1892 Borden Murders

Lizzie Borden took an axe

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her Father forty- one

At one point or another, every schoolchild typically hears this small rhyme scheme, whether to accompany a hot-scotch match or as a joke towards the macabre. The Lizzie Borden case, however, was one of America's most famous trials -- like the Salem Witch Trials, the Scopes 'Monkey' Trial, and even O.J. Simpson. All of these become iconic, yet reflect somewhat of a mirror of society and American culture of the time. Looking at these trials, we can dissect some of the social mores and cultural trends of the time, learning much about society and the very real assumptions underlying the bias and dominant cultural schemes of the time. Of course, we have the trial transcripts -- quite usually far less intriguing than the books, articles, and now movies about the subject. However, we also have the unconscious testimony -- what is not said or what is said in certain ways that reflect the issues that are really in context (e.g. budding adolescents in a Puritanical society in Salem, etc.). These types of trials, including the one in question, the 1892 Borden murders, allows us a legal, literary, sociological, psychological, cultural, economic, and even political interpretation of events. For the purposes of this essay, however, we will first look a bit at the era and background to the case, the case itself, and then concentrate on the psychological and sociological implications of the trial based on an analysis of Lizzie Borden herself.

Elizabeth Andrew Borden (1860 -- 1927) was a New England woman tried for killing her father and stepmother with a hatchet on August 4, 1892, at age 22, in Fall River Massachusetts. The murders, likely because of their heinous nature, became media frenzy, and although Lizzie was acquitted due to lack of evidence, no one else was ever arrested in the case and the mystery of the murder became part of American folklore. Factually, the Borden's together received only 29 axe strokes, not as the poem suggests. However, the popularity of the poem, even into the 21st century, suggests that there was widespread speculation, a great deal of myth, and the jury's acquittal of Lizzie despite prosecutorial evidence a considerable fascination even today (Brown).

The Era and Background

The 1890s was a transitional time in American history, but quite significant. The Civil War had ended, Reconstruction failed (according to most), and Westward expansion and subsequent statehood concluded a Gilded Age and began the making of modern America as a powerful nation in the area. During this time period, the twin forces of change and continuity dominated -- the largely rural, agricultural and homogeneous society was slowly transitioning towards a more urban, industrial and heterogeneous one, marked by great literacy and a sense of modernism not really recreated until the 1920s. This was especially true in the areas of the East Coast that seemed squeezed between urbanity and a more genteel time (the 1890s in America: Documenting the Maturation of a Nation). Others saw this time period, particularly for New England, as a reckless decade -- the split of the traditional family, opening of views on temperance, sexuality, and woman's suffrage, the arrogance of the Spanish-American War, and changes in popular culture that reflect upon attitudes towards women that were far, far different than those of the post-Civil War Era (Brands).

This was most certainly the case after 1870 in Fall River, Massachusetts, in which the city and surrounding area simply exploded: over 20 new corporations, almost 22 new mills in the city, the others expanding; and an increase of over 20,000 new people. By the end of the decade, the city had grown to rival Machester, Great Britain as leading cotton roll producer in world cotton textiles. In addition, the area had almost the entire cotton and cotton fabric production in the United States, created a class of noveau riche, and changed the area. This is important to the Lizzie Borden Case because we need to understand that this was no backwater town -- but a thriving and evolving manufacturing area (Illustrated History of Fall River Massachusetts).

Lizzie was the third child in a family of all girls. Her mother died when she was three, leaving most of her upbringing to her Father and older sister. The puritanical Andrew was kind, but never very affectionate, yet he paid for Lizzies "Grand Tour of Europe" in 1890. When she returned, she took up with the Christian Temperance Society, as was common for most women of her station at the time. Andrew remained very "tight" with his money even though he had accumulated a great deal of wealth, mostly through real estate. Yet, he taught Lizzie to be thriftful, hold her emotions in check, and to prepare to take his place as a real estate mogul when the time came. Lizzie often told friends that while he was quiet and reticent he would lecture on and on about property values, the way to cut deals, and how to purchase using cash and influence cut rate sales (Radin).

One important reason for Lizzie's popularity with the townsfolk was that although she was given an allowance of only $200 per year, she saved most of it and donated it to charities. Her Father did not know about her strong connection to charities, however, and throught that she, like many young women of ther time, simply joined groups as a pass time. Despite, in fact, speculation that Lizzie killed her Father to inherit his wealth, Andrew never made a will, and never discussed making a will. Lizzie was also said to have held feelings of animosity and anger toward her step-mother, but again, this was more of a media and subsequent crime-writers invention as opposed to proven facts (Hoffman).

Women in the Victorian Age

The Victorian Age, roughly most of the 19th century, was named for Queen Victoria of England. However, the ties to Great Britain, combined with the cultural, political, social and economic movement of the times also meant there was a similar period in American history, particularly that of the Eastern Seaboard and the larger urban and economic centers therein. This era, so prosperous and wonderful for so many, allowed the middle and upper classes a chance to read, write, and experience art as never before. However, in contrast, the huge population increase and rapid urbanization caused by the industrial revolution drew large numbers of skilled and unskilled individuals to the cities where they were paid wages barely at the subsistence level, and situations of such abject poverty and despair that not only drastic political theories arose, but the realities of urban life were reflected in much of the literature of the time -- whether tragic or fantastic, all as a response to social and cultural conditions the world of this era was one of constant contrasts; Freud's theories were becoming popular, and one of the best ways of understanding women in the time is to compare their burgeoning sexuality with the manner of dress and what appeared to be binding of the breasts and waist, with long skirts and not the slightest hint of skin showing. This transformation of the agrian, working class family into a caste system in which women were marginally allowed more and more "rights" -- education, reading, career paths, etc. still contrasted rather violently in the psychological perspective with the image of woman as care giver, home maker, kind, secure, and most assuredly never argumentative or capable of violent behavior (Mintz and Kellog). Additionally, the real psychosis of femininity during the period surrounded society's ideal views of women, their roles, attitudes, and even their abilities; with reality. That Lizzie and her sister were caught up in this is clearly obvious -- their relationship with their stoic Father that really was only conversationally functional when dealing with issues surrounding the business; the idea that the sisters inhabited one part of the house, the Father and Step-Mother the other, the lack of what one would call a nuclear family relationship or even the idea of one; and finally, the speculation that there were sexual tensions involved (seemingly obvious given Lizzie's age) (MacDonald).

The Case

On August 5, 1892, Andrew Borden went into Fall River to do his usual rounds at the bank, post office, and market. He returned home about 10:45am; Lizzie claimed she found his body hacked to death about 30 minutes later, just before 11:30 AM. During the trial, the Borden's 26-year-old maid, Bridget Sullivan, testified that she was lying down in her room resting while Mr. Borden was running errands when, shortly after 11:00am she heard Lizzie call out stating someone had killed her father. Police found his body slumped into an undersized couch in the sitting room, his face turned to the right, almost as if the incident had occurred while he was asleep. Shortly after, Lizzie was…