One morning in August 1892, a wealthy banker and mill director in Fall River, Massachusetts, named Andrew Borden was found murdered in the front parlor of his home; the body of his second wife, Abigail, was found in an upstairs bedroom. The victims had died from repeated blows to the head, face, and neck with a hatchet, and the brutality of the murders, the boldness of the daylight attack, and the prestige of the victims added to the mystery and horror of the crime.
Suspicion soon settled on Lizzie Borden, Andrew Borden’s unmarried daughter, who admitted being home at the time of the murders, but claimed she had neither seen nor heard anything unusual before she discovered her father’s body near noon (Chiasson 1997).Although Lizzie Borden was a 34-year-old adult, she lived with her sister, father, and stepmother. At the time of their deaths Andrew Borden, her father, was 69 and Abby Borden, her stepmother, was about 64. Lizzie despised her stepmother, in part because the woman’s relatives were receiving portions of Andrew Borden’s wealth. Her father was an extremely wealthy man, and Lizzie wanted as great a share of the inheritance as possible.Lizzie was not well educated, and she appears not to have sought a career of any kind, devoting her energies instead to her position on the board of the local hospital, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, teaching Sunday school, and other traditional occupations of the nineteenth-century spinster. Lizzie belonged also to a fashionable church and participated fully in its charitable and social functions.
Lizzie was in many ways the opposite of her sister. She was more outgoing, not at all timid, was still able to talk with her father, but was unmarried at thirty-two, shared Emma’s hate for her stepmother, and could be arrogant and outspoken.Lizzie is a heroine rather than to the killer. Lizzie burned her dress; to be Lizzie, at that moment, is to be knowing, powerful, and mysterious. The ways Lizzie becomes a figure for mystery itself.
She held back nothing and she never lied but she never told anybody anything, that is integrity and is very American, it was all so American, the causes which were there which were almost a poem and at the same time were filled with evil meaning, and it was all so simple so evident so subtle and so open and nobody ever really came to know anything. Lizzie is a perfect, if troubling, muse for women’s detective fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Berni 1997).The arrest and trial of Lizzie Borden fascinated the city of Fall River and the surrounding region and was quickly picked up by the New York City papers and the national press. The case resonated with the questions of gender, class, race, and family structure that were most at issue in American culture as the Victorian era gave way to the modern period. In the arguments presented at the trial and in the contemporaneous commentary on the case, the question of whether a genteel, native-born white woman could brutally murder her parents for money was firmly connected to larger issues about female capabilities of many kinds, especially those under consideration in the social debates over woman suffrage and female education and employment.
The case presented a portrait of the economic structure of family life that was at once peculiar to the Bordens and expressive of broader concerns about women and economics in this period.Lizzie Borden, the daughter who killed her parents to gain their money and her independence, seems to express central facts about the status of women in this transitional period. The father’s unwillingness to participate in the norms of consumption and expenditure for his class must have put his daughters in an anomalous social position: they were of the ruling class but had little access to its resources. Like the murders themselves, the story of the miserly patriarch hoarding father’s treasure against the demands of his daughters was an expression of the shadowy underside of the sunny middle-class ideologies of reciprocity, devotion, and generosity in family life.In its broad outlines and its small details, the Borden family history illustrated what those nineteenth-century ideologies stood guard against: the self-interest, material greed, and consequent antipathy that seemed to flourish under capitalism. This story was both disturbing and fascinating in its revelation of the primacy of financial considerations in the arrangement of the Borden family’s emotional life.
Although a shocking and aberrant event, the Borden murders resonated deeply with several of the central social questions of the day – especially the woman question – and it is little wonder that Lizzie Borden’s trial and acquittal attracted national attention.