120-year-old legal papers could shed light on Lizzie Borden murders

Though she was found innocent, and preferred to go by the name Lizbeth, the world will always remember her as Lizzie Borden, the woman who gave her father and stepmother "forty whacks" with an axe. Now, the Fall River Historical Society in Massachusetts has acquired papers from an attorney who worked for the Borden family, and helped with the defense in the murder trial. It's possible that these papers could shed light on the life of Borden's father Andrew, a man who was, according to the Borden trial and legends, a rich miser whose treatment of his family bordered on abusive.

In the 1890s, a Fall River jury found Borden not guilty of chopping her parents up with a hatchet — despite a great deal of circumstantial evidence connecting her to the crime (she was in the house at the time of the murders, had tried to buy cyanide the day before, was angry at her father for reducing her inheritance, burned a dress a couple of days after the killings because it "had paint on it," etc.)

No one was ever convicted of the murders, and Borden's story has entered into (often supernatural) legends as one of the great unsolved mysteries of a bygone era. It probably doesn't hurt that Borden herself is such an intriguing figure. She was a quiet Sunday school teacher until the killings. After the trial was splashed across every newspaper in America, she became an eccentric public figure, buying herself and her sister an enormous mansion where she held giant parties for "show people" from Boston and New York. She even had what could be construed as a tempestuous affair (or just a REALLY close friendship) with an actress named Nance O'Neil.

The papers that Fall River Historical Society acquired are a set of journals from Andrew Jackson Jennings, who describes both the trial and the defense strategy he helped build. Antiquarians are busily transcribing the delicate papers now, so we won't know for sure what they contain just yet. But one of the collection's curators, Michael Martins, told the Boston Globe that history may prove that Andrew Borden was actually a really nice guy who loved Lizbeth and her sister Emma:

Andrew Borden was apparently quite concerned about his daughters' well-being, and he often referred to them as his girls. We know now that he was not a gentleman who deprived his daughters of much.

Apparently he had commented to attorney Jennings that he loved getting letters from "his girls." Does this jibe with the picture of Andrew that emerged at Lizbeth's trial? A man who refused to buy his family indoor plumbing, even though most people in the town had it? Who forced them to eat rancid leftovers, even though it gave them food poisoning, because he didn't want to waste food? We may never know.

What we do know is that Lizbeth Borden remains a compelling cultural mystery, and her ghost will soon be brought back again — Chloe Sevigny is set to play her in an upcoming HBO miniseries that's filming this fall.

If you want to read a great book on the Borden trial, completely sourced to legal documents, try Goodbye Lizzie Borden, by Robert Sullivan.

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