Welcome to the September 2011 edition of Jud’s New England Journal, the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, the Editor-in-Chief of Yankee Magazine,
published since 1935 in Dublin, N.H.
The Aftermath of the Most Famous New England Murder
And it continues to this very day!
The premier murder case in New England — possibly the entire country until O. J. Simpson — occurred in Fall River, Massachusetts, around 11 o’clock on the sweltering hot morning of August 4, 1892, when elderly, wealthy Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abby, were done in — by someone. Of course, their daughter, Lizzie, was always considered as guilty as guilty can be even though, like O. J. Simpson, she was found to be “not guilty” at her trial. Most of the books, poems, and plays about the Borden murders leave no doubt whatsoever that “Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her mother forty whacks. Then, to show she wasn’t done, she gave her father forty-one.”
The interesting part of the case to me is that so many New Englanders with personal pieces of the Borden puzzle surfaced after we published a Lizzie Borden feature in Yankee Magazine back in 1966.
For instance, a man who’d lived next door to Lizzie wrote to me to say he knew that Lizzie’s sister, Emma, was afraid Lizzie would kill her, too, during the time the two sisters lived together in a Fall River house on Second Street (not the murder house). The same man, who asked to remain anonymous, swore to me that Lizzie had once been thrown by a beautiful, white horse and in an instant rage, had returned to her house, fetched a gun, and proceeded to shoot the horse, dead.
A New Hampshire woman wrote to me recalling an astonishing story told to members of her family by “a frail, semi-retarded little man” who did odd jobs around their farm back in the 1920’s. He said he once lived in Fall River and often did chores for the Bordens. Around noon of the murder day, as he was cleaning up behind the Borden house, Lizzie, he said, came to the back door wiping off a hatchet! He went on to say she actually handed him the hatchet along with the rag with which she’d wiped it off and told him to put the hatchet in the barn and throw the rag in a nearby lot where fill was being dumped every day. This he did.
An hour or so later, he heard the Bordens had been murdered with a hatchet and so, with mentally deficient reasoning, he hid the hatchet behind the horse stalls “so no one else could use it to hurt someone.” He never told the police any of this because he was afraid he would somehow be punished. He soon left Fall River so that he could be sure he’d never run into Lizzie Borden again. My correspondent said she believed he spent the rest of his life moving from town to town, doing odd jobs on local farms. Occasionally, she said, he would tell his story, as he did with her family, and then move on to another locality so that he wouldn’t be “punished”.
An intriguing tale — but true? Hard to say…
A Fort Lauderdale, Florida, man wrote me to say he knew for a fact that Lizzie Borden was accused of shoplifting in the Tilden & Thurber Jewelry Store in Providence, Rhode Island, some years after the murders. According to his “unimpeachable source,” the Tilden & Thurber people agreed not to press charges against Lizzie if she signed a confession to the murders—which she apparently did. (After all, the law had already found her innocent of the crime.) It was his “understanding” that the signed confession, saying both murders were “by my hand and mine alone,” remained in the Tilden & Thurber vaults until a fire destroyed the entire store including everything in the vaults. What a collectors’ item that little slip of paper would be today!
“I was a member of the crew of carpenters who remodeled the Borden home in Fall River back in 1949,” a Springfield, Massachusetts, man wrote me, “and we came upon a rusty old hatchet concealed behind a partition there.” He was referring to the second Borden home, but still…
There were other letters and other personal anecdotes, too. And where the truth lies is anyone’s guess. Two things are for certain, however. We’ll never know exactly what happened in the Borden home on August 4, 1892. Second, we New Englanders, long after the O. J. Simpson trial has faded into obscurity, which it sort of has already, will never tire of speculating about it. Never, ever.