Murder, Culture, and Injustice: Four Sensational Cases in American Historyby Walter L. Hixson
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Walter Hixson's pithy narrative account of four sensational murder cases---the Lizzie Borden, Lindbergh baby, Sam Sheppard, and O.J. Simpson trials---offers interesting observations into the greater cultural and political forces that shaped their verdicts. His step-by-step analysis of the details of each case provides not only insight by skillful synthesis of the existing literature but also a solid overview of the events surrounding these four cases, each of which became a national obsession as well as a miscarriage of justice. Taking a fresh look at the criminal justice system and the role of the media in the larger American milieu, Hixson delves into sociocultural impacts of crime that are both thought-provoking and fascinating reading.
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Murder, Culture, and Injustice
By Walter L. Hixson
The University of Akron PressISBN: 1-884836-67-4
Chapter OneGENDERED JUSTICE
LIZZIE BORDEN AND VICTORIAN AMERICA
The old woman crashed to the floor, face first, with a reverberating thump. The killer sprang over her, wielding the hatchet maniacally. Blood and clumps of scalp flew in the air.
The corpulent old woman lay still now, her arms trapped awkwardly under her body, but still the blows of rage came down, nineteen in all. A puddle of blood flowed from her head as she lay dying between the framed bed and a large mirrored bureau on the far side of the upstairs guestroom.
There was no time to waste. The killer straightened up, dripping with perspiration as it was another hot summer day-August 4, 1892-in Fall River, Massachusetts.
The killer hurried downstairs, wiping off the blood-soaked weapon-for the killer intended to strike again.
After more than an hour, an interminable ticking away of the minutes, the dead woman's husband came home at last. Old man Borden went upstairs for a few moments, but he used a separate set of stairs on the other side of the house and was in no position to discover his wife's corpse. Knowing well the old man's habits, the murderer was not surprised when he came back downstairs and made ready to lie down on his couch in the parlor for a habitual midday nap. It would be his last.
The old man was already breathing rhythmically as the killer crept behind the door thatopened into the parlor. Old man Borden's arms lay folded at his midsection. His legs, too long to rest comfortably on the upholstered mahogany couch, angled to the floor. The killer took a deep breath and drove the hatchet into the center of the old man's face. He never budged from his recumbent position.
The killer's rage took hold again as the blows, twelve in all, crashed into the victim's head with a sickening sound. The killer continued to strike, even after the blade ripped one of the old man's eyes from its socket and left it dangling on his cheek. Heart pounding with an almost surreal excitement, the killer disposed of the weapon.
Moments later, the old man's daughter appeared at the parlor door and screamed for the family maid, who was resting upstairs: "Maggie! Come down quick," she wailed. "Father's dead ... Someone came in and killed him!"
Despite the passage of more than a century, the Lizzie Borden case remains one of the most notorious crimes in American history. The allegation of female parricide, with a hatchet no less, immediately made the case a national sensation. At first, however, the sheer brutality of the murders was enough to convince most people that no woman could have been responsible for such crimes. Most of the public rejected the possibility that the daughter of the elderly dead couple could have been responsible for the murders.
At the time of the murders Lizbeth Andrew "Lizzie" Borden was thirty-two years old. She was five-feet, four-inches tall with light hair, typically parted in the middle and kept in a bun. Lizzie's most distinctive feature, however, was her protruding gray eyes.
Neither Lizzie Borden nor her sister Emma, aged forty-two at the time of the killings, ever married or even appears to have come close to the altar. Unmarried women today are not remarkable enough to be burdened with such an unflattering appellation as "spinster," but the same was not true in their era.
The culture of Victorian America not only denied women the vote and the right to hold political office, but defined their very identity in terms of their relationship to a man. A married woman's place in nineteenth-century America was in the home in service of husband and family, as clergymen and society columnists repeatedly reminded them. Without husbands, spinsters such as Emma and Lizzie, though mature adults, were nonetheless relegated to a lifelong existence under the roof of their father, Andrew Jackson Borden.
The Victorian "cult of domesticity," widely perceived as biologically determined, confined women's activities to the home, church, and female social clubs. Although denied citizenship and political rights, women were viewed as morally superior to men, whose aggressive, amoral instincts they were charged with tempering in the domestic sphere. By the late nineteenth century, however, as urban-industrial growth began to sever traditional bonds of community, many women began to challenge Victorian norms. Such desires played a pivotal role in the Borden case.
Lizzie, to be sure, took advantage of the few opportunities that were available to her outside the home in the Victorian cultural milieu of Fall River. After attending but apparently not completing high school, she became active in the Central Congregational Church, Christian Endeavor, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the Fruit and Flower Mission. Despite her involvement with these groups, Lizzie maintained only a small circle of friends. Those who knew her often described the younger Borden sister as eccentric and retiring.
Lizzie and Emma certainly had been left scarred by the death of their mother in 1862, when Lizzie was just two years old. Sarah J. Morse had married Andrew Borden in 1845 and the couple had had three daughters, one of whom, Alice, had died in infancy.
Two years after his wife's death, following an altogether proper interval of mourning, Andrew Borden proposed marriage to another Fall River spinster, thirty-eight-year-old Abby Durfee Gray, who promptly accepted. In Abby, Andrew had found a wife to manage his home as well as a mother to care for his daughters. But neither Emma nor Lizzie developed a deep bond of love with their stepmother. Emma, smaller and plainer looking than Lizzie, never called Abby "Mother." Although Lizzie, ten years younger than her sister, did for a time refer to Abby as "Mother," she soon renounced use of all terms of endearment for her stepmother.
While tensions simmered beneath the surface in the Borden home, in Fall River society Andrew and Abby were a respected, if not particularly appealing, couple. The Borden family name had long been known in with Fall River. Andrew's forbears, English immigrants Richard and Joan Borden, had arrived in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, in 1638. The family later moved to Fall River. In 1892, there were listings for 131 Borden households in the Fall River city directory.
Andrew Borden, approaching age seventy at the time of his death, was tall and austere. He dressed in black cloth, typical of men in the era, and wore a thin white beard that wrapped around his chin from sideburn to sideburn. He was well known in Fall River as a successful but notoriously tight-fisted businessman. "No other man knew the worth of a dollar better than he," wrote Fall River journalist Edwin Porter.
Abby Durfee Borden, approaching her sixty-fourth birthday at the time of the murders, was a decent but dull and plodding individual. While Andrew accumulated wealth, Abby accumulated girth. Though small of stature, she weighed more than 200 pounds at the time of her death.
Both Andrew and Abby came from good stock. Indeed, their marriage was typical of the way that a handful of families maintained control of the economic and social structure of Fall River. The Bordens, Durfees, BuYngtons, Chases, and other prominent families owned the mills and the shops that dominated the community's economic life.
Providentially situated along water routes to the sea, Fall River emerged at the center of New England textile milling at a time of transformation of the United States from a predominantly agrarian to a predominantly urban-industrial society. The city's population growth and economic development had been little short of phenomenal. From a population of 56,870 in 1885, the city grew to 74,398 in 1890 and 104,864 in 1900. By that time immigrants comprised more than half the city's population. English and Irish immigrants came first to work in the city's textile mills and in the related dyeing and finishing industries. Large numbers of Portuguese immigrants followed. By the time of the Borden murders the largest wave of immigrants were French Canadians who flocked south for work in the Fall River mills. Although Jewish immigrants, mostly from eastern Europe, had "proved good citizens," the Fall River Daily Globe observed that "it is doubtful if additions to their numbers by thousands or even hundreds would be welcome."
The textile mills lured immigrants (including child laborers), fueled Fall River's growth, and helped insulate the city from the boom and bust cycles of late-nineteenth-century American capitalism. Indeed, the mills so dominated life that some referred to Fall River as Spindle City or the Manchester of America.
A city still characterized by wide streets filled with dirt, mud, and horse dung, Fall River was nonetheless modernizing rapidly. A magnificent new high school opened in 1886 and three years later the city's Iron Works factory boasted the tallest smokestack in the nation. In 1890 more than two million passengers rode on horse-drawn street railway cars. Tennis and baseball were the most popular sports.
Through the hard work and discipline that personified the age, Andrew Borden had capitalized on Fall River's growth to amass a fortune. Starting off as a fish peddler, Borden branched off into undertaking, then mill works, banking, farming, and real estate. He was president of the Union Savings Bank and well connected in other banks and mills in the community. Respected for his keen business judgment, Borden was frequently called on to appraise land and property. At the time of his death the value of Andrew Borden's savings, investments, and real properties approached half a million dollars, a vast sum in 1892.
The problem with her father's wealth, as far as Lizzie Borden was concerned, was his unwillingness to part with the money he made. As writer Victoria Lincoln once observed, Lizzie "loved money to spend as much as her father loved money to keep." As Fall River grew and prospered Lizzie and Emma longed to make the most of their prescribed roles as homebound spinsters. Lizzie aspired to live in comfort, dress in the latest fashions, entertain her small circle of friends, and travel regularly in both in the United States and abroad. She longed to take her rightful place as an elite member of provincial society, and to do it in style.
Nothing better symbolized Andrew's old-fashioned contempt for such aspirations as the Borden family home at 92 Second Street in Fall River. In a city whose neighborhoods were rigidly divided along class lines, Andrew insisted on remaining in the home that the family had inhabited since 1871. The narrow two-and-a-half-story frame dwelling in downtown Fall River was close to the mills and to neighborhoods teeming with immigrant working-class families. Their wealthy father's refusal to better their surroundings left the Borden women to endure the dust, the putrid odors of raw sewage and horse manure, and the noise and bustle of the inner city.
Originally built for two families, the Borden home itself had no hallways and required separate stairways to access the upstairs bedrooms. In order to reach the Bordens' bedroom, one had to take the stairs off the kitchen. To reach the rooms of Emma, Lizzie, and the guest quarters, one would have to mount a separate set of stairs off the front entrance. A locked door between the two large upstairs bedrooms sealed the division of the family home.
The Borden home was adequately furnished but Andrew, ever the stubborn traditionalist, eschewed the modern comforts of central plumbing and electric or gas lighting. The Bordens relieved themselves in "necessary pots," or in a single basement water closet. Refusing to hook up to the gas main, Andrew lit the home with kerosene lamps or, as he often preferred, simply sat in the dark at night.
While the 1890s were an exciting time for many, with new conveniences and consumer goods becoming available, Andrew Borden typically disdained such amenities. As the American frontier closed, and a modern urban society began to emerge, the old man clung to the past. Lizzie, who wanted nothing more than to use the family wealth to enjoy a comfortable modern lifestyle, languished in the old home with its frayed carpets, outmoded furniture, and scratchy horsehair upholstery.
Their father's parsimony, and his refusal to change with the times, infuriated Lizzie Borden. Although Emma, too, bitterly resented the situation in the Borden household, it was Lizzie-by far the more stubborn, outspoken, brooding, and volatile of the sisters-who took action to liberate herself from an oppressive existence.
Lizzie longed to live on the Hill, the elite northern part of the city whose high ground provided a spectacular overlook to Mount Hope Bay and the wide, deep blue Taunton River. Relegated to a life under their father's roof, the status-conscious Borden girls continually pressed the old man to purchase one of the sturdy Victorian homes on the Hill so that they might take their rightful place in Fall River society. Andrew Borden steadfastly refused and angrily dismissed his daughters for their meddling. After all, it was not the place of the girls to interfere with the decisions of the family patriarch. Besides, his daughters enjoyed the benefit of a live-in maid and lacked for no essentials. Both Lizzie and Emma received a weekly allowance, though, typical of their father, it was a miserly sum amounting to about $200 a year.
As if the denial of their proper station in life had not been grating enough, Lizzie and Emma became convinced that their father had begun to favor their stepmother over his own daughters. The incident that ignited a jealous rage within Lizzie occurred in 1887, when the daughters learned that their father had purchased a dwelling for Abby's sister and her husband, who had fallen on hard times. When the girls discovered that their normally tight-fisted father had deeded the modest property to Abby, they were livid.
Darkly suspicious of their father's alleged favoritism toward their unloved stepmother, Emma and Lizzie now suspected that Abby and their uncle, John Vinnicum Morse, sought to deny them their rightful share of the Borden property in their father's will. Morse was the brother of Sarah, Andrew Borden's first wife, but the daughters were not close to Uncle John, who had lived "out West" (in Iowa) for most of their lives.
The sisters complained bitterly to their father that they had never received a gift comparable to the dwelling purchased for Abby's family members. Andrew responded to his daughters' angry protests by deeding to them a roughly equivalent piece of property once owned by their grandfather. They were not mollified, however.
The incident wounded Lizzie deeply. She felt betrayed by the only man she had ever loved, her father. Not even a trip to Europe on a church mission improved her disposition.
Excerpted from Murder, Culture, and Injustice by Walter L. Hixson Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Walter Hixson is professor of history at the University of Akron. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado and is a member of the Organization of American Historians. His previous books include: Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War; Charles A. Lindbergh: Lone Eagle; Witness to Disintegration: Provincial Life in the Last Year of the USSR; and George F. Kennan: Cold War Iconoclast.
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