Lizzie Borden

Our latest novel, Cold Stone and Ivy, by H. Leighton Dickson, is a Gothic steampunk mystery. Set in England, (Lancashire and London, mostly) during 1888, the book features several real people as characters. Tyche and author H. Leighton Dickson will be showcasing some of these historical figures in the next few weeks. The first post featured Jack the Ripper.

In Cold Stone and Ivy, the Lonsdale Abbey Sanitarium houses all sorts of interesting people. Among the patients is Lizzie Borden, a girl with a temper and a fondness for axes and pigeons, who will soon be moving to Fall River, Massachusetts with her father and step-mother.

Lizzie Borden took an axe

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

It’s a popular skipping rhyme; perhaps you’ve heard it?

Lizzie Borden, c. 1890

Lizzie Borden, c. 1890

On August 4, 1892, Abby and Andrew Borden were murdered in their home at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts. Contrary to the rhyme, Abby sustained about 19 whacks and Andrew 11. To this date, their murders have not been solved, although the most likely perpetrator seems to be their daughter, Lizzie Borden, who was arrested, tried, and acquitted of their murders. Lizzie Borden was the only person to be arrested for the crime.

The evidence against Lizzie was circumstantial at best–sloppy police-work definitely contributed to the lack of solid evidence collected–but it is certainly suggestive. She had the most obvious opportunity, being the only household member continually at home that day (as much as 90 minutes could have separated the deaths), and she had motive–her father was wealthy, and there had been ongoing disputes over real estate and inheritance (and, yes, Andrew had slaughtered all of Lizzie’s pigeons). At the time of Abby Durfee Borden’s death, Lizzie called her step-mother of nearly thirty years “Mrs. Borden”, indicating a strained relationship.

Other clues indicating Lizzie were the dress she burned a couple of days after the deaths, claiming it had been ruined by paint; her several conflicting statements of her whereabouts and activities during the crimes; and the curious way she kept sending away on errands the women who came to sit with her after the discovery of the bodies, evidently preferring to sit alone in the house with the corpses and a murderer on the loose.

Prominent lawyer George D. Robinson was hired for the defense team, the lawyers from the Borden family’s firm not having much experience in criminal law. After a twelve day trial, the jury acquitted Lizzie in ten minutes, although they delayed relaying their verdict for an hour out of respect for the law.

After the trial, Lizzie continued to live in Fall River, despite being ostracized in local society. She and her older sister, Emma, shared a house for several years until their falling out in 1905. The two never saw each other again before their deaths in 1927. Lizzie Borden’s funeral was sparsely attended.

The mystery of the Borden murders may never be solved. Some insights into the trial were revealed when the grandson of lawyer Andrew Jennings willed Jennings’ personal journals to the Fall River Historical Society. But the holy grail for Lizzie Borden enthusiasts are George D. Robinson’s notes from his first, three hour interview with Lizzie before he agreed to join the defense team. These notes are filed away at the law firm which Robinson founded, Robinson, Donovan, Madden & Barry. Requests to see these files have been denied; client confidentiality extends beyond death.

Fascination with Lizzie and the murders has continued unabated over the years, with numerous books, movies, and TV programs created about her–and, of course, the popular skipping rhyme. The Borden house has even been converted into a Bed & Breakfast, a popular tourist attraction in Fall River. The bedroom where Abby Durfee Borden was murdered is a popular choice of guests.

Further reading, including trial and inquest transcripts, can be found at the Lizzie Borden Virtual Museum and Library.


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