Today we cover an individual who is more an icon of queer pop culture and than an actual figure of queer history. The infamous Lizzie Borden. And this is not to say that Lizzie was not gay or bisexual, there is certainly some evidence which we will produce for the listener to decide for themselves. However, Lizzie’s true role in queer history is as a dark legend and a wistful fantasy. The mystery of her sexuality is ALMOST as hotly debated as the mystery of her parents death. And so for more than a century the whispers of a lesbian ax murderer have filled the halls of queer spaces, spilled onto the pages of queer erotica, and even graced the screens of queer cinema. Now let us begin the tale of the Mistress of Maplecroft.
Andrew Jackson Borden struggled to make ends meet as a young man. Despite inheriting a small estate from his father he had little financial stability. This changed after some prudent investments in the textile and manufacturing industries. And by the time Borden was middle aged he had earned a small fortune and bought a large estate at 92 Second Street. However, he was a frugal man and refused to install electricity and indoor plumbing or add many of the luxuries he could very well afford. The estate alone was worth over $300,000 at the time of Borden’s death, an estimated 8 million by today’s standards. The deliberate unsanitary conditions would cause many problems in the future, and could have contributed to the death of Andrew’s first wife Sarah.
We do not know when Sarah and Adrew were married but in 1851 they brought their first daughter into the world, Emma Lenora. Nine years later on July 19, 1960 Lizzie Andrew Borden was born. Her father gave her his name when it became apparent he would not have a son. Most likely because of Sarah’s declining health. Sadly, just a few years later Sarah Borden would die after a slow progression of spinal disease and uterine congestion. Which was common for women who had borne more than one child during this time period. The unsanitary conditions of the time and uncleanliness of the Borden house certainly did not help. Three years after Sarah’s death Andrew remarried in 1865 to Abby Gray. The Borden sisters struggled with their relationship with their stepmother. Though Lizzie was only 5 years old when Abby came into the picture, she grew up convinced that Abby had only married Andrew for his wealth. It seems likely that Emma, who was 14 when the couple married, most likely instilled this thought into Lizzie. Regardless, the three women fought often and for the last part of Abby’s life Lizzie and her stepmother hardly spoke – even though they lived in the same house.
As a young child, Lizzie was known to be lively and a bit eccentric. She did well in school but for some reason did not go off to college. Again, this despite her family’s wealth and ability to send her to any school in the country – which allowed women of course. There are A LOT of speculations about why Lizzie never left home. Some of the most prominent center around Andrews control of his daughters. Many have speculated that Andrew was abusive, others have proposed that his daughters were merely lazy and spoiled. Another strange thing which adds to this speculation is that both Lizzie and Emma never married and never seemed to have any serious prospects. However, there are also some practical answers to these questions. For one, even with the families wealth, a woman going to college in the 1880’s and 90’s was extremely rare. And as for lack of suitors, some have attributed this to the shortage of men following the Civil War. Though, men who were Lizzie’s age would have been born after the war and we wonder why no one wanted to get in on the Borden fortune.
As the daughters grew older the tension between them and their parents grew as well. Both girls regularly accused Andrew of wasting their inheritance. Andrew bought houses for his wife Abby’s family members. So Emma and Lizzie demanded he buy them a house. Which he did, but he did so in a poor part of town where the girls refused live. Instead they rented out the space and eventually Andrew bought it back from them. Another rare gesture of monetary kindness extended by Andrew was when he funded a trip for Lizzie to travel with a group of women to Europe. But these gestures seemed few and far between. However, it isn’t like Lizzie and Emma were living in squalor. They held status in the community and attended the theatre regularly. Both girls also would have been more than welcomed on the local socialite scene, but Lizzie especially declined the open invite. In truth, she seemed more comfortable at home on the farm with animals.
The Borden family raised a coup of pigeons and Lizzie was especially known to care for them. However, she later testified that she only saw the pigeons as livestock and not as pets. Her view of the animals mattered greatly because one day Andrew Borden went into the coup and killed all the pigeons with his bare hands, wringing their necks one by one. The full reason is not known, though it was speculated that Andrew did it as a punishment to Lizzie. This was right around the time that Lizzie was accused of stealing her stepmother’s jewelry and pawning it. It was also around this time that Lizzie was cut off from using the Borden credit line in downtown Fall River. Before the days of credit cards, clerks in stores would keep a written list of items added to credit and then send a bill to the customer at the end of the month. Gossip over Lizzie’s exclusion from the credit line swirled around the town along with other stories of the strange Borden sisters. To say there was strong dysfunction in the family is an understatement. It seemed that four people who could hardly stand each other were stuck in an old and outdated house. And what could add more to the tension than the arrival of a new maid.
Bridget Sullivan was a 25 year old immigrant from Ireland who had taken the newly opened position as maid of the Borden household. There have been extensive rumors and stories about Bridget and Lizzie having an affair. So much so that last year the movie Lizzie was released starring Chloe Sevigny as Lizzie and Kristen Stewart as Bridget, Lizzie’s maid…and lover. The entire plot centers around this forbidden love story which has been told in queer circles for decades. Sadly, there is not a shred of evidence to support this romance. While it does seem that Bridget pitied Lizzie, the two were far from lovers. The roots of this rumor dates back to the 1985 fictional novel “Lizzie!” by author Evan Hunter (a.k.a E.D. McBain). In which Hunter lays out a torrid and steamy romance between the two women before they are discovered by Lizzie’s stepmother Abby. This revelation ultimately pushes Lizzie to kill her parents to save her secret. But Hunter admitted that he fabricated the affair based on other events in Lizzie’s life and not because there was any new information to support this notion.
As is the case with most prominent and wealthy women of this era, if they weren’t married by the ripe old age of 21 the rumors began to swirl. And if a woman never married, then she was almost certainly a lesbian. While we is fun to speculate on who COULD be “on our team”; it must be noted that many queer historians did a diservice to the queer community in the 80’s and 90’s. By slapping the labels of gay or lesbian on any bachelor or spinster they could, historians limited the scope of queerness. Genderqueer folks, non binary individuals, Asexuals, poly sexuals, trans people, and bisexuals were often erased or ignored. In addition, many cisgender, straight femists had their stance against the patriarchy and male dominance completely pushed aside. We must remember that marriage for wealthy women was often simply a lifelong prison sentence. Once a daughter was married off – usually to a much older suitor who was not of her choosing – her rights and independence became non existent. A married woman had no rights to her body, her property, her money, or her children. Her husband could legally beat and rape her as much as he pleased. And any inheritance left to a wife by her family went directly to the husband. In the few cases where a couple divorced, the husband retained everything. So it is no wonder why some women would choose to be alone rather than bound to even more restrictions than women already endured.
And we see the oppression of women also in Bridget Sullivan. As the mystery of the Irish maid is not confined to Lizzie. There have also been rumors of a relationship or sexual abuse perpetuated by Andrew Borden. Again, there is no evidence of this. Although it is certainly possible that Borden could have abused his power and forced himself on the attractive young maid. Regardless, we do know that Bridget certainly was not nearly the object of affection she is so often portrayed. Even if she was used as a sexual release, she was still seen as the maid. The family did not even call her Bridget. They called her Maggie or ‘New’ Maggie, because the former maid had been named Maggie and the family couldn’t be bothered to learn a new name. Some have speculated that this was a term of endearment from love of the past maid. Others have insisted Lizzie secretly called Bridget by her real name. But again, there is no evidence for that. In the trial Bridget would testify she was called Maggie and all witnesses supported this claim.
The basis for all these theories stem from the motive behind the murders. If Lizzie Borden DID murder her parents then why? Was it for the wealth? Was she worried Andrew had cut her and Emma out of the will or significantly reduced her inheritance? The women’s Uncle John Morse claimed that Borden had drawn up a new will that did just this- limit their inheritance; however, the new will was never found. And suspiciously, John also claimed he had been appointed power of attorney for the will and the women’s trust fund. Did Lizzie murder her father to protect her lover Bridget from his abuse? Whatever Bridget’s ties to the case, one thing sticks out. After her arrival tensions in the family escalated. This could be due simply to coincidence and poor timing, or there could be a more sinister reason at play.
And there is the assumption that Andrew Borden’s control and abuse of his daughters became too much. Author Marcia Carlisle of American Heritage Magazine proposed that Lizzie and her sister Emma suffered from “battered woman syndrome”. Carlisle suggested that after Lizzi’s birth her mother was most likely on bedrest for her final two years of life. This is due to the Uterine Congestion she was diagnosed with and the usual debilitating and painful progression of the disease. Because of this Andrew Borden might seek to find sexual release somewhere else. And being a wealthy and prominent member of a small town, as well as extremely private, Borden would have avoided houses of prostitution. Instead, focusing on his then 12 year old daughter Emma. And once Emma had gone off to boarding school or become more independent, he could have turned to Lizzie.
Again, there is no evidence for this abuse other than the pure rage show in the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden. If Lizzie felt her stepmother knew of the abuse and ignored it, that could further explain why she so bitterly hated Abby. In the final year of Abby’s life Lizzie would publicly and aggressively correct anyone who called Abby her mother. Even at her trial Lizzie still refused to use that term in reference to Abby. However, as is often the case of children abused in incestuous relationships, her feelings towards her father were mixed. At moments she was especially gentle with him even gifting him a beautiful ring, which he always wore. Yet in other moments she openly despised him. Further circumstantial evidence is pointed to in Andrew’s choice of the house on 2nd street.
Borden bought this home seven years after marrying Abby. It was essentially a two family dwelling and Andrew never did anything to change this. The girls could have their own side quite separated from Abby and Andrew. Some could see this as the Borden sisters gaining a little independence. Abby would have been 22 or 23 years old, but Lizzie was still only 12 or 13. Others could see it as Andrew attempting to diffuse the rising tension between his wife and daughters. But still people propose that Andrew did it so he could more easily continue his abuse of Lizzie and Emma without being caught by Abby. However, we cannot discount the age old tie between abuse and homosexuality. Where psychologists like Sigmund Frued erroneously positioned that all homosexuality stemmed from childhood abuse. And thus the rumors of a lesbian ax murderer would certianly fit with the idea that she had been sexually abused. False psychology aside, one must wonder why both Lizzie and Emma never entertained marriage. And if she did kill Andrew and Abby, why?
Marcia Carlisle wrote this stirring paragraph in her article What Made Lizzie Borden Kill:
No single disorder is enough to make a case for a family at war with itself. But viewed as a pattern, the long-time absence of a wife-mother, the ages of the girls at the time of their mother’s illness, the autocratic father, the isolation of the family, the failure of the family to bond as a unit when the new Mrs. Borden moved in, the timing of the move to the new house, the structure of the house, the special relationship between Lizzie and her father, the tensions between both daughters and the stepmother—all these together suggest long-standing structural flaws that could have led to family violence and to the murders. Even the way in which the killings were committed seems telling. All the hatchet blows directed at Mr. Borden were aimed at his face. As the prosecuting attorney described it in his closing argument, the hand that held the weapon was “not the hand of masculine strength. It was the hand of a person strong only in hate and the desire to kill.”
Dr. Judith Herman, a leading authority on fatherdaughter incest, helped one group of adult women through the healing process recently. The median age in the group was Lizzie’s at the time of the murders, thirty-two. The majority were white, educated, and unmarried and had suffered some degree of amnesia about the incest. Many were engaged in the “helping professions,” today’s counterpart to the church activities that were important to Lizzie in the 1890s.
And we do know that Lizzie, despite her social anxieties, was active in these so called “helping professions”. She was the secretary and treasurer of the Christian Endeavor Society. She also joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. And she became a sunday school teacher at her local Congregational Church, teaching a group of newly immigrated children. This was the woman who woke up on August 4, 1892 and joined her family for breakfast. After which, Andrew Borden went on his morning walk. Abby relaxed in the sitting room and Bridget was ordered to wash the windows. It was an incredibly hot day and it seemed cruel to ask Bridget to do such a task. In addition, the entire family – Bridget included – were suffering from a stomach virus. This was most likely due to Adrew’s stinginess. He had brought home a leg of mutton and forced the family to eat every last bit, which took them several days. Since Andrew refused to invest in any modern conveniences, there was no ice box for the mutton. Which means the family had been eating 5 day old meat which had been sitting out. In addition, there were no restrooms. Though he could have paid for them, instead the family was still using buckets in their rooms. So everyone was puking in the backyard, shitting in the buckets upstairs, and eating rotten meat.
It is no wonder then that Bridget felt ill and after Andrew left she went to her room and lied down. Sometime between 9:00am and 10:30am Abby Borden went up to her room. She was either met or followed by her killer who proceeded to whack Abby 18 times with a hatchet. The first hit was to the side of Abby’s face, and after she fell, 17 more blows were delivered to the back of her head. Around 10:30 Andrew Borden returned. His key wouldn’t work and he began banging and screaming for Bridget. When she arrived she found the door jammed and as she struggled to open it she cursed. At which time she heard Lizzie laugh. But the laugh was coming from upstairs near Abby’s room. Once Andrew was in he went straight to the sitting room. Lizzie came in shortly, offered him some tea and gave him a pillow so he could lie down. Between 10:30 and 11:00 the killer returned with the hatchet and struck Andrew Borden 11 times in the face. At 11:10am Bridget heard Lizzie scream and cry “Maggie!! Come quick! Fathers dead! Someone’s came in and killed him!!”
Police were called to the scene and initially only one officer was on duty. As it was the town’s annual picnic. But once Abby’s body was also found upstairs the officer hurried for backup, bringing a large crowd with him. Police searched the house but could find no other significant evidence. Though the did find the handle of a hatchet, just not the head.. They were a bit put off by Lizzie’s calm manner. Bridget was almost hysterical yet Lizzie seemed very reserved and and uncaring. Her clothes were pristine, almost oddly clean. But most suspiciously was her conflicting story. She couldn’t get her times right, she insisted she hadn’t been upstairs and then later she said she had. She told officers she had removed Andrews boots but he died with them on. She couldn’t explain where she was when the murders happened and then said she was doing some ironing. Nothing added up.
The town seemed at once convinced that Lizzie Borden was the killer. A few days after the murder neighbor Alice Russel witnessed Lizzie burning a blue dress with blood on it. However, Lizzie had been menstruating at the time of murders and claimed this was the reason. The suspect had a reason for everything but it never quite fit. Regardless, after an 11 day trial, and only 90 minutes of deliberation, a jury found Lizzie Borden not guilty. In truth, the jurors later admitted they immediately found her not guilty but waited an hour out of “respect for the process”. The real reason behind Lizzie’s acquittal lies in the expert testimony of Dr. Bowen:
“I do not believe a hardened man of the world, much less a gentle and refined woman, in her sober senses, devoid of sudden passion, could strike such a blow with such a weapon as was used on Mr. Borden and linger to survey the bloody deed.”
The truth is, authorities who had witnessed the gruesomeness of the crime could not bring themselves to believe a woman could do such a dastardly deed. But the rest of the town believed it. Bridget left 92 Second Street the day after the murder and moved to Montanna. But for some strange reason, Lizzie and Emma decided to continue living in Fall River. Though they did sell the house at 92 Second Street and move to a more affluent area on The Hill, the place they had always wanted to live. They called the place Maplecroft which has been used in Lizzie Borden fan fiction ever since. Sadly, the sisters would eventually part ways as Lizzie became a bit of a party girl. She drank and hosted parties, for those who dared to attend. She also carried on affairs with several men, including a few prominent married men. And in 1897 she was arrested in Providence, Rhode Island for shoplifting.
But the final straw came when Lizzie began an affair with actress Nance O’Neil. And this is where the basis for Lizzie’s sexuality comes into play. Whether she was bisexual, gay or simply fluid, Lizzie was definitely attracted to women. And her notoriety and wealth landed her a beautiful one. But it cost her relationship with her sister Emma. The Boston Herald reported in June of 1905:
“After repeated disagreements, Lizzie A. Borden and her sister, Emma Borden, have parted company. Several days ago Miss Emma packed up her belongings, called a moving wagon and shook the dust of the French street home, where they have lived together ever since the acquittal in the famous murder trial, from her feet. She is reported to have moved to Fairhaven. Ever since her departure the tongue of gossip has been wagging tremendously, even for Fall River, which is saying a great deal. All sorts of reasons for the quarrel between the sisters have been afloat, but the best founded ones involve the name of Miss Nance O’Neil, the actress.
We know very little about the relationship. Only that Nance had the reputation of being a lesbian and that she was a struggling actress. Lizzie was immediately smitten with the actress and the two fell in love pretty quickly. Though some have suggested Nance was using Lizzie for her money. Either way, for a brief period Lizzie Borden enjoyed complete sexual freedom and a hot, whirlwind romance. Whether she deserved it or not is up to the listener to decide. On June 1, 1927 Lizzie Borden died at age 68 of pneumonia after gallbladder removal. Nine days later Emma died as well, she was 76 and the two sisters hadn’t spoken in over 20 years. Lizzie’s fortune amounted to $250,000 (Over 4 million today) which she left to friends, the Fall River Animal Rescue, and the Humane Society. As well as $500 in a perpetual trust for maintenance of her father’s grave.
Your references for this episode is the new book The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson. Or you can skip that and watch the movie Lizzie released in 2018 with Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Steward, available on Amazon or Shudder.
- The Fall River Tragedy: A History of the Borden Murders by Edwin H. Porter
- Wiki – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lizzie_Borden
- Gay – https://www.quora.com/Was-Lizzie-Borden-gay
- Time (Bridget) – https://time.com/5395515/lizzie-borden-history-chloe-sevigny-kristen-stewart/
- The Hatchet – http://lizzieandrewborden.com/HatchetOnline/the-strange-story-of-bridget-sullivan-by-sally-campbell.html
- Abuse – https://soapboxie.com/government/lizzie-borden-a-closer-look
- Nancy O’Neil – https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/theater/reviews/21nance.html
- History Goddess – https://historygoddess.com/biography.php?name=Lizzie%20Borden&page=8