The Trial of the Century

| Community | April 11, 2019

by Harry Parmenter

“Policemen are human, made out of men, and nothing else. Once a theory possesses our minds, you know how tenaciously it holds its place.” A policeman is even more susceptible to this bias because “he is possessed and saturated with the thoughts and experiences he has with bad people. And, you do not get the greatest ability in the world inside a policeman’s coat. Not one police officer in a thousand is possessed of acute sensibility or a trained habit of observation. Success is more often a matter of chance, or luck, or the stupidity of the criminal than it is of any well-directed conduct of an investigation.”

This statement was made by a defense attorney in what case? Jussie Smollett? Ferguson? O.J.? Nope. Try 125 years ago inside a tiny hotbox of a courthouse in Fall River, Mass. during that era’s trial of the century, Lizzie Borden.

Lizzie’s father Andrew and stepmother Abby were hacked to death with an ax the morning of August 4, 1892. Lizzie, who hated her stepmother, and Bridget Sullivan, the maid, were the only people at the house when the murders occurred. Sullivan, who was well aware of the tension between Abby and Lizzie, and sought to leave the family’s employ, spent the morning outside washing windows and chatting with the neighbors’ housemaid before repairing to her room for a nap.

The house was uptight in more ways than one, with the front door triple-bolted. Following a mysterious theft of Abby’s jewelry and Andrew’s cash from their bedroom in June 1891, Andrew began locking it every day when he left the house, as well as securing the connecting door to 32-year-old daughter Lizzie’s bedroom. It was “the most elaborately secured domicile in town.” The day the police investigated the bedroom theft, Lizzie told the sane officer three times, “I am afraid the police will not be able to find the real thief.”


All this and more is encapsulated in “The Trial of Lizzie Borden,” a terrific new book by Cara Robertson, an accomplished jurist and writer. It’s “The Making of a Murderer” in the 19th century, and a sad reminder that, when it comes to defense attorneys, the media and the great unwashed mob blaming the police for someone else’s crime, nothing has changed.

Ex-Massachusetts governor George D. Robinson (“Talking Bull” on the Elizabeth Warren family tree), was one of Lizzie’s defense attorneys, and certainly the one who did the heavy lifting. Speaking of law enforcement’s Assistant Marshal Fleet, who questioned our heroine at the scene, Robinson first described his sinister countenance with “the set of that mustache and the firmness of those lips,” then told the jury, “And there he was, up in this young woman’s room in the afternoon, attended with some other officers, plying her with all sorts of questions in a pretty direct and peremptory way. Is that the way for an officer of the law to deal with a woman in her own house? What would you do with a man… that got into your house and was talking to your wife or your daughter in that way?”

Well, given that Big Daddy Borden took a nap on the sitting room sofa, only to sleep forever with a face one witness described as “a mass of raw meat,” he sure wasn’t worried about how a cop interrogated his charming daughter, now was he, counselor?

Robinson was just getting warmed up. By the time he got to his closing argument, he lacked only an accompanying violinist to provide a plaintive background track: “There she stands, protected, watched over, kept in charge by the judges of this court and by the jury who have her in charge. If the little sparrow does not fall unnoticed to the ground, indeed, in God’s great providence, this woman has not been alone in this courtroom, but ever shielded by His watchful Providence from above, and by the sympathy and watchful care of those who have her to look after.”

Contrast that with Officer Phil Harrington, who interviewed the little sparrow: “Lizzie stood by the foot of the bed, and talked in the most calm and collected manner; her whole bearing was most remarkable under the circumstances. There was not the least indication of agitation, no sign of sorrow or grief, no lamentation of heart, no comment on the horror of the crime, and no expression of a wish that the criminal be caught. All this, and something that, to me, is indescribable, gave birth to a thought that was most revolting. I thought, at least, she knew more than she wished to tell.” Ya think?

As a sidebar, Robinson went down a road not uncommon all those years ago, and might, in fact, explain Representative Ocasio-Cortez’ Green Plan: ““You will recollect that Miss Lizzie’s monthly illness was continuing at that time, and we know from sad experience that this is (sic) many a woman at such a time as that is all unbalanced, her disposition disturbed, her mind disabled for a period of time.” Period, end of story!

The icing on the cake-with-a-hatchet-in-it came when the resourceful barrister had to explain away his client’s stone-faced behavior throughout the trial, not to mention in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy: “The eyes that cannot weep/Are the saddest eyes of all.” Aye, yes, he might as well have averred, she was a good woman except for that itty bitty ax to grind.

Since the case had no witnesses and was entirely circumstantial, prosecutor Hosea (now there’s a name you don’t hear every, er, EVER) Knowlton explained it all to the 12 not-so-angry men of the jury, as this was before Suffragette City climbed the charts: “Direct evidence is the evidence of a man who sees and hears: circumstantial evidence is all other kinds of evidence. Men will not tell the truth always: facts cannot tell but one story. Murder is the work of stealth and craft in which there are not only no witnesses, but the traces are attempted to be obliterated.” Hosea can you see alluded to Robinson Crusoe’s famous discovery of another set of footprints on his apparently uninhabited island. “It was circumstantial: It was nothing but circumstantial evidence but it satisfied him. He had no lawyer to tell him that there was nothing but circumstance.” I think Shakespeare saw this coming.

After a trial of 16 days (!) the idiot dunce jury returned their verdict in less than an hour and a half: Not guilty. After exonerating Ms. Borden they left the jury box and shook her hand in congratulations. And to think O.J. was deprived of a dozen high fives before he began his search for the real killer.

The media, who’d been in the tank with Lizzie from the get-go (some things never change) waxed eloquent, as opposed to wroth (Diamond Dave wasn’t around yet), with the New York Times (again, shocking!) opining that “The acquittal of the most unfortunate and cruelly persecuted woman was, by this promptness … a condemnation of the police authorities and of the legal officers who secured the indictment and have conducted the trial. It was a declaration not only that the prisoner was guiltless, but that there never was any serious reason to suppose that she was guilty… Her acquittal is only a partial atonement for the wrong that she has suffered.”

Speaking of suffering, despite the hyperbole of the pithy nursery rhyme, “Lizzie Borden took an ax/Gave her mother forty whacks/When she saw what she had done/She gave her father forty-one,” Andrew Borden took 10 blows to the head, Abby 19. You’d be challenged to fashion one skull out of the remaining two, which are on display at the Fall River Historical Society next time you plan a trip to, uh, Beantown. Did I mention Lizzie tried to buy prussic acid the day before the killings? Oh, Harry, the little sparrow just wanted to spice up tea-time.

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