To anyone interested in famous historical murders, the Borden case is intoxicating. One feels compelled to warn a neophyte that it might be best to eschew this libation. You would save yourself from spending dozens of hours in devotionals and hundreds of dollars on books.
For some, it’s too late – and for you I share my collection of all-time favorite Lizzie Borden quotes, noted here and there through my course of study. The journalists who covered the 1893 double murder trial, drunk on sensation, churned out reams of purple and asinine prose. They gushed platitudes in defense of the accused and so nastily decried the presence of women in the courtroom that even today their great-grandsons would be embarrassed.
In their defense, they followed public opinion. Having licked their fingers and felt the wind – or simply having read whole forests transformed into stacks of letters to editors, like this one printed in The New York World --
It seems to me that Miss Borden has been arrested on village gossip and nothing else. Think of the stigma on the life of this young, proud, intelligent woman!
-- the reporters sided with Lizzie from the get-go. “The law itself holds Lizzie Borden innocent,” said The Baltimore Sun. “She has been most pitiably enmeshed by circumstances, and does not her case call for the kindest consideration on the part of everybody?”
In kindest consideration, The Lowell Times relayed that “the statistics of crime show that poison is the usual weapon of the murderess. Occasionally frenzied women use revolvers; but an edged tool is scarcely ever used by that sex.”
Thus, Lizzie could not have butchered her parents. The Times went on:
It not only required a fiend’s heart, but a giant’s strength, and to believe that it could have been committed by a physically weak woman, whose entire life has been one of refined influences, of Christian profession and work of filial devotion, of modesty and self-abnegation, is to set aside as of no value all that experience and observation have taught us.
In a similar vein, The Fall River Herald declared, to the nods of its readers, that --
Cruelty and the shedding of blood for blood's sake are a man’s prerogative, or if they are ever found developed in a woman the cases are so rare that we may well afford to give Lizzie Borden the benefit of the doubt.
Well, not all the readers agreed. Some grumbled, and in response, The New Bedford Mercury waxed sarcastic:
“Lizzie Borden is too well treated,” comes the cry from Fall River busybodies. “She is as comfortable as any prisoner could be.” This is a grave charge. Lizzie ought to be suspended by the thumbs, a la Private Iams, or placed in an especially dirty room, or housed up with rats, or otherwise maltreated. She has a little money and an example ought to be made of her for daring to possess it. Hale her to the deepest dungeon beneath the castle moat and apply the torture.
As the case progressed, Lizzie was arrested, and reporters could not completely ignore the overwhelming circumstantial evidence against the defendant. At one point even The Boston Herald acknowledged it, albeit briefly and a passing fashion:
There were a number of incidents in her course of procedure at the time which can be described, with no approach toward exaggeration, as suspicious in their character.
Famous columnist Joe Howard of The New York Recorder also acknowledged the central question of the case, which was Lizzie herself. “She is not an ordinary woman,” he said. “She is a puzzle psychologic.”
Then the trial began, drawing famous reporters from across the country – including Julian Ralph, Charles Edward Russell, and other household pen names. But all eyes were on Lizzie. The Boston Globe printed this dispatch from the first day of the trial:
There she sat and is to sit for weeks, alone in the open middle of the court room, as nearly like a pilloried criminal as it is possible for a woman to be, now that there are no actual pillories. The strain which her situation produces on intelligent minds is felt by all who are connected with the court. They admit it. They talk of Hester Prynne and Jeannie Deans and of other women whose fearful experiences are suggested by this girl’s misery.
Once the proceeding was well underway, the press grew impatient. “If the government can show that it was justified in arresting the girl,” said The Worcester Telegram, “it had better be about it.” The trial dragged on and the reporters turned their attentions to the audience, and one can almost hear them snarl and see them roll their eyes as they comment on the large number of women in attendance.
From The New York Tribune:
There is no question of deportment with the audience. It is the audience of a New England country town, an audience of factory hands, fishermen, sea-going lads, lawyers, business men and all kinds of women, good and bad, homely and beautiful, vulgar and gentle, that are born to gladden and trouble the earth.
And The New York Press:
The “amen corner” is right across the bar from the jury box. It holds just twelve women, the elite of the deputy sheriff’s entirely respectable friends, and every one of them has hanged, drawn and quartered Lizzie Borden long ago, because she looks “wild” and spiteful.
And The Fall River Herald:
Is it curiosity or sympathy that attracts so many women to the district court room? Some women are blessed in not having any household cares to bother them.
Before all was said and done, The Boston Record would opine that “It is human nature that is as much on trial as Lizzie Borden.” And indeed it was. In a regrettable defeat for the progress of humanity and justice, Lizzie was acquitted.