How Lizzie Borden Saved the Animals

Lizzie BordenLizzie Borden, circa 1889. (Wikimedia Commons)

On August 4, 1892, “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.” Or so the famous rhyme claims. In reality, Lizzy’s step-mother Abby Borden received eighteen or nineteen “whacks” with a hatchet, not an axe, and Andrew Borden eleven. Nonetheless, Lizzie Borden became infamous. But, Lizzie, or Lizbeth, as she called herself in later life, actually had another legacy, too: she helped save stray animals by taking a large role in founding the Animal Rescue League of Fall River, Massachusetts, which benefits from her first—and final—bequest to this day.

From the time of her acquittal for the murder of her parents to the time of her death, Lizbeth lived as a recluse, and by all accounts, in emotional agony. For the police, the evidence pointed to an inside job: Lizzie admitted to being home when the crime happened, the murders occurred within ninety minutes of each other, she had attempted to purchase poison early that day, and had even burned the dress she had worn. The evidence was circumstantial, but according to prosecutors she had the motive—she supposedly hated her step-mother—the means, and the opportunity. Five days after the murders, on August 11, Lizzie was arrested and her trial began in June of the following year. It lasted fifteen days before an all-male jury acquitted her in thirty minutes.

The trial sensationalized Lizzie as the stakeholders of Gilded Age America made her a cause célèbre. The prosecutors and defense attorneys, representative of the wealthiest Americans, argued over whether wealthy, good-natured, upstanding people are capable of bad behavior. The poor watched bitterly as a rich woman seemed literally to get away with murder. For the nativist residents of Fall River, Lizzie’s actions were the result of immigration, as well as changing demographics and gender norms: Mr. Borden had bought a home in the wrong section of the rapidly changing town and thus, in Lizzie’s eyes, relinquished the family’s status. Feminists would use the trial as a rallying cry for representative juries.

Lizzie, meanwhile, remained silent.

In the years following her acquittal, Lizzie turned inward. She returned to Fall River and used her inheritance to purchase a home in the wealthiest section of the town, known as the Hill. She lived the rest of her life in exile as her family, neighbors, church parishioners, and what seemed like the entire city, shunned her. She remained shut up in her house, only emerging to feed the squirrels and birds in her backyard, or to take her private carriage to Providence, Boston, New York, or Washington to attend the theater. Helen Leighton, one of Lizbeth’s few close friends, said that, for the rest of her life, “Tragedy and sorrow overshadow her. Only on rare occasions did she lay aside the sorrows. These happy and gay moments usually seem to come when she was away from Fall River. Much of the time, she was desperately unhappy and she had days of most terrible depression.”

But Lizbeth was not entirely alone; she had three Boston terriers that shared her days. Her interest in animals became a passion. On one Sunday October afternoon in 1913, Helen visited Lizbeth to ask her to help fund care for the old and abused draft horses in the area, a cause that had taken root in England and America, and inspired wildly popular books like Black Beauty (1877). On that day, Borden became a significant benefactor of the Animal Rescue League of Fall River and helped fund a barn where the horses would receive care. Shortly thereafter, the barn at 474 Durfee Street opened its doors.

More than a silent partner in the establishment of Fall River’s Animal Rescue League, Lizbeth took a keen interest in the well being of the animals under their care, and even personally inspected the premises. According to the League, within its first twelve years, the organization took in more than 32,000 animals.

Lizbeth died of pneumonia in June of 1927. Few attended her funeral and she was laid to rest next to her parents. A few days later, the Court released the contents of her will. She left $30,000 to the League, declaring, “I have been fond of animals and their need is great and there are so few who care for them.” According to their website, Lizbeth’s final bequest allowed the League to expand its work. And because the board of directors invested the money, the organization continues to see its benefits. Today, the League, their shelter, and clinic serve more than 11,000 families a year.

While her final act of generosity will always be overshadowed by her infamous connection to her parents’ murder, Lizzie Borden’s legacy to the animals of Fall River was one of life, not death.

About the Author

Steven Cromack

Historian. Teacher. James Madison Fellow. Steven Cromack teaches high school social studies in the Boston suburbs, lives for the moment, and pursues Life itself.

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