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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.

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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.

 

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Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast/Museum & “The Jennings Hatch”

The “Lizzie Borden House” or “Charles Trafton House” was built in 1845.  Fire prevention methods in almost all homes at that time was practically non-existant. There were virtually no escape routes save for the one, common-use stairway to many of the 2, 3, and 4 story homes built in that era.

When 92 Second Street (formerly 230) was made into a Bed & Breakfast in 1996 and opened up to the public for the first time, it was brought up to fire code for B&B buildings.

Kenneth Champlin in front of the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast/Museum

Besides the usual sprinklers in the ceiling, the B&B has a number of fire extinquishers on hand, pull down alarms directly to the Fire Department and an escape hatch on the third, or attic, floor.  Guests on the second floor have access to both front and rear staircases.  Guests on the third floor, if unable to use the only staircase – the rear staircase – have this escape hatch.

In the Andrew Jennings bedroom, the escape hatch is directly over the front bathroom of the second floor.  The ladder placed inside can be easily thrust downwards against the lightweight covering providing a quick and easy escape to the second floor and only a few feet from the front staircase or easy access to the rear staircase.

Guests explore all the nooks and crannies of their rooms and often The House itself and take note of this emergency evacuation.

Speaking of houses, below is the so called “Brownell” house on Green Street in Fairhaven, MA.  This is the house where Lizzie’s sister, Emma Borden, was staying on August 4, 1892.  t has been literally “skinned” of its previous excessive debris.

For a comparison of what it used to look like,  CLICK HERE. Gone is the abandoned vehicle, dense over-growth, and the knee-high debris inside, though it still remains unsecured and empty.  This house was recently sold and a “Building Permit” is posted in one of the front windows.  Like an elderly woman with a festering cancer undergoing kemotherapy, she has lost all her hair.  Her skin is potmarked, bruised, discolored but she lives on….battered, weakened, awaiting the inevitable.  Question is:  Will it be demolished and cleared for new construction or will the new owners bite the  bullet for expensive infrastructure upgrades?

By contrast, the Fall River Historical Society’s curator is giving his house a cosmetic overhaul as shown below.

On Rock Street, only a few blocks from both “Maplecroft” and the FRHS.

All of the above photos were taken less than a month ago.

 

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Update on the “Brownell” House – Where Emma Borden Stayed

Everybody knows Lizzie Borden’s sister, Emma, was visiting the Brownell’s in Fairhaven on August 4, 1892. The image below is of that house on Green Street, once numbered #19. It’s been “condemned” as a health and safety hazard by the town and while a singular posted No Trespassing sign hangs in the back, it has not deterred looky loo’s and other tourists from trespassing.

Since its been over 3 months since I was on and inside the property (see December 21, 2007 recycled blog entry with slide show), I wanted to follow up.

I sent an email to Bill Roth, Planning Director, who referred me to Pat Fowle, Fairhaven Health Agent, and Wayne Fostin, Building Commissioner. Pat, while very gracious was unable to give any current information and suggested I speak with Wayne who was directly involved.

Wayne Fostin is a most accommodating fellow and quite sympathetic to this eyesore on Green Street. He related how their hands are really tied to do anything whilst the “owner of the property is still alive” and the property remains in Probate Court. He used the words “historic property” and I asked if that was because Emma Borden stayed there. He said it was. However, I rather doubt that…as I would think whatever governing or oversight body having authority to declare it an historic structure would also have authority to not have allowed it to deterriorate into the condition it is now. Wayne said about all the Town of Fairhaven can do is leave it as is until such time it could be torn down or refurbished. We both agreed this could be a long, long time, pending the Probating process.

I remarked to Wayne, who is also the town’s Conservation Agent, about the neighbors being subjected to rats, vermin, bacteria in the air, fire hazards, etc. and he concurred it is a problem but there was nothing more the town of Fairhaven could do except put up a “No Trespassing” sign. He said if they caught trespassers in the act they would be prosecuted. It might be feasible to prosecute local trespassers but misdemeanor trespassing acts by out of state tourists are hardly offenses extraditable, and if they were, hardly cost effective law enforcement for the town of Fairhaven. Of greater concern than trespassers, and Wayne agreed, are other illegal activities that could occur in such a decrepid structure that beckons the drug induced or worse yet – a fire that would threaten and/or destroy neighboring structures and cause bodily injury, even death. Apparently, nothing will or can be done to or with the “Brownell” house until the last and final account in Probate Court regarding this property.

Let’s hope no tragedy happens that would give cause for the Town of Fairhaven to re-write its ordinance and related empowerment regarding condemned structures.

Here’s some charming pictures of Fairhaven. Click here.

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Having nothing to do with the above, I wanted to pass along part of an email sent to me the other day – a friend’s definition of “Cliques”. Rather point on, I thought. 🙂

“It is the nature of “cliques”….unique dynamics within cliques…the individual morphs into the whole, losing touch with the one-ness of self, shedding individual thought for group consensus, and huddles to protect the oneness of the clique, thus regurgitating the cycle.”

Something to ponder. 🙂

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2008 in Fairhaven

 

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