at D. R. Smith’s drugstore on South Main Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, when a woman entered the store to ask for ten cents’ worth of prussic acid. Prussic acid is a diluted form of hydrocyanic acid, a quick-acting poison—transparent, colorless, and volatile. As the New Bedford Evening Standard later reported, “If a person wished to kill and avoid detection, and that person were wise, hydrocyanic acid would be the first choice among all deadly drugs.” The woman, however, volunteered that she needed the prussic acid “to put on the edge of a sealskin cape.” Bence refused her request, explaining that prussic acid was sold only on doctor’s orders. Although he recognized her as “Miss Borden,” it was not until another man whispered “This is Andrew J. Borden’s daughter” that he looked at her “more closely” and noticed what he would later term “her peculiar expression around the eyes.” She insisted that she had purchased the poison on prior occasions, but he stood firm. She departed unsatisfied. It was not the end of the story.
Lizzie Andrew Borden, courtesy of Fall River Historical Society
• • •
Lizzie Borden lived on Second Street near the bustling commercial center of Fall River, Massachusetts. In 1892, the Borden household at 92 Second Street consisted of Andrew Borden; his second wife, Abby; his grown daughters, Emma and Lizzie; and the family’s domestic servant, Bridget Sullivan. An occasional houseguest, John V. Morse—the brother of Andrew Borden’s first wife—rounded out the ménage. Neither of the Borden daughters, each past thirty, appeared likely to marry. Because their father was a man of consequence, their material comfort seemed assured. Yet it was not a happy home. The Bordens “did not parade their difficulties,” but, as many commented, “things were not as pleasant at the Borden house as they might be.”
Andrew Jackson Borden, courtesy of Fall River Historical Society
A tall, gaunt, and severe-looking man, Andrew Borden was a walking advertisement for the then-popular “science” of physiognomy: his character was an exact match for his appearance. As the Bordens’ former neighbor Alice Russell put it, “He was a plain-living man with rigid ideas, and very set.” His brother-in-law Hiram Harrington remarked, “He was too hard for me.” In some respects, this was not surprising. Andrew Borden was a self-made man. He had earned his more than quarter-million-dollar fortune through a combination of financial acumen and hard work, but he had maintained that position through a determined frugality. As one newspaper reported, “He was what is called close-fisted, but square and just in his dealings.” He liked to boast that in his years of business he had never borrowed a cent. Andrew Borden had begun his career as a cabinetmaker, providing furniture for the dead as well as the living. An 1859 advertisement in the Fall River Daily Evening News read: “Keep constantly on hand, Burial Cases and Coffins, Ready-made of all kinds now in use in this section of the country.” Borden and his partner William Almy sold furniture “at lower prices than can be bought elsewhere in this city.” Andrew parlayed his interest into more diverse commercial endeavors, ultimately serving as president of the Union Savings Bank, a member of its board of trustees, a director of the Merchants Manufacturing Company, the B.M.C. Durfee Safe Deposit and Trust Company, the Globe Yarn Mill Company, and the Troy Cotton and Woolen Manufactory. But his most significant holdings were in real estate, and “he never made a purchase of land for which he was not ready to pay cash down.” He owned farmland across the Taunton River in Swansea, and in 1890 he built what was described as “one of the finest business blocks in the city located at the corner of South Main and Anawan streets.” It was to this, the A. J. Borden building, a physical manifestation of his standing in Fall River, that he directed his steps every morning.
A. J. Borden building, courtesy of Fall River Historical Society
His own domestic arrangements were much more modest. In 1871, the Bordens moved from 12 Ferry Street, Andrew’s father’s home, to the house on Second Street. It was a step over, not a step up. Andrew Borden turned the former two-family house with separate floors for each family into a two-story residence for his family. During this renovation, he removed the upstairs faucet, leaving only the large soapstone sinks in the kitchen and cellar serviced by a cold-water tank. The following year, he connected the house to the city water supply, giving the occupants a flushable water closet in the cellar. But that was the extent of the house’s luxuries. Everyone in the Borden household, as the reporter Julian Ralph later put it, “was his or her own chambermaid.”
Andrew Borden married twice. His first wife, Sarah Morse Borden, had grown up on a farm. They married on Christmas evening in 1845. She brought him no dowry but bore him three daughters, two of whom—Emma and Lizzie—survived infancy. She herself died of “uterine congestion” and “disease of spine” in March 1863. Two years after Sarah’s death, Andrew married Abby Gray. As a couple, they resembled the fairy-tale Spratts—Andrew long and lean, Abby short and plump. Andrew Borden needed a housekeeper and a mother for his children. Abby’s feelings for Andrew were never recorded, but his offer must have been tempting to a thirty-seven-year-old spinster from a family continually skirting financial distress. Or perhaps it was her own father’s remarriage to a comely widow and the subsequent birth of a daughter that prompted her decision to leave the increasingly crowded family home.
Borden house on Second Street, courtesy of Fall River Historical Society
If she imagined a new life as the matriarch ensconced in a fond family circle, Abby made a poor bargain. Emma, fourteen at the time of her father’s remarriage, resisted any maternal overtures: she always referred to Abby by her first name and never as “Mother.” Perhaps her grief foreclosed a warmer relationship with the woman she viewed as her mother’s replacement. Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, a friend of the first Mrs. Borden and later a pioneering suffragist, believed that Emma “had never ceased to regard Abby D. Borden as in some sense a usurper in the household in which at least one member cherished with jealous regard the sweet memories of a sanctified mother.” Emma may have felt she served as mother to Lizzie and resented Abby’s intrusion. Much later, Emma explained: “When my darling mother was on her deathbed she summoned me, and exacted a promise that I would always watch over ‘Baby Lizzie.’?”
Abby Borden, courtesy of Fall River Historical Society
Abby may have hoped for more from her younger stepdaughter, but there, too, she experienced a certain froideur. Lizzie did call Abby “Mother,” but she confided only in her older sister, Emma. As Lizzie herself put it, she “always went to Emma.” Lizzie also had a special rapport with her father. Andrew Borden wore no ring to commemorate his marriage to Abby, but when his favorite daughter, Lizzie, gave him a thin gold ring, he promptly put it on his finger and wore it until his death. Lizzie was Andrew’s namesake—christened Lizzie Andrew Borden—and it suited her. Like her father, she was forthright—a friend called her “a monument of straightforwardness”—and resolute. Lizzie later said that Andrew may have been “close in money matters, but I never asked him for anything that I wanted very much that I didn’t get, though sometimes I had to ask two or three times.”
Having perhaps married without affection, Abby also lacked the consolations of authority. Her husband retained tight control over the finances and her grown stepdaughters appeared to prefer their own company, receiving occasional visitors in the upstairs guest room. As family friend and former neighbor Alice Russell would later remark, “Mrs. Borden did not control the house; the whole summing up of it, was that.” When John Grouard arrived to paint the Borden house in May 1892, Andrew told him that Lizzie “was to select the color, and I better not go on with it until the color was determined.” (Lizzie did not approve of the tubs he had mixed; she supervised the remixing to the perfect shade of “dark drab.”) In another sign of Abby’s lesser status, her stepdaughters received the same allowance as she did. For Lizzie and Emma, it was pin money for whatever extras they might enjoy; Abby’s allowance went toward household expenses. Yet, she seemed to accept her lot. According to her own stepmother, Abby was a “closed-mouth woman” who could “bear a great deal and say nothing.”
Abby’s attempt to help her half sister transformed her stepdaughters’ chilly tolerance to open animosity. Abby’s father left his house to his wife Jane Gray and their daughter Sarah Whitehead. Abby’s stepmother wanted to sell her half of the property but Sarah did not have the funds to buy her share. At Abby’s request in 1887, Andrew purchased Mrs. Gray’s half interest and put it in Abby’s name to allow Sarah and her husband to live there rent-free. His daughters objected to his spousal solicitude. What he did for Abby, Lizzie and Emma believed, he should do for his own flesh and blood. Andrew sought to appease his daughters by transferring property of equal value into their names. This effort at equalization was not a success. Instead, Andrew’s purchase of the Whitehead house raised the tension in the Borden household to the surface. Thereafter, Bridget served two sittings of each meal because the daughters refused to eat with their parents and neither daughter would speak to Abby except in response to a direct question. “We always spoke,” Emma later explained. Lizzie pointedly began referring to Abby as Mrs. Borden, her stepmother, and expressed her hostility toward Abby to anyone who asked. In March 1892, Lizzie chastised her dressmaker for referring to Abby as her mother. She said: “Don’t say that to me, for she is a mean good-for-nothing thing.” Augusta Tripp, Lizzie’s friend and former classmate, said: “Lizzie told me she thought her stepmother was deceitful, being one thing to her face, and another to her back.” As Abby’s own stepmother, Jane Gray, succinctly put it: “I told Mrs. Borden I would not change places with her for all her money.”
Emma Borden, courtesy of Fall River Historical Society
Money was the source of other dissatisfactions in the household. Andrew Borden’s miserly habits—in particular, his refusal to live on the Hill, the neighborhood of choice for the Fall River elite—placed his daughters in virtual social quarantine. Lizzie, in particular, did not appreciate her father’s determined economies, and she freely indicated her unhappiness with her living conditions. As Alice Russell astutely explained, “He was a very plain living man; he did not care for anything different. It always seemed to me as if he did not see why they should care for anything different.” She elaborated: “They had quite refined ideas, and they would like to have been cultured girls.” Lizzie’s estranged uncle, Hiram Harrington, was less charitable: “She thought she should entertain as others did, and felt that with her father’s wealth she was expected to hold her end up with the other members of her set. Her father’s constant refusal to entertain lavishly angered her.”
In 1890, just prior to her thirtieth birthday, Lizzie Borden briefly experienced an unwonted measure of freedom when her father sent her on a Grand Tour of Europe in the company of other unmarried women of her acquaintance. In their shared cabin during the return voyage, Lizzie confided to her distant cousin Anna Borden her unwillingness to return to the house on Second Street with sufficient vehemence that Anna was able to recount the conversation three years later. Yet, return she did, at which point her father gave her a sealskin cape. The motivation for such extravagant gifts is unclear: Andrew Borden was a man who calculated the probable returns on his investments carefully, and the record discloses no other comparable generosity toward his daughters. After all, their weekly allowance remained set at four dollars—less than the weekly wage of a female spinner in the local mills.
Less than a year after Lizzie’s return from Europe, at the end of June 1891, the Borden household was the scene of a mysterious crime. Captain Dennis Desmond reported to 92 Second Street to learn the odd particulars: Abby’s jewelry drawer had been rifled and some trinkets—most notably, a gold watch and chain of particular sentimental value—were missing. Andrew’s desk had also been denuded of about $80 in cash, $25 to $30 in gold, and several commemorative streetcar tickets. Although the theft occurred in the middle of the day, none of the women in the house—neither Bridget, nor Emma, nor Lizzie—claimed to have heard a sound. When the police arrived, Lizzie Borden excitedly led them on a tour of the house and showed them the lock on the downstairs cellar door, which had apparently been forced open with a “6 or 8 penny nail.” She suggested: “Someone might have come in that way.” Desmond was stunned by the interloper’s good fortune: the thief had broken in and discovered the Bordens’ bedroom without attracting the attention of the women in the house. Andrew Borden noticed that the thief could only have entered through Lizzie’s bedroom, and three times told Desmond: “I am afraid the police will not be able to find the real thief.” The police were baffled or, at least, thought better of voicing their suspicions; Andrew Borden called off the investigation and attempted to keep word of the theft out of the papers.
Though the incident was officially forgotten—or suppressed—by the police and by the Bordens, Andrew Borden left the household with a daily reminder of his suspicion. He locked his bedroom every day and then left the key in the sitting room in plain sight. Because the house had no central halls, the upstairs bedrooms opened onto each other. The elder Bordens also securely locked their connecting door, which opened into Lizzie’s room. (Emma’s room was only accessible through Lizzie’s room.) For her part, Lizzie moved furniture to block her side of the connecting doors. As a result, the Borden house may have been the most elaborately secured domicile in town, for the front door was triple-locked and family members elaborately locked and unlocked their bedrooms and bureaus throughout the day.
Abby was acutely aware of her stepdaughters’ feelings, but it was not until August 2, 1892, two days before her death, that she considered them life-threatening. Despite the oppressive heat of summer, the Bordens ate leftover swordfish. That evening, the elder Bordens spent a nauseated, sleepless night and Bridget and Lizzie experienced a milder form of the same malady. Emma was not at home; she had been away for nearly two weeks visiting friends in Fairhaven. Though such incidents were common in Fall River—they were colloquially known as “the summer complaint”—Abby did not view her distress as typical. Instead, on the following morning, she went across the street to her doctor’s house and confided that she thought she had been poisoned. Learning of their fish dinner, Dr. Seabury Bowen was not alarmed, but he did accompany Abby back across the street to examine Andrew, who refused his medical expertise. In fact, the Borden patriarch stood angrily on the threshold, blocking Dr. Bowen’s entrance and shouting that he would not pay the doctor for the visit.
The subject might have remained closed, but the household—with the exception of Lizzie—fell ill again that evening after a meal of mutton stew. The prosecutor would later argue that the happenstance of food poisoning “was an illness suggestive of an opportunity to a person desiring to procure the deaths of one or other of those people.” That same evening, Lizzie paid a call on her friend and former neighbor Alice Russell and confided her fears. She believed the milk had been poisoned and alluded to nebulous threats against her father by unnamed men. Alice Russell was a sensible woman and she pointed out the absurdity of Lizzie’s fears. Despite Miss Russell’s reassurance, Lizzie spoke of her uneasiness and sense of foreboding, remarking: “I feel as if something was hanging over me that I cannot throw off, and it comes over me at times, no matter where I am.” She added: “I don’t know but somebody will do something.”
Cara Robertson began researching the Borden case as a Harvard undergraduate in 1990. She holds a PhD from Oxford University and a JD from Stanford Law School. She clerked at the Supreme Court of the United States, served as a legal adviser to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, and has written for various publications. Her scholarship has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Humanities Center, of which she is a Trustee. The Trial of Lizzie Borden is her first book.
“Enthralling…[Robertson] reopens the case and presents the evidence afresh, all those alluring details out of an Agatha Christie novel (the mystery of Lizzie’s burned dress, the curious disappearance of a hatchet handle). The reader is to serve as judge and jury.” —Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
"With deft storytelling and convincing scholarship, Cara Robertson does the seemingly impossible by bringing new life to perhaps our oldest true-crime saga: the Gilded Age case of Lizzie Borden. By giving us Fall River, Massachusetts, in full and in context, as well as the panoply of characters who made the trial so sensational, Robertson has written that rarest of things: a page-turner with a point." —Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America
“A fascinating social history.” —Mary Higgins Clark, bestselling author of I’ve Got My Eyes on You
“The Trial of Lizzie Borden is a taut, understated masterpiece: the rare history book that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Cara Robertson scours the Trial of the (Nineteenth) Century with the perseverance of a scholar, the gimlet eye of a detective, and the elegance of a novelist. As she depicts the Borden murders and the young lady accused of committing them, Robertson reveals the seething class, ethnic, and gendered tensions that roiled the glittering surface of the Gilded Age.” —Jane Kamensky, author of A Revolution in Color and the Jonathan Trumball Professor of American History at Harvard University
"Robertson presents the story with the thoroughness one expects from an attorney...Fans of crime novels will love it." —Kirkus Review
"A fast-paced, page-turning read." —Booklist, starred review
"You won’t be disappointed." —Hello Giggles
"A fascinating and definitive account of the notorious trial of Lizzie Borden, the woman accused of the brutal murder of her father and her stepmother. Beautifully written and rich in detail, The Trial of Lizzie Borden sheds new light not only on the trial itself, but also on the setting, the period, and, in a sense, on the American soul at the end of the nineteenth century. —Lawrence M. Friedman, Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor of Law, Stanford University
“The definitive account to date of one of America’s most notorious and enduring murder mysteries…a superior, page-turning true crime narrative.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)