Copyright 2003 Carolyn Gage LIZZIE BORDEN AND BRIDGET SULLIVAN: A QUESTION OF DEVIANCE A verdict is no more enlightened than

the jurors who make it—jurors, who tend, more or less, to reflect the values, prejudices, and contradictions of the society to which they belong. For this reason, murder trials – especially high profile ones—can play out like Greek tragedies in the popular culture, providing a public arena for wrestling with emergent new paradigms, for reinstating a threatened status quo, or for enacting ritual atonement for historical wrongs—not always in the interests of a just verdict. A recent example of such a murder trial was the so-called "trial of the century," where football star O.J. Simpson was tried for the murder of his ex-wife. The U.S. justice system, having been devised and exclusively administered by white men for centuries, has unfortunately had a tendency toward sexism and racism. This has played itself out in a notorious laxity in prosecuting crimes of violence against women, especially crimes involving so-called "domestic violence," and in scapegoating people of color, especially African Americans, and especially African American males. The era of lynching the Black man for imagined depredations against white southern womanhood is mercifully behind us, but the police and the courts continue to lock up a disproportionately high number of Black men, handing out longer sentences than to white criminals, and for less serious crimes. The Simpson case was archetypal, because it brought these two entrenched paradigms into direct opposition. Although the domestic violence was allegedly perpetrated by an African American male against a white woman, in this case, the African American man represented a tremendous personal, cultural, and financial investment on the part of millions of white men. O.J. was a national hero in that most macho and allAmerican of sports—football. He was an icon of manhood, a millionaire, a celebrity, and also a marketable commodity in terms of his ability to generate substantial profits for companies by product endorsement. So, now we had an interesting question: Would the fraternal bonding among white men around their sports heroes hold up and hold out against the traditional racism of the police and the courts and against an
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increasingly vocal movement of women against domestic violence, who were calling attention to Nicole Simpson's history of unsuccessful attempts to gain police protection and who were demanding a conviction? In a fascinating and dramatic turn of events, the trial resulted in a national soul-searching and breast-beating about the era of lynching, and O.J. was found innocent. African American women as well as white women were outraged. Was this an authentic coming-to-terms with racism, or just a smokescreen for business-as-usual, with the good old boys protecting their mascot? About a hundred years before the O.J. trial, there had been another "trial of the century." This one involved a daughter's alleged axe murder of her father and her step-mother. As with the O.J. case, the Borden trial brought deeply entrenched prejudices into conflict with each other. Unlike the O.J. case, however, there was a second suspect who had both motive and opportunity. This suspect was never accused or arrested. Why was this suspect protected when Lizzie was not? And why is this suspect’s name still forgotten, while Lizzie, officially exonerated, is still presumed guilty by a virtual industry of novels, films, plays, and ballets about the Fall River murders? Let's look at the facts: On the morning of Thursday, August 4, 1892, at the Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts, there were five people in the house: Andrew Borden and his wife Abby, Andrews' daughter Lizzie, Lizzie's uncle who was visiting from out-of-town, and Bridget the maid. The uncle said he left the house at about a quarter to nine in the morning to make a social call. His alibi was solid The murder of Abby Borden took place upstairs around 9:30 AM, and the murder of Andrew took place about ninety minutes later, in the downstairs sitting room. Andrew had just returned from some errands in town. During this time both Lizzie and Bridget were working in and around the house: cleaning up the breakfast dishes, ironing, and washing the outside windows. This means that whoever the murderer was, he or she would have needed to enter the house unseen by the several folks out-and-about on a busy residential street on a weekday morning, would have needed to conceal themselves in or around the Borden house for the minimum of an
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hour and a half between the murders, and then would have needed to leave, again without being seen, only now smuggling out the axe and their blood-soaked clothing. Unless, of course, the murderer was one of the two women. Early in their investigation, the police decided that the murder had to have been an inside job. Both Lizzie and Bridget were summoned to answer questions at the official inquest. The day before the inquest, because of public pressure, a warrant was drawn up for Lizzie's arrest, but it was not served until four days later. There is documentation that the prosecutor felt there was not enough evidence to try her. Unfortunately for Lizzie, three days after the murder, she decided to burn a paint-stained dress of hers, and when the story of the dress-burning was reported at the Grand Jury, the warrant was served and Lizzie was arrested. The rest is history – or, rather, legend. The origin of this legend can be traced to one Edmund Pearson, author of the standard reference work, The Trial of Lizzie Borden, which was published in 1937. There had been an earlier study by a newspaper reporter, published a year after the trial, but Pearson’s was the first study to include excerpts of the trial testimony. It was Pearson’s book that became the basis for the subsequent avalanche of books, articles, and films that still continues today. In his book, Pearson states his belief that Lizzie was guilty and includes excerpts from the trial to support his argument. Unfortunately, his excerpts are highly selective, including all of the testimony in support of the prosecution's case, but omitting all of the testimony discrediting it. In 1961, Edward D. Radin, a crime reporter who had covered hundreds of murder cases, wrote his own book about the case, Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story. He was the first author since Pearson to go back to the original 1,930 pages of the trial minutes. More significantly, he had access to the then recently-discovered four volumes of testimony from the preliminary hearing. In his book, Radin states, "Pearson presented such a biased version of the case that it might be considered a literary hoax." According to Pearson, the source of the legend, the circumstantial evidence against Lizzie was overwhelming, and her miserly father's estate provided ample motive for the murders of both him and his wife, Lizzie's unpopular stepmother. At the time of Borden’s death, the value of the estate was estimated at what would currently be between six and eight
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million dollars. The legend would have it that Lizzie, the daughter of one of Fall River's wealthiest citizens, was acquitted by a chivalrous jury in deep denial that such a horrendous crime could have been committed by one of their own — a well-bred, church-going, dutiful daughter. The truth of the matter is that Lizzie's bourgeois background worked against her in a town where the local paper was aligned with the class interests of the mill workers. The Fall River Globe had decided on Lizzie's guilt on the day of the murders, a week before her arrest, and it had mounted a relentless and unscrupulous campaign to turn public sentiment against her. Stories were fabricated and embellished. It was falsely reported that Lizzie had met with an out-of-town lawyer to discuss her father’s will six months before the murder. In fact, there was no will. A Boston reporter teamed up with an unscrupulous detective to publish a story titled “Lizzie Borden’s Secret,” suggesting that Mr. Borden had discovered his daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy. A retraction and apology were published, but the damage had been done. The Globe also published a confusing report that Lizzie had been overheard by the prison matron fighting with her sister and accusing her of "giving her away." At the trial, five witnesses testified that the matron had told them this was completely false. According to one witness, she offered to sign a statement refuting it, if the police would give her permission. The day after the murder, The Globe had run a story with the headline, “What Did Lizzie Want of Poison?” A drug clerk claimed that Lizzie had tried to buy prussic acid from him the day before the murders. His identification of Lizzie had been based on the sound of her voice only, and his testimony was excluded at the trial. Most damaging of all, the paper consistently characterized her as a coldblooded sociopath who had never shed a tear over the deaths of her father and her stepmother. Women's organizations that came to her support were discredited as "sob sisters," and a woman who interviewed her sympathetically for another paper was attacked for lack of professionalism. Far from being inclined toward acquittal, the citizens of Fall River had been engaged in a full-fledged witch-hunt. In fact, one of the reasons Lizzie had been confined to her house the week prior to her arrest had been the very real threat of mob violence.

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Lizzie's jury had not found her innocent because public sympathy was on her side. They had found her innocent because there simply had not been enough evidence to convict her. The "circumstantial evidence" did not hold up under examination. First there was the alleged murder weapon—the hatchet head that had turned up in a box in the basement, along with sundry other tools. The theory was that Lizzie, unable to clean the handle, had broken it off and burned it. Then, according to the legend, she had cleaned the metal head and smeared it with ashes to disguise the recent washing. An interesting theory—until a police officer testified that the hatchet handle had been in the box with the head. A forensics expert later testified that it would not have been possible to remove all traces of blood from the hatchet head in the short time Lizzie would have had for washing it. He also testified to the presence of dirt still present at the juncture of the wood and the metal, dirt that would not have been there if the hatchet had been washed recently. Then there was the question of what the killer had been wearing. Forensics experts testified that the murderer must have been spattered by blood from the nineteen blows to Mrs. Borden and the ten to Mr. Borden. Where was the bloody dress? Three days after the murders, Lizzie burned a dress in the kitchen stove, and it was testimony of this action that had caused a warrant to be issued for her arrest. What about this dress? Was it hidden? Her sister Emma says she saw it on a nail in the clothes press at the top of the stairs on Saturday night. Later Lizzie moved it to a kitchen cupboard. There were two interior searches by the police before the burning, one of which had even been conducted with the participation of a doctor whose sole job it was to identify blood stains, but the dressmaker herself testified to the fact the dress had become stained with paint, and even the most damaging witness testified that Lizzie had not worn it on the day of the murders. As the trial progressed, it became evident that there was no murder weapon and no bloody dress, however much the prosecution wanted to manipulate the evidence around the hatchet head and the paint-stained dress. But there still remained an emotional appeal. If Lizzie was not guilty, then why had she shown so little emotion at the discovery of her father's body and in the days following the murder? The Globe reveled in depicting her as stubborn, haughty, and undemonstrative — as much indictments of
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her lack of femininity as of her class elitism. Women's organizations, recognizing the witch-hunt for what it was, rallied to Lizzie's defense, prompting The Globe to declare, "The flapdoodle, gush, idiotic drivel, misrepresentations and in some instances, anarchic nonsense, which is being promulgated by women newspaper correspondents, W.C.T.U. [Woman's Christian Temperance Union] conventions and other female agencies in connection with the Borden murder just now, may originate in good intentions but do not strengthen Lizzie Borden's case much in the opinion of the public." Why hadn't Lizzie displayed any emotions at the discovery of so horrendous a crime? Again, the legend did not conform to the facts. The neighbor who saw her standing in the doorway minutes after the discovery of her father's body reported that Lizzie's distress was so evident, she was impelled to make an inquiry. The doctor who was present at the scene testified that he had given her bromo caffeine at the time to quiet her, administering a second dose an hour later. The following day, because of her mental distress and nervous excitement, he had prescribed morphine. Two days after the murders, he doubled the dose, continuing to medicate throughout the week preceding her arrest. When arrested, Lizzie had broken down in public for the first time, sobbing and experiencing an attack of nausea. During her trial, she had fainted and left the courtroom when the two skulls were introduced as evidence. The truth behind the legend was that Lizzie Borden had not displayed the degree of emotionalism that a sensational press and a rabid public expected of a guilty criminal or an innocent suspect. Lizzie was being scapegoated for self-possession by a town who felt themselves entitled to her privacy. She defended herself against these attacks in the only interview she gave: " I know I am innocent, and I have made up my mind that no matter what happens, I will try to bear up bravely and make the best of it. There is one thing that hurts me very much. They say I don't show any grief. Certainly, I don't in public. I never did reveal my feelings and I can't change my nature now." (Radin, p.96) This was corroborated by Lizzie's friends, one of whom was quoted saying, "I and several others have known Lizzie since she was a little girl. She has never changed except to grow older in years from what she always was, self-contained, self-reliant, and very composed. Her conduct since her arrest is exactly what I should have expected." (Radin, p. 90)

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Self-contained, Lizzie was keeping her feelings to herself. And there was something else she was keeping to herself: the identity of the murderer. If she hadn't done it, who else had had the opportunity and motive? The murders were committed ninety minutes apart in a house where two women were going from room to room, performing various morning chores. Early on, the police concluded that it had to have been an inside job. If they were correct, this could have meant only one thing: The killer was Bridget Sullivan, the maid. Bridget, twenty-six years old, was an Irish immigrant. She had been working for the Bordens for two years and nine months. According to crime reporter Edward Radin, she had both opportunity and motive. In fact, Radin makes a compelling case that her motive for the murders was stronger than the one attributed to Lizzie. The murders had both been acts of butchery. Both victims had probably been killed by the first few blows, but Mrs. Borden had received an additional eighteen, and Mr. Borden an additional nine. According to Radin, "Few murders are committed for financial gain; most are perpetrated for emotional reasons." Certainly the Borden corpses bore gruesome witness to the fury of their assailant. In addition, Mrs. Borden, who had been killed first, had been struck from the front. In other words, she had been facing her executioner. This first blow toppled the woman, and the other eighteen blows were administered to the back of her head and upper back by a person who was straddling the body. According to Mr. Radin, this person had something more than inheritance on her mind. The two days before the murders, the Bordens had been sick. This had been the cause of some of the poison rumors circulating during the trial, but examination of the victims' stomachs had produced no evidence of prussic acid and irritant poisons. It is more likely that the Borden's four-day-old mutton had been the culprit. It was August, and a heat wave had just ended the week before. Temperatures were still in the 70’s, and, as the Borden house did not have electricity (one of Mr. Borden's frugalities), the mutton— when it wasn't on the table—would have been in an old-fashioned ice box. Two nights before the murders, Lizzie, her father, and her stepmother had all experienced symptoms associated with food poisoning. Mr. And Mrs. Borden had been up vomiting during the night, and the next day, all three
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were still feeling the effects. In fact, Mrs. Borden, fearing that she had been poisoned, had visited a doctor. Later, the doctor came over to check on the family. Mr. Borden, characteristically, was irritated at the potential expense of the unsolicited house call, and dismissed the doctor, fee unpaid. Lizzie told a friend she had been humiliated by the way her father spoke to him. Bridget had not been sick during this time. According to her testimony, however, she did feel sick on the morning of the murders. She reported that she woke up with a dull headache and that, after preparing breakfast for the family, she had spent fifteen minutes vomiting in the backyard. Her symptoms are consistent with the apparent food poisoning experienced by the other three members of the household. The next part of Bridget's story provides the key to solving the crime, but it is a part of the trial record that was completely overlooked by a police force, a press, and a public whose attention was riveted on the half-million dollars and the woman who stood to inherit them. The testimony they overlooked was, after all, that of the woman who was repeatedly referred to as "just the maid." And here is the key to the crime: On the morning of August 4, 1892, Bridget Sullivan, having finished her morning chores, was given orders by Mrs. Borden to wash the windows of the house — and to be sure she washed both the inside and the outside. Why should the jury have taken any special note of this? First, window-washing, as any housekeeper can tell you, is not a routine, daily chore like making beds. It's not even a weekly chore, or, usually, even a monthly one. It's also not a chore for which there is an immediate, compelling need. It is an arduous chore, requiring ladders and buckets of water, multiple trips to the sink, climbing up and climbing down, scrubbing and drying. Second, although the heat wave of the previous week had passed, it was still hot. By 8 AM, it was sixty-six degrees, headed for a high near eighty. At the trial, the attorneys made repeated reference to the heat of the day. Third, Bridget Sullivan was sick. She had already gotten up, in spite of feeling ill, lit a fire on a hot morning, cooked breakfast for her employers, and then cleared up, washing the hot stove and the dishes. She had a
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headache and she had been vomiting for fifteen minutes. Mrs. Borden knew that she was sick and would have good reason to know how she felt, as she herself had been sick with similar symptoms the day before — so sick, in fact, she had visited a doctor. So the question is this: Why would Mrs. Borden decide, on a hot August following a heat wave, that the windows of her house needed to be washed—on both sides—by a servant who has just spent fifteen minutes vomiting? Could it have been that Mrs. Borden was making work for a servant as a punitive act, or even a sadistic one? Or was she just arrogantly indifferent to the health of a working-class woman during working hours in her employ? Whatever her reasons, we will never know, because within the hour of issuing this order, Mrs. Borden lay dead on the guest room floor, her skull hacked to pieces. Over and over and over. Mr. Borden's murder had not included a frontal attack. He had been struck from behind while asleep on the couch. Unlike his wife, he never knew what hit him. If the window-washing provided a motive for the murder of the stepmother, what about Mr. Borden? Mr. Radin speculates that he may have overheard an altercation earlier between his wife and Bridget, one that would have pointed to her being the murderer. But it's also possible that Bridget experienced him as a tyrannical employer, also. Several of the townspeople of Fall River who were interviewed at the time characterized Andrew Borden as a mean man. According to some descriptions, he was joyless, obsessed with thrift—especially in petty transactions, quick to take advantage of other people's adversity, and notably abstinent in donating to charity. He had begun his career as an undertaker. It would have been consistent with his principles to get as much work as possible out of a domestic servant for the least possible wages. It may well have been that Mrs. Borden, in ordering the windowwashings, was only implementing her husband's policies. Certainly his penny-pinching ways translated to a house with no electricity, only two sinks with running water—one in the kitchen and one in the cellar, and one water closet located all the way in the basement. Although both the daughters deeply resented their father's parsimony, the burden from this lack of amenities would fall the heaviest on the person who did the most cooking and cleaning in the house.

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The jury, however, was not interested in housekeeping or working-class Irish immigrants. They had bigger fish to fry, and so did the police. While the members of the family had been confined to the house during the week of investigations, Bridget had been free to come and go. The evening of the murders, she left the house carrying a "bundle" that no one even thought to examine, and spent the night at the home of a friend, another live-in domestic worker. Bridget only spent one night in the Borden home, two nights after the murder, and then left never to return. Perhaps even more interesting, Bridget had left the house twice during the morning of the murders, before the arrival of the police, and then two more times afterwards. And then there is the question of temperament. While all of Fall River was scrutinizing Lizzie's behavior for signs of grief or evidence of a guilty conscience, nobody was paying attention to the extreme behaviors exhibited by the woman who was "just the maid." Immediately following discovery of the first body, Bridget was, according to witnesses, terrified and quivering. When asked for a sheet to cover the body, she had refused to go upstairs alone. Later, when asked to see if Mrs. Borden was upstairs, she had again refused to go alone. Although she had refused to sleep in the house, Bridget had been returning during the day to perform her duties. It was reported that she cried frequently and refused to enter the sitting room, where Mr. Borden had been murdered. When the police came to escort her to the inquest, she believed they had come to arrest her and began to cry. Weeks later, after Lizzie had already been arrested, Bridget attended the preliminary hearings accompanied by an attorney—an unprecedented practice for an unsuspected witness. In the meantime, Lizzie and her sister had hired a detective from the prestigious Pinkerton's Detective Agency. After two days in Fall River, he disappeared, and the legend would have it that he was dropped from the case when his investigation began to point toward one of his employers. In fact, he had not been dropped from the case, and the memorandum book of Lizzie's attorney shows that he filed several reports. It was at the detective's urging that Lizzie's attorney began an investigation into Bridget's previous employment history.

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Lizzie’s attorney began to introduce his suspicions at the preliminary hearing. He asked her several pointed questions about her changes in employment prior to coming to Fall River, naming some of these employers. He specifically questioned why Bridget had not been subjected to the same degree of search and cross-examination as Lizzie. After a second attorney joined Lizzie's team, however, the strategy shifted to discrediting the prosecution's evidence. This may have been a wise move, considering the large Irish working-class population and the extreme bias of the press. By this time, Bridget had been taken under the wing of the police department. A state detective had gotten her employment in the home of the New Bedford jail keeper. Bridget testified that, during this time, she received visits from about a half dozen police officers who were investigating the crime. In a response that stretched credulity, she denied having discussed the case with any of them. Why was Bridget so protected, or even recruited, by the police, and why was Lizzie so viciously scapegoated? Why did the police “lose” the handle of the axe, claiming they had never seen one? Why did the inventory of dresses so carefully taken disappear before the trial? There are several possibilities. First, she had an all-male jury who was more likely to identify with an heir’s desire for inheritance than the cumulative humiliations experienced by an Irish immigrant maid. Most of them probably had no experience of “women’s work,” and many of them may have had maids in their own homes. It is a frightening thought that angry daughters can rise up and murder their own fathers, but it may have been even more terrifying to consider the uprising of a servant in the house. The patricidal daughter is obviously a freak of nature, a psychiatric case, but the idea of a vengeful immigrant servant would tap the deep anxieties associated with ethnic and class oppression practiced by members of the dominant culture. The notion of a murdering maid would reflect the political tensions of a rising labor movement, whose power was already manifest in the biases of the press and the police. Then, too, Lizzie, unmarried and over thirty, was a spinster. Certainly, with such a wealthy father and even a grand tour to Europe, she must have had prospects. She was hardly a recluse. In fact, the record shows she was a very active member of Fall River society with an impressive record of
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community service. One could even characterize her as an activist. She had taught a Sunday school class for Chinese men and had also taught classes for young women who worked in the mills. She participated in many women's groups at her church and had been a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, a hotbed of feminist organizing in its day. She had been elected a member of the board of the Fall River Hospital, a rare appointment for a woman, and in 1891 was a board member of the Good Samaritan Hospital. She was also a member of the Fruit and Flower Mission, a volunteer group that made hospital visits to the poor and to the friendless, relieving the nurses of many of their more tedious duties. In other words, Lizzie had a full life outside the home at a time when employment opportunities for middle-class women were severely restricted. It may have been that this independence and even ambition on the part of a spinster were threatening to the men on the jury – evidence that Lizzie suffered a lack of proper female subordination. The fact that she stood to inherit a large fortune without participating in an institution designed to assure patrilineal transfer of property rights may have been a strike against her. In fact, after generous bequests to her servants and to an animal shelter, the bulk of the Lizzie’s estate was divided between Lizzie's friend, Helen Leighton, and her cousin, Grace Howe. Although the word “lesbian” was not in the vernacular yet, the so-called “Boston Marriage” between two unmarried women had been introduced. Lizzie may have been recognized as a candidate. The record shows that she socialized with prominent lesbian and bi-sexual women after the murders. In 1904, she met the well-known, bi-sexual actress Nance O'Neil at a summer resort and they became friends. Generous as always, Lizzie paid Nance's debts and even accompanied her through court proceedings brought by Nance's creditors. Later, when Nance was performing in Fall River, Lizzie threw a party for the cast, an action that shocked Fall River society. Shortly after this episode, Emma moved out, stating "The happenings in the French Street house that caused me to leave I must refuse to talk about. I did not go until conditions became absolutely unbearable." By 1906, Lizzie was turning up in the home of author and philanthropist Annie Fields, who was partners with Sarah Orne Jewett. Jewett and Fields had a wide circle of New England women friends who were also living in “Boston Marriages.”

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The legend of Lizzie’s presumed guilt lives on, but perhaps it is time to adjust the record – taking into account the blatant bias of the original study, the outrageous witch-hunting of the local press at the time, the class and ethnic tensions of Fall River society, and what the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement has taught us about the scapegoating of sexually deviant women.

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