What Made Lizzie Borden Kill?


No single disorder is enough to make a case for a family at war with itself. But viewed as a pattern, the long-time absence of a wife-mother, the ages of the girls at the time of their mother’s illness, the autocratic father, the isolation of the family, the failure of the family to bond as a unit when the new Mrs. Borden moved in, the timing of the move to the new house, the structure of the house, the special relationship between Lizzie and her father, the tensions between both daughters and the stepmother—all these together suggest long-standing structural flaws that could have led to family violence and to the murders. Even the way in which the killings were committed seems telling. All the hatchet blows directed at Mr. Borden were aimed at his face. As the prosecuting attorney described it in his closing argument, the hand that held the weapon was “not the hand of masculine strength. It was the hand of a person strong only in hate and the desire to kill.”

What drove Lizzie to murder, according to the prosecution, must have been greed. The evidence for this assumption was a previous family squabble that became public at the trial. In 1887 Andrew, normally frugal to a fault, had bought Abby a house for her sister to live in. Both Emma and Lizzie were upset at what they saw as favoritism; Lizzie’s anger was later interpreted as selfishness. But arguments about property and money are often about position in family structure as well. This disagreement may even have triggered memories of other moments when Mr. Borden’s affections were sought by both Mrs. Borden and Lizzie.

The awakening or surfacing of memories about incest is a slow and unpredictable process. Sometimes a woman who has repressed her victimization for years will remember what happened as she becomes a mother herself. This phenomenon, well known to clinicians treating incest patients, made national news recently when Eileen Franklin-Lipsker, twenty-nine years old, suddenly remembered that her father had raped and killed her childhood friend. She was eight years old at the time. Her father had told her that no one would believe her if she reported what happened, and for two decades she had repressed the memory. Then, one day, prompted by a look on her daughter’s face, the memory surfaced. Psychologists call such awakening of memories “delayed discovery.” Children deliberately forget as a way to distance themselves from the guilt and shame they feel. Once they remember, they must not only believe themselves but ask others to believe them as well. Recent research on delayed discovery has prompted lawmakers to extend the statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual assaults against children. The most liberal of these laws allows a victim twenty-two years after his or her eighteenth birthday to file charges.

Delayed discovery can have what Gelinas describes as a “time-bomb quality.” When such an awakening happens today, a skillful therapist can guide the survivor through the tangled morass of feelings. Dr. Judith Herman, a leading authority on fatherdaughter incest, helped one group of adult women through the healing process recently. The median age in the group was Lizzie’s at the time of the murders, thirty-two. The majority were white, educated, and unmarried and had suffered some degree of amnesia about the incest. Many were engaged in the “helping professions,” today’s counterpart to the church activities that were important to Lizzie in the 1890s.

But in the 189Os the silence around incest could not be broken in a healing fashion. Women who remembered were left alone to bear the hurt, the anger, and the sense of worthlessness and guilt that can emerge. Some women acted strangely, became neurotic without knowing why. Lizzie herself reported confused feelings to her friend Alice Russell the night before the murders. “I feel depressed … as if something was hanging over me that I cannot throw off, and it comes over me at times, no matter where I am.… When I was at the table the other day … the girls were laughing and talking and having a good time and this feeling came over me, and one of them spoke and said Lizzie, why don’t you talk?”

Victims in the nineteenth century who did talk were not believed or were labeled crazy. As recently as 1934 the legal scholar John Wigmore argued in his definitive classic Treatise on Evidence that women and children were not trustworthy witnesses in sex offense cases because they were likely to bring false charges against men of good character. He even discounted medical evidence corroborating their testimony if he was in any way suspicious of the stories they told. Even today, when incest victims take matters into their own hands and kill their abusers, they are frequently portrayed as crazy by the media. People are disturbed, in particular, because they don’t seem to experience remorse for what they have done. Psychologists explain this absence of feeling as a defense. As Mones writes, incest victims are “forced to numb their real emotions for so long, by the time of the parricide they have no tears.”

Parricide is the most extreme, the rarest response to incest. Why some victims kill their abusers and others do not is, of course, a mystery embedded in the deepest layers of human character, and it is here that speculation must become most tentative. Today most women Lizzie’s age who experience delayed discovery are living outside the family home. Many of them experience homicidal rage, but they don’t have to face their fathers every day. Lizzie was still under her father’s roof. With no means of earning a living and no prospect of marriage, she would have been trapped there as the memories surfaced.