In 1952, after a radio broadcast in which Snow told the story of the Borden murders, he was contacted by a man named Thomas Owens who claimed he had a copy of Lizzie Borden’s signed confession. In 1897 Owens had worked in Rosenberg’s photographic shop on Washington Street in Boston when a man named Morris House came in to have a document photographically copied. After swearing Owens to secrecy House showed him the document and told him the story behind it. Owens made the print and gave it, along with the negative, to House, but he also kept a copy for himself.
This is the story that House told Owens. In 1896 Lizzie Borden was shopping at the Tilden-Thurber art gallery in Providence, Rhode Island. She asked to see a vase that was in the back of the building. When the clerk returned with the vase, Lizzie decided she did not want it and hastily left the store. Soon after, the clerk noticed that two small porcelain paintings were missing from a display stand. She believed that Lizzie had hidden them in the large sealskin coat she was wearing. The clerk told the story to the owner, Harry Tilden who decided not to pursue the matter.
In February 1897 another woman came into the store with one of the porcelain pictures, saying it was damaged and wanted to have it restored. The clerk recognized it right away as one of the stolen pictures. The woman claimed it was a gift from Lizzie Borden. This time Tilden took the information to the Providence police who sent detective Patrick H. Parker to arrest Miss Borden.
Lizzie of course denied stealing the picture but Thurber threatened to “give this unfortunate episode publicity” if the situation was not resolved. He took the matter to Stephen Metcalf of the Providence Journal ant he two men decided to use the threat of jail time and negative publicity to persuade Lizzie to confess to the 1892 murders.
So Henry Thurber, Stephen Metcalf, detective Parker, and Morris House, Tilden-Thurber’s company treasurer, began a marathon negotiation with Lizzie Borden in Tilden-Thurber’s conference room. They showed her the warrant for her arrest and a mockup of a story for the Providence Journal and told her both would be forgotten if she would give them a written confession of the murders. They also swore they would never make the confession public. When Lizzie flatly refused, Metcalf published the story in the Providence Journal.
The next day the four men met with Lizzie again and from 6:00 PM until eight minutes to midnight they pleaded and cajoled her to sign a confession in exchanged for her freedom. Detective Parker said he would enforce the warrant at midnight and when the time came he stood up and went to get the warrant from the pocket of his overcoat. Then Lizzie said, “Just a minute.” She sat down at the typewriter and wrote the following:
Unfair means force my signature here admitting the act of August 4, 1892, as mine alone.
Lizbeth A Borden
True to their word, the men let Lizzie go. They agreed among themselves that the confession would not be made public until all of them were dead. The original document would be kept in an envelope in Tilden-Thurber’s safe after Morris had a copy made in Boston.
That was the story that Thomas Owens told Edward Snow in 1952. But Owens did not understand why the confession had not been made public when Stephen Metcalf, the last of the men to die, passed away in 1950 at age 94. Snow talked to the relatives of the men. He learned that a fire at the home of Morris House destroyed the copy and negative of the confession and that all the documents in Tilden-Thurber’s safe were destroyed in the hurricane of 1938. All that remained was Owens’s copy.
The story of Lizzie Borden’s shoplifting actually was published in the Providence Journal in 1897. The matter was settled privately and the warrant was never served. In his 1961 book Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story, Edward D. Radin proves that the confession was a forgery; the signature was traced from Lizzie’s will. Late in life she changed her name to Lizbeth, the name on her tombstone and her will. In 1897 she was still signing documents with her birth name, Lizzie.
I don’t know what became of the confession or what Owens hoped to gain by it. As I learn more I will add to this post.
Snow, Edward Rowe. Piracy, Mutiny, and Murder. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1959.
Radin, Edward D. Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story. New York: Simon and Schuster 1961.
Masterton, William L.. Lizzie Didn't Do It!. Boston: Branden, 2000.