Lizzie Borden and the Taunton Jail
By William F. Hanna
One day in October 1892, Daisy, the jailhouse cat, was having a snooze under a radiator in the women’s section of the Bristol County jail in Taunton, Massachusetts. Nearby sat Lizzie Borden, 32-years old, a Fall River resident and an inmate at the jail awaiting trial for the brutal murders of her father and stepmother. Then in her third month of confinement, Miss Borden was writing to a friend, and in her letter, she noted how much she enjoyed Daisy’s company. Perhaps, considering her surroundings, she saw the cat as one of a few reminders of the quiet, fortunate — and now very much imperiled — life she had surrendered at the sheriff’s door.
Lizzie Borden had spent the first of what would be 283 nights in the Taunton jail on August 12, 1892, eight days after the murders. Earlier that afternoon, following an inquest into the deaths of her parents, she had been arrested in Fall River and remanded to the custody of the Taunton lockup. Those moments marked the beginning of an intrusive, macabre fascination with her that would last well beyond the rest of her life.
Accompanied by Fall River Marshall Rufus B. Hilliard, Reverend Edwin A. Buck, and State Detective George F. Seaver, Lizzie arrived at the Taunton depot on the 3:39 P.M. train from Fall River. Awaiting her, reported the Fall River Daily Herald, was “a gathering of hundreds . . . a tumultuous and simply disgraceful crowd of morbidly curious people. . . .”
“She was hurried through the streets of Taunton,” said a correspondent for the Fall River Globe, “while people, carriages, and wagons hunted after her.”
The short ride from the depot to the jail was made more difficult by the masses of curiosity seekers blocking the streets and running beside the carriage hoping for a look at the prisoner, but most were disappointed. Somewhat more forgiving than the Fall River writers was a reporter for the Taunton Daily Gazette, who said that Lizzie’s entry into the city was more like “a public ceremonial” than a circus, but in any event her destination was nearby.
The Bristol County jail was located at the corner of Hodges and Chandler Avenues, just a stone’s throw away from the Taunton State Hospital and not far from the city center. Built in 1873, when it opened a Taunton newspaper flippantly stated that it had been dedicated to the “Goddess of Vengeance.” In fact, however, the building was well constructed and carefully maintained. The jail accommodated 65 prisoners, no bars were visible from the street and the grounds were attractively landscaped with gardens and shade trees. In the summer of 1892, the Boston Globe said that it would be easy to mistake the place for a well-kept private school.
In a privileged life that had suddenly turned for the worse, Lizzie found friends waiting at the Taunton jail. Sheriff Andrew R. Wright and his wife Mary were transplanted Fall River people. In fact, Wright had served as marshal of that city from 1869 until his election as Bristol County sheriff in 1877. Additionally, the Wrights, both 60-years old, had been friendly with Lizzie’s father and stepmother. The sheriff made no secret of his wife’s “warm personal friend[ship]” with the murdered Mrs. Borden. Mary Wright was the matron of the women’s section of the jail and shortly after Lizzie’s arrival was asked if she thought the young woman was guilty. “No, I can’t,” replied Mrs. Wright. “I said that to her when she first came. . . .”
The Borden case generated intense interest, and two persistent undercurrents during Lizzie’s confinement concerned the issues of social class and gender. In working class strongholds like Fall River, Taunton and New Bedford, many people were quick to believe that a prisoner of Lizzie’s wealth and status would receive preferential treatment. At the same time, they held a spiteful anticipation of what might happen when an affluent young woman came upon the loathsome reality of life behind bars.
Lizzie and her party were met at the jail by Sheriff and Mrs. Wright and also by Granville Carter, the turnkey in the men’s section. After a few words of greeting she made her way inside. “Her walk was that of a queen entering her royal abode,” said the Gazette, “not deigning to cast a glance at any of her subjects who might be within her sight.”
As Lizzie took the mandatory bath before reporting to her cell, Sheriff Wright met with the press to outline the rules and regulations under which she would ostensibly live. A breakfast of bread and coffee would be served at 7 A.M. Lunch followed at 11:30 A.M. Corned beef would be served twice a week, followed by the inevitable corned beef hash twice a week. Soup would be on the menu twice a week, and codfish and potatoes would be served on the remaining day. Supper, at 5:30 P.M., would consist of tea and bread. The sheriff noted that all prisoners had the right to supplement or replace jail cuisine with food brought in from outside as long as they were willing to pay for it. Lizzie would occasionally take advantage of this by ordering food from the kitchen at the Taunton Inn, the best hotel in the city and located not far from the jail.
Sheriff Wright also stated that Lizzie would be allowed to leave her cell only when she and the other inmates went to the basement of the jail to empty the slop buckets kept in their cells. This would have provided her with only about 10 minutes of exercise per day. While the sheriff thought of himself as a by-the-book administrator, whenever possible over the following months he would bend these rules in Lizzie’s favor.
Lizzie’s arrival at the jail increased the number of women prisoners to only six, and at times during her stay there would be as few as two. She was the first woman ever confined in Taunton awaiting trial for a capital offense; her jail mates were incarcerated for misdemeanors such as drunkenness, assault and battery, etc.
Before dismissing the newspapermen, Sheriff Wright wanted to make something clear to both reporters and the public. Since Lizzie Borden hadn’t been convicted of any crime, she was not there to be punished. He therefore intended to energetically guard her privacy. The press would have no access to her and he would refuse any requests to pass along questions to her, her family or her lawyers. No one would be allowed to visit her unless she gave prior approval. Additionally, he said, he would share nothing about how or with whom she spent her time. He kept that promise so well that months later a local newsman would complain that the Taunton jail was “almost a deaf and dumb” institution.
Lizzie’s cell in the women’s section was located on the south side of the jail. It measured 9 ½ feet long, 7 ½ feet wide and 9 ½ feet high. It had one grated window and an iron-barred door. Even so, the Fall River Evening News, copying a Boston newspaper, commented favorably on her surroundings. “The extreme cleanliness everywhere asserts itself,” said the paper. “The walls are spotless in their snowy coats of whitewash and the corridors are clean swept.” Inside the cell were “a large and comfortable bed upon its iron bedstand, a tin wash basin and a chair.”
The furnishings placed in Lizzie’s cell quickly drew the notice of a public on the lookout for evidence of preferable treatment. In anticipation of her arrival, Mrs. Wright had replaced the jail-issued pillow on Lizzie’s bed with a softer one of her own; she also moved a rocking chair and a stool into the cell. Finally, she added some “bright bits of color” to the enclosure. This caused a Boston Globe writer to note that Lizzie’s bed, “by reason of the inmate’s position in society, is covered with sheets and a pillowcase, which are not found in the adjoining cells.” Three days after her arrival, the Fall River Daily Globe reported that Sheriff Wright agreed that he had “accorded her certain privileges not inconsistent with the discipline of the system.” Among them was the right to wear her own clothes instead of jail attire.
Except on rare occasions, the only news from inside the jail was either from those who had visited Lizzie or from letters she wrote to friends. Her sister Emma visited regularly and when she did, Mrs. Wright allowed Lizzie to leave her cell so the two could walk along the corridor of the women’s section. In addition to encouraging notes, she occasionally received flowers, candy and tokens of affection from her church or social friends. Her demeanor was a constant source of interest to the public, and all reports described her as calm, self-possessed, serene, steadfast, etc.
On August 22, 1892, Lizzie, accompanied by Marshal Hilliard, Detective Seaver and Rev. Buck, left the jail, took the short trip over to Taunton’s central depot and boarded a train for Fall River. A preliminary hearing on the case was set to begin that afternoon and was expected to last several days. During that time, Lizzie was housed in the matron’s quarters at the Fall River police station. She was away from Taunton for 11 days and did not return until September 2. It would be more than eight months before she ventured outside again.
Back at the Taunton jail life returned to Lizzie’s “new normal.” She continued to receive food and gifts from friends in such quantities that Sheriff Wright finally put a stop to it, claiming that these things were against the rules of the jail. Less stringent restrictions were placed upon her visitors, however, and they kept her well supplied with books, food and encouragement.
In the third week of September 1892, Lizzie was interviewed at the jail by Kate McGuirk, a correspondent for the New York Recorder. They were old friends, having worked together years before at the Fall River Fruit and Flower Mission. Parts of the interview were copied by other newspapers and a public hungry for news of Lizzie’s jail life had plenty of entertainment.
McGuirk said that she thought Lizzie’s face was “thinner” and “her eyes were red from long nights of crying.” During the conversation Lizzie expressed her thanks to her friends for their support and also to the authorities for their kindness. She noted that she was afraid the lack of exercise and fresh air was affecting her health. “The hardest part for me . . . is the night, when there is no light,” she said. “They will not allow me to have even a candle to read by, and to sit in the dark all evening is very hard.” But she was quick to add, “I do not want any favors that are against the rules. Mr. Wright and his wife are very kind to me and try to make it easier to bear, but of course they must do their duty.”
When asked how she passed her days, Lizzie replied, “I read and sew and write. Letters are my greatest comfort, and I am allowed to correspond with my friends.” When McGuirk raised the issue of her public stoicism and apparent lack of emotion, Lizzie said, “They say I don’t cry. They should see me when I am alone or sometimes with my friends.”
When McGuirk’s interview was published, local editors were incensed that an out of town reporter was given access to the prisoner. Most followed the lead of the Taunton Daily Gazette in criticizing Sheriff Wright, complaining that he had either turned his back on his own rules or that perhaps he was “caught napping.”
While Wright had little to say about the objections of the newspapermen, he became indignant a short time later when he read charges leveled against the jail by Mary A. Livermore, a nationally known advocate of women’s suffrage and other liberal causes. A former resident of Fall River, Livermore had known Lizzie years before and had recently become one of her most steadfast defenders. Among several complaints that Livermore voiced about Lizzie’s “terrible” treatment was one that claimed she “sits shiveringly in the chilliness of her temporary tomb.” While Sheriff Wright refused to offer a rebuttal except to note that most jailhouse rules and living conditions were set in compliance with state standards, the Daily Gazette was happy to speak for him. “If Mrs. Livermore would take the trouble to come to Taunton and look over the Taunton jail,” said the paper, “she would be very sorry that she ever wrote such a mass of untruths. . . . “ After pointing out that Lizzie was not being punished as a criminal, the editorial writer noted that she ate and slept well and “from outward appearances” was not suffering either in body or mind. The Fall River Daily Herald jumped into the fracas on September 29, when it asked: “Would the sentimentalists who are shedding tears over the detention of Lizzie Borden in the Taunton jail give a moment’s thought to her if she had not been the daughter of a wealthy man and an active worker in the Central church?”