Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Lizzie Borden Murder Trial: Womanhood as Asset and Liability (Fall River, 1892)

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Lizzie Borden Murder Trial: Womanhood as Asset and Liability (Fall River, 1892)

Article excerpt

Editor's Introduction: In her provocative collection, The Crimes of Womanhood: Defining Femininity in a Court of Law, A. Cheree Carlson explores how cultural views of femininity exerted a powerful influence on the courtroom arguments used to both defend and condemn women on trial from the 1850s to the 1920s. Carlson examines six cases: all were popular trials that attracted widespread attention. Drawing upon trial transcriptions, newspaper reports, and popular accounts, Carlson incisively deconstructs the arguments of prosecution and defense, revealing how both sides wielded gendered arguments in their efforts to persuade all-male jurors. Although only one of her cases comes from Massachusetts, we are reprinting it here as our "Editor s Choice " selection.

In 1892, Lizzie Andrew Borden went on trial, accused of killing her parents with an ax in a grisly double murder. A. Cheree Carlson, a professor of communication and women's studies, succeeds wonderfully in crafting an illuminating analysis of a case that remains hotly debated and continues to generate fascination among scholars and the general public alike.

Lizzie Borden took an ax,

Gave her mother forty whacks

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty one.

- Traditional rhyme

Nearly every study of the Borden case includes this verse, and there is no reason for this chapter to stray from convention. That this bit of schoolyard doggerel can still occasionally be heard on the playground attests to the staying power of the legend of this woman. That it got the details completely wrong attests to the power of a narrative to survive despite its contradiction of the facts.

The presupposition of the rhyme is that Lizzie was guilty. A common presupposition of later research on her trial is that she "got off" because she was a woman. Both assumptions oversimplify the complex interplay of social forces that converged in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892. While it is true that Lizzie's gender was probably an asset at her trial, it was not the only reason she was acquitted. In fact, gender norms were also used by the prosecution to make her look guilty. The basic qualities of femininity, as narrative elements, could be used to either end. It took the interaction of these with certain elements of class and social standing to make the pendulum swing in Borden's favor.

Like any unsolved violent crime, the Borden case has inspired endless speculation. Did Lizzie do it? If not, then who? What was the motive? What happened to the weapon? These questions have been rehashed endlessly. Fingers have mainly been pointed at Lizzie Borden, who supposedly acted through greed or jealous hatred of her stepmother. Other writers have accused her sister, Emma; the servant, Bridget; Lizzie's rumored lover; and a purported illegitimate child of her father who resembled the archetypal wild-eyed stranger.

It is not my goal to reexamine these issues; what "really" happened is not pertinent. Rather, the focus is on the rhetorical use of gender-related narratives to persuade the community of guilt or innocence. Gender was indeed an important theme during Lizzie Borden's trial, but it was not the only theme used by the defense and it was probably not the only narrative used by the jury to free her.

The Borden case was mounted and argued almost entirely on the basis of circumstantial evidence: there was no direct evidence pointing to the guilt of any individual. There were no witnesses. There was no confession. There was not even a "smoking ax." Someone had killed two people, that much was clear. The web of secondhand evidence only indicated possible killers, and the field was narrowed through human deduction. As a result, the only way to discover what "really" happened was to construct a symbolic reality that would be compelling to the audience being asked to judge the evidence. That determination would have very real consequences: the death penalty. …

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