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A Gentleman’s Duty: The Acquittal of Lizzie Borden

Christine Noah

Christine Noah (class of 2014) is from Louisville, Kentucky. She is currently undecided on a major, but would like to pursue some combination of English and Theatre studies through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. She loves writing, especially creative nonfiction, and would like to eventually have a career in dramatic criticism or dramaturgical studies. At Davidson, she is an active participant in the theatre department’s productions, a chemistry lab teaching assistant, a Writing Center tutor, and co-editor of the campus literary magazine Exit 30. Christine’s work comes from Professor Cynthia Lewis’ Writing 101: True Crime.

On August 4, 1892, the Fall River, Massachusetts Police Department took an unofficial holiday. Its annual clambake at Rocky Point could no longer wait, and, suspecting nothing out of the ordinary on that stifling Thursday morning, they left only a few officers on duty. ((Edmund Pearson, Trial of Lizzie Borden (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1937, 27.)) As the rest of the town’s protection insouciantly sailed away, two of Fall River’s most prominent residents were savagely hacked to death with a hatchet in what would become the state’s most famous unsolved mystery.

The absence of police during the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden portended the lack of concern for the law that persisted throughout the case and eventually led to the acquittal of the most likely–and yet most unlikely–suspect in the case: Andrew’s thirty-two-year-old daughter, Lizzie Borden. As researcher David Rehak explains, Lizzie either “severed her family ties in the bloodiest way imaginable,” or became “one of the most maliciously maligned innocents that criminal history has ever seen,” in the span of a single morning.1

That morning, the maid, Bridget, awoke around 6:00 a.m. to begin her daily tasks. 2 Andrew and Abby, Lizzie’s father and stepmother, followed her at around 6:30, as did Lizzie’s uncle, John Morse, who was visiting from out of town. They ate breakfast and chatted casually. John Morse left the house at 8:45, and Lizzie came downstairs just before her father left at 9:00 to do the unusual check of his properties downtown. (The other family member, Emma, Lizzie’s older sister, was out of town visiting friends that week). Lizzie told Bridget that she believed Abby to have gone out to visit a sick friend; she claimed Abby had been summoned  in a note she received earlier that morning. Bridget went outside to wash windows, and Lizzie was allegedly in the kitchen heating flats to iron some handkerchiefs. At around  Borden14-150x150 A Gentleman's Duty: The Acquittal of Lizzie Borden9:30, Abby Borden was brutally murdered in the guest room upstairs–completely unnoticed. When Andrew returned home for his habitual mid-morning nap at 10:45, Lizzie greeted him before purportedly going out the backyard; Bridget, hoping to rest before lunch, retired to the attic. At around 11:00, Andrew met the same gruesome fate as his wife. Ten minutes later, Bridget discovered his body, and the whirlwind around the Borden murders began to spin. 3

Lizzie’s arrest, a mere week after the catastrophe, came as a shock: Andrew’s own daughter? A young woman steeped in proper Victorian sensibilities? But in the following weeks of investigation and questioning, leading up to her final trial in superior court, the town became divided over Lizzie’s case, and her innocence was no longer assumed. Today, most people who are familiar with Lizzie Borden (or with the popular ditty of her alleged deeds ((“Lizzie Borden  took an axe,/And gave her mother forty whacks./When she saw what she had done,/She gave her father forty-one.”)) believe she was guilty, a presupposition rooted in Lizzie legend. How did a jury unanimously find her not guilty in only ninety minutes, after only two weeks of testimony, when Fall River itself was split into two camps? A culture’s prejudice, a defense counsel’s doubt, a prosecutor’s apologies, and a judge’s misconduct all led to the jury’s decision–and the securing or obscuring of justice.

In 1892, a woman committing murder was nearly unthinkable. Though the Victorian era was coming to a close, its ideals were still deeply embedded in the Puritan-influenced town of Fall River. A rigid social structure had developed that strictly defined the roles of both men and women. 4 Men were at the center of their households. They were independent figures who could stand alone. Women, on the other hand, were necessarily dependent upon men, unable to exist socially or economically without male support. As Hixon observes, “The culture of Victorian America. . .defined [women’s] very identity in terms of their relationship to a man.” 5 Society confined women to the “cult of domesticity,” which emphasized their role in the home, caring for husbands and children or–as in Lizzie’s case–fathers.  This placement perpetuated the idea that women were physically weak, cooking and cleaning being the only tasks they were capable of.

While it dubbed them physically inferior to men, Victorian culture also considered women to be morally superior. As Hixon relates, women were meant to serve as examples to morality to their male counterparts, “whose aggressive, amoral instincts they were charged with tempering in the domestic sphere.”6 To fulfilling this duty, women were often active in the church (as Lizzie was in the Central Congregational Church in Fall River), and did little outside the home. A woman’s morality was measured by how well she took care of her household; a woman who spent too much time away from home was thus lacking in social values.

How did a jury unanimously find her not guilty in only ninety minutes, after only two weeks of testimony, when Fall River itself was split into two camps?

Expectations and assumptions surrounding Lizzie Borden, though accused of horrific crimes, were no different. The Victorian bias in the courtroom saw her first as a woman, and only second as a suspect. The counsel on both sides understood this advantage to Lizzie’s cause, and her defense attorney, former Massachusetts Governor George Robinson, used it to inspire empathy in the hearts of the jurors. 7 The prosecution argued that Lizzie had sole opportunity to murder Abby because she was inside the house during the crime.8 Robinson made a mockery of this accusation of guilt simply based on her presence by proclaiming, “I don’t know where I would want my daughter to be than at home, attending to the ordinary vocations of life, as a dutiful member of the household.” ((quoted in Edgar Lustgarten, “The Lizzie Borden ‘Axe Murder’ Case,” in Great Courtroom Battles, ed. Richard E. Rubenstein (Chicago: Playboy Press, 1973), 25.)) He explained that she was just performing her role as a woman, and even argued that her behavior would have been unfavorable only had she been anywhere but inside the house. When discussing the nature of the crimes, he explicitly stated that “[s]uch acts as those are morally and physically impossible for this young woman defendant,” once again invoking Victorian ideology.9 By the close of Robinson’s argument, the jury looked at Lizzie and, as Edgar Lustgarten describes, could see only “her unmistakable air of being, above all else, a lady.”10

Emphasising cultural ideals, however, was not the only way Governor Robinson influenced the jury; he also successfully raised doubt about every major piece of evidence brought forward by the prosecution. His closing argument contained more question than declarative statements, implying that everything was questionable and nothing was grounded in fact. He began his tirade with an assessment of the motive. The prosecution contended that a family feud had erupted within the Borden home, pitting Lizzie and Emma against Andrew and Abby. Their main source for this argument was Lizzie’s choice to refer to Abby not as “mother,” but rather as “Mrs. Borden”11 Borden14-150x150 A Gentleman's Duty: The Acquittal of Lizzie BordenRobinson scoffed at this reasoning by referring to a woman named Martha Chagonon, who had testified days earlier; in her testimony, Chagnon had stated that she called her own stepmother “Mrs. Chagnon”.12 In bringing forward this example parallel to Lizzie’s conduct, Robinson challenged the validity of such an accusation with such an inadequate–even ridiculous–justification. He went ever farther in regard to the motive by stating that when someone is charged with a crime, “if it is proved–proved, I say, not guessed, but proved that he did it, it is not of the slightest importance whether he had a motive or not,”13 thereby unsettling the typical assumption regarding the status of motive in a criminal trial.

Robinson questioned other points as well. One concerned the note that Lizzie said Abby had received on the morning of the murders, a note never found. He dismissed it as a detail that the prosecution placed too much emphasis on, claiming that Abby had probably burned it as soon as she received it.14 As for whomever sent the note, Robinson claimed that he or she probably did not know that the trial was even in progress, or that his or her assistance was needed.15 He also addressed the incident of Lizzie’s burning a dress similar to the one she had worn on the morning of the murders. To sterilize Lizzie’s actions, he called Emma Borden to the stand, who testified that she had told Lizzie to burn the dress because it was old and covered with paint. 16 The last major point that Robinson vied to disprove was the presence of a murder weapon. Investigators had searched the Borden house and had found several hatchets and hatchet heads (one of which had a blade with the exact dimensions as the wounds on Andrew and Abby). 17. Robinson was able to render this point moot with the help of the prosecution, who had clearly stated, ‘We do not insist. . .that these homicides were committed with this hatchet.”18 If the prosecution could not even prove that this hatchet was the murder weapon, Robinson argued, how could anyone?

In addition to his uncertainty about the murder weapon, prosecutor Hosea Knowlton left many other gaps in his reasoning, and his closing argument was more of a capitulation than a campaign. As Arnold Brown puts this, ‘[I]t sounded like an apology by a man who had taken up the jury’s time without seeming to know who committed the crimes.”19 He rarely stated anything as fact, but rather prefaced his argument with “I think” or “I believe.” (Lustgarten, “The Lizzie Borden ‘Axe Murder’,” 12.)) He approached every facet of the case as though it were uncertain, and when discussing a topic that was especially damning to Lizzie, he would qualify it with “we fix that as well as can.” 20 Knowlton clearly felt like the antagonist of the trial, like someone trying to defy real justice (at one point he even called it “the saddest duty of my life”).  Perhaps Knowlton’s most discrediting action came with his claim of inadequacy of the evidence: “It is scarcely worthwhile for me to recapitulate the evidence. I will not do it.”  ((quoted in Widdows, Trial, n.p.)). These actions nullified everything Knowlton attempted to prove earlier. Just as Robinson had snapped the case closed, Knowlton had locked it away and handed Justice Justin Dewey the key.

Instead of then handing the key to the jury, however, Justice Dewey effectively threw it away. Contrary to legal standards, he also played a substantial role in advocating Lizzie’s innocence. In a criminal trial, to prepare for their deliberations,  the judge often instructs the jury how to evaluate the evidence before them and how to separate fact from speculation. 21  Justice Dewey went far beyond this clarification, though, to state plainly his opinion of what the verdict should be. In explaining the significance of Dewey’s actions, Judge Charles Davis writes, “[I]n the charge as well as in certain rulings which was [sic] commented upon, it was not the prisoner, but the Commonwealth which did not have a fair trial.”22

First, Dewey instructed the jury to dismiss several pieces of evidence and testimony (mostly presented by the prosecution) as unreliable and therefore not significant to their decision.23 He contended that the evidence, being wholly circumstantial, was insufficient to prove that Lizzie actually committed the murders, and that they jury was therefore obliged to convict only if the evidence could prove her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.24 He discredited the testimony of several experts because he said that they conflicted (though they actually agreed on most aspects of the case), and discredited laypersons because they were not experts.25 He discounted the statements of one such woman, Mrs. Gifford, by saying that hers was “the language of a young woman and not of a philosopher or jurist.”26 As Knowlton had done in a different way, Dewey left the jury with hardly any information to consider.

Along with dismissing most of the information from the trial, Dewey also clearly rallied behind the defense. Arnold Brown notes, “Justice Dewey’s charge to the jury was straightforward: He told the jury to find Lizzie innocent. It was the honorable thing to do.” (Porter, “The Fall River Tragedy,” 275.)) He, like Robinson, touched on Victorian ideals about women, stating that sending Lizzie to prison, away from her home and remaining family after her loss, would be barbaric.27 He was also acutely aware of the ideas that he was communicating to the jury; a few days after the verdict was read, Dewey told a local newspaper, “I was satisfied when I made my charge to the jury that the verdict would be ‘not guilty’.”28 Indeed, he made his charge as if Lizzie had already gone free and he was simply summarizing how the case had concluded. Critics, including those who later brought these accusations against Dewey, argued that, in his pseudo-instructional speech, Dewey actually “abolished the jury.”29

When the jury sat down to deliberate for those brief ninety minutes, a verdict of “not guilty” was the only viable option. Not only was it instilled in their cultural values, but both the defense and the prosecution had also argued for it, and even the judge had stepped out of bounds to promote it. The jury likely felt that they were genuinely doing the honorable thing, and saw themselves as heroes for rescuing this innocent young woman from wrongful punishment. They even sent Lizzie a signed picture of themselves for her to remember them by.30

Lizzie went on to lead a reclusive life in a mansion with barred windows and doors–perhaps forever mourning her parents’ deaths, or perhaps celebrating her grand ruse. Though the murders were committed plainly on a bright, sunny morning, the perpetrator has never been–and may never be–identified; the reasons why Lizzie Borden was acquitted, however, are clear as day.

Bibliography

Brown, Arnold R. Lizzie Borden: The Legend, the Truth, the Final Chapter. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill, 1991.

Davis, Charles G. “The Conduct of the Law in the Borden Case with Suggestions of Changes in Criminal Law and Practice. In The Making of Modern Law: Trials, 1600-1926. Gale Digital Collections. http://gdc.gale.com/products/the-making-of-modern-law-trials-1600-1926. (accessed October 25 2010).

Geary, Rick. The Borden Tragedy. New York: NBM, 1997.

Hixon, Walter L. Murder, Culture, and Injustice: Four Sensational Cases in American History. Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 2001.

Linder, Douglas. “Famous Trials: The Trial of Lizzie Borden.” Kansas City, MO: University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law Website, 2004. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lizzieborden/bordenhome.html .

Lustgarten, Edgar. “The Lizzie Borden ‘Axe Murder’ Case.” In Great Courtroom Battles. edited by Richard E. Rubenstein. Chicago: Playboy Press, 1973, 1-34.

Pearson, Edmund. Trial of Lizzie Borden. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1937.

Porter, Edwin H. “The Fall River Tragedy:” A History of the Borden Murders.” In The Making of Modern Law: Trials, 1600-1928. Gale Digital Collections. http://gdc.gale.com/products/the-making-of-modern-law-trials-1600-1926. (accessed October 25, 2010).

Rehak, David. Did Lizzie Borden Axe For It? N. p.: Angel Dust Publishing Group, 2008. 

Widdows, Harry. Trial of Lizzie Andrew Borden. Vol. 1. http://www.lizzieandrewborden.com/pdf%20files/Trial/Borden1.pdf.

 

  1. David Rehak. Did Lizzie Borden Axe for It? (Angel Dust, 2008), back cover. []
  2. For more information and a detailed chronology of the events that took place on the morning of the murders, consult Rehak, Did Lizzie Borden Axe for It? and Douglas Linder, “Famous Trials: The Trial of Lizzie Borden,” University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law website, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lizzieborden/bordenhome.html (accessed October 30, 2010. []
  3. Abby’s body was not discovered until an hour later, when Lizzie suggested some neighbors look for her in the house. See Rick Geary, The Borden Tragedy (New York: NBM, 1997), n.p. []
  4. For additional information about Victorian attitudes, see Walter L. Hixson, Murder, Culture, and Injustice: Four Sensational Cases in American History (Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 2001). []
  5. Hixon, Murder, 8. []
  6. Hixon, Murder, 8. []
  7. Arnold R. Brown, Lizzie Borden: The Legend, the Truth, the Final Chapter (Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill, 1991): 266. []
  8. Brown, Lizzie Borden, 265. []
  9. quoted in Harry Widdows, Trial of Lizzie Andrew Borden, vol. 1 http://www.lizzieandrewborden.com/pdf%20files/Trial/Borden.pdf. []
  10. Lustgarten, “The Lizzie Borden ‘Axe Murder’,” 29. []
  11. Lustgarten, “The Lizzie Borden ‘Axe Murder’,” 26. []
  12. Lustgarten, “The Lizzie Borden ‘Axe Murder’,” 26. []
  13. quoted in Widdows, Trial, n.p. []
  14. Commonly, paper was burned as refuse. []
  15. Widdows, Trial, n.p. []
  16. Lustgarten, “The Lizzie Borden ‘Axe Murder,” 24. []
  17. Rick Geary, The Borden Tragedy (New York: NBM, 1977, n.p. []
  18. quoted in Lustgarten, “The Lizzie Borden ‘Axe Murder’,” 17. []
  19. Brown, Lizzie Borden, 270. []
  20. (Lustgarten, “The Lizzie Borden ‘Axe Murder’,” 12. []
  21. Charles G. Davis, “The Conduct of the Law in the Borden Case with Suggestions of Changes in Criminal Law and Practice,” in The Making of Modern Law, Trials, 1600-1926 (Gale Digital Collections) http://gdc.gale.com/products/the-making-of-modern-law-trials-1600-1926, 11  []
  22. Davis, “The Conduct,” 11. []
  23. Brown, Lizzie Borden, 275. []
  24. Davis, “The Conduct,” 11. []
  25. Brown,  Lizzie Borden, 277. []
  26. quoted in Edwin H. Porter, “The Fall River Tragedy: A History of the Borden Murders,” in The Making of Modern Law: Trials, 1600-1926 (Gale Digital Collections) http://gdc.gale.com/products/the-making-of-modern-law-trials-1600-1926, 305. []
  27. Porter, “The Fall River Tragedy,” 276. []
  28. quoted in Brown, Lizzie Borden, 275. []
  29. Davis, “The Conduct of the Law,” 17. []
  30. Brown, Lizzie Borden, 280. []
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