I am thankful that a new Lizzie Borden book was published just in time to distract me, at least a little, from the specter of our country going to hell in a handbasket.

That may sound strange — the story of an accused axe murderess providing refuge in times of trouble? Well, I was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, and grew up in the towns surrounding it — Tiverton, Rhode Island, and Swansea and Somerset, Massachusetts. So there is a particular feeling that comes over me in the dog days of summer. I think about the reheated mutton broth the Borden family had been eating the week of the murders, in August, 1892, and what a hot week it had been.

It’s like this story is trapped in the deepest recesses of my brain. I jump roped to the infamous rhyme about her as a kid. My friends and I read books about Lizzie in high school and tried to be the first one to write a term paper about her, if the chance arose. Later, it was not unusual for me to hear theories about the case from adult friends and colleagues, or their admission that, someday, they hoped to write the definitive book about Lizzie.

That is a difficult task, and to my mind, has not been done to date. However, the most recent novel about the Bordens is excellent. It’s called “See What I Have Done,” and was written by an Australian named Sarah Schmidt. I guess that goes to show you don’t have to hail from southeastern Massachusetts to have Lizzie on the brain.

The allure, if I can call it that, of the Borden case is that it is a cold case and it always will be. No DNA evidence is going to surface. Lizzie had to have killed her father and stepmother as she was the only one with means, motive and opportunity. Conventional wisdom says she was acquitted because the all-male jury in Bristol County Superior Court could not believe a woman of Lizzie’s high social standing could commit such a cold-blooded crime.

But I can, and it’s not just because I am looking at this case through a 21st-century lens. It all goes back to the mutton broth.


Andrew Jackson Borden was a rich man, a self-made man. He built an office building in downtown Fall River and named it after himself. Borden owned other properties throughout the city and directed various cotton mills. (Fall River was a leading textile center in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and at one point had 120 such factories.) According to a 2013 article in The Providence Journal, he was worth $6 million in today’s dollars when he died.

Yet he was a miser. The family lived on Second Street, near downtown, in a house that was close to the street and located among businesses. Lizzie longed to live on “the hill” where other people of their wealth and community stature lived.

The family’s eating habits were atrocious. They don’t seem to have eaten any vegetables that fateful week. This is astonishing, because among Andrew Borden’s holdings was a large farm in Swansea. A working farm, with chickens and cows and, one would presume, a crop or two. This family didn’t need to be reheating mutton broth all week. Though the Bordens had an icebox, I don’t even think they refrigerated the mutton. It seems to have sat on the stove for days.

Along with this disgusting soup they ate white bread, johnnycakes (a cornmeal bread) and cookies! No wonder Abby Borden, Andrew’s second wife, weighed over 200 pounds.

Yes, that’s another fact that sticks. Abby was short and stout and was found dead in an unfortunate supine position.

Abby was not an evil stepmother. But Andrew had signed over property to her. Lizzie and her sister, Emma, were angry about that and stopped talking to her. Andrew may have intended to give the farm to Abby as well.

Lizzie was undoubtedly a sociopath, but she also was a victim of her times. She had to rely on her father for support and she had no means of creative expression or productive work. It’s easy, in retrospect, to think she could have chosen to strike out on her own, but opportunities were limited for all women at that time. Plus, she was of the mindset that she didn’t need to do much because of who she was — a rich man’s daughter.

A wealthy, unhappy family in a sweltering house eating mutton soup and cookies — really, it’s practically a recipe for murder.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at lsoareswriter@gmail.com.

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: