Book Excerpt: ‘The Trial of Lizzie Borden,’ the Original True Crime Sensation

Cara Robertson's comprehensive study looks at the murder that shocked a nation, and the trial that captivated it.

It might feel like we’re in the midst of an unequaled true crime boom, thanks to the ubiquity of non-fiction crime documentaries, series, podcasts, and books, but don’t be fooled; the culture has always had a perverse fascination with the evil that men do. Or women — to this day, one of the most notorious was the 1892 slaying of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Borden, a well-to-do Massachusetts couple. Their 32-year-old daughter Lizzie was charged and tried for the crime but acquitted, reportedly because the all-male jury couldn’t imagine that a woman of her background could be capable of such savagery.

Author Cara Robertson began studying the Borden case for her 1990 Harvard senior thesis, and has spent the subsequent years immersing herself in the story, poring over trial transcripts, newspaper articles, and other archival materials (including unpublished letters by Borden herself). The result, The Trial of Lizzie Borden — out this week from Simon & Schuster — is a page-turning account of a murder, a motive, and a media sensation. We’re pleased to present this excerpt:

FROM CHAPTER ONE

In 1890, just prior to her thirtieth birthday, Lizzie Borden briefly experienced an unwonted measure of freedom when her father sent her on a Grand Tour of Europe in the company of other unmarried women of her acquaintance. In their shared cabin during the return voyage, Lizzie confided to her distant cousin Anna Borden her unwillingness to return to the house on Second Street with sufficient vehemence that Anna was able to recount the conversation three years later. Yet, return she did, at which point her father gave her a sealskin cape. The motivation for such extravagant gifts is unclear: Andrew Borden was a man who calculated the probable returns on his investments carefully, and the record discloses no other comparable generosity toward his daughters. After all, their weekly allowance remained set at four dollars—less than the weekly wage of a female spinner in the local mills.

Less than a year after Lizzie’s return from Europe, at the end of June 1891, the Borden household was the scene of a mysterious crime. Captain Dennis Desmond reported to 92 Second Street to learn the odd particulars: Abby’s jewelry drawer had been rifled and some trinkets—most notably, a gold watch and chain of particular sentimental value—were missing. Andrew’s desk had also been denuded of about $80 in cash, $25 to $30 in gold, and several commemorative streetcar tickets. Although the theft occurred in the middle of the day, none of the women in the house—neither Bridget, nor Emma, nor Lizzie—claimed to have heard a sound. When the police arrived, Lizzie Borden excitedly led them on a tour of the house and showed them the lock on the downstairs cellar door, which had apparently been forced open with a “6 or 8 penny nail.” She suggested: “Someone might have come in that way.” Desmond was stunned by the interloper’s good fortune: the thief had broken in and discovered the Bordens’ bedroom without attracting the attention of the women in the house. Andrew Borden noticed that the thief could only have entered through Lizzie’s bedroom, and three times told Desmond: “I am afraid the police will not be able to find the real thief.” The police were baffled or, at least, thought better of voicing their suspicions; Andrew Borden called off the investigation and attempted to keep word of the theft out of the papers.

Though the incident was officially forgotten—or suppressed—by the police and by the Bordens, Andrew Borden left the household with a daily reminder of his suspicion. He locked his bedroom every day and then left the key in the sitting room in plain sight. Because the house had no central halls, the upstairs bedrooms opened onto each other. The elder Bordens also securely locked their connecting door, which opened into Lizzie’s room. (Emma’s room was only accessible through Lizzie’s room.) For her part, Lizzie moved furniture to block her side of the connecting doors. As a result, the Borden house may have been the most elaborately secured domicile in town, for the front door was triple-locked and family members elaborately locked and unlocked their bedrooms and bureaus throughout the day.

Abby was acutely aware of her stepdaughters’ feelings, but it was not until August 2, 1892, two days before her death, that she considered them life-threatening. Despite the oppressive heat of summer, the Bordens ate leftover swordfish. That evening, the elder Bordens spent a nauseated, sleepless night and Bridget and Lizzie experienced a milder form of the same malady. Emma was not at home; she had been away for nearly two weeks visiting friends in Fairhaven. Though such incidents were common in Fall River—they were colloquially known as “the summer complaint”—Abby did not view her distress as typical. Instead, on the following morning, she went across the street to her doctor’s house and confided that she thought she had been poisoned. Learning of their fish dinner, Dr. Seabury Bowen was not alarmed, but he did accompany Abby back across the street to examine Andrew, who refused his medical expertise. In fact, the Borden patriarch stood angrily on the threshold, blocking Dr. Bowen’s entrance and shouting that he would not pay the doctor for the visit.

The subject might have remained closed, but the household— with the exception of Lizzie—fell ill again that evening after a meal of mutton stew. The prosecutor would later argue that the happenstance of food poisoning “was an illness suggestive of an opportunity to a person desiring to procure the deaths of one or other of those people.” That same evening, Lizzie paid a call on her friend and former neighbor Alice Russell and confided her fears. She believed the milk had been poisoned and alluded to nebulous threats against her father by unnamed men. Alice Russell was a sensible woman and she pointed out the absurdity of Lizzie’s fears. Despite Miss Russell’s reassurance, Lizzie spoke of her uneasiness and sense of foreboding, remarking: “I feel as if something was hanging over me that I cannot throw off, and it comes over me at times, no matter where I am.” She added: “I don’t know but somebody will do something.”

Excerpted from “The Trial of Lizzie Borden” by Cara Robertson. Copyright 2019 by Cara Robertson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.