Friday, August 15, 2014

Lizzie Borden, Enigma

The protagonist in my amateur sleuth series is named "Lizabeth 'Lizzie' Stuart". When I was looking for a name for her I thought Lizzie suited her personality, but I also liked the idea of having my crime historian share her first name with a 19th-century accused murderess. I was sure that my Lizzie -- who was named by her grandmother -- would have been fascinated when she discovered the Lizzie Borden case. That might well have been what first drew her to criminal justice as a discipline. The Borden case and the mysteries that surrounded it would have given her that first experience of doing historical research as she read old newspaper coverage of the case. But it was Lizzie Borden herself -- Lizzie, the enduring enigma -- who intrigued -- still intrigues -- my sleuth.

I have to confess that I was weaving my own experience with Lizzie Borden into my protagonist's biography. Lizzie was not the reason I became a criminal justice professor/crime historian, but I did learn that nursery rhyme about the murders when I was a child ("Lizzie Borden took an axe . . ."). It wasn't until years later that I learned that the number of "whacks" that she allegedly gave her mother and father were greatly exaggerated. But I still recite that nursery rhyme to my students when I want to jog their memories about the case. 

I'm writing about Lizzie today because I spent yesterday reading the New York Times coverage of the case. The Borden murder case received extensive "breaking" news coverage because of the unique elements of the case -- wealthy banker and his wife murdered in their home in a busy neighborhood on a summer morning with no one aware of what had happened until the man's daughter discovered the father's body and sent the maid running for help. From the beginning, questions abounded. How had the daughter and the maid heard nothing when Abby Borden, the wife, was killed upstairs in a guest bedroom? Where had a murderer hidden until the father came home and stretched out on the sofa to take a nap?

There were other suspects -- the visiting brother of Andrew Borden's first wife, the mysterious strangers reportedly seen arguing with Andrew Borden and his wife at their door the day before or climbing over a fence into the Borden yard or encountered by a farmer in a field four miles away. But in the end, as the police checked out these leads -- discovered the uncle had an alibi and two of the strangers were not viable suspects, discovered a small boy had lied  -- attention began to focus on Lizzie Borden. Her sister, Emma, had been away from home. Bridget, the maid, had no motive for killing her employers. But Lizzie, a "spinster" in her 30s, who had loved her father, was also known to have been frustrated by his frugality. She was known to have resented -- perhaps hated -- her stepmother. Lizzie had gone to a pharmacy to try to buy prussic acid to clean a sealskin cape. Lizzie, it was later allegedly by the prosecutor, might have intended to poison the victims, but been force to turn to more violent means when the pharmacist refused to seal her the acid. In fact, the family had reportedly all been feeling ill on the morning of the murder -- bad mutton or Lizzie's tampering with the food?

But when I turned to the New York Times articles yesterday, it was because I was interested in Lizzie's clothing. One of the enduring mysteries of this case is how Lizzie -- who was acquitted of the murders but is still at the top of most people's list of suspects -- how could she have committed two bloody murders and then been seen shortly after the last with no blood on her clothing. In a made-for-TV movie about the case, Lizzie (played by Elizabeth Montgomery, best-known as "Samantha" in the sitcom "Bewitched") commits the murders in the nude. I spent the day reading the coverage of the matter of Lizzie Borden clothing. There were some wonderful period details related to a closet the women used for their dresses. This became a major aspect of the testimony by Lizzie's sister, Emma. According to Emma, she had returned from her travels in the aftermath of the murders. She had needed another hook in the closet for the dresses she was hanging up and discovered an old dress of Lizzie's taking up one of them. The dress was smeared with paint, and she had -- Emma claimed -- asked Lizzie why she hadn't burned the dress. As a friend of Lizzie's later reluctantly testified, Lizzie did burn the dress in the stove a few days after the murders. This was somewhat unfortunate timing because the prosecution later argued that the dress had been the garment Lizzie Borden wore when she committed the murders and the stains had been blood not paint. But as one of Lizzie's defense attorneys noted, it was a matter of frugality to burn old clothing rather than pay the rag man for collection. The seamstress who had made the dress was also called to testified. She told of her stay in the Borden house while she sewed some dresses for the women. The dress she said was made of cheap material, and Lizzie had put it on as soon as it was made. It was intended to be worn around the house. The dress had become smeared with paint when workers were painting in the house.

In another reminder that these murders took place in 1892, there was the testimony from police officers when they were questioned about the thoroughness with which they had searched through the women's clothing. Could they have missed a bloody dress hanging in a closet or in a trunk in the attic? Reading the newspaper accounts of their testimony, the officers were in less than total agreement about how well they searched. They were also poor witnesses when called on to describe the gown that Lizzie Borden was wearing when they arrived at the house. In fact, Lizzie Borden had several blue gowns in different shades and patterns and this become a matter of confusion for everyone, including Bridget, the maid. But all of the witnesses did agree that there was no blood visible on Lizzie's clothing when the neighbors and the doctor and the police arrived at the crime scene. The clothing that was collected and sent to the prosecutor's expert -- a college chemistry professor -- proves useless as evidence. If Lizzie Borden had committed the murders what she had worn -- perhaps one dress over another -- and how she had carried out her quick change or cleanup, remained a matter for conjecture.

But she had been charged with the crimes, and after a year-long process that involved an elaborate preliminary hearing and a grand jury, finally went to trial. For my purposes -- the clothing and crime book I am writing -- I was interested in reading again about Lizzie Borden's attire during the trial and her courtroom demeanor. However, the coverage reveals -- as scholars have discussed -- why Lizzie Borden was acquitted. The jurors (as in the OJ Simpson case a hundred years later) needed to be convinced that Lizzie was guilty beyond a reasonable double. She was a upper-middle class white woman who seemed to have led a blameless life. Perhaps she had gone insane, but there was nothing to indicate that in her courtroom demeanor -- except perhaps her calmness and occasional laughter. But that was explained by her family physician, who testified he had been sedating her since the day of the murders. This was the testimony that allowed the defense attorneys to have her statements made during the inquest excluded during the trial. Those statements had been full of contradictions -- understandable if she was drugged at the time. Of course, one of the three justice presiding over the trial seemed inclined to favor the defense. Whether or not he believed Lizzie Borden innocent, it was also true that he had been appointed to the court by one of Borden's attorneys -- a former governor of the state of Massachusetts. This may have influenced the justice's charge to the jury in which he seemed to challenge the case put forward by the prosecution. But by the time the case went to the jury, the prosecution had already suffered a number of defeats. Public opinion was clearly in support of Lizzie, the martyred daughter, and against the bumbling police and the prosecution who had gone forward with the case. When Borden was acquitted, the spectators cheered and grown men wiped away tears.

Free, Lizzie went home -- or, at least, to stay with friends until the crowds around the Borden house dissipated. Later, she and Emma bought another house. The Times reported this story. Newspapers would go on to report, Lizzie's troubled life following her acquittal -- her involvement with theater people that scandalized Fall River society, her estrangement from Emma, her kleptomania. For years, the press would cover the anniversary of the murders. A hundred years later -- after plays, novels, ballets, short stories, and an Alfred Hitchcock episode based on the case -- scholars conveyed a conference to look back at Lizzie Borden. There was discussion about her motive for murder -- perhaps not just the desire to inherit half of her father's fortune -- perhaps jealousy inspired by an improper relationship between father and daughter. After all, he had worn only one piece of jewelry, a ring that Lizzie had given him, and she had hated her stepmother.

One of the the theories at the time was that Lizzie had killed her stepmother in a fit of rage. Then she had been forced to kill her father because of what she had done. She had known that he was a stern man, who would not have helped her to cover up the murder of his wife. Or, perhaps, the murder of Abby Borden had been done with cold deliberation, killing Abby first so that her relatives would not inherit Andrew's estate. Both murders a matter of greed on the part of a woman who had wanted a different life.

Whatever happened that August morning, Lizzie Borden remains an enigma. Both my protagonist and I remain intrigued by her. The case proves the enduring power of an unsolved mystery. Such cases also provide us with insight into another time and place. The sketch of the house done by the engineer brought in by the prosecution, the details of the women's lives, the information about such matters as milk and mutton -- all useful for those of us who write mysteries that draw on or are set in the past and those of us who study the crimes as scholars.


Charlotte Hinger said...

And Lizzie was from Kansas. The Benders were even more interesting.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Just looked them us. They do seem a bloody bunch.

Eileen Goudge said...

Great tale! Truth is stranger than fiction.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Indeed it is.