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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
The inquest began in Fall River on August 9. Two pharmacists from Smith’s Drug Store testified that Lizzie had been shopping for poison on the afternoon before the murders. She had not asked for arsenic, which was sold over the counter, they said, but for the more lethal prussic acid, claiming she needed it to clean her sealskin cape. On the stand, Lizzie steadfastly denied the pharmacists’ story, even denied knowing where Smith’s Drug Store was, though it had been there for fourteen years on a street not five minutes from the house in which she had lived since childhood.
Lizzie’s own testimony was full of contradictions. Discrepancies in her story might have been explained by hysteria or grief, but she had displayed neither. On August 5, a reporter at the murder scene for the Providence Journal noted: “She wasn’t the least bit scared or worried. Most women would faint at seeing their father dead, for I never saw a more horrible sight.… She is a woman of remarkable nerve and self-control.”
Such self-control seemed unnatural in an age when women were expected to swoon, and many people were alarmed by it. The Reverend Mr. Buck, Lizzie’s minister, reassured her champions that “her calmness is the calmness of innocence.” Her lawyer, Mr. Jennings, sought to explain away her inconsistent answers by noting that “she was having her monthly illness” on the day of the murders, thereby evoking embarrassed nods of understanding.
Public sentiment on Lizzie’s behalf rose to extraordinary heights. In full agreement with their pastor, her church declared her innocent. Ecclesiastical supporters were joined by several noted feminists. Mary Livermore, Susan Fessenden (president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union), and Lucy Stone took up the cudgels on Lizzie’s behalf. Livermore declared her arrest to be another outrage perpetrated by “the tyrant man.” Lizzie became the sacrificial lamb, the simple, warmhearted girl offered up by corrupt police to the altar of a power-hungry district attorney.
Nonetheless, the judge ordered her arrest at the inquest’s end.
Reporters found Lizzie disappointingly composed after the indictment. With no tears to report, they concentrated on her cherry-trimmed hat and the two ministers on whose arms she leaned as she went off to jail in Taunton, the county seat. The horrible cell that awaited her was described in detail. In fact, Lizzie was not confined to a cell, but spent much of her time in the matron’s room. Little mention was made of the flowers that graced the prison’s window sill, or the lace-edged pillow slips brought by Emma, or of the meals which Lizzie had sent over from Taunton’s best hotel.
When the preliminary hearing before Judge Blaisdell began in late November, reporters from more than forty out-of-town newspapers attended. Police held back huge crowds while ladies and gentlemen from Fall River’s elite filed into the courtroom to claim the best seats.
A new piece of evidence, damaging to Lizzie’s cause, was introduced. She had turned over to the police a spotlessly clean, fancy, blue bengaline dress that she swore she had worn on the day of the murders. Women in New England were surprised. No one wore party dresses of bengaline, a partly woolen fabric, around the house in the August heat. While witnesses swore that Lizzie was indeed wearing blue that day, none could swear that this dress was the one they had seen. To confound the problem, Alice Russell reluctantly admitted that she had seen Lizzie burn a blue cotton dress in the kitchen stove three days after the murders. The dress was soiled, she said Lizzie had told her, with brown paint—a color, noted the prosecutor, not unlike that of dried blood.
Except for rubbing her shoe buttons together, Lizzie sat quietly and displayed little interest. On the very last day, however, she broke into sobs as she heard her lawyer declare that no “person could have committed that crime unless his heart was black as hell.” Delighted newspaper artists sketched a tearful Lizzie listening to Mr. Jennings as he asked: “Would it be the stranger, or would it be the one bound to the murdered man by ties of love?… what does it mean when we say the youngest daughter? The last one whose baby fingers have been lovingly entwined about her father’s brow? Is there nothing in the ties of love and affection?”
Judge Blaisdell listened to all the evidence. It was no stranger who sat before him, but the daughter of a family he knew well. Jennings’ image of the twining baby fingers was compelling, but so was the evidence prosecutor Hosea Knowlton produced. The judge finally began to speak: “Suppose for a single moment that a man was standing there. He was found close by that guestchamber which to Mrs. Borden was a chamber of death. Suppose that a man had been found in the vicinity of Mr. Borden and the only account he could give of himself was the unreasonable one that he was out in the barn looking for sinkers, that he was in the yard.… Would there be any question in the minds of men what should be done with such a man?” The judge’s voice broke, but he continued: “… the judgment of the court is that you are probably guilty and you are ordered to wait the action of the Superior Court.”
The trial began in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on June 5, 1893. Reporters from all over the East Coast converged on the town. Every hotel room within miles was reserved. Fences had to be erected around the courthouse to control the crowds.