Helen Leighton and Her Sister, Mary

11 Apr

In her Will, Lizzie Borden left much of her estate to her cousin, Grace Hartley Howe and her closest friend, Helen Leighton. But there are 21 other specifically named individuals to whom she left other real estate, personal property, jewelery, and/or money.  It’s always a rewarding challenge to find out more about who the lesser known recipients were.

Xerox copy of Lizzie Borden’s actual Will (Right click for larger image)

Helen Leighton was born 16 Jun 1866 in Columbia (near Millbridge), ME.


Helen’s parents were John Calvin Leighton and Susanna T. Jacobs who were married on March 10, 1865 in Milbridge, ME. (about 10 miles from Columbia). Her father went by his middle name, “Calvin”.   (Susanna may also have been known as Lucy Therese Jacobs but she was named Susanna on their marriage license.)


John Calvin Leighton was born at Columbia, ME, about 10 miles from Milbridge.  At age 94, his father Harrison Thatcher was interviewed by the Boston Sunday Globe 8 Dec 1895 concerning his recollections of day-to-day life in the past.


When Helen was  5 years old, her mother, Susanna, died at age 32 in Portland, ME. Three years later, Helen’s father married Hannah D. Robbins at Portland, ME on 8 July 8, 1874.  So, Helen also had a stepmother by the time she was 9 years old.  Then, two years after this second marriage when Helen was a month shy of her 11th birthday, her father and stepmother had a little girl, Mary Woodbury Leighton, born May 14, 1876.  From all accounts it appears Helen and her younger sister were close and remained close for most of their lives.


In May of 1893, at the time Lizzie Borden was languishing in the Taunton jail awaiting her role in the Trial of the Century, Helen, about to turn 27 years old, was just graduating from the Fall River Nursing Training School. And on Sept 9, 1904, Helen’s stepsister, Mary W. Leighton married Henry L. Orters.

Thus, she became Mary Orters. For a few years their household included Helen.

As close as Lizzie Borden and Helen Leighton were, Lizzie undoubtedly met Helen’s younger sister and her husband Henry.  She must have been fond of both of them, or at least Mary (perhaps being told by Helen:  “Be good to her, she’s rich!”) endeared herself to Lizzie, because this Mary – Helen Leighton’s sister, is the subject of bequest #12 in Lizzie’s Will:

12. To Mrs. Mary L. Orters of Sharon, Massachusetts, the sum of five thousand dollars; if she shall not be living at my decease I give the same to her husband, Henry L. Orters.

Now, besides this stepsister thing, Helen can trace her ancestors to Thomas Leighton born about 1604 and died at Dover, NH 22 Jan 1672.  Thomas was among the planters of Dover (then known as Northam) with significant land holdings in the area.  A monument was erected to him along the west side of Back River Road in Dover. So Helen’s ancestor, Samuel Leighton, was the pioneer founder of Columbia, ME.  In 1763, and was active during the Revolutionary War defending the coast against the British.

Gee, fellow historians, is this ringing any bells about Lizzie Borden’s ancestors?   Can one imagine Lizzie and Helen conversing of what they had in common beyond the love of animals?  For example, much like Lizzie, I’m sure Helen was very much aware of her own roots.  Perhaps SHE had her own sense of entitlement.

Helen certainly came out ahead financially from being a nursing companion to one Borden (Eudora Borden Dean), being a close friend to another (Lizzie), and companion to a long time friend (Gertrude Baker).

It’s nice to know Helen – having prior experience – was savvy enough to see to it her stepsister got a “piece of Lizzie” (estate) as well.  🙂




  • Leighton Genealogy, CD, 2001 pg. 501


  • Genealogical Record 9 [1898]:86-9, 221-3, Autobiography of Levi Leighton [Portland, 1890], 9-11; and in


  • Levi’s Centennial Historical Sketch of the Town of Columbia, 1796-1896 (Machias, 1896].



  • Julia Cornman and Perley M., A Leighton Genealogy, Descendants of Thomas Leighton of Dover, NH, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2 Vols., Boston, 1989.
  • Leonard Rebello, Lizzie Borden Past & Present, Alzack press. 1999. pp330-332.
  • Conversations/emails with Mary Leighton Proebstle.







Posted by on April 11, 2011 in Legal & Forensics, Maplecroft


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4 responses to “Helen Leighton and Her Sister, Mary

  1. John Stewart III

    July 19, 2009 at 9:04 AM

    …just getting into the artist Scott Leighton. Recently bought a very nice painting by him. Is there a list of his paintings anywhere. I am more intereted in his landscapes.

  2. Dan Bradley

    December 7, 2010 at 6:22 AM

    It’s nice to know Helen – having prior experience – was savvy enough to see to it her stepsister got a “piece of Lizzie” (estate) as well.

    Unless Helen was blackmailed to keep her friendship to Lizzie a secret? (an a lightbulb goes on over someone’s head)

    A distant relative

    • Anonymous

      February 17, 2014 at 8:36 PM

      I find it a wonderful gift that these women found friendship and freedom together in a time when women had little. Helen had already suffered from the deeds of the bigamist Hiram Maxim, Lizzy
      suffered the loss of her father and horror of jail and trial.

      A distant relative

      • phayemuss

        February 17, 2014 at 9:58 PM

        Hello and thank you for posting. Unfortunately this is NOT the same Helen Leighton who figured in the life of Lizzie Borden. Hiram Maxim was born in 1840 and died in 1916. Helen Leighton was born in 1867. According to the article linked below he married “15 year old Helen Leighton” in 1878. Helen would have been 11 or 12 years old. Which Helen are you related to?


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