Lizzie Borden and the Taunton Jail

Old Colony History Museum
10 min readSep 1, 2020

Part II

By William F. Hanna

(If you missed Part I, find it here.)

As the New England autumn deepened, news from the Taunton jail diminished and with no court appearances imminent, all that was heard of Lizzie Borden came from the occasional newspaper article. On November 12 the Fall River Globe reported that “Miss Borden . . . is outwardly the same cool and composed woman who entered [the] Taunton jail so many weeks ago. During the day, when she desires, she takes exercise in the corridors of the woman’s [section], and also spends much of her time in the hospital room above, where Mrs. Wright has given her two windows full of flowers to look after, and in a measure to divert her mind. She is very fond of them, and in their care for a time appears to forget that she is a prisoner. Her health continues good.”

Newspapers reported that Lizzie’s Christmas was “cheerless,” with no visitors and no remembrances, and Christmas dinner was “just an ordinary affair.” While it’s quite likely that the jail was closed to visitors on the holiday (as it was on Sundays), it’s unknown whether the Taunton Inn supplied the dinner.

Taunton Inn, where Lizzie occasionally ordered food

January 1893 marked the sixth month of Lizzie’s confinement. She received several New Year’s gifts despite Sheriff Wright’s alleged embargo and when frigid weather set in she was reported to be quite comfortable. On January 10, when the weather outside brought sub-zero temperatures, the Fall River Globe reported that “[Lizzie’s] abode is as warm as toast and she enjoyed herself quite as well in the little whitewashed cell as during any day of her incarceration.” Although she never went to Sunday services held in the jail’s chapel, the Globe said, “She receives and writes a great many letters, has all the reading she wants, is blessed with a good appetite and enough [food] to satisfy it, and revels in interested callers to break the monotony. Her mind appears to be still well balanced.”

Toward the end of January, a young woman just released from the jail delivered her impressions of Lizzie, saying that she appeared to be healthy and happy. She was constantly singing and was far more cheerful than any of the other prisoners. She loved to read and was allowed to keep the gas lamp in her cell burning until 9 P.M. each evening. The former inmate reported that Mrs. Wright wasn’t feeling well and that Lizzie was devoted to attending to her. Three months earlier, a prisoner just released from the men’s section had a similar tale to tell. In his version, Lizzie was accorded freedom to walk the corridors and enjoyed — however implausibly — laughing, chatting and gossiping with the other prisoners. He also asserted that she was constantly singing.

These reports of Lizzie’s contentment and high spirits were sometimes at odds with what she told friends. In researching Parallel Lives, their excellent social history of Fall River, Michael Martins and Dennis A. Binette uncovered a number of private letters written by Lizzie from jail, and they tell a different story. In an October 1892 letter, the same one in which she mentioned Daisy the cat, Lizzie replied to Mrs. William Lindsey, of Dorchester, Massachusetts, who had offered to send her a tea kettle. After explaining that her cell was so small that she would have to place it under her bed, Lizzie told her friend, “I am awfully blue. . . . Why do you tell me to keep up courage a little while longer? My counsel gives me no hopes of anything soon, or ever an acquittal.”

In another letter to Mrs. Lindsey dated January 18, 1893, Lizzie told her friend that “ . . . my head troubles me so much I write very little. I think soon they can take me up the road, to the Insane Asylum.”* She hardly seemed optimistic when she said, ”Do you know that I cannot for the life of me see how you and the rest of my friends can be so full of hope over the case. To me I see nothing but the densest shadows.”

In a subsequent letter, dated April 30, Lizzie wrote to a friend identified only as “Annie” about the coming spring. “Have just sugared some strawberries for lunch,” she reported. The plants that she had tended all winter were “just rewarding me now.” “I am wild to go out of doors today” she said, “the air smells so sweet but oh, dear, I cannot go.” She noted her frustration that Daisy the cat had jumped up on her lunch tray and “down went a plate and two saucers. I was provoked you may be sure.”

Lizzie’s formal arraignment was scheduled for May 8, 1893 in New Bedford, a fact that was carefully concealed from the public and press. First thing that morning, in an attempt to forestall any suggestion that the day was anything special, Sheriff Wright left the jail by himself and took an early train to New Bedford. In that city, he allowed himself to be seen by passersby and whatever newsmen might have been prowling around the courthouse. Having aroused no suspicion that the day was in any way extraordinary, he quickly returned to Taunton. When the sheriff arrived back at the jail, he, Mrs. Wright and Lizzie were spirited into a waiting carriage and quickly driven to the Taunton depot, where they boarded an outbound train that took them to New Bedford. So secret was the arrangement that even Emma Borden hadn’t been informed. Anticipating her usual Monday visit, she showed up at the jail with a box of candy for Lizzie, only to find her sister and the Wrights about to leave. She joined them for the ride back to the depot, where she boarded yet another train and returned to Fall River.

Sheriff Andrew Wright, Boston Post, August 13, 1892

In a proceeding that lasted no more than a few minutes, Lizzie was arraigned at the New Bedford courthouse at 5 P.M. that afternoon. Supporting her in the prisoner’s dock was Mrs. Wright, whose “motherly face,” according to the press, betrayed her disgust with a few spectators who were gawking at Lizzie. The defendant, showing no emotion whatsoever, issued a robust plea of not guilty. The court was adjourned and the Borden party returned to Taunton, having been gone for less than four hours.

Some observers noted that at her arraignment Lizzie appeared to suffer from “jail pallor,” and within hours of returning from New Bedford, she was sick with bronchitis, or perhaps tonsillitis. She was moved out of the women’s section of the jail and into the sheriff’s private quarters, where she was cared for by Mrs. Wright. She was also treated there by Dr. Nomus Paige, a well-known Taunton physician. He stated that it was unlikely that Lizzie would return to her jail cell before her trial because great care had to be taken to prevent a relapse.

Mrs. Mary Wright, Boston Post, August 13, 1892

Three days after her arraignment, and while still sick, Lizzie again wrote to Mrs. Lindsey. “My spirits are at ebb tide,” she said, “I see no ray of light amid the gloom.” Apparently in reply to an earlier letter from Mrs. Lindsey, she wrote: “My friend — do not make any plans for me at Christmas. I do not expect to be free — and if I am, I could not join in any merry making. I don’t know that I ever could again, certainly not at present. You know my life can never be the same again if I ever come home.”

A week after Lizzie wrote that letter she sat for an interview with Mary Livermore, whose criticism of the Taunton jail had infuriated Sheriff Wright back in October. A battle-scarred champion of hyperbole and self-aggrandizement, Mrs. Livermore left little doubt as to where she stood. Labeling the whole prosecution a “farce,” she tried to give the world a sympathetic portrait of Lizzie. Stating that when she first arrived in Taunton, the prisoner was “given no privileges and kept in her little cell,” but thanks to Livermore “making such a time of that” Lizzie was now “comparatively comfortable.” She stated that even though Lizzie was still feeling the effects of her illness, she appeared to be in good spirits and was no doubt truthful in her profession of innocence. Livermore said that as she prepared to depart after a long and enjoyable conversation, Lizzie “begged me to stay longer.”

Lizzie’s trial was scheduled to begin in New Bedford on June 5, 1893. In the run-up to that, and after almost ten months in jail, some observers were anxious to suggest that Lizzie was undergoing a mental health crisis. Throughout her confinement there had been the keenest interest in her mental state, the implication being that a privileged woman could not withstand the shame and isolation of prolonged incarceration. This speculation peaked as the trial grew near. On May 23, for example, the Fall River Daily Herald had it on good authority that her “long confinement and approaching trial are rapidly unnerving Lizzie Borden.” She was, said the paper, “on the grade down.”

On June 1, four days before the start of the trial, Lizzie was visited at the jail by former Massachusetts governor George D. Robinson, a polished attorney who had been brought into the case by Lizzie’s Fall River counsel. Robinson, like most defense lawyers, projected the greatest confidence that Lizzie would be exonerated. “He sat down and looked at me,” said Lizzie, “as if he would read all my heart. . . .”

Two days later, on Saturday, June 3, Lizzie walked out of the Taunton jail for the last time as a prisoner. In the custody of Sheriff Wright, she boarded a morning train bound for New Bedford, and upon arrival was taken to the Ash Street jail, where she would be housed in a “hospital cell” for the duration of her 10-day trial. (A correspondent for the Fall River Daily Herald was pleased to report that Lizzie looked “spic and span” and showed no trace of insanity.)

Everybody knows that on June 20, 1893 a jury of twelve men — including three from Taunton and one from Raynham — found Lizzie Borden not guilty of the murders of her father and stepmother. The final verdict of the court of public opinion, however, is still under deliberation. It’s unlikely that a ruling will come any time soon.

Lizzie Borden outlived both Sheriff and Mrs. Wright by more than two decades. Andrew Wright served as Bristol County sheriff until 1895 and then he and Mary moved back to Fall River. He died in July 1899 and she followed six years later. The Taunton jail — never mistaken for a private school, the Boston Globe’s opinion notwithstanding — was closed in 1898, when the New Bedford House of Correction was built. It stood empty for many years before the Veterans of Foreign Wars purchased it in 1947. The building was demolished in 1970 as part of an urban renewal program and an elderly housing complex stands on that site today.

Demolition of the former Bristol County Jail, 1970

One more thing. Lizzie’s last day as a prisoner at the Taunton jail was June 3, 1893, but she returned there on another occasion. Not long after the trial, Mary Wright, during a trip to Fall River, paid a call on Lizzie. They had a pleasant visit and enjoyed a carriage ride together. Lizzie wanted to reciprocate, and also to thank the Wrights for their earlier kindness to her, so she notified them that she was coming to Taunton on July 27 to bring them a picnic.

Early that afternoon found Lizzie, Emma and their friend, Mrs. Mary Brigham, at the Fall River depot boarding the train to Taunton. Somehow, word of their errand reached the office of the Taunton Daily Gazette and that’s when trouble began. Somebody at the newspaper was assigned to write a quick story detailing Lizzie’s impending visit with the Wrights. In a misguided effort to be funny, the writer headlined the piece by saying that Lizzie was reporting “voluntarily” to the Taunton jail. A story was written underneath the headline and then passed along to the Associated Press for distribution throughout its network. Apparently there was some mix-up, because by the time the Associated Press released the story, it had Lizzie Borden being held at the jail after having confessed her guilt in her parents’ murders to Sheriff Wright. According to the story, she had gone to the jail hoping to find safety from an angry mob.

Lizzie arrived at Taunton’s central depot just as all hell was breaking loose in newspaper offices around the country. The mistake was quickly rectified and the story recalled, but the Taunton Daily Gazette’s editor spent the next couple of days trying to explain away the paper’s self-induced fiasco.

Certainly Lizzie heard about this at some point during her visit, but we don’t know how or when. Leaving the depot, she and her party first took a walk into downtown Taunton and asked for directions to Leonard’s confectionary shop, which was located in a building still standing at 4 Main Street. There, said a reporter, they “indulged in some of Leonard’s best,” and afterwards made their way over to the jail for their picnic with the Wrights. As she walked the streets of Taunton, said the newsman, Lizzie looked “radiant.”

*Editor’s Note: Over the years a story has made the rounds that Lizzie Borden was sent to the Taunton State Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. No evidence of this exists, and there are convincing arguments against it. Foremost among them is that out-patient services were not available at the State Hospital. Treatment or examination of any kind would have required that Lizzie be admitted to the hospital. Copies of the hospital’s admission registers for this period are in the collection of the Old Colony History Museum, and they show no record that Lizzie Borden was ever treated there.

Nothing can ever be simple, of course, and here is perhaps the source of the misunderstanding. Lizzie Andrew Borden, accused Fall River murderess, was never under the care of the Taunton State Hospital, but Eliza Ann Borden, a Fall River housekeeper, was. This poor soul was committed to the hospital by the Fall River district court on at least three occasions between 1887 and 1897. She was not a patient there at the time of the Borden murders or the subsequent trial, but she had returned in time to die at the hospital in November 1901.

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