Did Lizzie Borden Have a Love Life?byDeniseNoe©
"Lizzie Borden Had a Secret, Mr. Borden Discovered It Then A Quarrel" was the October 10, 1892 headline of the Fall River Globe. The supposed "secret" was one that would have been most damning in that era: the unmarried 32-year-old was pregnant.
By October 12th, the story had miscarried and the Boston Globe published an apology. An unscrupulous detective named Edwin G. McHenry had tricked a reporter with the unfortunate name Henry G. Trickey into believing that Lizzie was "in trouble." McHenry had fabricated the entire tale.
There was indeed no pregnancy. However, the false accusation leads to an obvious question: Did Lizzie have a love life? While women of that time were expected to be chaste, that is, sexually inexperienced until marriage, they were not necessarily expected to be without romances. It would have been perfectly acceptable for a single woman to have gentlemen callers, albeit closely chaperoned. Despite the stigma attached to non-married sexual relationships in the Victorian era, there were women who had actual sexual liaisons. However, neither Lizzie nor Emma Borden is known with certainty to have ever had a suitor.
There are few women so repulsive that they cannot attract men. An article in the Boston Daily Globe on August 6, 1892 stated, "While not handsome, Miss Lizzie is decidedly attractive in appearance. She would impress one as belonging to a well-bred and well-reared family." That same article continues that Emma's "appearance is not so attractive. She is similar in stature, of slight figure and her features are less regular." Discussing the personalities of the two middle-aged and unwed sisters, the piece elaborates: "Miss Emma looks precisely what she is by reputation, quiet and even timid in manner, wholly inoffensive, with manifest good nature, but no end of diffidence. She materially differs from Lizzie who is self-possessed, deliberate and confident in all her actions."
It seems unlikely that an "attractive" and "confident" woman would never have garnered romantic attention. However, articles published in the aftermath of the murders suggest that neither Lizzie, nor her less attractive sister, were receptive to such attentions. The New York Herald of August 7,1892 wrote of Lizzie, "she has avoided the company of young men."
Nevertheless, there have been suggestions that Lizzie did have a love life. In the mid-1980s, Ruby Frances Cameron publicly announced that she believed a man named David Anthony committed the Borden murders, and further claimed that he did so because he wanted to marry Lizzie.
David Anthony was not a phantom. According to Leonard Rebello in Lizzie Borden Past & Present, Anthony lived in Fall River. Rebello writes that Anthony was born in 1870 but puts a question mark after the year to indicate uncertainty about it. If that was when he was born, it would have made him 22 in 1892 to Lizzie?s 32. That gap would hardly preclude a romantic attraction or relationship. Anthony resided in Fall River throughout his life until he was in a motorcycle accident close to the Durfee Farm in South Somerset on November 25, 1924. He suffered a broken skull and died December 4, 1924.
Cameron's claim that David Anthony murdered Abby and Andrew Borden because Anthony wanted to marry Lizzie is certainly intriguing. It indicates that Andrew (and perhaps Abby as well) was opposed to the union and that Anthony thought he would be able to marry the woman of his dreams if he eliminated the father and stepmother. However, this leaves open the question of why, once the obstacles to wedded bliss were out of the way, and once Lizzie was acquitted, the two of them did not in fact marry. Perhaps David Anthony at that point realized that he would draw suspicion to himself if he wed Lizzie. It would also be possible that Andrew and Abby were not the real obstacles to the marriage. Maybe Anthony thought Lizzie would not marry him because of parental opposition when the real reason was that she simply did not want to marry him.
"The Conspiracy with Hyman Lubinsky," an article I wrote that was published in the February 2006 issue of The Hatchet, discussed the theory of one David Dickerson that Lubinsky and Lizzie had a romantic or sexual relationship of some sort. Dickerson also postulated that Lubinsky and Lizzie conspired in the crime. Lubinsky would have been either 16 or 18 (accounts differ as to his age) to Lizzie?s 32. While the age difference would work against the probability of an amorous relationship, it might also mean that if one existed it would be extra powerful for both parties. The feelings of the young man might be especially strong because of an Oedipal complex (even though the time period was a bit before Freud would popularize the term). The feelings of the older woman would be exaggerated because amorous sensations might mingle with a thwarted maternalism.
Several years after Lizzie?s acquittal, on December 11, 1896, the Boston Globe ran an article entitled "To Marry A School Teacher." It was sub-headlined, "Reported Engagement of Miss Lizzie Borden and Orin [sic] T. Gardner of Swansea, a Fall River Suburb." The article went on to describe Mr. Gardner as thirty years old and the member of a family that had long lived in New England but was not economically advantaged.
The Boston Globe piece claimed that Lizzie had spent several weeks visiting the Gardner family and that a romance with Orrin, who had been a childhood friend of hers, apparently blossomed during that lengthy visit. The article goes on to say that Miss Lizzie was having an expensive trousseau prepared, that the couple would marry around Christmas, and that they planned a honeymoon in Europe.
The second paragraph of the article relates, "It is said that preparations for the wedding were made so quietly that only the most intimate acquaintances of Miss Borden were cognizant of the facts, while the public was until yesterday in ignorance of the approaching event."
No wedding ever took place and it appears that the "facts" of the romance and planned nuptials may well have been as fictional as Lizzie?s pre-murders pregnancy.
However, it is likely Lizzie and Orrin knew each other since they were cousins. According to The Knowlton Papers, "[Orrin] was summoned as a witness but was not called upon to testify."
Edwin Radin revealed an epistle written by Lizzie and dated December 12, 1896, the day after the above story was published in the Boston Globe. Radin speaks for this writer of Whittlings and many other authors when he notes, "Lizzie Borden had, from a researcher?s viewpoint, an irritating habit of starting all her letters with the salutation, 'My dear Friend,' thus making it impossible to identify the person to whom it was written."
That letter follows:
My Dear Friend, I am more sorry than I can tell you that you have had any trouble over the false and silly story that has been about the last week or so. How or when it started I have not the least idea. But never for a moment did I think you or your girls started it. Of course I am feeling very badly about it but I must just bear as I have in the past. I do hope you will not be annoyed again. Take care of yourself, so you can get well.
Yours sincerely, L.A. Borden
Although it is impossible to know with certainty, it seems reasonable to believe that the "false and silly" story referred to is that of her supposed engagement. Who is the Dear Friend? The Hatchet published my Whittling taking Frank Spiering to task for playing fast and loose with the facts and focused on his book Lizzie. However, in this one instance, it appears he was probably right in believing this letter was penned to a dressmaker.
Other evidence would surface indicating that Lizzie may have enjoyed a romance with a man who worked for both her and her sister. In Lizzie Borden Past & Present, Leonard Rebello reports that one reason Emma eventually left Maplecroft was that she "objected to the coachman, Joseph Tetrault, a former barber, known to have been a fine looking man and very popular among the ladies. He was dismissed as coachman and returned to his former trade. Lizzie later rehired him."
These facts have several intriguing implications. They suggest that Lizzie may have been enamored of Tetrault. Why would he have been dismissed? Perhaps Lizzie bowed to Emma?s wishes in ridding the premises of someone Emma saw as a bad influence. Then again, it is tempting to speculate that an enamored Lizzie may have become jealous of Tetrault for some reason and fired him but hired him back because she missed him.
Ann Jones in Women Who Kill claims that "in suggestive Freudian scripts" Lizzie is said to have "a taboo yen for Andrew himself." Jones continues, "In one such tale she nerves herself for murder by imagining herself in the 'hungry arms' of her forbidden suitor, 'his full lips seeking and finding her quivering mouth.'" Here Jones appears to be imagining things herself. Her quotes about "hungry arms" and Lizzie's fantasizing about "his full lips seeking and finding her quivering mouth" are from Lizzie Borden: A Study in Conjecture by Marie Belloc Lowndes. This book is not a "study" but a novel in which characters and incidents are freely invented. However, it never suggests that Lizzie was filled with an Oedipal yearning for Andrew. In the novel, Lizzie has a suitor and it is of him, not her father, that she daydreams while steeling herself for the crime.
It has also been suggested that Lizzie had intimate relations with other women. Evan Hunter's novel, Lizzie, spins a scenario in which Abby Borden catches Lizzie in a very warm embrace with Bridget Sullivan. Abby recoils with horror from the sight, calling Lizzie an "unnatural thing." Then Lizzie bludgeons Abby to death with a candlestick holder. Andrew is killed to cover up the first homicide.
Hunter states that Lizzie?s possible foray into lesbianism should be taken as part of the fiction although it is not lacking in historical basis. As David Gates wrote in a Newsweek article, "There were rumors during Lizzie?s own lifetime that she was a lesbian: she was once named as correspondent by a man suing his wife for divorce."
The latter information probably comes from Agnes deMille?s book, Lizzie Borden, A Dance of Death. However, that source claims that the judge in the case "dismissed the charge as frivolous." Rebello states in a note that, "No information could be found to support the claim made in Miss deMille?s book," and nothing could substantiate the claim that a husband had named Lizzie Borden as correspondent, or even that a jurist found the claim lacking in merit.
Writing in The Girl in the House of Hate (1953) -- the title reflects an era in which a 32-year-old female could still be considered a "girl" -- Charles and Louise Samuels assert that Lizzie was indeed a lesbian, at least in inclinations, if not in actions. Here again, the basis for the claim is weak. They write that "she had few friends, and all of these were either women or preachers." Unfortunately, they fail to note that a respectable woman of her class could not easily make "friends" with men unless they were men of the cloth and therefore unlikely to damage her reputation with a close association. They go on to state, "People who knew Lizzie said she was so domineering that she couldn?t endure most men and liked women better because she could 'boss them around.'" The Samuels appear to conclude that any woman of dominant disposition must be lesbian even if repressed. A further sentence reads, "The truth is that Lizzie A. Borden was definitely a Lesbian type, though it is to be doubted that she ever actually had love relations with another woman." The Samuels's "truth" should have been more honestly labeled the speculation that it was.
Frank Spiering in Lizzie claimed that a letter Lizzie wrote dated "August twenty second 1897" was penned "to a young woman." However, the salutation "My dear Friend" could be to someone of either sex. Still, this letter is significant as it contains a statement that could easily be interpreted as indicating amorous interest (although whether heterosexual or homosexual cannot be determined). The letter says, "I dreamed of you the other night but I do not dare to put my dreams on paper." The phrase "do not dare" about a dream that Lizzie cannot write about strongly implies a romantic or sexual dream. A sentence that follows states, "Every time we pass your corner the pony wants to turn down." The last statement implies intense affection.
The most persistent speculation about a romantic and/or sexual relationship between Lizzie and another woman revolves around her friendship with actress Nance O'Neil.
Nance O'Neil had been born Gertrude Lamsom in Oakland, California on October 8, 1874. Photographs of Nance O'Neil show a tall, slender but shapely woman with delicate features on a lovely face.
According to an article by Minna Littmann, quoted in an article by Robert A. Flynn for the Lizzie Borden Quarterly, the accomplished tragedienne was in Boston playing Magda Leah the Forsaken in 1904, when she captured the admiration of the woman who then called herself Lizbeth Borden. The latter sought and was granted an audience with O'Neil in her Tremont Theatre dressing room. The pair took a liking to each other and began visiting in each other's homes.
In that interview with Littmann, O'Neil claimed she was initially unaware of her new friend's history. Littmann quotes O?Neil as adding, "I want to make that clear, it did not alter our relations in the least. Of course, the tragedy itself was never mentioned between us; never was there even so much as an allusion to it."
That friendship may have proven disastrous to the relationship between Lizzie and her sister Emma. Lizzie threw a party at Maplecroft for Nance and her theatre company.
Emma left Maplecroft shortly after this party. Several years later, in 1913, she gave an interview to a Boston Post reporter about her leave-taking.
"The happenings at the French Street house that caused me to leave, I must refuse to talk about," Emma Borden stated. "I did not go until conditions became absolutely unbearable. Then, before taking action, I consulted the Rev. Buck, who had for years been the family spiritual advisor. After carefully listening to my story he said it was imperative that I should make my home elsewhere. I do not expect ever to set foot in the place while she lives."
Emma?s statement is filled with tantalizing ambiguity. Why was it impossible for this refined New England lady to discuss the goings-on that led her to exit Maplecroft? Could Emma have seen these two friends in a very close embrace, have caught sight of a kiss that lingered and went deep? If she did, that would easily explain why Rev. Buck so strongly urged her to vacate the premises.
One thing that would explain Emma's quick exit would be the serving of alcohol at Lizzie's party for Nance. At the same time, it would shore up the possibility of telltale smooching between Lizzie and Nance as it would lower inhibitions.
Frank Spiering in Lizzie writes of "alcoholic improprieties" when discussing a later party but he is a notably unreliable source. He may have based his surmise on a statement by Victoria Lincoln in A Private Disgrace about the later Tyngsboro party that "it was not a notably quiet and sober time." This could indicate drinking but does not have to. Borden expert Harry Widdows believes the views Lizzie held when she was a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union were "sincere" and that it is unlikely Lizzie ever imbibed strong drink.
So did Lizzie Borden ever have a romance or at least a crush? There is no solid evidence that she did. Like a not inconsiderable portion of the human population, she may have been asexual. Or she may have been a product of the sexual repression of the era and had sexual feelings she rigorously pushed back from her consciousness. She may have been among those who simply dislike romance because they find it silly or think its emotional upheavals destructive and so preferred the more placid but sometimes more productive pleasures offered by platonic friendships.
However, the possibility of a romantic relationship cannot be ruled out. There are valid reasons to believe she may have had such an attachment and that she may have been so attached to either men or women or both.
Whether or not Lizzie experienced the amorous yearnings most people do is a question that may never be definitively answered. It adds yet another layer of mystery to the many mysteries clustering around the fascinating and elusive figure of Lizzie Borden.
The author thanks Harry Widdows for his help and input through email.
deMille, Agnes, Lizzie Borden: A Dance of Death, New York, NY, Little, Brown and Company, 1968.
Flynn, Robert A. "Fact or Fantasy: In Defense of Nance O'Neil." Lizzie Borden Quarterly III.4 (October 1996): 19.
Gates, David,?A New Whack at the Borden Case,? Newsweek, June 4, 1984.
Jones, Ann, Women Who Kill, Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 1996.
Lincoln, Victoria, A Private Disgrace, New York City, NY, International Polygonics, 1986.
"Did Lizzie Borden Have a Love Life?" was previously published in The Hatchet and appeared on Men's News Daily.