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She Couldn’t Have Done It, Even If She Did
Why Lizzie Borden Went Free
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
Though puzzled by Lizzie’s cleanliness, police were certain that they had found the murder weapon. Lying in a box of dusty tools, stored high on a chimney jog in the basement, was a hatchet head. It was neither rusty nor old, though it had been freshly rubbed in ashes, perhaps to make it appear so. Moreover, its wooden handle, from which blood would have been difficult to remove, had been broken off near the head.
When the news broke that Lizzie was under suspicion, newspaper readers were horrified—not over the possibility that Lizzie might have murdered her parents, but that the police would harbor such horrid thoughts. The Boston Globe expressed its readers’ indignation: “The only person that the government can catch is one whose very innocence placed her in its power; the poor, defenseless child, who ought to have claimed by very helplessness their protection.”
Angry letters denouncing the police flooded newspaper offices from New York to Chicago. Editorials appeared castigating the brutish officers who would suspect a grieving daughter of such a crime. Americans were certain that well-brought-up daughters could not commit murder with a hatchet on sunny summer mornings. And their reaction was not entirely without rationale.
Throughout the 1890's, nearly every issue of Forum, Arena, Scribner’s, North American Review, Popular Science Monthly , and Harper’s (one of Lizzie’s favorites) carried at least one article attesting to the gentleness, physical frailty, and docility of the well-bred American woman. Many of these articles were written in response to the growing number of women who were demanding equal rights, and were written with the intention of proving women hopelessly unable to handle the sacred privileges of men. After having read many such articles written by “learned gentlemen"-and antifeminist women—by the summer of 1892, men and women, regardless of how they stood on women’s rights, felt certain that Lizzie Borden could not have hacked her parents to death. Physical and psychological frailties simply made it impossible.
Popular theories about woman’s physiological and psychological make-up took on new importance to followers of the Borden case. After detailed anatomical analysis, scientists confidently declared that the women of their era differed little from their prehistoric sisters. They spoke with assurance of woman’s arrested evolution. The fault, they agreed, lay in her reproductive capacity, which sapped vital powers that in men contributed to ever-improving physique and intellect.
The defects of the female anatomy included sloping shoulders, broad hips, underdeveloped muscles, short arms and legs, and poor coordination. To those who believed Lizzie innocent, evidence was abundant that no short-armed, uncoordinated, weakling of a woman could swing an ax with enough force to crash through hair and bone almost two dozen times.
But there was more to it than that. Having already noted woman’s smaller frame, anatomists should hardly have been surprised to find her skull proportionately smaller than man’s, yet they held up this revelation, too, as further proof of her inferiority. Rather than follow intellectual pursuits, for which they were woefully ill-equipped, women were advised to accept their intended roles as wives and mothers. After all, they were reminded, “Woman is only womanly when she sets herself to man ‘like perfect music unto noble words.’”
Spinsters like Lizzie were, as one author charitably put it, “deplorable accidents,” but they were not wholly useless. The nation’s old maids were urged to devote themselves to Christian charities and to teaching—a “reproductive calling.” Lizzie’s devotion to good works and the church followed this prescription precisely. Compelling indeed was the image of this pious daughter serving steaming bowls of soup to indigent newsboys and diligently trying to bring the gospel to the heathen Chinese of Fall River.
While anatomists studied the size of woman’s skull, psychologists examined its contents. Among the qualities found to be essentially female were spiritual sensitivity, a good memory for minutiae, and a great capacity for “ennobling love.” These positive attributes, however, could not obscure the psychologists’ basic premise: women were illogical, inconsistent, and incapable of independent thought.
It is no accident that these traits bore striking resemblance to those attributed to children. As one psychologist pointed out in Scribner’s: “Women are merely large babies. They are shortsighted, frivolous and occupy an intermediate stage between children and men.…”
Several authors manfully chuckled over woman’s inability to plan and think things through. Clearly the murderer of the Bordens had planned things quite well. Not only had “he” managed to murder two people and elude the police, but “he” had shown remarkable tenacity by hiding for more than an hour after murdering Abby in order to do the same to Andrew.