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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
Lizzie’s newly inherited fortune of several hundred thousand dollars bought her excellent counsel. George Robinson, former governor of the state, was a masterful orator with a politician’s shrewd sense of public opinion: at his suggestion, Lizzie went into mourning for the first time since the murders. Laboring against him were District Attorneys Hosea Knowlton and William Moody (a future U.S. Supreme Court justice), as able as Robinson, but with a distaste for flamboyance. Among the three judges who would hear Lizzie’s case was Justice Justin Dewey, whom Robinson had elevated to the bench while governor.
One hundred and forty-eight men awaited jury selection. It was assumed that all had formed opinions; they were asked only if their minds were still open enough to judge the evidence fairly. The first man called claimed he could never convict a woman of a capital offense and was dismissed. Of the final twelve, the foreman was a real estate broker and sometime politician, two were manufacturers, three were mechanics, and six were farmers with considerable acreage. Not one foreign-sounding name was among them. Nearly all were over fifty: all were good Yankees.
The first blow to the prosecution came when Judge Dewey ruled Lizzie’s damaging inquest testimony inadmissible and barred evidence regarding the alleged attempt to buy poison. While these rulings made Knowlton’s task more difficult, his biggest worry was that jurymen believed, as did the Boston Globe , in the “moral improbability that a woman of refinement and gentle training … could have conceived and executed so bloody a butchery.” As he repeatedly reminded the jury, “We must face this case as men, not gallants.”
Knowlton produced medical experts from Harvard who testified that any average-sized woman could have swung an ax with force enough to commit the murders, and that the trajectory of blood would have been away from the assailant: Lizzie’s tidy appearance minutes after the crimes had no bearing on her guilt or innocence. Robinson blithely discounted their testimony by asking the jurymen whether they put more store in Harvard scientists than in their own New England common sense.
Though Lizzie later professed to be shocked at his bill of $25,000, Robinson was worth every penny. As she sat before the jury, a Sunday-school teacher and loving youngest daughter, the jurymen, nearly all of whom were fathers themselves, heard Robinson conclude: “If the little sparrow does not fall unnoticed, then indeed in God’s great providence, this woman has not been alone in this courtroom.”
The jury was sent off to deliberate with what one reporter called Judge Dewey’s “plea for the innocent.” The other two judges were said to have been stunned by his lack of objectivity. Though Dewey was indeed grateful to Robinson for his judgeship, a more compelling reason for his unswerving belief in Lizzie’s innocence may have been the three daughters he had at home, the eldest of whom was Lizzie’s age.
The jurors who filed out with Dewey’s plea ringing in their ears were bewhiskered, respectable, family men. If they could believe that a gentlewoman could pick up a hatchet such as surely lay in their own basements, and by murdering her parents become an heiress, what could they think next time they looked into their own girls’ eyes?
They returned in one hour. The New York Times reported that Lizzie’s “face became livid, her lips were compressed as she tottered to her feet to hear the verdict!” Before the clerk could finish asking for it, the foreman cried, “Not guilty!” Lizzie dropped to her seat as an enormous cheer went up from the spectators who climbed onto the benches, waving hats and handkerchiefs and weeping.
It would have been difficult for any jury to convict “beyond all reasonable doubt” on the circumstantial evidence presented. However, in the nearby bar to which the jurors dashed, a reporter learned that there had been no debate at all among the twelve. All exhibits were ignored. Their vote had been immediate and unanimous. It was only to avoid the impression that their minds had been made up in advance that they sat and chatted for an hour before returning with their verdict.
The following morning, Americans found reflected in the headlines their own joy that the jury had been so wise. Lizzie and Emma returned to Second Street.
Fall River society, which had defended her throughout her ordeal, fell away thereafter, and Lizzie was left pretty much alone. Undaunted, she determined to have all the things she had missed in her youth. With what some considered indiscreet haste, she bought a large house on the hill and named it Maplecrof t. She also asked to be called Lisbeth and stopped going to the church whose parishioners had defended her so energetically. Matters were not improved when townspeople learned that she had bought and destroyed every available copy of local reporter Edwin Porter’s The Fall River Tragedy , which had included portions of her inquest testimony.
Lizzie sealed her isolation in 1904 by striking up a friendship with Nance O’Neil, a Boston actress. The following year, to her neighbors’ horror, Lizzie gave a party—complete with caterers and potted palms—for Miss O’Neil and her troupe. That night, Emma quietly moved out and never spoke to or saw Lizzie again.
Lizzie continued to live at Maplecroft in increasing isolation. Undoubtedly, she heard the nasty rhyme children began to sing to the tune of “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay!”: