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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: Democrat or Republican? Listen to WSAR Radio Friday, August 29, 2008 at 8:00 am

I was invited back to WSAR Radio – this time to talk about one of Fall River’s most accomplished – if not notorious – women – Grace Hartley Howe – also a cousin to Lizzie Borden. Tune in if you’re in the area.

What was, if any, Lizzie Borden’s political affiliations? August 26th is “Women’s Equality Day” and as every indication tells us Lizzie was one to assert her rights, (by virtue of her sense of entitlement or legally) she most likely exercised her right to vote as ratified by the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Did she vote for the first time for Democrat James Cox or Republican Warren G. Harding? In 1924, did she vote for Calvin Coolidge who had been Harding’s Vice President, or did she vote for progressive Democrat John Davis?

She didn’t have much of an opportunity to exercise her hard-fought right to vote before she died in 1927. But because of her cousin, Grace Hartley Howe (1874-1955), Lizzie Borden may very well have been a staunch Democrat.

Grace Hartley Howe as Fall River Postmistress

Grace was one of the two major legatees in Lizzie’s Will. Her mother, Mary Borden, was the daughter of Cook Borden, Andrew J. Borden’s uncle. Grace married Louis McHenry Howe (1871-1936) – first secretly and then a second ceremony in Fall River on May 6, 1899.

When Louis Howe met Franklin Roosevelt in 1911 he began a life-long career of service and devotion to FDR, becoming not only his best friend but private secretary when FDR was Secretary of the Navy and later chief political strategist and “keeper of the secrets”. Louis McHenry Howe is attributed as having encouraged FDR to fight his battle of infantile paralysis and persuaded him to continue on with his political career. He was FDR’s speech writer, confidant, manager, mentor and trouble shooter.

After Roosevelt was elected his first term as President of the United States, Louis lived in the White House and Grace lived in Horseneck Beach, with Louis coming home on weekends. Grace busied herself raising her two children, Mary and Hartley, and often went weeks at a time without seeing Louis. But in the 1920’s and 1930’s and beyond she would be a tireless fundraiser, campaigner and active member of the Democratic Party. I would not doubt that Grace received political contributions from Lizzie for Democratic and social causes to which she was involved.

During the 1920’s it’s very likely Lizzie and Grace visited each other in their respective homes in Fall River, Horseneck Beach in Westport, New York and Washington, D.C. During this time the Howe’s and Roosevelts also visited at each other’s homes. Lizzie very well may have visited Grace in Westport when Mary and Hartley were growing up. And would Lizzie and Grace have discussed politics?

Grace Hartley Howe is seated to Louis’ right, who is directly across from Eleanor Roosevelt

When Louis died in 1936, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who called Grace in Fall River and gave her the news. Prior to his funeral services at Oak Grove Cemetery in Fall River, which both Eleanor and FDR attended, Mr. Howe was honored in Washington.

Prior to Louis’ death, Grace’s work within the Democratic Party coupled with the cache of her husband’s service, she was on an upward trajectory. Below is the article of how she became appointed to the Secretaryship of the Democratic State Committee in 1933. She was a Delegate at the 1934 Democratic Convention.

And after Louis’s death, FDR appointed her Postmistress of Fall River. Grace continued with her many political, civic and social activities. Grace resided on Locust Street (shown below) in Fall River, a few short blocks from Lizzie’s home, “Maplecroft” on French Street. Grace lived there when Lizzie died June 1, 1927.

In 1938, two years after Louis died, Eleanor Roosevelt came to visit Grace as told in this FRHN article that recaps Grace’s life and service to the Democratic party.

Grace died in 1955 after being in a coma for many weeks. At that time she lived in a lovely little cottage on Martha Street (still there) in Fall River with a nice view of the Taunton River.

Throughout her husband’s political career it was rarely reported in the papers of the link between Lizzie Borden and the Howes. That link would be too close for comfort. Notoriety from an 1892 scandal certainly was not needed to surface and hinder the ultimate goal of making FDR President. But it was Louis McHenry Howe himself who was the source of the “Emma did it” theory. I found verification of this in Fulton Oursler’s book, Behold This Dreamer! during his visit to the White House. But although Louis said it tongue in cheek, the Bordenia urban legend was born that Grace’s husband believed Lizzie’s sister did the awful deed of August 4, 1892. The story Louis told Oursler was typical of his sense of humor. (I’ll address that in a future blog entry).

With her relative and close friend, Grace Hartley Howe, so entrenched in democratic politics through her husband Louis McHenry Howe, could it be that Lizzie Borden was a Democrat? I say yes. In an interview after Lizzie’s death, Grace remarked of the many charitable acts and donations to which she gave. I just bet some of Lizzie’s money went to those very causes in which her cousin Grace solicited.

And here’s the part that has never failed to amuse me: Had Lizzie Borden lived a mere five more years she very well might have been invited to the White House. Think of it: Through her cousin’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, Lizzie Borden, accused and acquitted of the most sensational crime of the century, might very well have chatted it up with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States.

Discreetly, of course. ;

 

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