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04 August, 2014

“Lizzie Borden took an ax …”: The Fall River Murders and the Woman who got Away with the Crime

In the hot, late morning hours of August 4th, 1892, the sleepy community of Fall River, Massachusetts, fifty-five miles southwest of Boston, was rocked by the murders of one of its leading citizens and his wife. In a large house that still stands at what was 92 Second Street in Fall River (since renumbered to 240 Second St.), seventy-two year-old Andrew Borden and his sixty-five year-old wife Abby were found brutally murdered, literally hacked to death by someone using a heavy, sharp-bladed instrument. Abby died first, in an upstairs bedroom. Andrew was killed some sixty to ninety minutes later, while napping on a sofa in the sitting room. The discovery of Andrew’s body occurred first, and the brutality of his murder was sufficient to guarantee headlines in the local papers; the discovery of Abby Borden’s body lying butchered in the guest room upstairs took those headlines national. However, it was the news, a week later, that Andrew’s thirty-two year-old daughter Lizzie had been arrested for the killings made it the crime of the century.

Lizzie Andrew Borden
One hundred and twenty-two years later, those killings, and their aftermath, still resonate through popular culture. Movies, books, plays, even songs have memorialized the case; the home where Andrew and Abby died is now a quaint bed-and-breakfast; and experts still try to solve the case that children have long ago marked closed:
Lizzie Borden took an ax,
Gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Though the details are slightly off, most people familiar with the case do feel that Lizzie did in fact murder her father and stepmother, despite being acquitted of the crime. To think otherwise would be to admit the incredible—that a stranger, after brutally killing an elderly woman, waited in an occupied home for more than an hour, went downstairs, murdered her dozing husband with equal ferocity, and escaped unseen, taking nothing with him save any evidence of his presence. Robbery clearly wasn't the motive; nothing was missing from the home, and Andrew was found with his silver watch and chain in place, gold ring on his finger, and $85.65, nearly three months wages for most men in 1892, in his pocketsi. The extreme violence of the attack initially led police to speculate that it was the work of, in the parlance of the time, a “fiend,” or in today’s terms, a psychopath. The Fall River Police, acting upon that supposition, did what most 19th Century law enforcement officers would've considered the wisest move: they looked for foreigners to arrest.
Eventually however, certain facts in the case led them to a more reasoned conclusion—that the killer was a member of the household. The longer the investigators looked at the outwardly happy little family, consisting of the Bordens; Andrew’s eldest daughter Emma and youngest daughter Lizzie; John Morse, the brother of Andrew’s first wife Sarah; and Bridget Sullivan (whom the entire household insisted upon calling Maggie), the lone servant in the house, the less happy things appeared to be.

Though Andrew was wealthy, serving on the board of directors of at least four banks, he was also parsimonious to a fault; his household lived in near poverty, forced to scrimp and save every penny possible. Repeatedly Emma and Lizzie had begged their father to sell the cramped, two-story house in the decidedly middle-class part of town and move “up the hill,” to the swankier side of Fall River, where they could live among those of their economic and social strata. The appeals were ignored, perhaps fatally so. As author David Kent explains, “That Andrew would not spend a portion of his considerable wealth for a sumptuous home on the Hill may well have been the linchpin of the murders; certainly the prosecution made it one of the core motives in its case against Lizzie.ii

The morning of the murders, breakfast consisted of three-day-old mutton, mutton broth (both kept in the summer heat without the benefit of refrigeration), johnnycakes (pancakes made with corn meal), cookies, and overripe bananas, all washed down with coffeeiii. The family dined heartily on the unappetizing fare, then began their busy day.

Andrew left shortly after 9:00 to transact some business and stop by the post office. Lizzie returned to her bedroom, still suffering from a bout of nausea that had affected the entire household the previous day. Emma was away visiting friends in Fairhaven, and had been for two weeks. John Morse left earlier, with the understanding that he would return for lunch at noon. Bridget was tasked with washing the windows … all of them, inside and out, while Abby began cleaning upstairs. Sometime after 9:30, Lizzie came back downstairs, dressed for a shopping trip. As she was in the kitchen drinking coffee, her father returned from the post office. Lizzie informed him that Abby had received a note from a friend who was ill; she had left to visit them. Andrew retired to the sitting room to rest before lunch. The time was perhaps 10:55 in the morning. At that time, Abby was certainly lying dead in the guest room, body wedged between dresser and bed. Andrew, just drifting off on the sitting room sofa, had mere minutes left to live. And the whereabouts of his favorite daughter Lizzie during that period of time would become the crux of the most sensational trial of its day, a trial that carried all the notoriety of the O.J. Simpson trial a century later.

The trial lasted fifteen days, from June 5th to June 20th 1893. The verdict, “not guilty,” was the only one possible given the dearth of physical evidence available to the prosecution, a sympathetic press, and the golden oratory of the counsel for the defense, the Honorable George Dexter Robinson, former three-term governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But was it the right one? Did the scale of justice function as intended, or did a guilty woman go free? And what led authorities to fix their suspicions on Lizzie in the first place?

Lizzie made the initial discovery of Andrew Borden’s body; Bridget was in her room resting. Bridget wasn’t present when the note requesting Abby come to the aid of a sick friend, nor when she supposedly left. Only Lizzie bore witness to that. Lizzie claimed that, following her father’s return, she spent fifteen minutes, or maybe twenty … or perhaps thirty, rummaging in the barn looking for bits of metal to use as fishing sinkers, and snacking on pears from the tree in the Borden’s yard. She claimed that, shortly after the city hall clock chimed 11:00, perhaps five or ten minutes past, she returned to the kitchen, then entered the sitting room to discover her father’s bloody corpse in repose on the sofa.

Within minutes, the alarm had been raised, and at precisely 11:15, the first call is received at the City Marshal’s office. That is one fixed point in the day’s timeline; the only other ones are when John Morse left the house at 8:30, and when Andrew began his walk home, at 10:45. For the other points on the timeline, there is only the word of Lizzie and Bridget. One fact is certain, and is the source of much of the suspicion which must rest on Lizzie—Abby Borden died at least an hour, and perhaps as much as an hour-and-a-half, before her husband. To believe that Lizzie, Bridget, or both were ignorant of the crime is to believe that a stranger entered the home, traveled upstairs, through the oddly laid out building (the home had no hallways; it was necessary to move through each room to reach the adjoining rooms), in order to hack a woman to death. He then spent the next ninety minutes concealed in the home until her husband returned, while avoiding the other two women moving in and out of the house … well, the premise strains credulity.

But why would Lizzie Borden want to kill her father and stepmother? Was it as simple as being tired of living so far below their means? A childish resentment of a stepmother taking her late mother’s place? Or, as has been suggested by those who’ve studied the case, a more sordid reason for the crime, one rooted in a forbidden relationship? As noted crime author Ed McBain posited in a 1984 novel entitled Lizzie, a possible motive could have been to cover up a lesbian relationship between Lizzie and Bridget, at a time when mere rumors of such an affair would have ruined the reputation and social standing of the Borden daughter. Others have suggested that the obvious rage visited upon the Bordens was revenge for some manner of abuse Lizzie suffered at their hands as a child, possibly even physical or sexual abuse.

Post-Mortem photograph of Andrew Borden
Some may wonder, in this day of CSIs, when fingerprints and DNA solve crimes every day, how there could be no evidence from such brutal murders. The murders occurred in a far different era, when forensic science was just a dream in the minds of a few criminologists. Some departments in larger cities had begun using the Bertillon system, a complex series of precise measurements of criminals, especially such characteristics as the shape of the ears, the width of the nose, and the distance from one pupil to the other. In 1892, the same year the Borden murders occurred, a detective in Argentina closed the first case using fingerprint evidence, a homicide in the town of Necochea, though the practice wouldn't be introduced in the United States until 1906.
Post-Mortem photograph of Abby Borden

As far as physical evidence in the Borden case, it’s conspicuous in its absence. No trace of the note which supposedly called Abby away to the bedside of a sick friend was ever found, nor were attempts to identify said friend successful. The prosecution made much of a supposed bloodstained skirt, the spot upon which, in the words of expert witness Prof. Wood, “… was the size of a very small pin head …iv” that wasn't blood after all. There was testimony about a blue dress that Lizzie burned in the days following the murders. She stated that it had been spattered with paint. An old, rusty hatchet without a handle was found in a bin in the basement; experts testified that it couldn't have been the murder weapon. In short, there was nothing to prove that Lizzie committed the crime, and nothing to show that anyone else had either. The only proof of the murders was the dead, bloody bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden, and their severed heads, removed by authorities just prior to the funerals and preserved as evidence.

Did Lizzie kill her Father and Stepmother? I believe so. Logically, it’s hard to believe otherwise. It can’t be proven, nor is it possible at this point to assess a motive for the crime. One thing is certain, however … this case will continue to fascinate people for generations, just as it has for more than one-hundred and twenty years.

Kent, David. Forty Whacks: New Evidence in the Life and Legend of Lizzie Borden. Yankee Books, Emmaus, PA. 1992.
Kent, David, with Roberta A. Flynn. The Lizzie Borden Sourcebook. Branden Publishing, Boston. 1992.
i Kent 20
ii Kent 9
iii Kent 13

iv Kent and Flynn 269

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