14 December 2023

An Early Christmas Present: Florence King on Lizzie Borden

[Posted by Eve Fisher]

This column by the late great Florence King originally appeared in the National Review, August 17, 1992.  I'm posting this in anticipation of the Christmas season because you might watch The Man Who Came to Dinner, one of my favorite Christmas movies, in which Harriet Stanley's past saves Sheridan Whiteside's bacon:  

If you want to understand Anglo-Saxon Americans, study the Lizzie Borden case. No ethnologist could ask for a better control group; except for Bridget Sullivan, the Bordens’ maid, the zany tragedy of August 4, 1892, had an all-Wasp cast.

Lizzie Borden

Lizzie was born in Fall River, Mass., on July 19, 1860, and immediately given the Wasp family’s favorite substitute for open affection: a nickname. Thirty-two years later at her inquest she stated her full legal name: Lizzie Andrew Borden. “You were so christened?” asked the district attorney.

“I was so christened,” she replied.

Lizzie’s mother died in 1862. Left with two daughters to raise, her father, Andrew Borden, soon married a chubby spinster of 38 named Abby Durfee Gray. Three-year-old Lizzie obediently called the new wife Mother, but 12-year-old Emma called her Abby.

Andrew Borden was a prosperous but miserly undertaker whose sole interest in life was money. His operations expanded to include banking, cotton mills, and real estate, but no matter how rich he became he never stopped peddling eggs from his farms to his downtown business associates; wicker basket in hand, he would set out for corporate board meetings in anticipation of yet a few more pennies. Although he was worth $500,000 in pre-IRS, gold-standard dollars, he was so tightfisted that he refused to install running water in his home. There was a latrine in the cellar and a pump in the kitchen; the bedrooms were fitted out with water pitchers, wash bowls, chamber pots, and slop pails.

Marriage with this paragon of Yankee thrift evidently drove Abby to seek compensatory emotional satisfaction in eating. Only five feet tall, she ballooned up to more than two hundred pounds and seldom left the house except to visit her half-sister, Mrs. Whitehead.

Emma Borden, Lizzie’s older sister, was 42 at the time of the murders. Mouse-like in all respects, she was one of those spinsters who scurry. Other than doing the marketing, she rarely went anywhere except around the corner to visit her friend, another spinster named Alice Russell.

Compared to the rest of her family, Lizzie comes through as a prom queen. Never known to go out with men, at least she went out. A member of Central Congregational, she taught Sunday school, served as secretary-treasurer of the Christian Endeavor Society, and was a card-carrying member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

What did she look like? Like everyone else in that inbred Wasp town. New York Sun reporter Julian Ralph wrote during the trial:

By the way, the strangers who are here begin to notice that Lizzie Borden’s face is of a type quite common in New Bedford. They meet Lizzie Borden every day and everywhere about town. Some are fairer, some are younger, some are coarser, but all have the same general cast of features — heavy in the lower face, high in the cheekbones, wide at the eyes, and with heavy lips and a deep line on each side of the mouth.

Plump by our standards, she had what her self-confident era called a good figure. She also had blue eyes, and like all blue-eyed women she had a lot of blue dresses — handy for changing clothes without appearing to have done so. The case is a vortex of dark blue dresses, light blue dresses, blue summer dresses, blue winter dresses, clean blue dresses, paint-stained blue dresses, blood-stained blue dresses, and an all-male jury struggling to tell one from the other.

Now they were even-steven and everything was settled — except it wasn’t.

Five years before the murders, the Bordens had a family fight when Andrew put one of his rental houses in Abby’s name. Lizzie and Emma were furious, so they said politely: “What you do for her, you must do for us.” That’s the Wasp version of a conniption and Andrew knew it, so he took refuge in our cure-all fair play, buying his daughters houses of identical valuation ($1,500) to the one he had given his wife.

Now they were even-steven and everything was settled — except it wasn’t. Having failed to clear the air, everyone started smoldering and brooding. Emma and Lizzie stopped eating with the elder Bordens, requiring the maid to set and serve each meal twice. They never reached that pinnacle of Wasp rage called Not Speaking — “We always spoke,” Emma emphasized at the trial — but she and Lizzie eliminated “Abby” and “Mother” from their respective vocabularies and started calling their stepmother “Mrs. Borden.” What a cathartic release that must have been.

Lizzie ticked away for four years until 1891, when she committed a family robbery. Entering the master bedroom through a door in her own room (it was a “shotgun” house with no hallways), she stole her stepmother’s jewelry and her father’s loose cash.

Andrew and Abby knew that Lizzie was the culprit, and Lizzie knew that they knew, but rather than “have words,” Andrew called in the police and let them go through an investigation to catch the person the whole family carefully referred to as “the unknown thief.”

The robbery launched a field day of Silent Gestures. Everybody quietly bought lots of locks. To supplement the key locks, there were bolts, hooks, chains, and padlocks. Abby’s Silent Gesture consisted of locking and bolting her side of the door that led into Lizzie’s room. Lizzie responded with her Silent Gesture, putting a hook on her side of the door and shoving a huge clawlooted secretary in front of it.

The best Silent Gesture was Andrew’s. He put the strongest available lock on the master bedroom, but kept the key on the sitting-room mantelpiece in full view of everyone. Lizzie knew she was being tempted to touch it; she also knew that if the key disappeared, she would be suspect. In one fell swoop, Andrew made it clear that he was simultaneously trusting her and distrusting her, and warning her without saying a word. Wasps call this war of nerves the honor system.

Since Emma was a Silent Gesture, there was no need for her to do anything except keep on scurrying.

The Borden house must have been a peaceful place. There is nothing on record to show that the Bordens ever raised their voices to one another. “Never a word,” Bridget Sullivan testified at the trial, with obvious sincerity and not a little awe.

Bridget, 26 and pretty in a big-boned, countrified way, had been in the Bordens’ service for almost three years at the time of the murders. A recent immigrant, she had a brogue so thick that she referred to the Silent Gesture on the mantelpiece as the “kay.”

Bridget adored Lizzie. Victoria Lincoln, the late novelist, whose parents were neighbors of the Bordens, wrote in her study of the case: “De haut en bas, Lizzie was always kind.” Her habit of calling Bridget “Maggie” has been attributed to laziness (Maggie was the name of a former maid), but I think it was an extremity of tact. In that time and place, the name Bridget was synonymous with “Irish maid.” Like Rastus in minstrel-show jokes, it was derisory, so Lizzie substituted another.

Anyone who studies the Borden case grows to like Lizzie, or at least admire her, for her rigid sense of herself as a gentlewoman. It would have been so easy for her to cast suspicion on Bridget, or to accuse her outright. Bridget was the only other person in the house when Andrew and Abby were killed. The Irish were disliked in turn-of-the-century Massachusetts; a Yankee jury would have bought the idea of Bridget’s guilt. Yet Lizzie never once tried to shift the blame, and she never named Bridget as a suspect.
Scurrying Away

Aweek before the murders, Emma did something incredible: she went to Fairhaven. Fifteen miles is a long way to scurry but scurry she did, to visit an elderly friend and escape the heat wave that had descended on Fall River.

That same week, Lizzie shared a beach house on Buzzards Bay with five friends. At a press conference after the murders, they showered her with compliments. “She always was self-contained, self-reliant, and very composed. Her conduct since her arrest is exactly what I should have expected. Lizzie and her father were, without being demonstrative, very fond of each other.”

They got so caught up in Wasp priorities that they inadvertently sowed a dangerous seed when the reporter asked them if they thought Lizzie was guilty. No, they said firmly, because she had pleaded not guilty: “It is more likely that Lizzie would commit a murder than that she would lie about it afterward.”

The most puzzling aspect of the case has always been Lizzie’s choice of weapons. Ladies don’t chop up difficult relatives, but they do poison them. A few days before she was due at the beach house, Lizzie tried to buy prussic acid in her neighborhood drugstore. The druggist’s testimony was excluded on a legal technicality, but it establishes her as, in the words of one of her friends, “a monument of straightforwardness.”

Picture it: In broad daylight in the middle of a heat wave, she marched into the drugstore carrying a fur cape, announced that there were moths in it, and asked for ten cents’ worth of prussic acid to kill them. The druggist was stunned. Even in the casual Nineties, when arsenic was sold over the counter, it was illegal to sell prussic acid. “But I’ve bought it many times before,” Lizzie protested.

Even in the casual Nineties, when arsenic was sold over the counter, it was illegal to sell prussic acid.

The druggist’s astonishment mounted in the face of this stouthearted lie. “Well, my good lady, it is something we don’t sell except by prescription, as it is a very dangerous thing to handle.”

Lizzie left, never dreaming that she might have called attention to herself.

At the beach, her friends noticed that she seemed despondent and preoccupied. They were puzzled when she suddenly cut short her vacation, giving as her excuse some church work, and returned to Fall River.

Back home in the stifling city heat, she sat in her room and brooded. Somehow she had found out that Abby was about to acquire some more real estate; Andrew was planning to put a farm in his wife’s name and install his brother-in-law, John Morse, as caretaker. This last was especially infuriating, for Lizzie and Emma were Not Speaking to Uncle John. He had been involved, so they thought, in that other real-estate transfer five years before. Now he was back, plotting to do her and Emma out of their rightful inheritance.

Something had to be done, but what? Lacking lady-like poison, Lizzie did what every overcivilized, understated Wasp is entirely capable of doing once we finally admit we’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more: She went from Anglo to Saxon in a trice.
Miss Borden Accepts

On the day before the murders, Lizzie joined Abby and Andrew for lunch for the first time in five years — an air-tight alibi, for who would do murder after doing lunch? That evening, she paid a call on Alice Russell and craftily planted some red herrings. If Machiavelli had witnessed this demonstration of the fine Wasp hand he would have gone into cardiac arrest.

“I have a feeling that something is going to happen,” she told Alice. “A feeling that somebody is going to do something.” She hammered the point home with stories about her father’s “enemies.” He was such a ruthless businessman, she said, that “they” all hated him, and she would not put it past “them” to burn down the house.

When she returned home, Uncle John had arrived with plans to spend the night. Since she was Not Speaking to him, she went directly to her room.

The next day, August 4, 1892, the temperature was already in the eighties at sunrise, but that didn’t change the Bordens’ breakfast menu. Destined to be the most famous breakfast in America, it was printed in newspapers everywhere and discussed by aficionados of the murders for years to come: Alexander Woollcott always claimed it was the motive.

If Lizzie had only waited, Abby and Andrew probably would have died anyway, for their breakfast consisted of mutton soup, sliced mutton, pancakes, bananas, pears, cookies, and coffee. Here we recognize the English concept of breakfast-as-weapon designed to overwhelm French tourists and other effete types.

Bridget was the first up, followed by Andrew, who came downstairs with the connubial slop pail and emptied it on the grass in the backyard. That done, he gathered the pears that had fallen to the ground.

After breakfast, Andrew saw Uncle John out and then brushed his teeth at the kitchen sink where Bridget was washing dishes. Moments later, she rushed out to the back yard and vomited. Whether it was the mutton or the toothbrushing or something she had seen clinging to a pear we shall never know, but when she returned to the house, Abby was waiting with an uncharacteristic order. She wanted the windows washed, all of them, inside and out, now.

Here is one of the strangest aspects of the case. Victoria Lincoln writes of Abby: “Encased in fat and self-pity, she was the kind who make indifferent housekeepers everywhere.” Additionally, the Wasp woman is too socially secure to need accolades like “You could eat off her floor.” Why then would Abby order a sick Bridget to wash the windows on a blistering hot day?

Around nine o’clock, Abby was tomahawked in the guest room while making Uncle John’s bed.

Because, says Miss Lincoln, she was getting ready to go to the bank to sign the deed for the farm, and she feared a scene with Lizzie, who, knowing Abby’s hermit-like ways, would immediately suspect the truth. The mere thought of “having words” in front of a servant struck horror in Abby’s heart, so she invented a task that would take Bridget outside.

That left Lizzie inside.

Around nine o’clock, Abby was tomahawked in the guest room while making Uncle John’s bed. Andrew was to meet the same fate around eleven. Lizzie’s behavior during that two-hour entr’acte was a model of Battle-of-Britain calm. She ironed handkerchiefs, sewed a button loop on a blouse, chatted with Bridget about a dress-goods sale, and read Harper’s Weekley.

Andrew came home at 10:30 and took a nap on the sitting-room sofa. Shortly before 11, Bridget went up to her attic room to rest. At 11:15 she heard Lizzie cry out: “Maggie! Come down quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.”

Somebody certainly had. The entire left side of his face and head was a bloody pulp; the eye had been severed and hung down his cheek, and one of the blows had bisected a tooth.

Lizzie sent Bridget for Alice Russell and Dr. Bowen, then sat on the back steps. The Bordens’ next-door neighbor, Mrs. Adelaide Churchill, called over to her and got a priceless reply: “Oh, Mrs. Churchill, do come over. Someone has killed Father.”

Mrs. Churchill came over, took a quick look at Andrew, and asked, “Where is your stepmother, Lizzie?”

The safe thing to say was “I don’t know,” but the people who invented the honor system are sticklers for the truth. “I don’t know but that she’s been killed, too, for I thought I heard her come in,” Lizzie blurted.

Bridget returned with Miss Russell and Dr. Bowen, who examined Andrew and asked for a sheet to cover the body. Lizzie told Bridget to get it. Whether she said anything else is in dispute; no one present testified to it, but the legend persists that our monument of straightforwardness added, “Better get two.”

Bridget and Mrs. Churchill decided to search the house for Abby. They were not gone long. When they returned, a white-faced but contained Mrs. Churchill nodded at Alice Russell.

“There is another?” asked Miss Russell.

“Yes, she is upstairs,” said Mrs. Churchill.

The only excited person present was Bridget.
By the Way. . .

By noon, when Uncle John returned for lunch, the cops had come, and a crowd had formed in the street. Knowing of the hatred between Lizzie and Abby, Uncle John must have guessed the truth, but he chose to exhibit so much nonchalance that he became the first suspect. Instead of rushing into the house yelling, “What’s the matter?” he ambled into the back yard, picked up some pears, and stood eating them in the shade of the tree.

Meanwhile, the police were questioning Lizzie, who claimed that she had gone to the barn and returned to find her father dead. What had she gone to the barn for? “To get a piece of lead for a fishing sinker.”

It was the first thing that popped into her head, less a conscious deception than an ink-blot association triggered by her seaside vacation. She was playing it by ear. It never occurred to her that she could have stalled for time by pretending to faint. Women often fainted in those tightly corseted days, but she even rejected the detective’s gallant offer to come back and question her later when she felt better. “No,” she said. “I can tell you all I know now as well as at any other time.”

A moment later, when the detective referred to Abby as her mother, she drew herself up and said stiffly, “She is not my mother, sir, she is my stepmother. My mother died when I was a child.” Before you start diagnosing “self-destructive tendencies,” remember that the English novelists’ favorite character is the plucky orphan, and she had just become one.

Miss Russell and Dr. Bowen took her upstairs to lie down. Lizzie asked the doctor to send a telegram to Emma in Fairhaven, adding, “Be sure to put it gently, as there is an old person there who might be disturbed.” It’s all right to disturb your sister as long as you don’t disturb strangers; Wasps haven’t kithed our kin since the Anglo-Saxon invaders wiped out the Celtic clan system.

Dr. Bowen must have sent the gentlest wire on record, because Emma did not catch the next train, nor the one after that, nor the one after that. She didn’t return until after seven that night.

When Dr. Bowen returned, Lizzie confided to him that she had torn up a certain note and put the pieces in the kitchen trash can. He hurried downstairs and found them; he was putting them together when a detective walked in. Seeing the name “Emma,” he asked Dr. Bowen what it was. “Oh, it is nothing,” Dr. Bowen said nonchalantly. “It is something, I think, about my daughter going through somewhere.”

Before the detective could react to this bizarre answer, Dr. Bowen, nonchalant as ever, tossed the pieces into the kitchen fire. As he lifted the stove lid, the detective saw a foot-long cylindrical stick lying in the flames. Later, in the cellar, he found a hatchet head that had been washed and rolled while wet in furnace ash to simulate the dust of long disuse.

Lizzie had been in the barn, but not to look for sinkers. The barn contained a vise, black-smithing tools, and a water pump. Blood can be washed from metal but not from porous wood. She knew she had to separate the hatchet head from the handle and burn the latter. She did all of this in a very brief time, and without giving way to panic. Victoria Lincoln believes that because she really had been in the barn, her compulsive honesty forced her to admit it to the police. Then she had to think of an innocent reason for going there, and came up with the story about looking for sinkers. “She lied about why and when she had done things, but she never denied having done them,” writes Miss Lincoln.

Alice Russell displayed the same tic: “Alice’s conscience forced her to mention things at the trial, but not to stress them.” The Wasp gift for making everything sound trivial, as when we introduce momentous subjects with “Oh, by the way,” enabled Alice to testify about a highly incriminating fact in such a way that the prosecution missed its significance entirely.

On one of Alice’s trips upstairs on the murder day, she saw Lizzie coming out of Emma’s room, and a bundled-up blanket on the floor of Emma’s closet. What was Lizzie doing in Emma’s room? What was in the blanket? Victoria Lincoln thinks it contained blood-stained stockings, but the prosecution never tried to find out because Alice made it all sound so matter-of-fact. The same technique worked for Dr. Bowen in the matter of the note; we happy few don’t destroy evidence, we just tut-tut it into oblivion.

Some students of the crime think she committed both murders in the nude, but Victoria Lincoln disagrees and so do I. Murder is one thing, but . . .

Everyone who saw Lizzie after the murders testified that there wasn’t a drop of blood on her. How did she wash the blood off her skin and hair in a house that had no running water? What trait is cherished by the people who distrust intellectuals? Common sense told her to sponge herself off with the diaper-like cloths Victorian women used for sanitary napkins and then put them in her slop pail, which was already full of bloody cloths because she was menstruating that week.

Now we come to the dress she wore when she murdered Abby. Where did she hide it after she changed? Some students of the crime think she committed both murders in the nude, but Victoria Lincoln disagrees and so do I. Murder is one thing, but . . .

Where would any honest Wasp hide a dress? In the dress closet, of course. Like most women, Lizzie had more clothes than hangers, so she knew how easy it is to “lose” a garment by hanging another one on top of it. Victoria Lincoln thinks she hung the blood-stained summer cotton underneath a heavy winter woolen, and then banked on the either-or male mind: the police were looking for a summer dress, and men never run out of hangers.

She got no blood at all on the second dress. Her tall father’s Prince Albert coat reached to her ankles, and common sense decrees that blood on a victim’s clothing is only to be expected.
Mistress of Herself

After her arrest Lizzie became America’s Wasp Princess. People couldn’t say enough nice things about her icy calm, even the Fall River police chief: “She is a remarkable woman and possessed of a wonderful power of fortitude.”

A Providence reporter and Civil War veteran: “Most women would faint at seeing her father dead, for I never saw a more horrible sight and I have walked over battlefields where thousands were dead and mangled. She is a woman of remarkable nerve and self-control.”

Julian Ralph, New York Sun: “It was plain to see that she had complete mastery of herself, and could make her sensations and emotions invisible to an impertinent public.”

To ward off a backlash, Lizzie gave an interview to the New York Recorder in which she managed to have her bona fides and eat them too: “They say I don’t show any grief. Certainly I don’t in public. I never did reveal my feelings and I cannot change my nature now.”

I find this very refreshing in an age that equates self-control with elitism. If Lizzie were around today she would be reviled as the Phantom of the Oprah.

Wasp emotional repression also gave us the marvelous fight between Lizzie and Emma in Lizzie’s jail cell while she was awaiting trial. Described by Mrs. Hannah Reagan, the police matron, it went like this:

“Emma, you have given me away, haven’t you?”

“No, Lizzie, I have not.”

“You have, and I will let you see I won’t give in one inch.”

“Emma, you have given me away, haven’t you?’

Finis. Lizzie turned over on her cot and lay with her back to Emma, who remained in her chair. They stayed like that for two hours and twenty minutes, until visiting time was up and Emma left.

When Mrs. Reagan spilled this sensational colloquy to the press, Lizzie’s lawyers said it was a lie and demanded she sign a retraction. Doubts arose, but Victoria Lincoln believes Mrs. Reagan: “That terse exchange followed by a two-hour-and-twenty-minute sulking silence sounds more like a typical Borden family fight than the sort of quarrel an Irish police matron would dream up from her own experience.”
The Last Word

After her acquittal, Lizzie bought a mansion for herself and Emma in Fall River’s best neighborhood. Social acceptance was another matter. When she returned to Central Congregational, everyone was very polite, so she took the hint and stopped going.

She lived quietly until 1904, when she got pinched for shoplifting in Providence. This is what really made her an outcast. Murder is one thing, but. . .

In 1913, Emma suddenly moved out and never spoke to Lizzie again. Nobody knows what happened. Maybe Lizzie finally admitted to the murders, but I doubt it; the Protestant conscience is not programmed for pointless confession. It sounds more as if Emma found out that her sister had a sex life.

An enthusiastic theatergoer, Lizzie was a great fan of an actress named Nance O’Neill. They met in a hotel and developed an intense friendship; Lizzie threw lavish parties for Nance and her troupe and paid Nance’s legal expenses in contractual disputes with theater owners. Nance was probably the intended recipient of the unmailed letter Lizzie wrote beginning “Dear Friend,” and going on to juicier sentiments: “I dreamed of you the other night but I do not dare to put my dreams on paper.” If Emma discovered the two were lesbian lovers, it’s no wonder she moved out so precipitately. Murder is one thing, but. . .

Lizzie stayed in Fall River, living alone in her mansion, until she died of pneumonia in 1927.

Emma, living in New Hampshire, read of Lizzie’s death in the paper but did not attend the funeral or send flowers. Ten days later, Emma died from a bad fall. Both sisters left the bulk of their fortunes to the Animal Rescue League. Nothing could be Waspier, except the explanation little Victoria Lincoln got when she asked her elders why no one ever spoke to their neighbor, Miss Borden. “Well, dear, she was very unkind to her mother and father.”


  1. A lively summary with a great concluding quote!
    I have read one interesting alternate theory that it was a male cousin, a butche r if I remember correctly, who was the killer and that Lizzie went through trial etc to avoid raising the possibility of an alternative male heir.

  2. That's an interesting theory too, Janice. Maybe...
    What I like is that Florence King faced up to what no one would back in the time, which was that Lizzie was having her period - and where better to hide bloody clothes and a bloody hatchet than in the slop bucket. No man (and all police, etc., were men) would look there.
    I also love Woollcott's statement that that godawful breakfast was the sole reason for the murders.

  3. Jerry K. Sweeney14 December, 2023 11:51

    Well, shucks and felgercarb, you make a convincing case. Now then about Jimmy Hoffa?

  4. Jerry, I didn't - it was Florence King who did that. I only wish she HAD tackled Jimmy Hoffa.

  5. I’ve heard a number of Borden hypotheses but not one this entertaining. I admire the cleverness of the dress-hiding theory.

    I lived a hop and a skip from Lizzie’s place, albeit long after her axing days. King hit some nails on the head. Irish were reviled and sometimes treated like slaves. Horses were often treated better than servants.

    New Englanders rarely display emotion, especially affection. Although florid letter-writing is widely misunderstood by modern readers, the suggestion of a same-sex relationship with Nance O’Neill was at times called a ‘Boston marriage’.

    The n-n-nekked killer theory makes a good argument, but King is right that n-n-nudity would be a fate worse than death. Some hypotheses focus not on breakfast, but dinner where apparently an Irish stew had been allowed to sit out for days. The thought is that it might have induced food poisoning and madness.

    One thing for certain, Lizzie has kept us guessing.

  6. Years ago, my wife and I stayed at a B&B in Newport in a bedroom in which Lizzie had been a frequent guest. I kept hoping her ghost would appear, brandishing an ax, but nothing happened. Even so, I still have a fondness for her.
    Edward Lodi

  7. Thanks, Leigh. And Edward, I have a sneaking fondness for Lizzie myself. She was a strange mixture of honesty and (obviously) homicidal resentment!


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