(Recycled from October, 2009)
Those who choose to believe Lizzie Borden 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, visiting 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 years 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, then 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.
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 that 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.