On August 4th, 2019, as on every anniversary of the murders of Abby and Andrew J. Borden since 1996, actors at the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum in Fall River, Massachusetts dramatized for tourists the events in the aftermath of the killings. ¹ In the same Second Street house where the murders occurred in 1892, this year’s visitors were greeted by the Borden household servant before being invited to inspect the two murder scenes—one in the upstairs guest room, where Abby Borden was brutally killed with a hatchet, and the other in the downstairs sitting room, where Andrew Borden suffered multiple blows to the head from a hatchet as he slept. Visitors then interacted with Lizzie Borden, daughter to Andrew and step-daughter to Abby, had the opportunity to ask questions of other witnesses and household guests, and heard from both the medical examiner and the Fall River detective assigned to investigate the case. Left to mull over the facts of the case and to decide for themselves exactly how the murders occurred and who the true culprit(s) might be, visitors could choose to spend the night (the most popular room is the guest room where Abby Borden was killed), to participate in paranormal investigations of the house, or to simply visit the gift shop, where an assortment of souvenirs, including a Lizzie Borden bobblehead doll and knitted caps featuring axe designs, are available for purchase.² As has been the case since 1996, this year’s dramatic reenactment tours quickly sold out.
If anything, the American fascination with the gruesome Borden murders and the subsequent trial of Lizzie Borden has grown rather than subsided in the 128 years since the crime took place. Versions of the story have emerged in genres ranging from film and television documentaries to detective novels and ballet, as well as the familiar skipping-rope song that continues to introduce school children to the “facts” of the case:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one
In many of the story’s retellings, Lizzie has become a vengeful axe-wielding murderer or, at the very least, a figure of mystery as authors and filmmakers speculate about her motives and marvel at the viciousness of the crime. Lizzie Borden’s identity as an ax murderer is so entrenched in American folklore that it is sometimes easy to forget that a jury of twelve Massachusetts men acquitted her of all charges after less than ninety minutes of deliberation.
Cara Robertson’s The Trial of Lizzie Borden: A True Story revisits this familiar narrative of the Borden murders and Lizzie Borden’s trial in order to de-familiarize it in crucial ways. Unlike nearly every prominent version of the story, Robertson resists assuming Lizzie Borden’s guilt—or her innocence—in favor of a meticulously researched synthesis of archival material that includes court and inquest transcripts, witness statements, the papers of the trial lawyers, and newspaper accounts from local and national newspapers. Robertson compellingly documents the known facts of the Borden case, and because she strategically avoids participating in a long tradition of sensationalizing the events of the murder and its aftermath, she is simultaneously able to tell the equally captivating story of the many ways that journalists, writers, and historians have shaped the mythology of Borden murders, beginning in the hours after the crime.
Lizzie Borden’s identity as an ax murderer is so entrenched in American folklore that it is sometimes easy to forget that a jury of twelve Massachusetts men acquitted her of all charges after less than ninety minutes of deliberation.
The basic facts of the Borden case are generally well agreed upon. On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden discovered the badly mutilated body of Andrew J. Borden on a sofa in the Borden house sitting room and called in her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Churchill, for help; an inspection by the medical examiner determined that Andrew Borden’s wounds, numbering between eight and ten, were inflicted with a hatchet, crushing his skull as he took his midmorning nap. Later that afternoon, Abby Borden, Andrew’s second wife, was also found dead in the upstairs guest room, apparently killed some two hours prior to her husband, viciously struck eighteen times to the head and neck, also with a hatchet. The only two people known to be present in the house at the time of the murders were Lizzie Borden and Bridget Sullivan, an Irish immigrant who served as the Borden household maid. Lizzie would tell investigators that she was in the barn loft, located just behind the house, at the time of her father’s murder, while Bridget reported that after washing the first-floor windows, she had retired to her third-floor bedroom to rest, still recovering from a recent bout with food poisoning. Prosecutors for the case, including District Attorney Hosea Knowlton, a future Massachusetts attorney general, and William Moody, a future U.S. attorney general and Supreme Court Justice, attempted to establish Lizzie’s guilt largely on the basis of her inconsistent testimony at the initial inquest, witness testimony of Lizzie’s (unsuccessful) attempt to buy a lethal poison at a local drugstore just days before the murders, and Lizzie’s grudge against her father and step-mother for withholding money, property, and opportunities for her social advancement. Meanwhile, Lizzie Borden’s equally impressive defense attorneys, including George Robinson, a former governor and congressman from Massachusetts, and Andrew Jennings, a future U.S. Senator, emphasized Lizzie’s upstanding character, her devotion to church, and the lack of physical evidence—there were no bloodstains on her person or clothing—in their efforts to exonerate her. After a twelve-day trial, the jury quickly returned a “not guilty” verdict, and Lizzie Borden was set free to live out her days at Maplecroft, her newly acquired home in Fall River’s elite Hill neighborhood.
Robertson’s own impressive legal background—she holds a law degree from Stanford, clerked for the United States Supreme Court, and worked as a legal advisor in the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague—undoubtedly contributes to her ability to explain clearly and patiently the details of the sometimes-convoluted investigation and trial. She admirably recounts complicated procedural legal maneuvers and judicial decisions—the ultimate exclusion of both Lizzie’s inquest testimony and key evidence pertaining to Lizzie’s attempts to purchase poison in the days before the murders, for example—without either disrupting the suspense of the larger narrative or becoming overly engrossed in technical details.
Robertson also quite self-consciously resists the temptation to re-sensationalize the murders in the way that so many retellings have done, attuned to how the Borden story has appealed to successive generations of audiences for a variety of reasons. As Robertson observes, “the Borden case serves as a cultural Rorschach test” (284) in which “every generation reinvents the case.” (284) Writers, historians, filmmakers, and documentarians continually return to the events to grapple with the unexplained pieces of the narrative, most often in ways that reveal current cultural anxieties and concerns as the story gets retold and reimagined. If the most popular twentieth and twenty-first-century retellings are any indication, the primary motive that prosecutors claimed in the original case—Lizzie Borden’s deep resentment about being denied access to money and to the elite social connections that status and wealth brought in Fall River—seems insufficient or unpersuasive to modern audiences. Most recently, for example, the 2018 film Lizzie (starring Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie and Kristen Stewart as Bridget) locates the true motive for the murders in the threatened exposure of a passionate, cross-class love affair between Lizzie and Bridget. In other fictionalized versions in novels and films, Lizzie Borden variously emerges as a stifled young woman willing to risk everything, even murder, for her freedom and independence, a survivor of sexual abuse triumphing over her perpetrators, an unwitting victim suffering from epileptic seizures that render her unaware of her homicidal actions, or the innocent scapegoat of the real murderer—Bridget Sullivan, Emma Borden (Lizzie’s sister), John Morse (Lizzie’s uncle), or an unidentified illegitimate son of Andrew Borden, depending on the account. Robertson admirably resists imposing yet another narrative judgment on the events she documents, avoiding taking sides or speculating on motives, a choice that allows her to unearth the history of just such narrative impulses and the origins of a strangely enduring preoccupation with the crime and its aftermath.
Robertson’s book makes abundantly clear that a particular combination of factors—the identities of the victims and their suspected killer, the attention from local and national journalists, and the introduction of cutting-edge forms of forensic evidence at trial—converged to produce an unprecedented theatrical spectacle for a national audience, and in the process established some of the most enduring conventions of American courtroom drama. Even as the trial unfolded, one well-respected journalist for the New York Sun, Julian Ralph, seemed keenly aware of the generic conventions that were emerging in the sensational daily news accounts: “Gore and hatchets, axes, plaster casts that might have been borrowed from a Bowery chamber of horrors, bloody garments, bits of bloody carpet and blood-spattered furniture and house fittings—these were the stage properties in this legal drama.” (167) Journalists magnified the already-intense fascination with the details surrounding evidence collection and examination—from the first dissections of the murder victims on the Bordens’ own dining room table to the autopsies performed at the cemetery after the medical examiner quietly removed the bodies from their caskets—in their accounts of the case.
Robertson’s own impressive legal background—she holds a law degree from Stanford, clerked for the United States Supreme Court, and worked as a legal advisor in the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague—undoubtedly contributes to her ability to explain clearly and patiently the details of the sometimes-convoluted investigation and trial.
Inside the courtroom, the prosecutors took full advantage of available scientific and medical experts to build their case against Lizzie Borden. They called upon a Harvard chemistry professor, Edward Wood, who had examined the stomach contents of the murder victims, the alleged murder weapon, clothing evidence, and carpet samples from the scene. They also summoned Dr. Frank Draper, professor of legal medicine and medical examiner for Suffolk Country, Massachusetts, who dramatically exhibited plaster casts of the skulls of Abby and Andrew Borden, and then, in a consummate display of forensic showmanship, produced the actual skull of Andrew Borden, cleaned and boiled, as the central prop in a dramatization of the way that the alleged murder weapon had forcefully landed in the wound crevices still visible in the bone. A professor of surgery at Harvard medical school, David W. Cheever, testified about the times of death of the Bordens, the characteristics of the murder weapon, and the (lack of) blood spatter evidence. As the journalists covering the trial described in detail the shocking array of evidence and recounted gruesome testimony, they piqued public curiosity, and, like the lawyers, blurred the distinction between entertainment and real life in their accounts.
Robertson’s account reveals just how much contemporary interest in the case emerged from the use of scientific evidence during a time when the study of idiosyncratic evidentiary markers—from fingerprinting to bullet examination—were just on the verge of widespread acceptance. The year of the Borden trial was the same year that Sir Francis Galton set up the first classification system for fingerprints, though the practice of collecting and examining fingerprints in crime investigations would not become routine until the first decade of the twentieth century. ³ Other forensic techniques, including blood typing and DNA testing, were still decades away from discovery. The court’s fascination with scientific testimony and the promise of truth in forensic evidence, as Robertson reveals, made science itself a prominent character in the unfolding drama of the trial.
Crucially, too, Robertson’s deliberate refusal to speculate about Lizzie’s innocence or guilt creates an analytical space for her to unpack the multiple ways that assumptions about gender, class, and race shaped—and continues to shape—accounts of the case. Contemporary theories of the case ran the gamut, some envisioning Lizzie as a vicious murderer cleverly disguised as a virtuous and appropriately grieving daughter in the aftermath of the murders, and others depicting Lizzie as constitutionally incapable of such violence and thus the innocent victim of someone else’s heinous actions. Robertson’s account of nineteenth-century ideals, whereby the very definition of (white) femininity was radically incompatible with the kind of rage that characterized the excessive violence of the Borden murders, helps to illuminate how incomprehensible it was to Lizzie Borden’s supporters—her defense lawyers, Fall River’s society women—that she could be guilty. Robertson is also particularly skilled at rendering transparent the intersecting class and gender dynamics that underwrite the depictions of Lizzie Borden that emerged in the media during the investigation and trial and that also became part of the prosecutors’ strategies to establish her guilt. Documenting reporters’ preoccupation with Lizzie’s choice of clothing and her demeanor in the courtroom and their intense scrutiny of Lizzie’s responses to gruesome evidence or shocking testimony, Robertson emphasizes the double bind that upper-class femininity meant for Lizzie’s fate: on one hand, an emotionally wrought woman—and especially one, like Lizzie, who happened to be menstruating at the time of the murders—might also behave unpredictably and even be prone to violence and criminal behavior, while a cold and emotionless woman might not abide the norms of genteel femininity and might instead be inclined to depraved criminal behavior. The prosecutors, well aware of the protective assumptions attendant upon her upper-class femininity, recounted in their closing arguments the examples infamous murderers who were members of the clergy (and therefore known Christians), who were young, who were upper-class, and who were women, claiming that none of these identities precluded criminal transgression. Robertson’s analysis reveals just how much both sides relied on and self-consciously weaponized gender and class stereotypes to their advantage. Lizzie Borden’s acquittal, whether understood as a chivalrous act on the part of twelve men who could not fathom Borden as a monstrous parricide or the logical outcome of a case with insufficient material evidence, was entangled in a set of social assumptions that continue to shape retellings of the story to the present day.
Writers, historians, filmmakers, and documentarians continually return to the events to grapple with the unexplained pieces of the narrative, most often in ways that reveal current cultural anxieties and concerns as the story gets retold and reimagined.
Robertson also expertly illustrates the importance of the relentless and blatantly partisan media attention to the Borden case in establishing its place in American cultural memory. The newspapers covering the trial, from The Providence Journal to The Boston Globe, seemed keenly aware from the beginning of the public curiosity about this case and propelled it to even greater prominence in the pages of their respective publications. The trial itself drew an extraordinary number of reporters—the courtroom needed to be modified to fit extra journalists, and a horse shed behind the courthouse had to be repurposed to house all the wire services—most of whom did not shy away from offering accounts that signaled their judgment about innocence or guilt. Neutral journalism was clearly not the norm: correspondents like Elizabeth Jordan, one of the few women reporting on the trial, wrote in support of Lizzie Borden in her stories for the New York World, while others were less generous in their reports of her. Lizzie Borden stood accused not only in the courtroom but in the press as well.
Along with their daily accounts of evidence and witnesses, the correspondents and journalists covering the trial unfailingly reported on the crowds of spectators who competed each morning and afternoon for seats in the courtroom, people who often arrived to line up at the courthouse doors many hours before each day’s session commenced. As these journalists consistently pointed out, women of all classes significantly outnumbered the men in jockeying, sometimes quite aggressively, for the opportunity to witness the trial firsthand. Much like the ways they persistently scrutinized Lizzie Borden’s courtroom demeanor, seemingly searching for clues of her guilt or innocence in her choice of dress, her complexion, or her facial expressions, the journalists offered decidedly unflattering and detailed accounts of the spectators, describing their clothes, snacks, and dramatic responses to the day’s events, consistently questioning their motives for attendance. The journalists wrote disdainfully of the crowds who gathered to witness the spectacle that the trial had become, not quite owning up to the fact that the journalists themselves had helped create that spectacle in the first place. Robertson’s own careful attention to the ways each of the constituencies—journalists, spectators, lawyers, jury, judges—played a part in constructing the trial as simultaneously legal ritual and voyeuristic public entertainment offers her readers a crucial origin story for today’s most popular American courtroom dramas.
Lizzie Borden changed her name to Lizbeth after the trial and lived out the rest of her life in Fall River, largely shunned by the elite class of women who most vehemently defended her innocence during the trial. She died in 1927 at the age of sixty-six, leaving detailed instructions “To be laid at my Father’s feet” in the Borden plot at the nearby cemetery in Fall River. (279) The case itself, however, shows little sign of fading. Much like the events at the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum, the story gets reenacted with astonishing regularity in American culture. Although Robertson’s book cannot solve the mystery of the Borden murders once and for all, it does help us trace a quintessentially American history of fascination with true crime and courtroom drama back more than a century.