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'Caring' Lizzie Borden is misunderstood, new book says

While the grisly nursery-rhyme that bears her name paints Lizzie Borden in a bloodthirsty light, a new book to be published in June is delving deeper into the case to determine whether it was Lizzie who actually wielded that ax.
/ Source: TODAY staff

"Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks, and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one."

Or did she? Nearly 120 years after the gruesome double murder made headlines around the country – and spawned a true-crime nursery rhyme – a new book to be published in June may shatter the myth about the Massachusetts spinster.

"Lizzie comes across as this cold sort of stoic individual who was very capable of murdering the Bordens," said Michael Martins, co-curator of the Fall River Historical Society. "But when you look at her life, her life was no different than that of many of her contemporaries. She was a very giving person, a very caring person."

Martins and co-curator Dennis Binette have authored "Parallel Lives: A Social History of Lizzie A. Borden and her Fall River," which, through private letters and correspondence, attempts to cast the city's most vilified citizen in a new light.

"Certainly in the process of our research, the Lizzie Borden that emerges is a completely different character than the character that descended through history," Martins told TODAY. "People will walk away with a different idea of who this person was and her family and background."

Banker and wife butchered
The Borden tale, which has been passed down by generations, is macabre and remains a mystery. What is known is that on August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden, an affluent banker, and his second wife, Abby Borden, were murdered in the house the couple shared with Mr. Borden’s two unmarried daughters, Lizzie, 32, and Emma, 41.

Mr. Borden was found hacked to death in a first floor sitting room. The body of Mrs. Borden was discovered in a second-floor room. Lizzie Borden was arrested for the killings. The prosecution tried to show that she committed the crime because she feared her stepmother would inherit most of her father’s land and money.

The trial became a feeding frenzy for the press and a public hungry to know more about the accused, even if the information often was inaccurate.

"The reporters who wrote these articles, of course, never knew her," Martins said. "They did not interview her. They were on the other side of the bar in the courtroom, basically looking at her.”

“Lizzie was a Yankee girl, born and bred,” he said of the apparent lack of feeling she exhibited. “Emotion was not something that was displayed publicly.”

Found not guilty
The case came to a dramatic ending when a jury of 12 men returned a not-guilty verdict, an outcome that Martins believed was probably justified. "She was acquitted because there was no evidence against her," Martins said. "Any evidence they had was circumstantial."

The lone smoking gun the state attempted to link to Borden was a hatchet retrieved from the house. But that hatchet, which is now part of the Fall River Historical Society collection, may have actually helped Borden’s defense. "They found no blood on the hatchet," Martins said. "They did find one stand of hair, but it did not match the hair taken from the head of the victims."

After the murders, Borden moved out of the house and lived out her remaining years in another Fall River mansion where people would walk by to catch a glimpse of her in the window.

Borden, who was 67 when she died in 1927, never married. But she has distant relatives still living in Fall River, including a cousin, Barbara Morrissey, who has no doubt as to whether Borden was innocent or guilty.

"I do believe that Lizzie did it," Morrissey told TODAY. "I think if you look at motive and opportunity, it all points to Lizzie. And it’s not to say she was a vicious, cruel person in other manifestations of her life. I think she was afraid that her father would pass first. And if that happened, and the money went to her stepmother, she and her sister would be beholden to the stepmother."

‘Very kind woman’
Morrissey, who said her family rarely talked about the case when she was growing up, called Borden a "very kind woman" who may not have fully intended on killing her father, though she probably had considerable anger toward her stepmother.

She is part of a group called the "Second Street Irregulars" who meet to discuss aspects of the murders and Borden’s life. Sometimes they convene at the actual scene of the crime: 92 Second Street, the original Borden home that is now open for business as The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum.

Lee-Ann Wilbur, the proprietor, said guests come to spend a night in the rooms where Mr. and Mrs. Borden met their grisly fate. And for $1,500 a night, the entire house can be rented. Although the furnishings are Victorian, the home has modern touches, including Wi-Fi and free internet access.

"We get people from all over the world and all walks of life," Wilbur said. "We have people interested in history, interested in true crime, a lot of people interested in the paranormal."

‘Active house’
Does she believe the house is haunted? "I don’t like to use the word ‘haunted,’" she said, "I like to call it ‘active’"

As for Martins, while he hopes his book humanizes Borden, he understands why the fascination for such a violent act endures to this day.

"I think the fact that it was a woman who was involved," he said, "a woman who was from a good family at a time when it was commonly believed a woman could not commit such a heinous crime, and the fact it was a family of some wealth."