The Trial of Lizzie Borden

The Trial of Lizzie Borden

by Cara Robertson

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501168383
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 03/12/2019
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 389
File size: 82 MB
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About the Author

Cara Robertson is a lawyer whose writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, the Raleigh News and Observer, and the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities. She was educated at Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford Law School. A former Supreme Court law clerk, she served as a legal adviser to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague and a Visiting Scholar at Stanford Law School. Her scholarship has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Humanities Center of which she is a Trustee. She first started researching the Lizzie Borden story as a senior at Harvard, and published her first paper on the trial in the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities in 1997. The Trial of Lizzie Borden is her first book. 

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The Trial of Lizzie Borden

  • 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.”

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    The Trial of Lizzie Borden 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
    Anonymous 4 days ago
    The author is a good story teller.
    ody 7 days ago
    This is a book that delves into the story of Lizzie Borden and the murders of her father Andrew and step-mother Abby. But it mostly focuses on the trial after the murders, once she’s been held and it’s been found that there is supposedly enough evidence against her to bind her over, and a grand jury has filed a true bill. This is a good retelling of the facts of the murders and Lizzie’s arrest and time in jail, especially the trial afterward. It’s very 3 5detailed and gives a good recounting of how life was back in those days. But overall, I found it a bit parched. 3 3.5 of 5 stars.
    trutexan 8 days ago
    For anyone new to the story of Lizzie Borden, this book pretty much tells it all. For those who already know about it, there are plenty of courtroom details and other information surrounding the murders that may be of interest. I found some of the courtroom details fascinating--especially how women were treated and their views of what women were or were not capable of. The fact that Lizzie was a well-to-do, church-going woman almost cleared her of any possibility of being a murderer. With all the information cited in the book, I felt sure I was going to solve the mystery. Did Lizzie commit the crime or did someone else? Maybe someday the mystery will be solved, but in the meantime readers can play armchair detective. Many thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for allowing me to read an advance copy and offer an honest review.
    diversified-reader 9 days ago
    This was a fascinating book about the trial of Lizzie Borden. It was accompanied by many photos, of not only people, but places of prominence related to these events. This allowed the reader to have an overall and comprehensive understanding of the life and times of Lizzie Borden. Cara Robertson also provided the reader with a well researched and very detailed account of the trial, as well as newspaper reporters’ perspective, especially on Lizzie Borden’s demeanor throughout the trial. For example, during the prosecutor’s opening statement, Moody slowly and dramatically produced a bag that contained the skulls of Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother. Naturally, Lizzie fainted. Yet, the next day headlines were not about the prosecutor’s antics, but how Lizzie exhibited her feminine side by fainting. This was the culture and mindset of the times. The author effectively placed the reader in this mindset throughout the book in order to experience the total enigma that was Lizzie Borden and a crime committed 126 years ago. Overall, this was a well written, engaging read.
    KWeldon 9 days ago
    Cara Robertson has studied the Lizzie Borden Trial for the past 20 years. She gives a day by day account of the Lizzie Borden trial including pictures and quotes from the people involved. Andrew Borden and his wife Abby Borden were found murdered in their home in August 1892. There were only 2 other people in the home that day; their maid, Bridget Sullivan, and Mr Borden's youngest daughter, Lizzie. His eldest daughter was out of town that week. There were no witnesses. I found this book very interesting. Some of the facts and changes in people's stories is amazing. Thank You Netgalley, Goodreads, and Simon & Schuster for the opportunity to read and review this book. True Crime Expected Release Date: March 4, 2019
    thebrunetteandbooks 9 days ago
    This was somewhat of a slow read for me and I’m a lawyer who is well-versed in litigation so I can see how others may have found it dry and overly factual. I really appreciate those facts, though. The minutia of the trial is so interesting to me as a lawyer but also as a history buff and avid reader. I absolutely loved how the story is told through trial transcripts, newspaper articles, and first person accounts, including Lizzie's own recently-discovered writings. Somehow the book raised more questions for me than provided answers, which is a testament to the fact that the truth is most likely lost to history. Those that know what happened that day probably took the truth to their graves and all we can do is speculate based on the records left to the ages. Cara Robertson did a phenomenal job of researching and compiling sources to tell this story in such a way that I felt as if I was right there in the courtroom throughout most of the book. Superbly well done!
    DeediReads 9 days ago
    Y’all. This mystery is WILD. I’m not usually big on true crime, but I’m so glad I read this one. Cara Robertson has spent her life — literally, this started as a thesis paper — researching Lizzie Borden’s story. She’s able to paint a rich history of what we know about the crime, and about the trial. If you aren’t aware, Lizzie Borden lived in the 1890s with her father and stepmother. One day, they were hacked to death with an ax. Literally nobody except Lizzie could have done this — and that was the prosecution’s entire case. Problem is, there’s also no way she could have done this. There is zero physical evidence, including the fact that nobody ever saw any blood on her. WILD. The book reads like hard nonfiction, kind of dry except for its subject matter. But it doesn’t matter, because you’ll be so hungry for more details and to know what happened next. I also really appreciated the fact that there were photographs printed throughout the book. They added great context and broke up the pages a bit, which was nice. I can’t say that this book solved the mystery (because the mystery remains unsolved), but it has certainly given me plenty to spew at people at parties. (Yes, I obviously go to very riveting parties.)