ALICE MANELY RUSSELL
Alice Manely Russell (1852-1941) moved with her family to Fall River in 1873. Upon her father's death in 1878, she moved to 96 Second Street, next door to the Borden family, and was quite friendly with them for the twelve years leading up to the murders. In 1891, she moved around the corner to Borden Street, where she resided at the time of the tragedy.
Being closer to Emma's age, she was naturally friendlier with the elder sister and called at the house quite often. It was the circumstances of Alice's intimacy with the Borden family; her insight into their private lives; her role as confidant to the Borden girls; and her presence inside the house in the days following the murders, that all make her such an important figure. It may have been Dr. Bowen that Lizzie tried to summon right after finding her father's body; but it was Alice to whom she sent Bridget running immediately after discovering that the doctor wasn't available, even before notifying the police. Lizzie had also spoken to Alice, pouring out her heart in an explosive moment of vulnerability and paranoia, about someone trying to harm her family. If indeed Lizzie was guilty, then she had used Alice as an unwitting instrument in building her alibi. Alice's testimony is crucial, filled with more mystery and more provocative possibilities than anyone else's, barring Lizzie's herself.
On the evening of Wednesday, August 3rd, 1892, Lizzie Borden left her house in Fall River to visit with Alice, who resided around the corner on Borden Street. We know that Lizzie was home in the afternoon: Dr. Bowen had seen her run up the stairs when he paid a professional visit to the house, although John V. Morse, who had had a late dinner with Andrew and Abby, reported that he did not see her. Eli Bence's testimony, that Lizzie had been to his pharmacy on South Main Street to purchase prussic acid, suggests that Lizzie's visit to Alice's house was her first trip outside the house that day.
Alice received Lizzie at her home around 7 o'clock that evening, and quickly learned that Lizzie was in an agitated state. Lizzie announced that she had decided to resume her fishing trip to Marion. This is significant since a week earlier, Lizzie had actually been to Marion and had returned because of some church duty to which she needed to attend on August 7th. Lizzie's proposed return to Marion meant that she had decided to skip the church function, and instead return to the little port town in order to be with her friends and do some fishing. Lizzie said that she had written to her hosts at Marion; it would be interesting indeed to see a copy of that letter, if it still exists.
Lizzie claimed to Alice that she had been quite depressed listening to the jovial laughter of her Marion friends, and had experienced a feeling of dread that she could not shake off. Alice questioned Lizzie about her fears that someone was trying to hurt her family, discussing with her the beliefs that their baker's bread had been poisoned, or that someone had tampered with their milk. Lizzie described how her father and step-mother were vomiting into the night, and how she had knocked on their bedroom door to ask if she could be of any assistance. Alice sounds as if she had been optimistic, trying to make Lizzie feel more at ease, to feel less paranoid. But Lizzie was persistent: Father had a lot of problems, and she feared he might have an enemy aiming to harm him. There was the robbery the year before, and Lizzie had experienced someone sneaking about the house grounds. Also, the barn had been broken into twice, but Alice suggested that this could simply have been boys chasing after the pigeons.
Apparently, Lizzie herself was concerned about her father's behavior. He was so discourteous with people; and his treatment of Dr. Bowen earlier that afternoon, practically kicking him out of the house after the doctor had dropped by to see how they were feeling, mortified Lizzie, making her fear that her father was summoning his own bad energy. Lizzie slept, she claimed, with one-eye open, fearful that someone would actually burn the house down around them.
All this information we know only from Alice's testimony. The content of the two women's two-hour discussion is either a) exceedingly accurate; b) a jumble of accurate and muddied memory; or c) a flat-out lie that Lizzie somehow thought would help her create an alibi after the pre-meditated murders. If the conversation really happened more or less the way in which Alice describes it, the case against Lizzie's starts to get very complicated. If she were guilty, why would she have raised the alarm at Alice's house? Was it an attempt to cast suspicion away from herself? If she were being sincere, then her evening visit to Alice is a strong argument in her defense. Lizzie would have to be mentally ill to express such significant paranoia, and then to do the deed herself.
Perhaps because she had so recently confided so deeply in Alice Russell, Lizzie thought, after the discovery of her father's body, to send for her at once. At roughly five or ten minutes after 11 a.m. on the morning of August 4th, 1892, she sent Bridget, her maid, around the corner to fetch Miss Russell. According to Alice, she first went upstairs and changed her dress, then came around the corner, finding Mrs. Churchill in the house already. It is from Alice's testimony that we obtain pieces of the whole picture relating to what transpired in the few moments between the discovery of Andrew's body, and the full arrival of the City Marshal and several policemen.
By all accounts, Lizzie was quite shaken. Alice faithfully stuck by her friend, fanning her and rubbing her hands while she sweltered in the dining room and kitchen, and keeping her company upstairs while she was interrogated by various law officers. Alice even offered to stay over at the house during the next few nights, occupying Andrew and Abby's bedroom.
On the evening of August 4th, at approximately 8:30 p.m., Lizzie and Alice retired to bed. A short time afterwards, Officer Joseph Hyde, a police officer guarding the outside of the house, witnessed Lizzie and Alice descend into the basement. Lizzie was holding what Alice later described as the toilet pail, and Alice held a hand lamp. The officer saw Lizzie empty what he suspected was water in the wash room, and then the two of them went back upstairs. Alice's testimony at the trial, however, suggests that she also used the water closet while she was down there. About fifteen minutes later, Officer Hyde witnessed Lizzie descend the stairs to the basement once again, this time by herself; she stooped over something in the washroom, then went back upstairs. Alice was not aware of this activity, which renders Lizzie's second visit to the downstairs wash room a very mysterious one, since the wash room was where the collected bloody clothes of the Bordens were being stored. A likely suggestion is that Lizzie was taking care of her menstrual rags, something that she would hardly have done with Alice present.
Alice Russell also received a bit of a fright one morning when she made a discovery in Andrew's bedroom, where she was staying. Andrew had had a habit of keeping a club under his bed; this was perhaps either a symptom of his paranoia in the wake of the daytime robbery the previous year, or simply a common protective measure practiced by home owners for extra protection, since home alarm systems had not yet been invented. Either way, Alice had a strong reaction to the club, which she found sticking out from below the foot of the bed. She must have concluded that it was a weapon of violence connected to the murders, and, in a panic, called in Officer Hyde, begging him to present it to the Marshal.
Perhaps Alice's largest role in the case occurred during her last two days in the house. Sunday morning, Alice entered the kitchen just as Lizzie was tearing up a dress, explaining to Emma that it was an old dress that was covered in paint and which she was going to burn. Emma later testified that it was her idea to get rid of the dress so as to make more room in their clothes press, but Alice had a more naïve gut reaction. Alice warned Lizzie not to let anyone see her do this, but Lizzie subsequently burned the dress in the kitchen stove, without making any attempt to conceal the act from any of the officers who were present on the scene.
During this time period, Lizzie and Emma had hired a Pinkerton detective by the name of O.M. Hanscom from Boston to investigate the crime. He was given access to the household and was pursuing his investigation there, interrogating Alice Russell on the morning of Monday, August 8th. He asked Alice directly about Lizzie's having destroyed a dress, and Alice, being very nervous and confused, lied about the incident. When questioned at the trial as to what she told the Pinkerton, Alice was tragically silent. By this point, Alice had testified at several hearings, including the Inquest, the preliminary hearing, and the grand jury proceedings, and she had not yet mentioned the burning dress incident. It was only at the trial, ten months after the tragedy, that she gave the damning evidence that Lizzie Borden, four days after her father and step-mother were murdered, had burned a dress in the kitchen stove with the explanation then being that it was covered with paint. Alice never stated explicitly that she had lied to the Pinkerton, but immediately upon ending her interview with Hanscom, she ran to Lizzie and said, "I'm afraid, Lizzie, the worst thing you could have done was to burn that dress. I have been asked about your dresses." Lizzie's response, which Alice conveyed to the court during the trial, was the following outburst: "Oh, what made you let me do it! Why didn't you tell me?" This response is wide open for interpretation, but Alice's disclosure of these events on the witness stand at Lizzie's murder trial was one of the more sensational moments of the proceedings.
On the evening of August 3rd, Lizzie had trusted Alice with her most private secrets and fears, but, during the trial, Lizzie must have felt deeply betrayed by her old friend. Alice Russell's testimonies show us a woman confused, nervous and overwhelmed by events that were larger than she could handle. She did, however, provide a poignant portrait of the Borden family, one that can only come from someone who had earned the privilege of being an insider:
"Mr. Borden was a plain-living man with rigid ideas, and very set. They were young girls. He had earned his money, and he did not care for the things that young women in their position naturally would. [...] They had quite refined ideas, and they would like to have been cultured girls, and would like to have had different advantages, and it would [be] natural for girls to express themselves that way. I think it would have been very unnatural if they had not." [Inquest, Vol. 2, Page 59.]
Alice Russell spent many years after the trial as a sewing supervisor for the Fall River School Department. There is no evidence that she and Lizzie ever talked to each other again. Miss Russell died in a home for the aged on Highland Avenue, Fall River, in 1941.