Lizzie Andrew Borden
(July 19, 1860 – June 1, 1927) was an American woman who was tried
and acquitted in the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother
(Andrew Jackson Borden and Abby Durfee Gray Borden, Andrew's
second wife) in Fall River, Massachusetts. The case was a cause
célèbre throughout the United States.
Following her release from the prison in which
she had been held during the trial, Borden chose to remain a
resident of Fall River, Massachusetts for the rest of her life,
despite facing significant ostracism. The Commonwealth of
Massachusetts elected to charge no one else with the murder of
Andrew and Abby Borden; speculation about the crimes continues
into the 21st century.
Lizzie Borden's father Andrew Jackson Borden,
despite being the descendent of wealthy and influential residents
of the area, grew up in very modest surroundings and struggled
financially as a young man. As he grew older he prospered through
the manufacture and sales of furniture and caskets. He later
became a successful property developer and directed several
textile mills including the Globe Yarn Mill Company, Troy Cotton,
and Woolen Manufacturing Company.
By the time of the murders he owned
considerable commercial property and was both president of the
Union Savings Bank and a director of the Durfee Safe Deposit and
Trust Co. Despite his wealth, Andrew was known for his frugality.
The Borden home, for instance, lacked indoor plumbing on its
ground and first floor, and was located near Andrew's businesses;
the wealthiest residents of Fall River, Massachusetts generally
lived in a more fashionable neighborhood ("The Hill") that was
further away from the industrial areas of the city and much more
homogenous racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically.
Lizzie and her older sister Emma had a
relatively religious upbringing, attending Central Congregational
Church. As a young woman Lizzie was very involved in activities
related to her church, including teaching Sunday school to
children of recent immigrants to America. She also was involved in
Christian organizations such as the Christian Endeavor Society,
where she served as its secretary-treasurer; and contemporary
social movements such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
She was a member of the Ladies Fruit and Flower Mission.
During the inquest family live-in maid Bridget
Sullivan testified that Lizzie and her sister rarely ate meals
with their parents. Further during questioning by police and
during the inquest Lizzie indicated that she did not call her
stepmother "Mother" but rather "Mrs. Borden" and demurred on the
subject of whether or not they were cordial with each other. In
May 1892, there was an incident in which Andrew, believing that
pigeons Lizzie kept in the barn were attracting intruders, killed
the pigeons with a hatchet. A family argument in July 1892
prompted both sisters to take extended "vacations".
Tension had been growing in the family in the
months before the murders, especially over Andrew's gifts to
various branches of the family. After Abby's relatives received a
house, the sisters demanded and received a rental property—which
they later sold back to their father for cash—and just before the
murders a brother of Andrew's first wife had visited regarding
transfer of another property. The night before the murders John
Vinnicum Morse, the brother of Lizzie's and Emma's deceased
mother, visited the home to speak about business matters with
Andrew. Some writers have speculated that their
conversation—particularly as it related to property transfer—may
have aggravated an already tense situation.
For several days before the murders the entire
household had been violently ill. The family doctor blamed food
left on the stove for use in meals over several days, but Abby had
feared poisoning—Andrew Borden had not been a popular man.
On August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden had breakfast
with his wife and made his usual rounds of the bank and post
office, returning home about 10:45 am. The Bordens' maid, Bridget
Sullivan, testified that she was in her third-floor room, resting
from cleaning windows, when just before 11:10 am she heard Lizzie
call out, "Maggie, come quick! Father's dead. Somebody came in and
killed him." (Sullivan was sometimes called "Maggie", the name of
an earlier maid).
Andrew was slumped on a couch in the downstairs
sitting room, struck 10 or 11 times with a hatchet-like weapon.
One of his eyeballs had been split cleanly in two, suggesting he
had been asleep when attacked. Soon after, as neighbors and
doctors tended Lizzie, Sullivan discovered Abby Borden in the
upstairs guest bedroom, her skull crushed by 19 blows.
Police found a hatchet in the basement which,
though free of blood, was missing most of its handle. Lizzie was
arrested on August 11; a grand jury began hearing evidence on
November 7 and indicted on December 2.
Lizzie's trial took place in New Bedford the
following June. Prosecuting attorneys included future Supreme
Court Justice William H. Moody; defending were Andrew V. Jennings,
Melvin O. Adams, and former Massachusetts governor George D.
Prominent points in the trial (or press
coverage of it) included:
The hatchet head found in the basement was
not convincingly shown to be the murder weapon. Prosecutors
argued that the killer had removed the handle because it was
bloody, but while one officer testified that a hatchet handle
was found near the hatchet head, another officer contradicted
Though no bloody clothing was found, a few
days after the murder Lizzie burned a dress in the stove, saying
it had been ruined when she brushed against fresh paint.
There was a similar axe murder nearby shortly
before the trial, though its perpetrator was shown to have been
out of the country when the Bordens were killed.
Evidence was excluded that Lizzie had sought
to purchase prussic acid (for cleaning a sealskin cloak, she
said) from a local druggist on the day before the murders.
Because of the mysterious illness that had
struck the household before the murders, the family's milk and
Andrew and Abby's stomachs (removed during autopsies performed
in the Borden dining room), were tested for poison; no poison
The victims' heads were removed during
autopsy. After the skulls were used as evidence during the
trial – Borden fainted upon seeing them – the heads were later
buried at the foot of each grave.
On June 20, after deliberating an hour and a
half, the jury acquitted.
The trial has been compared to the later trials
of Bruno Hauptmann, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and O.J. Simpson
as a landmark in publicity and public interest in the history of
American legal proceedings.
No one else was charged in the murders, and
they continue to be the subject of research and speculation. Among
those suggested to be the killers by various authors are:
Lizzie herself, despite her acquittal—one
writer proposing that she killed while in a fugue state.
Bridget Sullivan, perhaps in anger at being
ordered to clean windows on a hot day—the day of the murders was
unusually hot—and while still recovering from the mystery
illness that had struck the household.
A "William Borden" (who according to this
theory was Andrew Borden's illegitimate son) after failing to
extort money from his father.
Emma Borden, having established an alibi at
Fairhaven, Massachusetts (about 15 miles away from Fall River,
Massachusetts) comes secretly to Fall River to commit the
murders and returns to Fairhaven to receive the telegram
informing her of the murders.
After the trial the sisters moved to a large,
modern house in the fashionable "Hill" neighborhood of Fall River.
Around this time Lizzie began using the name Lizbeth A. Borden. At
their new house, which Lizbeth named "Maplecroft," the sisters had
a staff that included live-in maids, a housekeeper and a coachman.
Because Abby was ruled to have died before Andrew, her estate went
first to Andrew and then, at his death, passed to his daughters as
part of his estate; a considerable settlement, however, was paid
to settle claims by Abby's family (especially Abby's two sisters).
Despite the acquittal, Lizbeth was ostracized
by Fall River society. Lizbeth Borden's name was again brought
into the public eye when she was accused of shoplifting in 1897 in
Providence, Rhode Island.
In 1905, shortly after an argument over a party
Lizbeth had given for actress Nance O'Neil, Emma moved out of the
Lizbeth was ill in her last year following the
removal of her gallbladder; she died of pneumonia on June 1, 1927
in Fall River. Funeral details were not published and few
attended. Nine days later, Emma died from chronic nephritis at the
age of 76 in a nursing home in Newmarket, New Hampshire, having
moved to this location in 1923 both for health reasons, and to get
away from the public eye, which had renewed interest in the
sisters at the publication of another book about the murders. The
sisters, who never married, were buried side by side in the family
plot in Oak Grove Cemetery.
Lizbeth left $30,000 to the Fall River Animal
Rescue League and $500 in trust for perpetual care of her father's
grave; her closest friend and a cousin each received
$6,000—substantial sums at the estate's distribution in 1933,
during the Great Depression. Books from Maplecroft's library,
stamped and signed by the sisters, are valuable collectors' items.
The case was memorialized in a popular
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.
Folklore says the rhyme was made up by an
anonymous writer as a tune to sell newspapers. Others attribute it
to the ubiquitous, but anonymous "Mother Goose". In reality,
Lizzie's stepmother suffered 18 or 19 blows; her father, 11 blows.
The Trial of Lizzie Borden
By Doug Linder (2004)
Actually, the Bordens received only 29 whacks, not the 81
suggested by the famous ditty, but the popularity of the above
poem is a testament to the public's fascination with the 1893
murder trial of Lizzie Borden. The source of that fascination
might lie in the almost unimaginably brutal nature of the
crime--given the sex, background, and age of the defendant--or in
the jury's acquittal of Lizzie in the face of prosecution evidence
that most historians today find compelling.
On a hot August 4, 1892 at 92 Second Street in Fall River,
Massachusetts, Bridget ("Maggie") Sullivan, the maid in the Borden
family residence rested in her bed after having washed the outside
windows. She heard the bell at City Hall ring and looked at her
clock: it was eleven o'clock. A cry from Lizzie Borden, the
younger of two Borden daughters broke the silence: "Maggie, come
down! Come down quick; Father's dead; somebody came in and killed
him." A half hour or so later, after the body--"hacked almost
beyond recognition"--of Andrew Borden had been covered and the
downstairs searched by police for evidence of an intruder, a
neighbor who had come to comfort Lizzie, Adelaide Churchill, made
a grisly discovery on the second floor of the Borden home: the
body of Abby Borden, Lizzie's step-mother. Investigators found
Abby's body cold, while Andrew's had been discovered warm,
indicating that Abby was killed earlier--probably at least ninety
minutes earlier--than her husband.
Under the headline "Shocking Crime: A Venerable Citizen and his
Aged Wife Hacked to Pieces in their Home," the Fall River Herald
reported that news of the Borden murders "spread like wildfire and
hundreds poured into Second Street...where for years Andrew J.
Borden and his wife had lived in happiness." The Herald reporter
who visited the crime scene described the face of the dead man as
"sickening": "Over the left temple a wound six by four had been
made as if it had been pounded with the dull edge of an axe. The
left eye had been dug out and a cut extended the length of the
nose. The face was hacked to pieced and the blood had covered the
man's shirt." Despite the gore, "the room was in order and there
were no signs of a scuffle of any kind." Initial speculation as
to the identity of the murderer, the Fall River Herald reported,
centered on a "Portuguese laborer" who had visited the Borden home
earlier in the morning and "asked for the wages due him," only to
be told by Andrew Borden that he had no money and "to call
later." The story added that medical evidence suggested that Abby
Borden was killed "by a tall man, who struck the woman from
Two days after the murder, papers began reporting evidence that
thirty-three-year-old Lizzie Borden might have had something to do
with her parents' murders. Most significantly, Eli Bence, a clerk
at S. R. Smith's drug store in Fall River, told police that Lizzie
visited the store the day before the murder and attempted to
purchase prussic acid, a deadly poison. A story in the Boston
Daily Globe reported rumors that "Lizzie and her stepmother never
got along together peacefully, and that for a considerable time
back they have not spoken," but noted also that family members
insisted relations between the two women were quite normal. The
Boston Herald, meanwhile, viewed Lizzie as above suspicion: "From
the consensus of opinion it can be said: In Lizzie Borden's life
there is not one unmaidenly nor a single deliberately unkind act."
Police came to the conclusion that the murders must have been
committed by someone within the Borden home, but were puzzled by
the lack of blood anywhere except on the bodies of the victims and
their inability to uncover any obvious murder weapon.
Increasingly, suspicion turned toward Lizzie, since her older
sister, Emma, was out of the home at the time of the murders.
Investigators found it odd that Lizzie knew so little of her
mother's whereabouts after 9 A.M. when, according to Lizzie, she
had gone "upstairs to put shams on the pillows." They also found
unconvincing her story that, during the fifteen minutes in which
Andrew Borden was murdered in the living room, Lizzie was out in
the backyard barn "looking for irons" (lead sinkers) for an
upcoming fishing excursion. The barn loft where she said she
looked revealed no footprints on the dusty floor and the stifling
heat in the loft seemed likely to discourage anyone from spending
more than a few minutes searching for equipment that would not be
used for days. Theories about a tall male intruder were
reconsidered, and one "leading physician" explained that "hacking
is almost a positive sign of a deed by a woman who is unconscious
of what she is doing."
On August 9, an inquest into the Borden murders was held in the
court room over police headquarters. Before criminal magistrate
Josiah Blaisdell, District Attorney Hosea Knowlton questioned
Lizzie Borden, Bridget Sullivan, household guest John Morse, and
others. During her four hours examination, Lizzie gave confused
and contradictory answers. Two days later, the inquest adjourned
and Police Chief Hilliard arrested Lizzie Borden. The next day ,
Lizzie entered a plea of "Not Guilty" to the charges of murder
and was transported by rail car to the jail in Taunton, eight
miles to the north of Fall River. On August 22, Lizzie returned
to a Fall River courtroom for her preliminary hearing, at the end
of which Judge Josiah Blaisdell pronounced her "probably guilty"
and ordered her to face a grand jury and possible charges for the
murder of her parents. In November, the grand jury met. After
first refusing to issue an indictment, the jury reconvened and
heard new evidence from Alice Russell, a family friend who stayed
with the two Borden sisters in the days following the murders.
Russell told grand jurors that she had witnessed Lizzie Borden
burning a blue dress in a kitchen fire allegedly because, as
Lizzie explained her action, it was covered with "old paint."
Coupled with the earlier testimony from Bridget Sullivan that
Lizzie was wearing a blue dress on the morning of the murders, the
evidence was enough to convince grand jurors to indict Lizzie for
the murders of her parents. (Russell's testimony was also enough
to convince the Borden sisters to sever all ties with their old
The trial of Lizzie Borden
opened on June 5, 1893 in the New Bedford Courthouse before a
panel of three judges. A high-powered defense team, including
Andrew Jennings and George Robinson (the former governor of
Massachusetts), represented the defendant, while District Attorney
Knowlton and Thomas Moody argued the case for the prosecution.
Before a jury of twelve men,
Moody opened the state's case. When Moody carelessly threw
Lizzie's blue frock on the prosecution table during his speech, it
revealed the skulls of Andrew and Abby Borden. The sight of her
parents' skulls, according to a newspaper account, caused Lizzie
to fall "into a feint that lasted for several minutes, sending a
thrill of excitement through awe-struck spectators and causing
unfeigned embarrassment and discomfiture to penetrate the ranks of
counsel." For most of the two hours of Moody's speech, Lizzie
watched from behind a fan as the prosecutor described Lizzie has
the only person having both the motive and opportunity to commit
the double murders, and then pulled from a bag the head of the axe
that he claimed Lizzie used to kill her parents.
The first several witnesses for
the state testified concerning events in and around the Borden
home on the morning of August 4, 1892. The most important of these
witnesses, twenty-six-year-old Bridget Sullivan, testified that
Lizzie was the only person she saw in the home at the time her
parents were murdered, though she provided some consolation to the
defense when she said that she had not witnessed, during her over
two years of service to the family, signs of the rumored ugly
relationship between Lizzie and her stepmother. "Everything was
pleasant," she said. "Lizzie and her mother always spoke to each
other." (Other prosecution witnesses disputed Sullivan's assertion
that all was fine between Lizzie and her stepmother. For example,
Hannah H. Gifford, who made a garment for Lizzie a few months
before the murders, described a conversation in which Lizzie
called her stepmother "a mean good-for nothing thing" and said "I
don't have much to do with her; I stay in my room most of the
time.") Sullivan also testified that Andrew and Abby Borden
experienced stomach pains on the day before the murder and told
jurors that at the presumed time of Abby's Borden she was washing
outside windows. She testified that she opened the door for Andrew
Borden after he returned home from his walk about town, and then
described hearing Lizzie's cry for help a few minutes after eleven
o'clock. Several witnesses described seeing Andrew Borden at
various points in town in the two hours before he returned home to
his death. Household guest John Morse, age sixty, described having
breakfast in the Borden home on the morning of the murders and
then leaving the house to perform chores.
The next set of witnesses
described events and conversations after discovery of the murders.
Dr. Seabury Bowen, the Borden family physician summoned to the
home by Lizzie in the late morning of August 4, recounted Lizzie's
story about looking for lead sinkers in the barn and her
contention that her father's troubles with his tenants probably
had something to do with the murders. On cross-examination,
Seabury agreed with the defense's suggestion that the morphine he
prescribed for Lizzie might account for some of the confused and
contradictory testimony she gave at the inquest following the
murders. Adelaide Churchill, a Borden neighbor and another
important witness, remembered Lizzie wearing a light blue dress
with a diamond figure on it, but did not recall seeing any blood
spots it. John Fleet, the Assistant Marshal of Fall River,
recalled his interview with Lizzie shortly after the murders.
Lizzie corrected him, he testified, when he called Abby Borden her
"mother." "She was not my mother, sir," Lizzie replied, "She was
my stepmother: my mother died when I was a child."
The most compelling testimony
came again from Alice Russell. Russell described a visit from
Lizzie the night before the murders in which she announced that
she would soon be going on a vacation and felt "that something is
hanging over me--I cannot tell what it is." Then, according to
Russell, after describing her parents' severe stomach sickness
(which she attributed to bad "baker's bread"), Lizzie revealed, "I
feel afraid something is going to happen." Explaining her feeling,
Lizzie told Russell that "she wanted to go to sleep with one eye
open half the time for fear somebody might burn the house down or
hurt her father because he was so discourteous to people." Turning
his questioning to the Sunday after the murders, District Attorney
Moody asked Russell about the dress burning incident. Russell
recounted that when she asked Lizzie what she was doing with the
blue dress, she replied, "I am going to burn this old thing up; it
is covered with paint." On cross-examination, defense attorney
George Robinson attempted through his questions to suggest that a
guilty person seeking to destroy incriminating evidence would be
unlikely to do it in so open a fashion as Lizzie allegedly did.
Russell also recounted a conversation with Lizzie about a note,
which according to Lizzie's account, she received from a messenger
on the morning of the murders summoning her to visit a sick
friend. (Lizzie used the note to explain why she thought her
mother had left the home and therefore didn't think to look for
her body after discovering her father's. Despite a thorough search
of the Borden home, the alleged note never was found.) Russell
said she sarcastically suggested to Lizzie that her mother might
have burned the note. Lizzie, according to Russell, replied, "Yes,
she must have."
A newspaper account of the
prosecution case likened it to "a pigeon shooting match in which
District Attorney Moody kept flinging up the birds and defying his
antagonist to hit them, while the ex-Governor (defense attorney
Robinson) constantly fired and often, but by no mean always,
wounded or brought them down. Robinson's performance impressed
reporters, with one writing that the ex-Governor "is certainly
without equal in New York City as a cross-examiner." Robinson
seemed any to "turn more or less to his own account" nearly every
government witness, according to one trial account.
The defense made its case using,
for the most part, the state's own witnesses. "There has never
been a trial so full of surprises," wrote one reporter covering
the trial, "with such marvelous contradictions given by witnesses
called for a common purpose." The defense kept hammering at the
contradictory testimony of key prosecution witnesses. The defense
also explored holes in the prosecution case: Where, the defense
asked, is the handle that supposedly broke off from the axe head
that the state hauled into court and claimed was part of the
murder weapon? The state had no answer. The defense also exploited
the government's own timeline, which allowed from eight to
thirteen minutes between Andrew Borden's murder and Lizzie's call
to Bridget Sullivan, Robinson tried to suggest the difficulty of
washing blood off one's person, clothes, and murder weapon of
blood, and then hiding the murder weapon, all within that short
span of time.
The decisive moment in the trial
might have come when the three-judge panel ruled that Lizzie
Borden's inquest testimony, full of contradictions and implausible
claims, could not be submitted into evidence by the prosecution.
The judges concluded that Lizzie, at the time of the coroner's
inquest, was for all practical purposes a prisoner charged with
two murders, and that her testimony at the inquest, made in the
absence of her attorney, was not voluntary. Lizzie should have
been warned, the judges said, that she had a right under the Fifth
Amendment of the Constitution to remain silent. The judges
rejected the state's argument that Lizzie was only a suspect, not
a prisoner, at the time of the inquest, and that anyway her
statement should be admitted because it was in the nature of a
denial rather than a confession.
The prosecution rested its case
on June 14 after one final defeat. The state wanted to have
druggist Eli Bence recount for the jury his story of Lizzie Borden
visiting a Fall River drug store on the day before the murders and
asking for ten cents worth of prussic acid, a poison. With the
jurors excused, each leaving the courtroom with a palm leaf fan
and ice water, the state tried to establish through medical
experts, druggists, furriers, and chemists, the qualities,
properties, and uses of prussic acid. The judges, after listening
to the state's foundational case, concluded that the evidence
should be excluded.
The defense presented only a
handful of witnesses. Charles Gifford and Uriah Kirby reported
seeing a strange man near the Borden house around eleven o'clock
on the night before the murders. Dr. Benjamin Handfy testified
that he saw a pale-faced young man on the sidewalk near 92 Second
Street around 10:30 on August 4. A plumber and a gas fitter
testified that in the day or two before the murders they had been
in the Borden's barn loft, casting doubt on police assertions that
Lizzie's alibi was suspect because dust in the loft appeared
Emma Borden, the older sister of
Lizzie, was the defense's most anticipated witness. Emma testified
that Lizzie and her father enjoyed a good relationship. She told
jurors that the gold ring found on the little finger of Andrew
Borden's body was given to him ten or fifteen years ago by Lizzie
and he prized it highly. Emma also insisted that relations between
Lizzie and her stepmother were cordial, even as she admitted to
lingering resentment herself over the transfer by her father of a
Fall River home (which Emma called "grandfather's house") to Abby
and her sister. The defense had also hoped that Emma might testify
that the Borden's had a custom of disposing of remnants and pieces
of dresses by burning, but the court ruled the evidence
Summing up for the defense, A.
V. Jennings argued "there is not one particle of direct evidence
in this case from beginning to end against Lizzie A. Borden. There
is not a spot of blood, there is not a weapon that they have
connected with her in any way, shape or fashion." Following
Jennings, Governor Robinson, in his closing speech for the
defense, insisted that the crime must have been committed by a
maniac or a devil--not by someone with the respectable background
of his client. He said the state had failed to meet its burden of
proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and that it was
physically impossible for Lizzie, without the help of a
confederate, to have committed the crime within the timeline
suggested by the prosecution. Robinson ridiculed the theory that
Lizzie might have avoided getting blood spots on her clothes by
killing her parents while "stark naked," and argued that the
murders might well have been committed by an intruder who passed
out of the house undetected.
After Hosiah Knowlton's able
summing up of the prosecution's evidence, Justice Dewey charged
the jury. According to one newspaper report, had the judge "been
the senior counsel for the defense, making the closing plea in
behalf of the defendant, he could not have more absolutely pointed
out the folly of depending upon circumstantial evidence alone." It
was, the newspaper said, a "remarkable" charge--"a plea for the
innocent." Justice Dewey told jurors they should take into account
Lizzie's exceptional Christian character, which entitled her to
every inference in her favor.
The jury deliberated an hour and
a half before returning with its verdict. The clerk asked the
foreman of the jury, "What is your verdict?" "Not guilty," the
foreman replied simply. Lizzie let out a yell, sank into her
chair, rested her hands on a courtroom rail, put her face in her
hands, and then let out a second cry of joy. Soon, Emma, her
counsel, and courtroom spectators were rushing to congratulate
Lizzie. She hid her face in her sister's arms and announced, "Now
take me home. I want to go to the old place and go at once
Papers generally praised the
jury's verdict. The New York Times, for example, editorialized:
"It will be a certain relief to every right-minded man or woman
who has followed the case to learn that the jury at New Bedford
has not only acquitted Miss Lizzie Borden of the atrocious crime
with which she was charged, but has done so with a promptness that
was very significant. The Times added that it considered the
verdict "a condemnation of the police authorities of Fall River
who secured the indictment and have conducted the trial." Not
stopping there, the Times editorialist blasted the "vanity of
ignorant and untrained men charged with the detection of crime" in
smaller cities--the police in Fall River, the editorial concluded,
are "the usual inept and stupid and muddle-headed sort that such
towns manage to get for themselves."
It is probably fair to say that,
however likely it might be that Lizzie did murder her parents, the
prosecution failed to meet its burden of proving guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt. The state's case rested largely on the argument
that it was impossible for anyone else to have committed the
crime. For the Borden jury that, and a few other suspicious
actions on Lizzie's part (such as burning a dress), turned out not
to be enough for a conviction. Had the defendant been a male, some
speculate, the jury might have been more inclined to convict. One
of the defense's great advantages was that most persons in 1893
found it hard to believe that a woman of Lizzie's background could
have pulled off such brutal killings.
After the trial, Lizzie Borden
returned to Fall River where she and her sister Emma purchased an
impressive home on "the Hill" which they called "Maplecroft."
Lizzie took an interest in theatre, frequently attending plays and
often associating with actors, artists, and "bohemian types." Emma
moved out of Maplecroft in 1905. Lizzie continued to live in
Maplecroft until her death at age 67 in 1927. She was buried by
the graves of her parents in Fall River's Oak Grove Cemetery.
Fourteen Reasons to Believe Lizzie Murdered
1. If not Lizzie, then who? Only Lizzie had a
good opportunity to commit the murders. At the time of her
mother's murder (around 9:30 A.M.), household guest John Morse was
visiting relatives, sister Emma was out of town, Andrew Borden was
running errands around town, and maid Bridget Sullivan was outside
washing windows. Only Lizzie was known to be in the house at the
time of Abby Borden's murder. To commit both murders (Andrew
Borden was murdered around 11 A.M.), an outside intruder would
have either have had to hide in the house for 90 minutes or
departed and then returned without being seen.
2. It looks like an inside job. Police found no
signs of forced entry into the Borden home (despite the fact that
the Borden's habitually locked their doors) and nothing appeared
to have been stolen. No stranger was seen entering or leaving the
Borden house on the morning of the murders.
3. Although Lizzie claimed to have been
downstairs at the very time her mother was violently murdered
upstairs, she said she heard no alarming noises--this despite her
mother having been struck multiple times with an axe and falling
to the floor.
4. On August 3, the day before the murders,
witnesses identified Lizzie Borden as having visited Smith's drug
store in Fall River, where she attempted to purchase a poison,
prussic acid. She explained that she needed the acid to clean a
sealskin cape. The druggist refused to sell the prussic acid.
5. On the night before the murders, Lizzie
visited a neighbor, Alice Russell, and told her that she feared
that some unidentified enemy of her father's might soon try to
6. Lizzie told police that while she was alone
in the house with her mother on the morning of the murder, a
messenger came to the door with a note summoning her mother to
visit a sick friend. Lizzie told people that she assumed her
mother had left. Despite a thorough search of the Borden home, no
such alleged note ever was found.
7. When Bridget Sullivan came back inside after
having finished washing outside windows, around 10:30 A.M., she
reported hearing a muffled laugh coming from upstairs. She assumed
that it was Lizzie making the noise. (Lizzie, of course, denied
being upstairs during this time period between her mother's murder
and her father's murder.)
8. At the time of the murder of Andrew Borden,
Lizzie claimed to have been in the loft of the backyard barn for
15 to 20 minutes looking for lead sinkers for a fishing excursion.
Police found the loft so stiflingly hot that it was difficult to
believe anyone would voluntarily remain in such a place for as
much as 20 minutes. They also found no footprints in the loft that
could substantiate Lizzie's story.
9. Lizzie had a strained relationship with her
step-mother. They usually ate their meals separately. Some
theorize that Lizzie resented the fact that her father transferred
a Falls River property to Abby's sister, rather than to her.
Police noted that during her interview, Lizzie insisted that Abby
be described as her "step-mother," not her mother.
10. Although Lizzie appeared to have a somewhat
better relationship with her distant and forbidding father, there
were problems there as well. Lizzie was outraged, for example,
when her father beheaded pigeons in the barn loft for which she
had built a roost. (Her father thought the pigeons attracted
neighborhood boys, who broke into the barn to hunt the pigeons.)
11. In the week before the murders, following
an apparent family argument, Lizzie and her sister Emma left Fall
River by coach for New Bedford. When Lizzie returned, she chose to
stay in a rooming house for four days, rather than in her own room
in the family residence.
12. In 1891, cash and jewelry were stolen from
the master bedroom in the Borden home. It was an open secret that
Lizzie was suspected as having been the thief. Lizzie also had
been accused by several local merchants of shoplifting. (Yes,
murder is far different that stealing--but it does suggest that
Lizzie was hardly a model daughter.)
13. Immediately after the discovery of her
parents' bodies, Lizzie sent various persons who came to help off
on various errands. It seems strange that a woman would choose to
remain alone in a house if she thought a murderer still might be
nearabouts on the loose.
14. On August 7, three days after the murders,
Alice Russell observed Lizzie burning a blue corduroy dress in a
kitchen fire. When asked about it, Lizzie explained that she chose
to destroy the dress because it was stained with old paint.
LIZZIE BORDEN TOOK AN AX?
History & Hauntings of One of
the Most Puzzling Murder Cases in American History
The August afternoon is
unbearably hot, especially for Massachusetts. The temperature has
climbed to well over 100 degrees, even though it is not yet noon.
The old man, still in his heavy morning coat, is not feeling well
and he lies down on a mohair-covered sofa. He sighs as he leans
back against the arm of the sofa and he carefully turns so that
his boots are on the floor and not soiling the couch’s upholstery.
In a short time, he drifts off to sleep, never suspecting that he
will not awaken.
The old man also does not suspect that above
his head, his wife lays bleeding on the floor of the upstairs
guestroom. She had been dead now for nearly two hours and in
moments, the same hand that took her life will take the life of
the old man’s as well.
And even if he knew these things by way of some
macabre premonition, he might never guess that his murderer would
never be brought to justice....
The case of Lizzie Borden has fascinated those
with an interest in American crime for well over a century. There
have been few cases that have attracted as much attention as the
hatchet murders of Andrew Borden and his wife, Abby. This is
partly because of the gruesomeness of the crime but also because
of the unexpected character of the accused.
Lizzie Borden was not a slavering maniac but a
demure, respectable, spinster Sunday School teacher. Because of
this, the entire town was shocked when she was charged with the
murder of her parents. The fact that she was found to be not
guilty of the murders, leaving the case to be forever unresolved,
only adds to the mystique and fans the flames of our continuing
obsession with the mystery.
Andrew Jackson Borden was one of the leading
citizens of Fall River, Massachusetts, a prosperous mill town and
seaport. The Borden family had strong roots to the community and
had been among the most influential citizens of the region for
decades. At the age of 70, Borden was certainly one of the richest
men in the city. He was a director on the board of several banks
and a commercial landlord with considerable holdings. He was a
tall, thin and dour man and while he was known for this thrift and
admired for his business abilities, he was not well-known for his
humor nor was he particularly likable.
Borden lived with his second wife, Abby Durfee
Gray and his daughters from his first marriage, Emma and Lizzie,
in a two-and-a-half story frame house. It was located in an
unfashionable part of town, but was close to his business
interests. Both daughters felt the house was beneath their station
in life and begged their father to move to a nicer place. Borden’s
frugal nature never even allowed him to consider this. In spite of
this, and his conservative daily life, Borden was said to be
moderately generous with both of his daughters.
The events that would lead to
tragedy began on Thursday, August 4, 1892. The Borden household
was up early that morning as usual. Emma was not at home, having
gone to visit friends in the nearby town of Fairhaven, but the
girl’s Uncle John had arrived the day before for an unannounced
visit. John Vinnicum Morse, the brother of Andrew Borden’s first
wife, was a regular guest in the Borden home. He traveled from
Dartmouth, Massachusetts several times each year to visit the
family and conduct business in town.
The first person awake in the
house that morning was Bridget Sullivan, the maid. Bridget was a
respectable Irish girl who Emma and Lizzie both rudely insisted on
calling "Maggie", which was the name of a previous servant. At the
time of the murders, Bridget was 26 years old and had been in the
Borden household since 1889. There is nothing to say that she was
anything but an exemplary young woman, who had come to America
from Ireland in 1886. She did not stay in the house during the
night following the murders, but did come back on Friday night to
her third-floor room. On Saturday, she left the house, never to
Bridget came downstairs from her attic room
around 6:00 to build a fire in the kitchen and begin cooking
breakfast. An hour later, John Morse and Mr. and Mrs. Borden came
down to eat and they lingered in conversation around the table for
nearly an hour. Lizzie slept late and did not join them for the
At a little before eight, Morse
left the house to go and visit a niece and nephew and Borden
locked the screen door after him. It was a peculiar custom in the
house to always keep doors locked. Even the doors between certain
rooms upstairs were usually locked. A few minutes after Morse
left, Lizzie came downstairs but said that she wasn’t hungry. She
had coffee and a cookie but nothing else. It’s possible that she
had a touch of the stomach disorder that was going around the
household. Bridget later stated that she felt the need to go
outside and throw up some time after breakfast.
Two days before, Mr. and Mrs.
Borden had been ill during the night and had both vomited several
times. It has been assumed that this may have been food poisoning
as no one else in the family was affected. It may have been the
onset of the flu -- or something far more sinister.
At a quarter past nine, Andrew
Borden left the house and went downtown. Abby Borden went upstairs
to make the bed in the guestroom that Morse was staying in. She
asked Bridget to wash the windows.
At 9:30, she came downstairs for
a few moments and then went back up again, commenting that she
needed fresh pillowcases. Bridget went about her daily chores and
started on the window washing, retrieving pails and water from the
barn. She also paused for a few minutes to chat over the fence
with the hired girl next door. She finished the outside of the
windows at about 10:30 and then started inside.
Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Borden returned
home. Bridget let him in and Lizzie came downstairs. She told her
father that "Mrs. Borden has gone out - she had a note from
someone who was sick." Lizzie and Emma always called their
step-mother "Mrs. Borden" and recently, the relationship between
them, especially with Lizzie, was strained.
Borden took the key to his bedroom off a shelf
and went up the back stairs. The room could only be reached by
these stairs, as there was no hallway, and the front stairs only
gave access to Lizzie’s room (from which Emma’s could be reached)
and the guest room. There were connecting doors between the elder
Borden’s rooms and Lizzie’s room, but they were usually kept
Borden stayed upstairs for only a few minutes
before coming back down and settling onto the sofa in the sitting
room. Lizzie began to heat up an iron to press some handkerchiefs.
"Are you going out this afternoon, Maggie?" she
asked Bridget. "There is a cheap sale of dress goods at Sargent’s
this afternoon, at eight cents a yard."
Bridget replied that she was not. The heat of
the morning, combined with the window washing and her touch of
stomach ailment, had left her feeling poorly and she went up the
back stairs to her attic room for a nap. This was a few minutes
"Maggie, Come down!" Lizzie shouted from the
bottom of the back stairs and Bridget’s eyes fluttered open. She
had drifted off into a restless sleep but the urgency of Lizzie’s
cries startled her awake.
"What is the matter?" Bridget cried. She
smoothed out her dress, slipped into her shoes and scurried to the
doorway. As he feet tapped down the staircase, she was horrified
by what she heard next!
"Come down quick!" Lizzie wailed, "Father's
dead! Somebody's come in and killed him!"
As Bridget hurried from the staircase, she
found Lizzie standing at the back door. Her face was pale and
taut. She stopped the young maid from going into the sitting room,
saying "Don't go in there. Go and get the doctor. Run!"
Dr. Bowen, a family friend, lived across the
street from the Borden’s and Bridget ran directly to the house.
The doctor was out, but Bridget told Mrs. Bowen that Mr. Borden
had been killed. She ran directly back to the house. "Where were
you when this thing happened?" she asked Lizzie.
"I was out in the yard, and I heard a groan and
came in. The screen door was wide open." Lizzie replied, and then
sent Bridget to summon the Borden sisters' friend, Miss Alice
Russell, who lived a few blocks away.
By now, the neighbors were starting to gather
on the lawn and someone had called for the police. Mrs. Adelaide
Churchill, the next door neighbor, came over to Lizzie, who was at
the back entrance to the house and asked if anything was wrong.
Lizzie responded by saying, "Oh, Mrs. Churchill, someone has
"Where is your father?" she asked.
"In the sitting room."
"Where were you when it happened?"
" I went to the barn to get a piece of iron."
Mrs. Churchill then asked, "Where is your
Lizzie said that she didn’t know and that Abby
Borden, her stepmother, had received a note asking her to respond
to someone who was sick. She also added "but I don’t know but that
she is killed too, for I thought I heard her come in... Father
must have an enemy, for we have all been sick, and we think the
milk has been poisoned."
By this time, Dr. Bowen had returned, along
with Bridget, who had hurried back from informing Miss Russell of
the day’s dire events. Dr. Bowen examined the body and asked for a
sheet to cover it. Borden had been attacked with a sharp object,
probably an ax, and so much damage had been done to his head and
face that Bowen, a close friend, could not at first positively
identify him. Borden’s head was turned slightly to the right and
eleven blows had gashed his face. One eye had been cut in half and
his nose had been severed. The majority of the blows had been
struck within the area that extended from the eyes and nose to the
ears. Blood was still seeping from the wounds and had been
splashed onto the wall above the sofa, the floor and on a picture
hanging on the wall. It looked as though Borden had been attacked
from above and behind as he slept.
Several minutes passed before anyone thought of
going upstairs to see if Abby Borden had come home. "Maggie, I am
almost positive I heard her coming in," Lizzie spoke. "Go upstairs
and see." Bridget refused to go upstairs by herself, so Mrs.
Churchill went with her. They went up the staircase together but
Mrs. Churchill was the first to see Abby lying on the floor of the
guestroom. She had fallen in a pool of blood and Mrs. Churchill
later said that she only "looked like the form of a person."
Bridget saw Mrs. Borden's body. Mrs. Churchill
rushed by her, viewed the obviously dead body, and rushed
downstairs. "Is there another?" a neighbor asked her.
"Yes," the woman replied. "She is up there."
Dr. Bowen found that Mrs. Borden had been
struck more than a dozen times, from the back. The autopsy later
revealed that there had been nineteen blows to her head, probably
from the same hatchet that had killed Mr. Borden. The blood on
Mrs. Borden's body was dark and congealed, leading him to believe
that she had been killed before her husband.
Dr. Bowen was heavily involved in the
activities of the Borden house on the day of the murder. He was
the first to examine the bodies, sent a telegram to Emma to summon
her home, assisted Dr. Dolan with the autopsies and even
prescribed a calming tranquilizer for Lizzie. He was a constant
presence in the house and his involvement with them, especially on
August 4, has led to him being considered a major figure in some
of the conspiracies developed around the murders.
A call reached the Fall River police station at
11:15 but as things would happen, that day marked the annual
picnic of the Fall River Police Department and most of them were
off enjoying an outing at Rocky Point. The only officer dispatched
to the house was Officer George W. Allen. He ran the 400 yards to
the house, saw that Andrew Borden was dead and ran back to the
station house to inform the city marshal of the events. He left no
one in charge of the crime scene. While he was gone, neighbors
overran the house, comforting Lizzie and peering in at the
gruesome state of Andrew Borden’s body. The constant traffic
trampled and destroyed any clues that might have been left behind.
During the 30 minutes or so that no authorities
were on the scene, a county medical examiner named Dolan passed by
the house by chance. He looked in and was pressed into service by
Dr. Bowen. Dolan examined the bodies as well and after hearing
that the family had been sick and that the milk was suspected, he
took samples of it. Later that afternoon, he had the bodies
photographed and then removed the stomachs and sent them, along
with the milk, to the Harvard Medical School for analysis. No
poison was ever found.
The murder investigation that followed was
chaotic. The police were reluctant to suspect Lizzie of the murder
as it was against the perceived social understanding of the era
that a woman such as she was could have possibly committed such a
heinous crime. Other solutions were advanced but were discarded as
even more impossible.
A profusion of clues were discovered over the
next few days, all of which went nowhere. A boy reported seeing a
man jump over the back fence of the Borden property and while a
man was found matching the boy’s description, he had an
unbreakable alibi. A bloody hatchet was found on the Sylvia Farm
in South Somerset but it proved to be covered in chicken blood.
While Bridget was also seen as a suspect for a short time, the
investigation finally began to center on Lizzie.
A circumstantial case began to be developed
against her with no incriminating physical evidence, like bloody
clothes, a real motive for the killings, or even a convincing
demonstration of how and when she committed the murders.
Over the course of several weeks though,
investigators managed to compile a sequence of events that
certainly cast suspicion on the spinster Sunday School teacher.
The timeline ran from August 3, the day before the murders to
August 7, the day that Alice Russell saw her friend burning a
dress that may (or many not) have had blood on it.
There were several incidents that police believed related to
the murders that occurred on Wednesday. The first was in the early
morning hours when Abby Borden went across the street to Dr. Bowen
and told him that she and her husband had been violently ill
throughout the night. He told her that he didn’t think the
vomiting was serious and he sent her home. Later, he dropped in to
check on Andrew, who told him rather ungratefully that he was not
ill and would not pay for an unsolicited house call. There would
be no evidence of poisoning found in the Borden autopsies.
Another incident took place when Lizzie tried
to buy ten cents worth of prussic acid from Eli Bence, a clerk at
Smith’s Drug Store. She explained to him that she wanted the
poison to "kill moths in a sealskin cape" but he refused to sell
it to her without a prescription. A customer and another clerk
also identified Lizzie as being in the store that morning, but she
denied it. She testified at the inquest that she had not attempted
to purchase the poison and had not been at Smith’s that day.
The third incident was the arrival of John
Morse in the early afternoon. He came without luggage but intended
to stay the night. Both he and Lizzie testified that they did not
see each other until after the murders the next day, although
Lizzie knew that he was there.
Finally, that evening Lizzie visited her
friend, Miss Alice Russell. According to Miss Russell, Lizzie was
agitated, worried over some threat to her father, and concerned
that something was about to happen. "I feel as if something were
hanging over me and I cannot throw it off," she told her. She
added that her father had enemies and that she was frightened that
something was going to happen to the family.
An eerie foreshadowing of the future? Or laying
the groundwork for an alibi?
On the day of the murders, there were
several parts of the story that did not make sense to the
investigators, or could not have happened the way that Lizzie
Abby was killed, according to the autopsy, at
around 9:30 in the morning. The killer, if it was anyone but
Lizzie or Bridget, would have had to have concealed himself (or
herself) in the house for well over an hour, waiting for Andrew
Borden’s return. Abby could have been discovered at any moment.
Abby’s time of death also posed another problem
for investigators. According to Lizzie, she had gone out but she
obviously hadn’t. The note that Lizzie said that Abby had
received, asking her to visit a sick friend, was never found.
Lizzie later said that she might have inadvertently burned it.
When Andrew Borden returned to the house,
Bridget had to let him in as the screen door was fastened on the
inside with three locks. This would have made it extremely
difficult for the killer to get inside. Only a small window of
opportunity would have existed while Bridget was fetching a pail
and water from the barn. In addition, Bridget later testified that
while she was unlocking the door for Mr. Borden, she head Lizzie
laugh from upstairs. However, Lizzie swore that she had been in
the kitchen when her father came home.
Borden also had to retrieve the key to his
bedroom from the shelf in the kitchen to get into his room. This
was done as a precaution because of a burglary the year before. In
June 1891, a police captain inspected the house after Andrew
Borden reported that it had been broken into. He found that
Borden’s desk had been rummaged through and over $100, along with
Andrew’s watch and chain, several small items and some streetcar
tickets, had been taken.
There was no clue as to how anyone could have
gotten into the house, although Lizzie offered the fact that the
cellar door had been open. The neighborhood was canvassed but no
one reported seeing a stranger in the vicinity. According to the
police captain, Borden said several times to him, "I’m afraid the
police will not be able to find the real thief." It is unknown
what he may have meant by this but various conspiracy theorists
have their own ideas.
On the afternoon of the murder, an officer
asked Lizzie if there were any hatchets in the house and she told
Bridget to show him where they could be found. Four of them were
discovered in the basement, including one with dried blood and
hair on it (later determined to be from a cow). Another of the
hatchets was rusted and the others were covered with dust. One of
these was without a handle and was covered in ashes. The broken
handle appeared to be recent, so it was taken into evidence.
A Sergeant Harrington and another officer asked
Lizzie where she had been that morning and she said that she had
been in the barn loft looking for iron for fishing sinkers. The
two men examined the barn and found the loft floor to be thick
with dust, with no evidence that anyone had been up there.
Deputy Marshal John Fleet questioned Lizzie and
asked her who might have committed the murders. Other than an
unknown man with whom her father had gotten into an argument with
a few weeks before, she could think of no one. When asked directly
if Uncle John Morse or Bridget could have killed her father and
mother, she said that they couldn't have. Morse had left the house
before 9:00, and Bridget had been sleeping when Andrew had been
killed... then she pointedly reminded Fleet that Abby was not her
mother, but her stepmother.
On the following day, the investigation continued. By now, the
story had appeared in the newspapers and the entire town was in an
uproar. Sergeant Harrington found Eli Bence at Smith’s Drug Store
and interviewed him about the attempt to buy poison. Emma engaged
Mr. Andrew Jennings as he and Lizzie’s attorney. The police
continued to investigate, but nothing of significance was found.
Saturday was the day of the funerals for Andrew and Abby
Borden. The service was conducted by the Reverends Buck and Judd,
from the two Congregational Churches. The burial however, did not
take place. At the gravesite, the police informed the ministers
that another autopsy needed to be conducted. This time, the heads
of the Borden’s were removed from the body, the skin removed and
plaster casts were made of the skulls. For some reason, Mr.
Borden’s head was not returned to his coffin.
On Sunday morning, Alice Russell observed Lizzie burning a
dress in the kitchen stove. She told her friend that, "If I were
you, I wouldn't let anybody see me do that, Lizzie." Lizzie said
it was a dress stained with paint, and was of no use.
It was this testimony at the inquest that
prompted Judge Blaisdell of the Second District Court to charge
Lizzie with the murders. The inquest itself was kept secret but at
its conclusion, Lizzie was charged with the murder of her father
and was taken into custody. The only testimony that Lizzie ever
gave during all of the legal proceedings was at the inquest and we
will never know for sure what she said. She was arraigned the
following day and replied that she was "not guilty" of the charge.
She was then taken to the Taunton Jail, which had facilities for
After that, a preliminary hearing was held,
again before Judge Blaisdell. Lizzie did not testify but the
record of her testimony at the inquest was entered into evidence
by her attorney, Andrew Jennings. The judge declared her probable
guilt and bound Lizzie over for the Grand Jury, who heard the case
during the last week of its session.
The Commonwealth, represented by prosecutor
Hosea Knowlton, had the disagreeable task of building the case
against Lizzie. When he finished his presentation to the Grand
Jury, he surprisingly invited defense attorney Jennings to present
a case for the defense. This was something that was simply not
done in Massachusetts.
In effect, a trial was being conducted before
the Grand Jury. Many saw this is as a chance that the charge
against Lizzie might be dismissed. Then, on December 1, Alice
Russell again testified about the burning of the dress. The next
day, Lizzie was charged with three counts of murder. Strangely,
she had been charged with the murder of her father, her
step-mother and then the murders of both of them. The trial was
scheduled to begin on June 5, 1893.
The trial itself lasted fourteen
days and news of it filled the front pages of every major
newspaper in the country. Between 30 and 40 reporters from the
Boston and New York papers and the wire services were in the
courtroom every day. The trial began on June 5 and after a day to
select the jury, which consisted of twelve middle-aged farmers and
tradesmen, the prosecution spent the next seven days putting on
Hosea Knowlton was the reluctant
prosecutor in the case. He had been forced into the role by Arthur
Pillsbury, Attorney General of Massachusetts, who should have been
the principal attorney for the prosecution. However, as Lizzie's
trial date approached, Pillsbury felt the pressure building from
Lizzie's supporters, particularly women's groups and religious
organizations. Worried about the next election, he directed
Knowlton, who was the District Attorney in Fall River to lead the
prosecution in his place. He also assigned William Moody, District
Attorney of Essex County, to assist him.
Moody made the opening statements for the
prosecution. He presented three arguments. First, that Lizzie was
predisposed to murder her father and stepmother because of their
animosity toward one another. Second, that she planned the murder
and carried it out and third, that her behavior, and her
contradictory testimony, after the fact was not that of an
innocent person. Moody did an excellent job and many have regarded
him as the most competent attorney involved in the case. At one
point, he threw a dress onto the prosecution table that he planned
to admit as evidence. As he did so, the tissue paper that was
covering the skull of Andrew Borden lifted and then fluttered
away. Dramatically, Lizzie slid to the floor in a dead faint.
Crucial to the prosecution in the case was
evidence that supplied a motive for Lizzie to commit the murders.
This was done by using a number of witnesses who testified to
Lizzie’s dislike of her step-mother and her complaints about her
father’s spendthrift ways. The prosecution also tried to establish
that Borden was writing a new will that would leave Emma and
Lizzie with a pittance and Abby with a huge portion of his half
million dollar estate. One of the witnesses called to establish
this was John Morse, who first said that Andrew discussed a new
will with him and then later said that he never told him anything
The prosecution then turned to Lizzie’s
predisposition towards murder and her strange behavior before and
after the events. They again called Alice Russell to testify about
the burning of the dress. The destruction of it seemed a possible
answer as to why Lizzie was not covered with blood after killing
her parents. It was highly probable that she would have been
spattered with it if she did commit the murders.
In later years, some have theorized that
perhaps she wore a smock over her dress during the murders or that
perhaps she was naked when she did it. However, the smock would
have been bloody too and would have had to be disposed of. As far
as Lizzie being naked, this seems doubtful as well. Ignore the
fact that in the Victorian society of Fall River, a young woman
would have never appeared nude in front of her father (even to
kill him) and focus on the fact that Lizzie never had time to
bathe after killing Abby or in the few minutes between the killing
of Andrew and her calling for Bridget.
To the prosecution though, the burning of the
dress suggested that Lizzie had changed clothing after the
murders. But why would she have kept the dress for three days
before burning it and what would she have worn for the hours
between the two deaths? Someone would have surely noticed a dress
covered with blood.
On Saturday, June 10, the prosecution attempted
to enter Lizzie's testimony from the inquest into the record. The
defense objected, since it was testimony from one who had not been
formally charged. The jury was withdrawn so that the lawyers could
argue it out and on Monday, when court resumed, the three-judge
panel excluded Lizzie’s contradictory inquest testimony.
On Wednesday, June 14, the prosecution called
Eli Bence, the drug store clerk, to the stand. The defense
objected to his testimony as irrelevant and prejudicial. The
judges sustained the objection and Lizzie’s attempt to buy poison
was thrown out of the record.
The prosecution called several medical
witnesses, including Dr. Dolan. One of them even produced the
skull of Andrew Borden to show how the blows had been struck.
Unfortunately for the prosecution, these witnesses had an adverse
effect on the case as the defense used their testimonies to strike
points in Lizzie’s favor. They were forced to state that whoever
had committed the murders would have been covered with blood.
There was no one to say that Lizzie had been!
Lizzie Borden’s defense counsel used only two
days to present its case. The two attorneys consisted of Andrew
Jennings and George Robinson. Jennings was one of Fall River’s
most prominent citizens and had been Andrew Borden’s private
attorney. He was a solemn man who never again spoke about the
Borden case after its conclusion. He and his younger associate,
Melvin Adams, were instrumental in getting Lizzie’s damaging
testimony excluded from the case. Jennings was joined by George
Robinson, who even with less legal experience, was very beneficial
to the case.
For the most part, the defense offered
witnesses who could either corroborate Lizzie’s story, or who
could provide alternate possibilities as to who the killer might
be. The testimony of the various witnesses was meant to do little
but provide "reasonable doubt" about Lizzie’s guilt.
For instance, an ice cream peddler testified to
seeing a woman (presumably Lizzie) coming out the barn. This
bolstered her story that she had actually been there. A passer-by
claimed to see a "wild-eyed man" around the time of the murders.
Mr. Joseph Lemay claimed that he was walking in the deep woods,
some miles from the city, about twelve days after the murders when
he heard someone crying "Poor Mrs. Borden! Poor Mrs. Borden! Poor
Mrs. Borden!" He looked over a conveniently placed wall and saw a
man sitting on the ground. The man, who had bloodstains on his
shirt, picked up a hatchet, shook it at him and then disappeared
into the woods. Needless to say, Lemay’s story has never been
given much credibility.
The defense also called witnesses who claimed
to see a mysterious young man in the vicinity of the Borden house
who was never properly explained. They also called Emma Borden to
dispute the suggestion that Lizzie had any motive to want to kill
their parents. Emma remained very supportive of her sister during
the trial, although there is one witness, a prison matron, who
testified that Lizzie and Emma had an argument when she was
visiting her sister in jail.
On Monday, June 19, Robinson delivered his
closing arguments and Knowlton began his closing arguments for the
prosecution. He completed them on the following day. The judges
then asked Lizzie if she had anything to say for herself and she
spoke for the only time during the trial. "I am innocent", she
said. "I leave it to my counsel to speak for me." Instructions
were then given to the jury and they left to deliberate over the
A little over an hour later, the jury returned
with its verdict. Lizzie Borden was found "not guilty" on all
three charges. Public opinion was, by this time, of the feeling
that the police and the courts had persecuted Lizzie long enough.
Five weeks after the trial, Lizzie (who
henceforth called herself "Lizbeth") and Emma purchased and moved
into a thirteen-room, stone house at 306 French Street in Fall
River. It was located on "The Hill", the most fashionable area of
the city. Lizzie named the house "Maplecroft" and had the name
carved into the top step leading up to the front door.
In 1897, Lizzie was charged with the theft of
two paintings, valued at less than one hundred dollars, from the
Tilden-Thurber store in Fall River. There were no charges ever
filed and it is believed the affair was settled privately.
In 1904, Lizzie met a young actress, Nance
O'Neil, and for the next two years, Lizzie and Nance were
inseparable. About this time, Emma separated from her sister and
moved to Fairhaven. She and Lizzie stopped speaking to one
another. Rumors said that sensational revelations about the
murders would follow the split, but the revelations never came.
Emma stayed with the family of Reverend Buck, and, sometime around
1915, she moved to Newmarket, New Hampshire.
Lizzie died on June 1, 1927, at age 67, after a
long illness from complications following gall bladder surgery.
Emma died nine days later, as a result of a fall down the back
stairs of her house in Newmarket. They were buried together in the
family plot, along with a sister who had died in early childhood,
their mother, their stepmother, and their headless father. Both
Lizzie and Emma left their estates to charitable causes and Lizzie
designated $500 for the perpetual care of her father’s grave.
Bridget Sullivan never worked for any of the
Borden’s again. After the terrible events of the murder and the
trial, she left town. She lived in modest circumstances in Butte,
Montana until her death in 1948. Those who suggested that she had
been "paid off" to keep quiet about the murders could find no
evidence of this in what she left behind.
Over 100 years have passed since the murders in
Fall River and we still cannot be sure of what we think we know
about them. Perhaps because the case remained "unsolved", we still
have a fascination for the events surrounding the murders. No
single theory has ever been regarded as the correct one and every
writer on the case seems to have a favorite culprit. But how can
we explain what draws us to the story? Is it because of the
murders themselves, or is Lizzie herself to blame? Who can look at
a photo of her, always smiling slightly, and wonder what secrets
she carried with her to the grave? We will never know -- but that
hasn’t stopped anyone from trying to guess.
The books and articles that have followed the
events have each put their own special spin on the story. They use
the same evidence and testimony to argue different suspicions of
who really killed Andrew and Abby Borden. During the early days of
the investigation, and well into the days of the trial, a number
of accusations were made. At times the killer was said to be John
Morse, Bridget Sullivan, Emma Borden, Dr. Bowen and even one of
Lizzie’s Sunday School students. Since that time, there have been
other suggested killers. Some of the theories are credible and
some are not.
One of the theories remains that Lizzie Borden
actually committed the murders of her parents and managed to get
away with it. This theory was especially popular in books written
prior to 1940 and it still turns up occasionally today. Most of
the writers who stand by this solution see the court rulings and
poorly executed prosecution case as the reason that Lizzie was
never found guilty. They simply refuse to see how an outsider
could have committed the crimes.
The main problem with this idea is that it
would have taken careful planning for Lizzie to kill Abby Borden
and then wait patiently for the time to come to kill Andrew and
still interact with Bridget Sullivan. This seems inconsistent with
the "blitz" style attacks on the Borden’s. The killer was
obviously in a frenzy when each murder was committed and during
the "cooling down" time between them, it seems unlikely that they
would have been able to so easily iron handkerchiefs, attend to
household duties and carry on conversations with the maid.
There is also the glaring problem of the blood.
If Lizzie did kill her step-mother, where was the blood that would
have been on her dress when she called Bridget a short time later?
If she did change clothing (twice in the same morning), wouldn’t
Bridget have noticed this? It has been suggested that Lizzie may
have gone to the barn between the murders as she claimed to and
washed the blood off (there was running water there), but if she
did, how did she wash off the blood after her father’s murder?
Some writers believe that Lizzie and Bridget
planned the murders together and that Bridget (when she went to
Alice Russell’s house) spirited away the bloody hatchet and dress
so that they were never found. This theory is also used to explain
the testimony that each woman gave about the day of the murder,
never implicating the other. It seems hard to believe that Abby
Borden’s fall to the upstairs floor would not have been heard from
below, especially since Abby weighed in at close to 200 pounds.
However, there is no proof of this either and it still places one
or both of the women in the role of a depraved killer.
While it seems hard to believe that Lizzie did
commit the murders, it doesn’t mean that she was not guilty in
other ways. In other words, while she may not have actually
handled the hatchet, she may have known who did.
One person who has been accused in this
capacity was Emma Borden. It has been noted with some suspicion
how she may have arranged an alibi for herself, claiming to be
some 15 miles away in Fairhaven, but actually returned to Fall
River, hid upstairs in the Borden house, committed the murders and
then returned to Fairhaven, where she received the telegram from
Dr. Bowen. Once Lizzie is accused, the two sisters worked together
to protect each other. Later, the women had a falling out over
their father’s estate and Lizzie’s alleged affair with Nance
O’Neil. However, neither one of them every spoke of the murder
Another astonishing theory pins the murders on
William Borden, the slightly retarded, illegitimate son of Andrew
Borden, who coincidentally (or not) committed suicide a few years
after the trial. According to this theory, Lizzie, Emma, John
Morse, Dr. Bowen and Andrew Jennings all conspired to keep his
involvement a secret because of his illegitimate status and a
claim that he might make against the estate if his relationship
with the Borden’s was found out.
Allegedly, William was making demands of his
father, who was in the process of writing a new will. Borden
rejected the boy and William became enraged. He first killed Mrs.
Borden and then after hiding in the house with Lizzie’s knowledge,
killed his father as well. The conspirators then either paid
William off or threatened him, or both, and decided that Lizzie
would allow herself to be suspected and tried for the murders,
knowing that she could always identify the real killer, should
that be necessary. This may be much in the way of speculation, but
it’s long been a favored theory by many.
So who did kill Andrew and Abby Borden? It’s
unlikely that we will ever know. It’s also unlikely that we will
ever discover just what Lizzie, and her defense counsel, really
knew about the events in 1892. The papers from Lizzie’s defense
are still locked up and have never been released. The files remain
sealed away in the offices of the Springfield, Massachusetts law
firm that descended from the firm that defended Lizzie during the
trial. There are no plans to ever release them.
But the question of who killed Mr. and Mrs.
Borden is not the only mysterious riddle that lingers in the wake
of this heinous event. Another question might be, who haunts the
house at 92 Second Street where the Borden’s once lived?
In the years since the murders and the trial,
the house has gone on to become the Lizzie Borden Bed and
Breakfast Museum, a time capsule of the era when the murders took
place and a quaint inn. Guests come from all over the country to
be able to sleep in the room where Abby Borden was killed, but not
all of them sleep peacefully -- and not all of the spirits here
rest in peace.
Guests and staff members alike have had their
share of strange experiences in the house. Some have reported the
sounds of a woman weeping and others claim to have seen a woman in
Victorian era clothing dusting the furniture and straightening the
covers on the beds. Occasionally, this even happens when the
guests are still in the bed! Others have heard the sounds of
footsteps going up and down the stairs and crossing back and forth
on the floor above, even when they know the house is empty. Doors
open and close as well and often, muffled conversation can be
heard coming from inside of otherwise vacant rooms.
One man, who had little interest in ghosts,
claimed that he accompanied his wife to the inn one night and took
their luggage upstairs. The room had been perfectly made up when
he entered, the bed smooth and everything put in its place. Over
the course of a few minutes of unpacking, he happened to look over
to the bed again and saw that it was now rumpled, even though he
was in the room alone and had not been near it. With a start, he
also noticed that the folds of the comforter had been moved so
that they corresponded to the curves of a human body. On the
pillow, there was an indentation in the shape of a human head!
His wife found him a few minutes later sitting
in the downstairs sitting room. His face was very pale and he
seemed quite nervous. When she asked him what was wrong, he took
her back upstairs to show her the strange appearance of the bed.
However when he opened the door, the pillow had been plumped and
the comforter looked just as it did when he first entered the room
-- the room where Abby Borden had been murdered!
By Russell Aiuto
Lizzie Borden Took An Axe
The day is stiflingly hot, over one hundred
degrees, even though it is not yet noon. The elderly man, still in
his heavy morning coat, reclines on a mohair-covered sofa, his
boots on the floor so as not to soil the upholstery. As he naps in
the August heat, his wife is on the floor of the guestroom
upstairs, dead for the past hour and a half, killed by the same
hand, with the same weapon, that is about to strike him, as he
"... one of the most dastardly and diabolical
crimes that was ever committed in Massachusetts... Who could have
done such an act? In the quiet of the home, in the broad daylight
of an August day, on the street of a popular city, with houses
within a stone's throw, nay, almost touching, who could have done
"Inspection of the victims discloses that Mrs.
Borden had been slain by the use of some sharp and terrible
instrument, inflicting upon her head eighteen blows, thirteen of
them crushing through the skull; and below stairs, lying upon the
sofa, was Mr. Borden's dead and mutilated body, with eleven
strokes upon the head, four of them crushing the skull."
(From the closing
arguments for the defense of Lizzie Borden, made by her principal
attorney, George D. Robinson.)
The Lizzie Borden case has
mystified and fascinated those interested in crime for over one
hundred years. Very few cases in American history have attracted
as much attention as the hatchet murders of Andrew J. Borden and
his wife, Abby Borden. The bloodiness of the acts in an otherwise
respectable late nineteenth century domestic setting is startling.
Along with the gruesome nature of the crimes is the unexpected
character of the accused, not a hatchet-wielding maniac, but a
church-going, Sunday-school-teaching, respectable,
spinster-daughter, charged with parricide, the murder of parents,
a crime worthy of Classical Greek tragedy. This is a murder case
in which the accused is found not guilty for the violent and
bloody murders of two people. There were the unusual circumstances
considering that it was an era of swift justice, of vast newspaper
coverage, evidence that was almost entirely circumstantial,
passionately divided public opinion as to the guilt or innocence
of the accused, incompetent prosecution, and acquittal.
However little one might know about Lizzie
Borden, she is forever immortalized in the playground verse:
Lizzie Borden took an
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
The First Murder
At about 11:10 a.m., on Thursday, August 4,
1892, a heavy, hot summer day, at No. 92 Second Street, Fall
River, Massachusetts, Bridget Sullivan, the hired girl in the
household of Andrew J. Borden, resting in her attic room, was
startled to hear Lizzie Borden, Andrew's daughter, cry out,
"Maggie, come down!"
"What's the matter?" Bridget (called "Maggie"
by the Borden sisters) asked.
"Come down quick! Father's dead! Somebody's
come in and killed him!"
Andrew Borden, 70, was one of the richest men
in Fall River, a director on the boards of several banks, a
commercial landlord whose holdings were considerable. He was a
tall, thin, white-haired dour man, known for his thrift and
admired for his business abilities. He chose to live with his
second wife and his two grown spinster daughters in a small house
in an unfashionable part of town, close to his business interests.
He was not particularly likable, but, despite the frugal nature of
their daily lives, moderately generous to his wife and daughters
When Bridget hurried downstairs, she found
Lizzie standing at the back door. Lizzie stopped her from going
into the sitting room, saying, "Don't go in there. Go and get the
Bridget ran across the street to their neighbor
and family physician, Dr. Bowen. He was out, but Bridget told Mrs.
Bowen that Mr. Borden had been killed. Bridget ran back to the
house, and Lizzie sent her to summon the Borden sisters' friend,
Miss Alice Russell, who lived a few blocks away.
The portrait of Bridget, taken in her early
twenties, shows a sturdy, vaguely pretty Irish maid, which is
exactly what she was. At the time of the murders she was 26 years
old, and had been working in the Borden household since 1889.
There is no evidence that she was other than an exemplary young
woman. She had emigrated from Ireland in 1886, and belonged to a
socially discriminated class, the Irish of Massachusetts. Her
testimony, which has been published in its entirety in the volume
edited by Jeans, was straightforward, consistent, and neither
helpful nor damaging to Lizzie. She did not spend the night of the
murders in the Borden house, but at a neighbor's, although she
spent the next night (Friday) in her third-floor room, leaving the
house on Saturday, never to return. One legend is that Bridget was
paid off by Lizzie, even to the extent of being given funds to buy
a large farm back in Ireland. While it is likely that Lizzie or
Emma provided the funds for transport back to Ireland, there is no
evidence that more than that had come from Lizzie. The story of
her being well-off is unlikely, since she returned to the United
States a few years later, marrying and moving to Butte, Montana,
where she died in 1948 in very modest circumstances.
The Second Murder
In the meanwhile, the neighbor to the North,
Mrs. Adelaide Churchill, saw that something distressful was
happening at the Borden house. She called across to Lizzie, who
was at the back entrance to the house and asked if anything was
wrong. Lizzie responded by saying, "Oh, Mrs. Churchill, please
come over! Someone has killed Father!"
Mrs. Churchill asked, "Where is your mother?"
Lizzie said that she did not know and that Abby
Borden, her stepmother, had received a note asking her to respond
to someone who was sick. She told Mrs. Churchill that Bridget was
unable to find Dr. Bowen. Mrs. Churchill volunteered to send her
handyman to find a doctor and to send him to a telephone to summon
help. The police station, about four hundred yards from 92 Second
Street, received a message to respond to an incident at No. 92 at
After sending her handy man and informing a
passer-by of the trouble, Mrs. Churchill returned to the Borden
kitchen. Dr. Bowen had arrived, along with Bridget, who had
hurried back from informing Miss Russell. Dr. Bowen examined the
body and asked for a sheet to cover it. Bridget said, "If I knew
where Mrs. Whitehead (Abby Borden's younger sister) was, I would
go and see if Mrs. Borden was there and tell her that Mr. Borden
was very sick."
Lizzie said, "Maggie, I am almost positive I
heard her coming in. Go upstairs and see."
Bridget refused. Mrs. Churchill volunteered to
go up and see if Abby had returned. Bridget reluctantly went with
her. The two went up the front staircase together, and before they
reached the landing they were able to see that Mrs. Borden was
lying on the floor of the guestroom.
Bridget saw Mrs. Borden's body. Mrs. Churchill
rushed by her, viewed the obviously dead body, and rushed
downstairs, saying, "There's another one!"
Abby Borden was a short, shy, obese woman of
64, who had been a spinster until the age of 36, when she married
the widowed Andrew Borden. She was devoted to her younger
half-sister, Sarah Whitehead, to whom she had been a mother. Other
than Sarah and Sarah's daughter, Abby, who had been named for her
aunt, she appeared to have no other intimate relationships. She
apparently provided, within the limits of Andrew's penuriousness,
a comfortable home for her husband, who clearly appreciated her.
Her stepdaughters were not particularly close to her. Lizzie, in
fact, had been calling her "Mrs. Borden" for the past several
years, rather than "Mother."
In the meantime, Alice Russell had arrived, and
Dr. Bowen, having left for a brief time to telegraph Lizzie's
older sister Emma, who was visiting friends in the neighboring
town of Fairhaven, had returned, and resumed examining Andrew
Borden's body. It was on its right side on the sofa, feet still
resting on the floor. His head was bent slightly to the right and
his face had been cut by eleven blows. One eye had been cut in
half and was protruding from his face, his nose had been severed.
Most of the cuts were within a small area extending from the eye
and nose to the ear. Blood was still seeping from the wounds.
There were spots of blood on the floor, on the wall above the sofa
and on a picture hanging on the wall. It appeared that he had been
attacked from above and behind him as he slept.
Dr. Bowen found that Mrs. Borden had been
struck more than a dozen times, from the back. The autopsy later
revealed that there had been nineteen blows. Her head had been
crushed by the same hatchet or axe that had presumably killed Mr.
Borden, with one misdirected blow striking the back of her scalp,
almost at the neck. The blood on Mrs. Borden's body was dark and
Dr. Bowen was heavily involved in the
activities on the day of the murder, diagnosing Abby' early
morning distress and fears as food poisoning, checking on Andrew
and the rest of the household shortly thereafter, being the first
to examine the bodies, sending a telegram to Emma, assisting Dr.
Dolan with the initial autopsies, prescribing sulphate of morphine
as a tranquilizer for Lizzie in short, from about 11:30 a.m. on,
he was a constant presence. His involvement with the family,
particularly on August 4, has led to his being a major figure in
some of the conspiracies developed around the murders.
Within minutes of receiving the call at 11:15,
the City Marshall, Rufus B. Hilliard, dispatched Officer George W.
Allen to the Borden house. He ran the four hundred yards to the
house, saw that Andrew Borden was dead, and deputized a passer-by,
Charles Sawyer, to stand guard while he went back to the
stationhouse for assistance. Within minutes of his return, seven
additional officers went to the murder scene. By 11:45 a.m., the
Medical Examiner, William Dolan, passing by the Borden house and
noting the flurry of activity, was on the scene.
Thus, the discovery of at least one murder
happened at 11:10 a.m., and within the next thirty-five minutes,
the authorities were on the scene.
The Cast of Characters
Mrs. Abby Durfee Gray Borden (1828-1892),
Mr. Andrew Jackson Borden (1822-1892), Lizzie's father
Miss Lizzie Andrew Borden (1860-1927)
Miss Emma Borden (1849-1927), Lizzie's sister
John Vinnicum Morse (1833-1912), Lizzie's maternal uncle, visiting
Bridget ("Maggie") Sullivan (1866-1948), the Borden maid
Josiah C. Blaisdell, presiding judge, Second
Chief Justice Albert Mason (1836-1905), Superior Court of
Associate Justice Caleb Blodgett (1832-1901)
Associate Justice Justin Dewey (1836-1900)
Hosea M. Knowlton (1847-1902), later Attorney
General of Massachusetts
William H. Moody (1853-1917), later Attorney General of the United
States, and Supreme Court Justice
Andrew J. Jennings (1849-1923), Borden family
George D. Robinson (1834-1896), former Governor of Massachusetts
Melvin O. Adams (1850-1920), Boston attorney
Rufus B. Hilliard, City Marshal
John Fleet, Deputy Marshal
Michael Mullaly, Officer
Philip Harrington, Sergeant
Dr. William A. Dolan, Medical Examiner
Dr. Edward S. Wood, Professor of Chemistry, Harvard
MINISTERS, FRIENDS, NEIGHBORS, WITNESSES:
Sarah Gray Whitehead, Abby Borden's younger
Abby Borden Whitehead Potter, Sarah's daughter
Hiram Harrington, Andrew Borden's brother-in-law
Luana Borden Harrington, Andrew Borden's sister
W. Walker Jubb, minister, First Congregational Church, Fall River
Edwin A. Buck, minister, Central Congregational Church, Fall River
Miss Alice Russell, friend of the Borden sisters
Mrs. Adelaide Churchill, next door neighbor
Eli Bence, drugstore clerk
Dr. Seabury W. Bowen, Borden family physician and neighbor
The murder investigation, chaotic and stumbling
as it was, can be reconstructed from the four official judicial
events in the Lizzie Borden case: The inquest, the preliminary
hearing, the Grand Jury hearing, and the trial. Basically, a
circumstantial case against Lizzie was developed without the
precise identification of a murder weapon, with no incriminating
physical evidence for example, bloodstained clothes and no clear
and convincing motive. Also, the case against Lizzie was hampered
by the inability of the investigators to produce a corroborated
demonstration of time and opportunity for the murders.
Over the course of several weeks, investigators
were able to construct a time-table of events covering the period
of Wednesday, August 3, the day before the murders, through
Sunday, August 7, the day that Miss Russell saw Lizzie burning a
dress, an act that proved crucial at the inquest.
The investigation found that four events of
significance occurred on August 3. The first was that Abby Borden
had gone across the street to Dr. Bowen at seven in the morning,
claiming that she and Andrew were being poisoned. Both of them had
been violently ill during the night. Dr. Bowen told her that he
did not think that her nausea and vomiting was serious, and sent
her home. Later, he went across the street to check on Andrew, who
ungraciously told him that he was not ill, and that he would not
pay for an unsolicited house call. Bridget had also been ill that
morning. No evidence of poisoning was found during the autopsies
of Andrew and Abby.
The second was that Lizzie had attempted to buy
ten cents worth of prussic acid from Eli Bence, a clerk at Smith's
Drug Store. She told Bence that she wanted the poison to kill
insects in her sealskin cape. Bence refused to sell it to her
without a prescription. Two others, a customer and another clerk,
identified Lizzie as having been in the drugstore somewhere
between ten and eleven-thirty in the morning. Lizzie denied that
she had tried to buy prussic acid, testifying at the inquest that
she had been out that morning, but not to Smith's Drug Store, then
changing her story by saying that she had not left the house at
all until the evening of August 3.
Third, early in the afternoon, Uncle John Morse
arrived. He was without luggage, but intended to stay overnight,
so that he could visit relatives across town the next day. Both he
and Lizzie testified that they did not see each other until after
the murders the next day, although Lizzie knew that he was there.
Finally, that evening Lizzie visited her
friend, Miss Alice Russell. According to Miss Russell, Lizzie was
agitated, worried over some threat to her father, and concerned
that something was about to happen. Lizzie returned home about
nine o'clock, heard Uncle John and her parents talking loudly in
the sitting room, and went upstairs to bed without seeing them.
The morning of the murder began with Bridget
beginning her duties about 6:15. Uncle John was also up. Abby came
down about seven, Andrew a few minutes later. They had breakfast.
Lizzie remained upstairs until a few minutes after Uncle John
left, at about 8:45. Andrew left for his business rounds around
nine o'clock, according to Mrs. Churchill, the neighbor to the
north. He visited the various banks where he was a stockholder,
and a store he owned that was being remodeled. He left for home
around 10:40, according to the carpenters working at the store.
Just before nine o'clock, Abby instructed
Bridget to wash the windows while she went upstairs to straighten
up the guestroom where Uncle John had spent the night.
Some time between nine and ten (probably 9:30)
Abby was killed in the guestroom. She had not gone out. The note
that Lizzie said Abby had received from a sick friend, asking her
to visit, was never found, despite an intensive search. Lizzie
said that she might have inadvertently burned it.
Andrew returned shortly after 10:40. Bridget
was washing the inside of the windows. Because the door was locked
from the inside with three locks, Bridget had to let Mr. Borden
in. As she fumbled with the lock, she testified that she heard
Lizzie laugh from the upstairs landing. However, Lizzie told the
police that she had been in the kitchen when her father came home.
Mr. Borden, who had kept his and Mrs. Borden's
bedroom locked since a burglary the year before, took the key to
his bedroom off the mantle and went up the back stairs. Lizzie set
up the ironing board and began to iron handkerchiefs. For a few
minutes more, Bridget resumed washing windows.
Bridget went up to her room to lie down about
10:55. Andrew went to the couch in the sitting room for a nap.
Lizzie went out into the yard, or to the barn, or to the barn
loft, for twenty to thirty minutes. Where she had precisely gone
was vague. She said that her purpose for going to the barn was to
find some metal for fishing sinkers, since she intended to join
Emma at Fairhaven and to do some fishing. When she returned at
11:10, she found her father dead.
August 4, Continued
The next thirty-five
minutes have been recounted in the description of the crime
11:15: Police received notification
11:30: Dr. Bowen arrived
11:45: Charles Sawyer, seven police officers
and Medical Examiner William Dolan were on the scene
The police investigation began in earnest.
Officer Mullaly asked Lizzie if there were any hatchets in the
house. "Yes, she said. "They are everywhere." She then told
Bridget to show him where they were. Mullaly and Bridget went down
to the basement and found four hatchets, one with dried blood and
hair on it cow's blood and hair, as it was later determined a
second rusty claw-headed hatchet, and two that were dusty. One of
these was without a handle and covered in ashes. The break
appeared to be recent. This is the hatchet submitted in evidence.
About this time, Uncle John returned, strolling
into the backyard, picking some pears and eating them. He had been
asked by Andrew that morning to return for the noon meal. He later
testified that he did not notice if the cellar door was open or
Sergeant Harrington and another officer, having
questioned Lizzie as to her whereabouts during the morning,
examined the barn loft where Lizzie said she had been looking for
metal for fishing sinkers. They found that the loft floor was
thick with dust, with no evidence that anyone had been up there.
At 3:00, the bodies of Andrew and Abby were
carried into the dining room, where Dr. Dolan performed autopsies
on them as they lay on the dining room table. Their stomachs
removed and tied, and sent by special messenger to Dr. Wood at
Upstairs, Deputy Marshal John Fleet questioned
Lizzie, asking her if she had any idea of who could have committed
the murders. Other than a man with whom her father had had an
argument a few weeks before a man unknown to her she knew of no
one. When asked directly if Uncle John Morse or Bridget could have
killed her father and mother, she said that they couldn't have.
Uncle John had left the house at 8:45, and Bridget was upstairs
when Mr. Borden was killed. She pointedly reminded Mr. Fleet that
Abby was not her mother, but her stepmother.
Emma returned from Fairhaven just before seven
that evening. The bodies of the Bordens were still on the dining
room table, awaiting the arrival of the undertaker. Sergeant
Harrington continued the questioning of Lizzie. Finally, the
police left, leaving a cordon around the house to keep away the
large number of curious Fall River citizens who had been gathered
around the front of the house since noon. Bridget was taken to
stay with a neighbor, Alice Russell stayed in the Bordens'
bedroom, Emma and Lizzie in their respective bedrooms, and Uncle
John in the guest room where Abby had been killed.
August 5 through December
The next day Lizzie's uncle, Hiram Harrington,
married to Andrew Borden's only sister, Luana Borden Harrington,
had given an interview the day before to the Fall River Globe,
which now appeared. He falsely stated that he had had an interview
with his niece the evening before the evening of the day of the
murders and that his niece had not shown any emotion or grief, "as
she is not naturally emotional."
Sergeant Harrington no relation to Hiram found
Eli Bence and interviewed him about the attempt to buy poison.
Emma engaged Mr. Andrew Jennings as their attorney. The police
continued to investigate, but nothing of significance was found.
Fall River was in an uproar, and the newspapers, both in Fall
River and the metropolitan areas, were obsessed with the killings.
Saturday was the day of the funerals for Andrew
and Abby Borden. The service was conducted by the Reverends Buck
and Judd, of the two competing Congregational churches. The
burial, however, did not take place. At the gravesite, the police
were informed that Dr. Wood wanted to conduct another autopsy. At
this second autopsy, the heads of Andrew and Abby were removed
from their bodies and defleshed. Plaster casts were made of the
skulls. Andrew's skull, for some reason, was not returned to his
On Sunday morning, Miss Russell observed Lizzie
burning a dress in the kitchen stove. She said, "If I were you, I
wouldn't let anybody see me do that, Lizzie." Lizzie said it was a
dress stained with paint, and was of no use. It was this testimony
at the inquest that prompted Judge Blaisdell of the Second
District Court to charge Lizzie with the murders
August 9 through August 11
Judge Blaisdell conducted the inquest, the
proceedings of which were kept secret. At its conclusion, Lizzie
was charged with the murder of her father, and remanded to
custody. Lizzie's only testimony during all of the legal
proceedings was at the inquest. The next day, August 12, she was
arraigned, and pleaded not guilty. She was held in Taunton Jail,
which had facilities for female prisoners.
August 22 through August 28
The preliminary hearing was held before Judge
Blaisdell. Lizzie did not testify, but the record of Lizzie's
testimony at the secret inquest were entered by Jennings.
Tearfully, Judge Blaisdell declared Lizzie's probable guilt and
bound her over for the Grand Jury.
November 7 through December 2
The Grand Jury heard the case of Lizzie Borden
during the last week of its session. Prosecutor Hosea Knowlton
finished his presentation and surprisingly invited defense
attorney Jennings to present a case for the defense. This was
unheard of in Massachusetts. In effect, a trial was being
conducted before the Grand Jury. It appeared for a time that the
charge against Lizzie would be dismissed. Then, on December 1,
Miss Russell testified about the burning of the dress. The next
day, Lizzie was charged with three counts of murder. (Oddly, she
had been charged with the murder of her father, the murder of her
stepmother, and the murders of both of them.) The trial was set
for June 5, 1893.
In addition to the actual trial record itself,
two works (discussed in detail below) chronicle the trial. The
first is the book by Edmund Pearson, The Trial of Lizzie Borden,
and the second is Robert Sullivan's Goodbye Lizzie Borden. Both
are detailed, Pearson's being a day-by-day account, while
Sullivan's is mostly a legal analysis of the trial.
A brief synopsis of the events of trial is
helpful in understanding how the jury came to its conclusion. The
trial lasted fourteen days, from June 5, 1893, to June 20, 1893.
After a day to select the jury twelve middle-aged farmers and
tradesmen the prosecution took about seven days to present its
Hosea Knowlton was a reluctant prosecutor,
forced into the role by the politically timid Arthur Pillsbury,
Attorney General of Massachusetts, who should have been the
principal attorney for the prosecution. As Lizzie's trial date
approached, Pillsbury felt the pressure building from Lizzie's
supporters, particularly women's groups and religious
organizations. Pillsbury directed Knowlton, District Attorney of
Fall River, to lead the prosecution, and assigned William Moody,
District Attorney of Essex County, to assist him. One author,
Pearson, calls Knowlton "a courageous public official," while a
second, Sullivan, considers his performance at the trial to be "a
clear pattern of reluctance and lethargy." Shortly after the
trial, Knowlton replaced Pillsbury as Attorney General.
Moody, according to Sullivan, was the most
competent attorney involved in the Borden trial. He was the most
thorough in the questioning of witnesses Knowlton, in contrast,
would sometimes open a line of questioning and then walk away from
it and Moody's arguments to the court about the admissibility of
evidence were impressive, even if they failed to sway the three
judges. His opening statement delineating the issues that the
prosecution would bring to the demonstration of Lizzie's guilt
were clear, firm, and logical. Moody was elected to Congress three
times, served as Secretary of the Navy, then as Attorney General,
both during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard
classmate. In 1906, Roosevelt appointed Moody a Justice of the
Supreme Court of the United States.
William Moody made the opening statements for
the prosecution. He presented three arguments. First, Lizzie was
predisposed to murder her father and stepmother and that she had
planned it. Second, that she did in fact murder them, and, third,
that her behavior and contradictory testimony was not consistent
with innocence. At one point, Moody threw a dress onto the
prosecution table that he was to offer later in evidence. As the
dress fell on the table, the tissue paper covering the fleshless
skulls of the victims was wafted away. Lizzie slid to the floor in
a dead faint.
Crucial to the prosecution case was the
presentation of evidence that supplied a motive for the murders.
Prosecutors Knowlton and Moody called witnesses to establish that
Mr. Borden was intending to write a new will. An old will was
never found, or did not exist, although Uncle John testified at
first that Mr. Borden had told him that he had a will, and then
testified that Mr. Borden had not told him of a will. The new
will, according to Uncle John, would leave Emma and Lizzie each
$25,000, with the remainder of Mr. Borden's half million dollar
estate well over ten million in present-day dollars going to Abby.
Further, Knowlton developed the additional motive of Mr. Borden's
intent to dispose of his farm to Abby, just as he had done the
year before with the duplex occupied by Abby's sister, Sarah
Whitehead. Knowlton then turned to Lizzie's "predisposition"
towards murder. However, two rulings by the court were crucial to
Lizzie's eventual verdict of innocent.
On Saturday, June 10, the prosecution attempted
to enter Lizzie's testimony from the inquest into the record.
Robinson objected, since it was testimony from one who had not
been formally charged. On Monday, when court resumed, the justices
disallowed the introduction of Lizzie's contradictory inquest
On Wednesday, June 14, the prosecution called
Eli Bence, the drug store clerk, to the stand, and the defense
objected. After hearing arguments from both the prosecution and
the defense as to the relevance of Lizzie's attempt to purchase
prussic acid, the justices ruled the following day that Mr.
Bence's testimony and the entire issue of her alleged attempt to
buy poison was irrelevant and inadmissible.
The defense used only two days to present its
Jennings was one of Fall River's most prominent
citizens. He had been Andrew Borden's lawyer, and from the day of
the murders on, he became Lizzie's adviser and attorney. He was a
taciturn man who never spoke of the Borden case in the thirty
years he lived after its conclusion. Without a doubt, it is
Jennings, along with his younger colleague, Melvin Adams, who
worked successfully to exclude testimony that would have been
damaging to Lizzie.
However, even with his lack of legal
experience, the third lawyer for the defense, George Robinson,
brought a prominent and respected personality to the proceedings.
The fact that he had appointed Justice Dewey to the Superior Court
certainly did not hurt their cause.
For the most part, the defense called witnesses
to verify the presence of a mysterious young man in the vicinity
of the Borden home, and Emma Borden to verify the absence of a
motive for Lizzie as the murderer.
Emma Borden is something of an enigma. She is
variously described as shy, retiring, small, plain looking,
thin-faced and bony an unremarkable forty-three-year-old spinster.
The most well-known depiction of her is an unsatisfactory drawing
made of her in court. She was supportive of Lizzie during the
trial, although there is one witness, a prison matron, who
testified that Lizzie and Emma had an argument when Emma was
visiting her in jail.
After the trial, she and Lizzie lived together
at Maplecroft. While Lizzie found it impossible to attend church
because of her ostracism, Emma, unlike her previous existence,
became a devoted churchgoer.
On Monday, June 19, defense attorney Robinson
delivered his closing arguments and Knowlton began his closing
arguments for the prosecution, completing them on the next day.
Lizzie was then asked if she had anything to say. For the only
time during the trial, she spoke. She said, "I am innocent. I
leave it to my counsel to speak for me." Justice Dewey, who had
been appointed to the Superior Court bench by then Governor
Robinson, then delivered his charge to the jury, which was, in
effect, a second summation of the case for the defense, remarkable
in its bias.
At 3:24, the jury was sworn, given the case,
and retired to carry out their deliberations. At 4:32, a little
over an hour later, the jury returned with its verdict. Lizzie was
found not guilty on all three charges. The jury was earnestly
thanked by the court, and dismissed.
Five weeks after the trial, Lizzie and Emma
purchased and moved into a thirteen-room, gray stone Victorian
house at 306 French Street, located on "The Hill," the fashionable
residential area of Fall River. Shortly thereafter, Lizzie named
the house "Maplecroft," and had the name carved into the top stone
step leading up to the front door. It was at this time that Lizzie
began to refer to herself as "Lizbeth."
In 1897, Lizzie was charged with the theft of
two paintings, valued at less than one hundred dollars, from the
Tilden-Thurber store in Fall River. The controversy was privately
In 1904, Lizzie met a young actress, Nance
O'Neil, and for the next two years, Lizzie and Nance were
inseparable. About this time, Emma moved out of Maplecroft,
presumably offended by her sister's relationship with the actress,
which included at least one lavish catered party for Nance and her
theatrical company. Emma stayed with the family of Reverend Buck,
and, sometime around 1915, moved to Newmarket, New Hampshire,
living quietly and virtually anonymously in a house she had
presumably purchased for two sisters, Mary and Annie Conner.
Lizzie died on June 1, 1927, at age 67, after a
long illness from complications following gall bladder surgery.
Emma died nine days later, as a result of a fall down the back
stairs of her house in Newmarket. They were buried together in the
family plot, along with a sister who had died in early childhood,
their mother, their stepmother, and their headless father.
Both Lizzie and Emma left their estates to
charitable causes; Lizzie's being left predominately to animal
care organizations, Emma's to various humanitarian organizations
in Fall River.
Bridget Sullivan, as it has been noted, died in
1948, more than twenty years after the death of the Borden
sisters, in Butte, Montana.
The Persistence of the Lizzie Borden Case in American Culture
In addition to the singsong rhyme, Lizzie
Borden is fixed in the American imagination for a number of
reasons. Hers was the first nationally prominent murder case in
the United States. Despite all of the circumstantial evidence that
Lizzie did indeed commit these murders, it remains at least
technically an unsolved crime. Few cases since perhaps the
Sacco-Vanzetti case, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Dr. Sam
Sheppard case, and, of course, the recent O.J. Simpson case have
the fascination of Lizzie Borden.
A number of "solved" cases, such as the
Loeb-Leopold case, are equally fascinating, but it is that small
group of unresolved murders that continue to persist in our
Support for the contention that these murders
will remain as part of our culture for a very long time can be
seen in the "industries" that have grown up around each of them.
Not only have a great number of books been written about each
case, each with its own slant or theory, but these murders have
inspired dramas, novels, poems, and, in the case of Lizzie Borden,
even a ballet and an opera. The distinguished actress, Lillian
Gish, portrayed Lizzie in a 1934 play, Nine Pine Street, although
her character had been renamed Effie Holden and "Effie" had used a
flat iron and a heavy walking stick as her weapons. In 1995,
Lizzie was the subject of an A & E Biography, and recently she was
"tried" (and found innocent) in a mock trial on C-SPAN.
But among these handful of fascinating cases,
Lizzie Borden, in my opinion, remains preeminent. Each book some
of which I describe below presents a different theory. Why? It is
not only the unresolved nature of her case, but the inscrutability
of her appearance, her light blue eyes staring back at us from her
photographs, broad-shouldered, thin-waisted, broad-hipped, an
unfathomable smile a very slight smile defying us, over a century
later, to make sense of her. So potent is her appeal that an
entire mythology has grown up about her. As she became more and
more reclusive as she got older mostly as a result of Fall River's
social ostracism of her legends grew. At one time, Lizzie had
decapitated Abby's cat when it was annoying Lizzie's guests during
a tea. A frightened deliveryman, bringing a wooden crate to
Maplecroft, ran off in terror when Lizzie offered to get an axe
for him. As she became the eccentric who was preoccupied with
birds and squirrels and the welfare of animals in general, she
became the seldom-seen legend who refused to leave Fall River,
except for occasional and mysterious trips to Boston, New York,
and Washington, D.C., glimpsed riding in her chauffeured
limousine. What is true, partly true, and entirely fictional? What
is her secret?
Added to the attractiveness, the mystery of
Lizzie herself, is the surrounding cast of characters and
circumstances: A mouse of an older sister who was, in Lizzie's
childhood, a surrogate mother and from whom she was estranged the
last twenty years of her life; a strange and mysterious uncle; a
set of judges and a jury predisposed to her innocence; a town in
frenzy in its partisanship and support for this Christian maiden
lady; and, for the first time in American journalism, coverage of
a murder case that became in more than one sense her advocate
Theories 1: Lizzie Committed the Murders
The literature that exists on the Borden case
is extensive. Without exerting one's self, it is still possible to
find in a modest public library three or four books about Lizzie.
A visit to a second library, equally modest, will reveal another
two or three titles that the first library did not have. Soon,
there will be a stack of more than a dozen volumes to say nothing
of the dozens of magazine articles staring at anyone who attempts
to be even a bit responsible in producing a study of Lizzie
These books and articles each have their own
special spin to the case, usually using the same sets of facts,
evidence, interviews, etc., to argue who really hacked Andrew and
Abby Borden to death. Some of these theories range from the
carefully argued, judicial analysis of the trial, to rather
startling assertions naming some other person than Lizzie. Some
combine theories, constructing elaborate conspiracies that defy
belief. A number of them place great importance on interviews with
second and third generation descendants of witnesses.
During the early days of the investigation, and
well into the time of the trial itself ten months later, a number
of accusations were made. The murderer, at various times, was
declared to be Uncle Morse, Bridget, a madman in a straw hat, Dr.
Bowen, and fantastically one of Lizzie's Chinese Sunday School
I have tried to summarize these theories and
their variants. They are from books that are either still in
print, or books that can be found in most libraries or second-hand
bookstores. The bibliographical information for each is given. A
more extensive bibliography is also provided, but it is not
intended to be exhaustive, but rather "accessible."
I claim the privilege of authorial wisdom, and
I have assigned, on a scale of one to ten, my judgment as to the
credibility of each theory.
Variation One: Lizzie committed the
Under this category, one runs into most of the
books published before 1940, with a few exceptions.
1) Porter, Edwin H. 1893. The Fall River
Tragedy. J.D. Munroe, Fall River. (reprinted by Robert Flynn,
1985, King Philip Publications, 466 Ocean Ave., Portland, Me.)
Porter's account is the first thorough work on
Lizzie Borden. He was the police reporter for the Fall River Daily
Globe, and was an observer of both the investigation and the
trial. While he did not explicitly state that Lizzie had committed
the crime, his analysis makes it unlikely (in his mind) that the
murder could have been done by an outsider. Of the several hundred
copies of his book that J.D. Munroe printed, only a few until the
recent reprint by Flynn were known to exist. One of those, the
copy in the Library of Congress, has disappeared. On the day of
its publication, Lizzie, on the advice of Mr. Jennings, bought all
the available copies and burned them, although this is an
assumption, since there is no direct evidence that she was the
purchaser of all but four or five of the volumes. Until the
reprint, four of the copies were in the possession of the Fall
River Historical Society, and one other was said to be in private
Arnold R. Brown, an author discussed below who
is very much intrigued by conspiracy theories, states in his book
that Porter "...was an outstanding reporter, and yet after 1893
there are no reported by-lines of his from anywhere in the
country. He simply was never heard from again." Brown's
implication is that Porter was paid off to both disappear and
never publish his book again.
Credibility Score: 8
2) Pearson, Edmund. 1937. The Trial Book of
Lizzie Borden. Doubleday.
Pearson was the preeminent writer of
"true-crime" for a number of years. He died in 1937. His book is
an abridgment of the trial record, with accompanying information
to fill in the material that he deleted. Two of his essays on
Lizzie Borden are reprinted in the book of his writings edited by
Gerald Gross, one of which discusses the myths surrounding the
case. He had earlier analyzed the Borden case in a long essay in
his Studies in Murder in 1924. His conclusion was unequivocal.
Lizzie did it. He was willing to report legends, myths, and odd
beliefs. It is he that reports (and rejects) the fanciful
suggestion that Lizzie stripped herself naked before killing her
victims, thereafter washing off the blood at the water tap in the
cellar, and replacing her unblemished clothes. An interesting
television movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie used this
premise, adding some titillating views of an almost nude Lizzie to
the account. To quote the acerbic Pearson, "... the maidens of
Massachusetts are not accustomed to undress before committing
homicide. In fact, so rigid are their notions of propriety that a
good many of them do not slaughter their parents at all, even when
Pearson has gathered a considerable number of
legends, recounts them, and enjoys them as the absurdities that
they are. He particularly enjoyed two stanzas of a poem written by
A.L. Bixby, published during the trial:
There's no evidence of guilt,
That should make your spirit wilt,
Many do not think that you
Chopped your father's head in two,
It's so hard a thing to do,
You have borne up under all,
With a mighty show of gall,
But because your nerve is stout
Does not prove beyond a doubt
That you knocked the old folks out,
Pearson was selective in his analysis of the
evidence that confirmed, for him, Lizzie's guilt, dismissing
information that was favorable to her. Still, he is convincing in
his discussion of motive and opportunity.
Without a doubt, Pearson is the most gifted
stylist of any of the writers whom I have read in my research on
Credibility Score: 8
3) Sullivan, Robert. 1974. Goodbye Lizzie
Borden. Penguin Books.
Like Pearson, Sullivan concludes that Lizzie
was guilty, and emphasizes even more strongly how poorly
structured and presented was the prosecution's case. One
difference between the two accounts of the case is that Sullivan,
a former justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, examined the
official trial record exhaustively, without the subjective
selectivity of Pearson. A second difference is that Sullivan
credits an extraordinary set of lucky events that helped Lizzie
avoid a guilty verdict.
The trial record, some two thousand pages, as
well as the information contained in the earlier judicial
proceedings, is carefully dissected by Sullivan. He notes every
critical piece of testimony, either within the context of the law
or with reference to specific procedures. It is a very
professional account, as one would expect from a lawyer and
Sullivan makes much of the court's actions and
rulings, and discusses Justice Dewey's instruction to the jury, a
strange, virtual summation for the defense. He was not impressed
with either the prosecution's case, nor was he in agreement with
"the recurring fiction(s)" that Robinson was an accomplished
defense lawyer. "Either the able Jennings or the experienced and
able Adams could have tried the case as successfully as did
Robinson, and even more credibly; and probably for a much smaller
fee," the staggering sum of $25,000, five times the annual salary
of each of the judges presiding at the trial.
Lizzie's deliverance was due mostly to two
judicial rulings: the exclusion of her inconsistent statements
made under oath at the inquest, and the exclusion of the prussic
acid evidence. A second piece of luck for Lizzie was the
sensational axe murder of Bertha Manchester in her Fall River
home, five days before jury selection began. Almost immediately, a
Portuguese immigrant was arrested and charged. The implication, of
course, is that Jose Corriera had also murdered the Bordens, even
though he had not arrived in the United States until eight months
after the Borden murders.
Credibility Score: 9
4) Lincoln, Victoria. 1967. A Private Disgrace:
Lizzie Borden by Daylight. G.P. Putnam's Sons.
Victoria Lincoln was a novelist who grew up in
Fall River, and, as a child, occasionally talked to Lizzie Borden
as Lizzie was out feeding the birds and squirrels in her backyard
at Maplecroft. Her family knew the Borden family, and Ms. Lincoln
spent her childhood little more than a block away from Lizzie's
house on the Hill.
This book asserts that Lizzie planned the
murder of her stepmother and then, in order to prevent the father
she loved very much from testifying against her, killed him as
There are three interesting twists to Lincoln's
understanding of the case. The first is that Lizzie suffered from
epilepsy of the temporal lobe, and that she committed the first
murder while "suffering one of her spells." These epileptic
seizures occurred during her menstrual periods, it is reported,
and, on August 4, 1892, she was having her period.
The second twist is that Lizzie was indeed in
the barn in the time interval she claimed to be say, ten thirty to
eleven because there was running water in the barn, where she
could remove some of Abby's blood from her skirts and the hatchet.
Also, the barn had a large vise, where she could break off the
handle of the hatchet, burn the handle in the kitchen stove, and
dip the cleaned, wet hatchet head in wood ashes.
Finally, Lincoln proposes that the bloodstained
dress was not found because the investigators were men. If Lizzie
had been wearing a dress of a fabric other than cotton, then the
police would have ignored it, since they were confining their
search to "a cotton wrapper." Therefore, all Lizzie had to do was
to hang a silk dress worn during the murder of her father under
another silk dress, and the bloodstained dress would be
Lincoln uses her novelist's skills well, and
her analyses seem not only plausible, but entirely possible. Even
if what she has produced is fiction, it is pretty good.
Credibility Score: 8
Theories 2: Lizzie did not Commit the Murders
I have included in this category books that
have a certain plausibility, and I have avoided those theories
that strain even heated imaginations. In order to be included, I
have considered only those books where the author has done
reasonably thorough research, so that the interpretations come out
of fact, rather than fancy. Some of these authors often take
evidence already circumstantial and expand it into for want of a
better word megacircumstantiality.
1) Radin, Edward D. 1961. Lizzie Borden, The
Untold Story. Simon and Schuster.
Radin's book is fundamentally an attack on
Pearson, whose book on Lizzie he considers "a literary hoax." In
the long run, Pearson was biased against Lizzie, simply because
his wide experience in the study of crime and his common sense
told him so. Thus, his selection and interpretation of the
evidence reflected his belief in her guilt.
In the process of debunking Pearson, Radin
builds a case that Bridget, the maid, was the murderess. According
to Radin, Bridget, ordered to wash windows on the hottest day of
the year, went mad and hacked Mrs. Borden to death. She then
murdered Mr. Borden in order to prevent him from reporting the
hypothesized argument that Bridget had had with Mrs. Borden
earlier in the morning, for such a report would incriminate her.
This again is a theory that suggests that Mrs. Borden is the
target victim, and that Mr. Borden is killed to keep him from
identifying her murderer.
Unfortunately, assigning the motive of rage to
Bridget is difficult, since there is no evidence that suggests
that she harbored great hostility toward her employer. Was Bridget
Lizzie's lover, and so her rage against Mrs. Borden was fueled by
Lizzie's unjust treatment at the hands of her stepmother and
father? There is no evidence to support this idea. Radin, I think,
is seduced by the story that Bridget, in her old age, "almost"
confessed during an illness that she supposed was her last.
Credibility Score: 2
2) Spiering, Frank. 1984. Lizzie. Random
House. Paperback reprint, 1985.Pinnacle Books.
This book attempts to prove that Emma was the
murderess, with Lizzie as a frightened accomplice. The motive for
Emma is the same as Lizzie's, that is, the desire to inherit all
of Mr. Borden's estate, and resentment over financial arrangements
that Mr. Borden was making for his second wife.
Spiering uses the testimony, newspaper
accounts, other documents to develop a case in which Emma, the
"Little Mother" to Lizzie, hatches the elaborate plot. First, she
establishes her alibi away from the crime scene some fifteen miles
away at Fairhaven while surreptitiously driving her buggy to Fall
River, hiding in the upstairs, committing the murders, and driving
her buggy back to Fairhaven, where she awaits the telegram from
Dr. Bowen. Once Lizzie is accused, the sisters work together to
protect each other.
However, there is a point where it seems to
Spiering that Emma is trying to double-cross Lizzie and Lizzie
forces Emma to share the rewards of the murder with her. It
includes legal documents that establish the division of Andrew
The lingering suspicion of one another is
evidenced from time to time by Emma's estrangement from Lizzie,
beginning with her disapproval of Nance O'Neil, with whom,
Spiering asserts, Lizzie had an affair. Later, the two sisters
went to court over Emma's intent to sell the A.J. Borden building,
resolved only by Lizzie buying Emma's share of the building.
Interviews, or records of interviews, with
people who knew Lizzie and Emma in their later years are important
to Spiering, and he basically creates a scenario of Emma's guilty
behavior as his argument that it was Emma who was the actual
Credibility Score: 6
3) Brown, Arnold R. 1992. Lizzie Borden.
This recent book concocts an elaborate
conspiracy to explain the murders. Brown, a native of Fall River,
was a friend of the son-in-law of a man who purportedly knew the
identity of the murderer. Further, that man's mother-in-law had
actually been a witness to the murderer's leaving the scene of the
Taking this as a point of departure, Brown
examines the case and reconstructs it to propose the following,
astonishing solution: The murderer was William Borden, the
retarded, supposedly illegitimate son of Andrew Borden. Because of
his illegitimate status, and a possible claim he might have to his
natural father's estate, Lizzie, Emma, Uncle John, Dr. Bowen, and
Mr. Jennings conspired to keep his crime hidden. Browns peculates
that William was making demands of his father, who was in the
process of making his will, and that these demands were rejected
by Andrew. William, full of rage, killed Mrs. Borden first, hid in
the house with Lizzie's knowledge, and then killed his father. The
conspirators then either paid William off or threatened him, or
both, and decided that Lizzie would allow herself to be suspected
and tried for the murders, knowing that she could always identify
the real killer, should that be necessary.
Brown works very hard on his hypothesis,
discovering such bits of information as William Borden's
fascination with hatchets, his possible connection to the Bertha
Manchester murder could that have been a "contract" murder to
divert guilt away from Lizzie? and his unique combination of
repulsive body odors remembered by the witness who saw him in the
Borden's side yard, wild-eyed and fragrant, just after the
As in the case of Spiering's book, a great deal
of massaging of the facts of the case takes place. Lizzie's
testimony at the inquest, for example, is completely recast in the
form of clever red herrings, intended to keep William Borden from
Credibility Score: 4
4) Gross, Gerald. 1963. "The Pearson-Radin
Controversy over the Guilt of Lizzie Borden" in Masterpieces of
Murder: An Edmund Pearson True Crime Reader, Gerald Gross,
editor. Little, Brown and Company.
An odd compromise between Pearson and Radin is
offered by Gerald Gross. The final selection in his collection of
famous crime pieces written by Pearson is a brief essay written by
Gross himself. He presents Radin's attack on Pearson, a summary of
Radin's contention that Bridget is the murderer, and his own
Gross proposes that Lizzie did indeed murder
her parents, but that she could not have brought off the crime
successfully without Bridget's assistance. It was Bridget who
spirited away virtually under the very noses of the police the
murder weapon and the bloodstained dress. Gross suggests the
possibility that Lizzie plotted the murders with Bridget. This
connivance explains the mutually non-accusatory testimony of
Lizzie and Bridget with respect to each other. Gross points out
that only the two of them were in the house when the
two-hundred-pound Abby Borden fell heavily and noisily to the
floor after being struck. He finds significance in Bridget's
passage being paid so that she could return to Ireland was it
Lizzie's part of the bargain? He also attaches importance to
Bridget's "almost-death-bed confession" over half a century later,
when Bridget was living in Butte, Montana.
Most of the writers on the case have described
Bridget as open and guileless, but it is possible that she might
have had some guilty knowledge of the crimes. Gross's brief
account, relying heavily on Radin's arguments, at least serves as
a counter argument for the absence of a reasonable motive for
Bridget as the murderer.
Credibility Score: 5
Lizzie Didnt Do It! A Review of William L. Mastertons book, by
"There is not one
particle of direct evidence in this case, from beginning to end,
against Lizzie Borden. There is not a spot of blood, there is not
a weapon they have connected to her in any way, shape, or fashion.
They have not had her hand touch it or her eyne see it or her ear
hear of it. There is not, I say, a particle of direct testimony in
the case connecting her with the crime."
Andrew Jennings, Lizzie's lawyer
And you thought that there was no way that
anyone could add anything new to the 1892 Lizzie Borden case.
Well, like Jack the Ripper, Lizzie has become a cottage industry.
Every few years will produce new books and, sometimes, new
I have selected William L. Masterton's Lizzie
Didn't Do It. as a comparatively recent (2000) book that is, from
my viewpoint, worthy of reading. After reading Robert Sullivan's
Goodbye Lizzie Borden, I had decided that Lizzie had to be guilty,
so when I saw Masterton's book, which uses some modern forensics
and extensive research to come to his conclusion about Lizzie's
innocence, I felt that I needed to open up my mind.
Masterton's book is refreshingly easy to
understand and he addresses evidence and testimony by topic, such
as the prussic acid issue, the note that Lizzie said Abby Borden
received the morning of her murder, and every other controversial
area that caused Lizzie to be arrested, handed over to trial and
eventually found "not guilty."
Let me address one of the many controversial
issues from this classic murder case that Masterton handles so
well: Abby Borden's time of death. Why is this important? Because,
police and forensic experts at that time believed that Abby Borden
was murdered well over an hour, maybe even 2 hours, before her
husband Andrew Borden was killed.
Were that really the case, it is very difficult
to conjure up a vision of Lizzie, or anyone else for that matter,
brutally rampaging against the mild-mannered Abby Borden, then
cooling his or her heels for a couple of hours, after which
another similar rampage of brutality is generated toward Andrew
Lizzie was out in the barn around 11 A.M. when
her father, Andrew, was murdered, but was in the house between 9
and 10 A.M when contemporary experts testified that Abby died.
Furthermore, Abby weighed some 200 pounds and it is hard to
imagine that Lizzie would not have heard the stricken Abby crash
to the floor.
A number of contemporary experts based their
belief that Abby had died between an hour and two hours earlier
than Andrew on several factors: 1) Abby's blood seemed to be
coagulated and Andrew's was not, 2) Abby's body felt cooler to the
touch than Andrew's, and 3) there was a great deal of undigested
food in Abby's stomach, but the food in Andrew's stomach was
pretty well digested.
At the time of the trial, Dr. Frank Draper
testified on the very limited value of blood coagulation as an
indicator of time of death. He said that "after fifteen minutes
[from death], it would be unsafe to form an opinion." Regarding
the degree of warmth of the body as determined by the touch of the
medical examiner, even then in 1892, the defense ridiculed the use
of touch rather than a thermometer to determine the body
temperature. With the difference in the degree of digestion
between Abby and Andrew Borden, Dr. Draper pointed out that
different people digest food at different frequencies and that
there could easily be an hour's variation among two individuals
who ate the same food at the same time. Masterton points out that
there is no record of what and when Abby might have eaten that
morning. In fact, there were items in her stomach that were not
served at breakfast.
Masterton devotes an entire chapter to
utilizing modern forensic analysis to determine the time of death
for Abby Borden. From Masterton's research, it appears as though
over 100 years later, Dr. Draper was essentially correct about the
time it took for blood to coagulate between 5 and 15 minutes after
death. Interestingly, according to reliable testimony, for a
number of hours after his death, Andrew's blood behaved in an
unusual, but not unknown way. It did not coagulate. Masterton
states, "Often, when a person dies suddenly and violently, as
Andrew did, the blood becomes uncoagulable shortly after death."
Today, pathologists, when estimating time of
death, take internal temperature measurements over a period of
time rather than just taking it once. Masterton's research
revealed that the temperature of a dead body "drops very little if
at all during the first few hoursMoreover, the decomposition
reactions that take place immediately after death give off heat"
On the subject of the rate of digestion as a
determinant as to time of death, Masterton found that "large
deviations from the 'average' behavior is the rule rather than the
Masterton demonstrates in some detail that if
Lizzie's trial were held today with the benefits of modern
forensic technology that the evidence presented would not
determine that Abby Borden died 1-2 hours before Andrew died.
And so, Masterton addresses every piece of
evidence and assumption that was used in the case and finds it
quite reasonable that Lizzie was acquitted in the deaths of her
father and step-mother. "The prosecution did not or could not make
out a strong case against hera century later (September 1997), a
jury of Stanford Law School alumni, faculty and students, in a
mock Borden trial presided over by Justices Rehnquist and O'Connor
of the United States Supreme Court, again found Lizzie not guilty
for the same reason."
I recommend the book to serious students of the