The Lizzie Borden Murder Trial: Victorian Values Over Murder?

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Grisly murders tend to be associated with shadowy nights and demonic characters, so, one would hardly expect a mundane morning of household chores to be the scene of one of the most diabolical murders in history.

Yet, in exactly such a setting one hot August day, 1892,  in Fall River, Massachusetts, Andrew J. Borden, 70,  and his second wife Abby Borden, 64, who was also stepmother to his two daughters, were brutally bludgeoned to death with dozens of hatchet strikes while the housemaid and the youngest daughter, Lizzie Borden, were in the same house. The Borden home was in a busy enough street and surrounded by close neighbors. The only other living offspring, Emma Borden, was staying with friends out of town.

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The case remains unclosed to this day.Although the murders took place well over a hundred and fifteen years ago, it is still found horrific by even today’s standards. The family was well-known and affluent, the killings were specific and the victims in seperate rooms so there was no question ever of it being a case of surprising an intruder. Revenge was discounted due to lack of evidence.

Rumored to be a scrooge, Andrew Borden was, nonetheless, generous with his wife and daughters. His wife’s relatives had been gifted property, Lizzie had been sent on a grand tour of Europe and the sisters had also been given property. The daughters were recognized as respectable, Christian spinsters. Emma was the oldest and a reserved, retiring spinster.

Lizzie, 30, was active in various charitable organizations. However, it is widely known that the household was not a happy one with much discord and disagreement with the parents.Did the  the social profile of the suspect affect the outcome?Both Andrew Borden and Abby Borden had been hacked in the neck and head area a total of thirty-one  times with an axe-like weapon. Admittedly, it was a very primative, brutal and bloody way to murder someone and everyone following the murders immediately assumed a man was responsible.

As a result,  the girls’ maternal uncle who3had been staying at the house, John V. Morse, was suspected for a short while and hounded by the public for days.A member of a very prominent family in the New England community, Miss Lizzie Borden was a typically Christian, charitable and timid Victorian lady and neighbors and friends only thought of comforting her following the discoveries of the bodies. She was an heiress and the family’s excellent connections ensured that the police were given orders to practically tiptoe around in their investigations.

This inevitably hampered their policework considerably as they treated the case with the utmost delicacy and she was never interrogated harshly at the crime scene. It was even proposed, “that the bloodstained dress was not found because the investigators were men. If Lizzie had been wearing a dress of a fabric other than cotton, then the police would have ignored it, since they were confining their search to “a cotton wrapper.”[1]”The Victorians considered any criminal behavior as unnatural in women, who were accepted as sexually inferior but morally superior.

Any female criminal activity received public sympathy and juror leniency as women were classed along with the mentally retarded and minors. This classification often excused them of murder on the grounds of incompetence or mental instability as “it was believed that women were not subject to the conscious will, but were carriers of its power.[2]”Industrialization in the nineteenth century steered middle class women away from physical work and gave them a new role to fill,  nurturing the new cult of femininity, which the Victorians cemented even further in very strict rules of child-bearing, home-making and upkeep of moral values such as chastity and piety. So, the sheltered and leisurely existence which was enjoyed by the middle and upper class women, while the working classes could only envy it, was upheld by state and local laws.

Courts faced with a direct contradiction to4the popular female stereotype, such as a murderess, could not accept the inconsistency of the image and tended to treat the defendant with much more pity and awe. It meant that “…

the enormously lofty moral expectations placed upon women meant that they had much further to fall when they transgressed…criminal deeds fit more closely with prevailing notions of masculinity.

[3]” Nonetheless, many crimes depend on opportunity and making do with what is available to hand. In Lizzie’s case, her attempts at buying poison had been unsuccessful. So, if fate had not intervened it could have been a ladylike murder after all and she may have even been convicted.The affect of public opinion on the case.

The general opinion was that Lizzie was, “full of good works, kindly offices in the church and in the society of her friends.[4]” Lizzie Borden, as well as her many relatives, regularly featured at social gatherings and parties and it was known in the community that Lizzie aspired to entertain lavishly herself but her father never allowed it. Lizzie must have experienced many suppressed emotions due to her lack in beauty and personality when the only viable option a woman in that era had to secure a place in the social world was to achieve a good marriage and bear children.Religion held a lot of power and protection and Lizzie was an upright, church-going citizen of a town with typically strong religious and conventional values.

She was the secretary and treasurer of the Young People’s Society for Christian Endeavor and an active member of many religious and social committees. She did her good, Christian works under the guidance of two pastors, the Rev. Mr. Buck and the Rev.

Mr. Jubb. It was these two men who later played a great role in Lizzie’s projected image to the world. Finding it outrageous that a virtuous lady from good stock, wealth and with a fear of God should be accused of such a monster-like murder, and parricide of all things, they took it upon5themselves to be at her side at all times.

She was given their arms to lean upon as they escorted her, defended her in their sermons and churches all over the country followed suit. Not only that, she was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and it’s militant ladies, as well as feminists everywhere, came to defend her. Alhough all of the evidence either for or against her had not yet come out, she was defended simply because she was a lady at the mercy of men. It was a time of suffrage and emotions were raw enough.

Still, the main body of evidence and lack of other possible suspects resulted in Lizzie Borden’s arrest. Lizzie Borden’s replies at the inquest trial were full of inconsistencies and it is obvious that she tried the patience of the judge many times. Her alibi was found incredulous as  Judge Blaisdell asked, “You did not answer my question, and you will if I have to put it all day. Were you then when you were eating those three pears in that hot loft, looking out of that closed window, feeling better than you were in the morning when you ate no breakfast?[5]”Nothing could blemish Lizzie’s spotless past history and her supporters grew in number as details of her education, good works with the Church and sedate life came out.

It was reported that a stranger among the women spectators “had Miss Lizzie Borden pointed out to her, and at the first glance exclaimed, ‘Why, she is a lady.’ That was an interesting exclamation. The prisoner is far from good looking..

.yet there is about her that indefinable quality which we call ladyhood.[6]”Apparently her inquest trial, witness accounts and the evidence gathered so far were enough to accuse and imprison her until the Supreme Court hearing. Meanwhile, the public and the media were steadily culminating into mass frenzy over the case.

According to reporter Edwin H. Porter:6…

not only the people of Fall River and of Massachusetts, but the public throughout the country manifested the deepest interest in the affair. The murders soon became the theme of universal comment, both in public and private, and every newspaper reference to the affair was read with eagerness, digested and commented upon in a manner unprecedented. The crimes stand out in bold relief as the mast atrocious, and at the same time, the most mystifying which the American public hadever before been called upon to discuss. They had about them that fascination of uncertainty.

..which fixes the attention and holds it continually.[7]From the very first hours following the murders, crowds of people had started gathering on the street outside the Borden home as word spread.

Certainly, people must have found a certain excitement in discussing at length who the murderer could be, how and why it happened. Not only that, it was hard for people to stop worrying about an axe murderer wandering about uncaught. When the inquest trial was held, businesses were suspended and people flocked to the courtroom to watch.Did the media acquit Lizzie Borden?As the case drew out and it was clear there was going to be a trial and, perhaps, a conviction the public became hungrier and, “Newspapers and their readers were voracious for news, or, failing that, for gossip.

[8]” On October 10, 1892, The Boston Globe printed “Lizzie Borden’s Secret” on the front pages announcing that Lizzie had a lover and her father had discovered her pregnant. The reporter, Henry G. Trickey, was never questioned by the Globe’s editors and the scandal sold the newspaper by the thousands, creating a mass frenzy in New England. Despite an apology which was later issued, it served to rouse huge public interest in the case and journalists from all major cities came to cover the story.

 7The obstruction to justice the media caused was due to the fact that the newspapers took obvious sides in the case, either knowingly omitting to write about evidence and witnesses or trying to act as detectives themselves, and they were highly critical of the police in their reports. Most newspapers openly criticized the Fall River police force for arresting Lizzie with the sole intention of looking competent. Their speculation implied that the actual murderer had outsmarted the police. In fact, with such a speculative case, an impossible suspect and reporters-turned-sleuths the “newspaper coverage surpassed that given tothe Chicago World’s Fair, which was going on at the same.

[9]”The media pressure was also most unfortunate in that it unconsciously drove the New England trial to try it’s utmost to win the approval of the New York media and end the opinion held that all New Englanders were witch-burning bigots. Massachusetts had hung only two women within the past 114 years and Lizzie, if convicted, was facing the death penalty. It was well-known that both of those executions had been public disasters. In 1778, murderess Bathsheba Spooner had pleaded pregnancy, which meant that, by law, she could only be executed after giving birth to the innocent child.

However, she was not believed and hung, only later to be found five months’ pregnant. The last woman to be hung was Mary Johnson in 1831, who was found innocent at the very last moment but died anyway. The state had these historical mistakes hanging over it and an image to improve.It was easy enough as all of the court officals and jurors were middle-aged gentlemen with wives, daughters and female servants of their own.

They believed in the preservation of their image of ladies because the crime, “…was so forthright, so downright masculine, that a carefully selected jury of nice old men could barely give serious thought to the possibility that a well-brought-up young lady could have been the murderer — though they would have thought hard about that acceptable, womanly prussic acid.

[10]” Lizzie was,8perhaps knowingly, careful with her attire and demeanour and she dropped to dead faints on several occasions. Her attorney was George D. Robinson, once the governor, and his presence brought much prestige to her case. She was also lucky that the judge, Justice Justin Dewey, had been appointed to the Superior Court during Robinson’s office and the Court kept from the jury Lizzie’s sworn statements from the inquest.

In fact, to save her from unnecessary distress, Lizzie was never even asked to take the stand for cross-examination. Such chivalry nowadays would be legally and ethically impossible. However, according to research, “criminality in men was a common feature of their natural characteristics, whereby women, their biologically-determined nature was antithetical to crime.[11]” It was only natural that she be given the benefit of the doubt.

The prosecutors relied on circumstantial evidence and Prosecutor Knowlton tried to challenge the  stereotype image the all-male jury had of women in his closing argument, “If they lack in strength and coarseness and vigor, they make up for it in cunning, in dispatch, in celerity, in ferocity.[12]” Judge Dewey completely undid the prosecution’s closing speech and reminded the jury of their duty to Lizzie. Despite legal ethics he openly discredited the prosecution witnesses and gave his biased opinion on her innocence. On that note, the jury retired to the jury room.

It took the gentlemen of the jury just five minutes to acquit Lizzie Borden, wait a proper hour and a half to return to the courtroom and then, relieved, adjourn to a local saloon for celebratory beers.When the verdict was heard everyone in the courtroom, and outside, cheered and it was noted that the judge and other men of the Court shed tears. Their values had been preserved and the female species was back in it’s rightful position. It was, in actual fact, a case of triumph for the female sex and demonstrated how a woman of the nineteenth century could employ the prejudiced image men had of a lady to her distinct advantage.

9Notes1. Victoria Lincoln, A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight (G.P. Putnam’sSons,   1967)2.

Lynda Hart, The Victorian Villainess and Patriarchal Unconscious (Literatureand  Psychology 40 1994), 2.3. Wendy Chan, Dorothy E. Chunn, Robert Menzies, Women, Madness and the Law:A  Feminist Reader.

(Routledge Cavendish, 2005), 51.4. The Boston Herald, Lizzie Borden – Her School and Later Life – ANoble Woman Though Retiring (Saturday August 6, 1982).5.

Edmund Pearson, Trial of Lizzie Borden, (New York: Doubleday, Doran &Company,    1937), 76.6. David Kent, The Lizzie Borden Sourcebook, (Branden, 1992), 269 & 2707. Edwin H.

Porter. The Fall River Tragedy: A History of the Borden Murders.(Fall River:   G.R.

H. Buffinton, 1893.) (Reprinted by Robert Flynn, 1985, KingPhilip  Publications, 466 Ocean Ave., Portland, Me.

), 2.8. Pearson, 46.9.

Richard C. Hanes, and Rudd Kelly, Crime and Punishment in America: Biographies.(Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2004), 28.10.

Lincoln, 45.11. C. Lombroso and W.

Ferrero, The Female Offender, (London: Fisher Unwin, 1895), 43. 12. Pearson, 327.   10BibliographyChan, Wendy, Chunn, Dorothy E.

and Menzies, Robert. Women, Madness and the Law.Routledge Cavendish, 2005.Hanes, Richard C and Kelly, Rudd.

Crime and Punishment in America: Biographies.Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2004.Hart, Lynda. The Victorian Villainess and Patriarchal Unconscious.

Literatureand  Psychology 40, 1994.Kent, David. The Lizzie Borden Sourcebook. Boston: Branden, 1992.

Lincoln, Victoria. A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight. New York: G.P.

Putnam’s Sons, 1967.Lombroso C. and Ferrero W. The  Female Offender.

London: Fisher Unwin, 1895.Pearson, Edmund. Trial of Lizzie Borden. New York: Doubleday, Doran &Company,  1937.

Porter, Edwin H. The Fall River Tragedy: A History of the Borden Murders. Fall River:G.R.

H. Buffinton, 1893. (Reprinted by Robert Flynn, 1985, King Philip Publications,466 Ocean Ave., Portland, Me.)  

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