RSS

Tag Archives: Edmund Pearson

Genesis of the “Emma Did It” Theory

(Recycled from October, 2009)

Those who choose to believe Lizzie BordenEmmaclearr-1 was innocent cite the various theories to be found in dozens of books on the case. From the villainous “Intruder” to the illegitimate son, Billy Borden, there is none more preposterous than the “Emma did it” theory.

That Lizzie’s older sister, knowltonvisiting in Fairhaven – a good 15 miles distant in horse and carriage days – committed the dastardly deed was never considered in the slightest by the Fall River police or District Attorney Hosea Knowlton. It was only many decades after the crimes and Lizzie’s acquittal that this theory took hold.  But how did it come about?  How did it start?  Was it Alfred Hitchcock’s teleplay, The Older Sister? Just when and from whom did this theory first appear in print or any other media?

I made a delightful discovery a couple years ago from my expanded readings of the Lizzie Borden-Franklin Roosevelt connection.  That connection has always intrigued me because had Lizzie lived six more years she might had taken tea with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, an invitation arranged by her cousin, Grace.  Imagine that.  Lizzie Borden in the White House.

I think it’s time to reveal the genesis of the “Emma did it” theory.  The source is none other than Lizzie’s own cousin’s husband, Chief political strategist and advisor, personal secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt – Louis McHenry Howe.

Louis McHenry Howe and President Franklin Roosevelt

Louis was, of course, married to Grace Hartley Howe. Grace was born November 9, 1874 in Fall River making her 14 Grace-cropyears younger than Lizzie. Grace’s maternal grandfather, Cook Borden, and Lizzie’s paternal grandfather, Abraham Borden, were brothers. Grace married Louis on May 6, 1899 at age 24. Louis had been a newspaper man and he surely had read about the murders, the legal proceedings and Lizzie’s ultimate acquittal.  After his marriage to Grace, there must have been discussions with his wife about her notorious relative.

On December 11, 1931, writer Fulton Oursler went to meet Franklin Roosevelt, thenNY Fulton Oursler Governor of New York,  at his home at 49 East 56th Street.  The meeting was a result of Oursler’s writing two recent articles for the influential Liberty Magazine, (of which he was about to become editor) one of which was entitled “Another Roosevelt in the White House?” It was a time when Governor Roosevelt was about to engage in the year long campaign for the presidency under the tireless guidance of his closest friend and chief political strategist, Louis Howe.

Upon Oursler’s  arrival he was greeted by Louis who was living in the Roosevelt home while his wife lived in Fall River.  The two men waited for FDR’s return from the dentist.  The conversation that took place – remarkable in and of itself –  can be read in the book shown below – an autobiography competed by his son, Fulton Oursler, Jr. :

Behold This Dreamer! Fulton Oursler, Little, Brown & Company, 1964, 1st Ed.

Click on images for larger view.

untitled1

untitled2

Now, to any serious reader of the life of Louis Howe, one would know how he often played gags on people, toying with their head so to speak.  I can imagine Louis saying all this with a straight face but with an undetected twinkle in his eye that the very straight-laced and conservative Oursler would not recognize.

Here was a man (Louis) whose wife was named as a primary legatee in Lizzie’s Will just 4 years previous (but due to the six years of probating had not yet received her cash windfall).  Perhaps Louis had Lizzie on his mind because of the fact the first Probate accounting had just been held less than two months previous on October 31, 1931 in a Fall River court.   Or perhaps he was just full of glee knowing his man, Governor Roosevelt, was on the threshold of becoming “President Roosevelt”  in a year’s time, mainly due to his own efforts.

Whatever his reasons for saying what he said, Louis was a man who surely knew at least the basic facts of the case.   But he told this story and it stuck.  Not only did he tell it to Oursler but he repeated it to thatpearson prolific writer and librarian, Edmund Pearson at a subsequent luncheon arranged by Oursler.   Now Pearson, being an expert on the case, didn’t believe a word of it.  How he must have cringed over that bit about Emma being crazy and suffered from epileptic fits, and had been out of town in “Marion” but snuck back.  Either Louis had scant knowledge of the particulars or Oursler got that wrong, but oh, how Louis much have enjoyed that luncheon!  And Louis most certainly knew beforehand that Pearson had written that long essay on the Borden case in Studies in Murder, published in 1924.   Oh yeah, Louis knew what he was doing, all right.  I would love to have been at that luncheon – invisible and silent but taking in every word of the Messrs. Oursler, Pearson and Howe.

There’s a lot more misinformation in those quoted remarks of Louis attributed by Fulton Oursler – almost comical in its ridiculous assertions – as any scholar of the case will readily recognize. Could Louis, always the visionary and strategist,  have deliberately wanted to eradicate any thought that the cousin of the wife of the chief advisor to the future President of the United States was a murderer, and by so doing,  misdirect guilt to the sister?

Oh, Louis, you dishevled, asthmatic, chain-smoking, strategizing scamp, you.  Look what you’ve done.  Your contrived tale told nearly 80 years ago continues to surface and provide an outlandish alternative theory.

So there you have it, the source and genesis of the “Emma did it” theory first appearing in print.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Did Edmund Pearson Hasten the Death of Lizzie Borden?

 

 

Edmund Lester Pearson (1880-1937)

 

Edmund Lester Pearson

was a noted librarian and prolific writer on true crime.  In 1924 he began a correspondence with Frank W. Knowlton, son of Hosea Knowlton, the district attorney who prosecuted Lizzie Borden in her 1893 trial.   Known as the “Knowlton-Pearson Correspondence” it is a remarkable assemblage – rich in content it clearly shows the eagerness with which Frank accommodated Edmund’s request.  They were contemporaries, and Frank provided the author with “open sesame” to Lizzie’s contemporaries and others still living who knew her and/or were involved in the case.   Pearson had access to all of Hosea Knowlton’s papers on the case, and also the preliminary hearing and Trial transcript. (Knowlton was unsuccessful, however, in tracking down Bridget Sullivan’s inquest testimony – a document still missing after all these decades).

In any event, Pearson’s investigative research resulted in Studies in Murder, first published in 1924, three years before Lizzie’s death.  The book was a series of essays on notable cases, the first and expanded essay was on the Borden case.  This would be the first of many writings in subsequent books by Pearson on Fall River’s most notorious citizen.  But this first book was published while Lizzie still lived.

It is fairly certain that Lizzie Borden had read the very first book on the case published in 1893:  Fall River Tragedy by Edward H. Porter.  I think it further fairly certain she had read Studies in Murder. In the twilight of her years she was at least relieved of the awful annual editorials in the Fall River Globe commemorating the infamous crimes with their consistent innuendos that she had gotten away with the double murders.

Her life had been lived quietly and with the refinement and deportment that were her hallmarks of character.  Her closest associates were her servants and a few loyal friends and relatives.  But now came this publication.  It must have been the talk of the town when it came out.  Knowledge of Pearson’s meetings and inquiries with Lizzie’s contemporaries had proceeded the book itself, and those that assisted Pearson must have discussed it with their own associates.  Perhaps it had been talked about in hushed circles long before its publication and perhaps Lizzie had heard as well through reports of who was talking to whom.  The long essay left no doubt in the minds of the reader that the deed must have been done by Lizzie and only Lizzie.

Think for a moment how this must have affected her.  Guilty or innocent, it must have been a devastating event to have this book circulating in Fall River, the region and all over the country, stirring up painful memories of a horrible time while also serving to provide  interest to a whole new generation.   Lizzie had been described as nervous and depressed, unhappy with her decision to have lived all the rest of her life in Fall River – and now, this.

Could the book have hastened her demise?  Stress, nervous anxiety, depression.  Lizzie had always wanted to be accepted by her peers.  She lived her life kind to others and animals, generously giving and always thoughtful of the needs of others.  And now, this.   It must have played upon her mind and heart, a heart already long burdened and weakened by worry.    Not long after the book’s success and wide readership, Lizzie would be hospitalized for gall bladder surgery and never fully recover.

Hosea Morrill Knowlton

Knowlton, Hosea M., white, b. May 1847, 53 yr., b. Maine
Sylvia B. Wife, Jan. 1850, b. Mass.
John W. son, March 1874, 26 b. Mass.
Abby A. dau, mar. 1876, 24, mass.
Frank W., son Aug 1878, 22, Mass.
Edward A., son April 1883, 17, b. mas.
Helen S., dau. Aug. 1884, 14, b. mass.
Sylvia P, dau. may 1890, 10, Mass.
Benjamin H., son, Jun 1892, 8 yr, b. mass.

SYLVIA BASSETT, b. New Bedford, MA, 20 Jan 1852; d. Watertown, MA, 31 Mar 1937; m. New Bedford, 22 May 1873, HOSEA MORRILL KNOWLTON, b. Durham, ME, 20 May 1847; d. Marion, MA, 18 Dec 1902; son of Isaac Case and Mary Smith (Wellington) Knowlton.

Their children, all born in New Bedford were:

John Wellington Knowlton born February 28, 1874.
Abby Almy Knowlton born March 30, 1876
Frank Warren Knowlton born August 1, 1878
Edward Allen Knowlton born April16, 1883

The younger siblings were:

Helen Sophia Knowlton; August 1, 1885
August I. Knowlton;
Sylvia Prescott Knowlton born Ma7 29, 1890
Benjamin Almy Knowlton born June 13, 1892

Frank Warren Knowlton

 


Attorney General Herbert Parker is not only included in this correspondence but was also one of Pearson’s primary sources for his last essay in his book, Studies in Murder, titled “The Hunting Knife” concerning Mabel Page.

Herbert Parker, a very handsome man

Frank Warren Knowlton, Jr. donated his grandfather’s papers to the Fall River Historical Society in 1989.  (He died in October 11, 2002).

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,