Or so the famous rhyme would have us believe. On August 4th 1892, the murdered bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden were discovered in their home 92 Second Street, Fall River, Massachusetts. Suspicion for their murder soon fell on their daughter Lizzie, who was subsequently tried and acquitted. Who was Lizzie Borden, did she kill her father and stepmother, if so, why? And why was she acquitted?Those are some of the questions this post aims to explore.
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Lizzie Andrew Borden, was born on the 19th of July, 1860 the second daughter born to Andrew and Sarah Borden. In 1863, Sarah died of uterine congestion, and despite their aunt, and grandparents living next door, it was Emmma, her older sister, who cared for young Lizzie, having made a promise to her mother to always look after her sister, it was a duty she took seriously throughout her life. Three years after the death of his wife Andrew married Abby Dunfee Gray. Lizzie later stated that she called her step-mother “Mrs. Borden” and believed that she had only married her father for his money.
The Borden sisters had a religious upbringing, attending Central Congregational Church and as young women, where Lizzie taught Sunday school to the children of recent immigrants to the US. Lizzie also acted as secretary-treasurer for the Christian Endeavor Society, and was a member of the Ladies’ Fruit and Flower Mission.
Andrew was a successful businessman, he directed several textile mills, owned a considerable amount of retail property, was president of the Union Savings Bank and a director of the Durfee Safe Deposit and Trust CO. At the time of his death his estate was reportedly worth $300,000 (around $8,540,000 in today’s money) Yet, he was notoriously frugal and despite the Borden house being in an affluent area it did not have indoor plumbing or electricity which was common for the wealthy of the time.
Tensions had been building in the Borden house for a while before the murders. Just three months before the murders, Andrew killed a number of pigeons in his barn with a hatchet as he believed they had been attacking local children. This was said to have greatly upset Lizzie who had built a roost for the pigeons, although some dispute this event ever happened. In July, a family argument saw both Borden sisters take an “extended vacation” to New Bedford. When Lizzie returned to Fall River, just a week before the murders, she chose to stay in a local lodging house for four days before moving back to the family home. A cause of much tension stemmed from Andrews gifts of real estate to various members of Abby’s family, including a house to her sister. The Borden sisters received the house they had lived in until their mothers death from their father for $1 but a few weeks before the murders they sold it back to him for $5,000 (around $142,000 in today’s money).
In the days leading up to the murders, everyone in the Borden household had been ‘violently ill’ a friend of the family later speculated that mutton which had been left on the stove for use in meals over several days was the cause. However, it was said Abby feared it was deliberate poisoning as Andrew had not been a popular man.
The night before the murders, John Morse, Lizzie’s and Emma’s uncle visited to discuss business matters with Andrew. Some have speculated that his visit and the discussion of property transfers exacerbated an already tense situation. Having spent the night of the 3rd of August in the guest room, he joined the family for breakfast before spending approximately an hour with Andrew discussing business matters, leaving the house at around 8:48 AM. Emma left to visit friends, and Andrew left at around 9 AM for his morning walk leaving Abby, Lizzie and their maid Maggie alone in the house.
The cleaning of the guest room would normally have been carried out by either Emma or Lizzie as part of their daily chores, however, that day sometime between 9:30 and 10:30 AM Abby went upstairs to change the bed. The forensic investigation into her death showed Abby would have been facing her killer when the first blow struck her on the side of the head, cutting her just above the ear and knocking her face first onto the floor, which caused contusions to her nose and forehead. Whilst she was on the ground she was struck in the head a further 17 times until she was dead.
When Andrew returned from his walk at around 10:30, he was unable to enter the house and so was forced to knock and wait for Maggie to open the door. During her testimony, Maggie claimed that when she went to open the door it was jammed which caused her to utter an expletive and she heard Lizzie laugh. She added that although she could not see Lizzie, her laughter came from the top of the stairs. This was significant, because if Lizzie was on the second floor, she would have seen Abby’s body.
Lizzie later denied being upstairs, and testified that when her father questioned the whereabouts of Abby she told him that “…a messenger had delivered Abby a summons to visit a sick friend.” Lizzie then said she removed her father’s boots and helped him into his slippers before leaving him to take a nap on the sofa. This, however, is contradicted by the crime scene photographs which show Andrew was still wearing his boots when he was killed.
Lizzie then told Maggie of a department store sale and gave her permission to go, however, Maggie was still feeling unwell and went to take a nap in her third-floor bedroom. According to her testimony, this is where she was when at around, 11:10 AM she heard Lizzie shouting from downstairs, “Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.” When she arrived downstairs she saw Andrew slumped on a couch in the downstairs sitting room. Lizzie sent Maggie to fetch their neighbour who was a doctor, however, he was not home and so she went for another neighbour. By this time the commotion had alerted the neighbours who called the police.
When the police arrived around half an hour later, they searched the downstairs for signs of an intruder. Adelaide Churchill, a neighbour who had come to comfort Lizzie, made the grizzly discovery of Abby’s body on the second floor. Whilst Andrew’s body had been warm, Abby’s was cold suggesting she had been killed over an hour before her husband. Lizzie claimed she had not thought to look for her step-mother because she believed that upon receiving a note regarding a sick friend, Abby had left the house and not returned. Despite the house being searched, no trace of the note was found.
Local papers quickly began to report on the murders, describing them as “sickening”. A reporter described Andrews wounds;
“Over the left temple a wound six by four inches wide 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 pieces and the blood had covered the man’s shirt.” (Adding, that despite the gore) “the room was in order and there were no signs of a scuffle of any kind.”
Initially the press reported that the police suspected the murders had been carried out by a “Portuguese laborer” who had visited the Borden home that morning to ask for the wages he was owed, but Andrew told him he had no money and to call back later. They added that medical evidence suggested that Abby had been killed “by a tall man, who struck the woman from behind.”
It was just two days later when reports suggesting Lizzie was involved in the killings began to appear in the press, after Eli Bence, a clerk at S. R. Smith’s drug store, told police that, “Lizzie visited the store the day before the murder and attempted to purchase prussic acid, a deadly poison”. The next day, 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,” it noted that family members denied this and claimed the relationship between the two women was quite normal. However, not all in the press were convinced of her guilt including the Boston Herald, which wrote; “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.”
As the police investigation progressed, they became increasingly convinced the murders had to have been committed by someone inside the house, and Lizzie was their prime suspect. They found it strange that Lizzie could not account for her step-mother’s whereabouts after 9 AM when, according to Lizzie, she had gone “upstairs to put shams on the pillows.” and were unconvinced by her alibi for when Andrew was killed. Lizzie claimed she was in the backyard barn “looking for irons” (fishing weights) for an upcoming fishing trip. However, when the police searched, the barn there were no footprints on the dusty floor, and they believed the heat in the loft would have discouraged anyone from spending more than a few minutes there.
The inquest in the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden began on the 9th of August in the court room over police headquarters. John Morse, Maggie, and others were questioned, before Lizzie was called and questioned for four hours by the criminal magistrate Josiah Blaisdell and the District Attorney Hosea Knowlton. During her questioning Lizzie’s answers were considered ‘confused and contradictory’. Two days later, the inquest adjourned and Police Chief Hilliard arrested Lizzie for the murder of her father and step-mother. The next day, Lizzie entered a plea of ‘not guilty’ before being transported by rail car to the jail in Taunton. On the 22nd of August, Lizzie was taken back to Fall River for the preliminary hearing, at the end of which Judge Josiah Blaisdell pronounced her “probably guilty” and ordered that she face a grand jury.
The grand jury met in November, and initially they refused to issue an indictment, however, this changed after Alice Russell, a family friend who stayed with the two Borden sisters in the days following the murders, gave her testimony; she claimed she witnessed Lizzie burning a blue dress in a kitchen fireplace, and that when she questioned Lizzie about it, she replied, “It was covered in old paint”. This together with Maggie’s testimony, that Lizzie was wearing a blue dress the morning of the murders, was enough to change their mind and they returned an indictment for murder.
Lizzie’s trial began on the 5th of June, 1893 in the New Bedford Courthouse. Lizzie’s defence team was made up of Andrew Jennings and George Robinson, who was the former governor of Massachusetts. They were up against District Attorney Knowlton and Thomas Moody for the prosecution.
During his opening speech Moody ‘carelessly’ threw Lizzie’s blue frock on the prosecution table during his opening speech, where it opened to reveal the skulls of Andrew and Abby Borden. According to a newspaper account, the sight of her parents’ skulls 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.”
Moody’s speech lasted two hours, in which he described how Lizzie was the only person who had both a motive and the opportunity to commit the murders. He then pulled the head of the axe from a bag, and claimed it was the axe Lizzie had used to kill her parents.
The state’s first witnesses gave evidence about the events in and around the Borden house on the morning of the murders. The most important witnesses was Maggie, who testified that Lizzie was the only person she saw in the home at the time of the murders, however, she also aided Lizzie’s defence when she said that in her two years with the Borden family, she had not witnessed the signs of the rumored strained relationship between Lizzie and her stepmother; “Everything was pleasant, Lizzie and her mother always spoke to each other.” This was refuted by other prosecution witnesses. Hannah H. Gifford, who just a few months before the murder had made a garment for Lizzie, described a conversation in which Lizzie called her stepmother “a mean good-for nothing thing” before Lizzie aledgedly added, “I don’t have much to do with her; I stay in my room most of the time.” Several witnesses described seeing Andrew Borden at various points in town in the two hours before his murder, and John Morse, recounted having breakfast with the family before leaving the house.
The witnesses described what happened after the murders had been discovered. The Borden family doctor, Dr. Seabury Bowen, who had been summoned to the house by Lizzie, recounted Lizzie’s story about looking for fishing weights in the barn and that Lizzie had said, “…her father’s troubles with his tenants probably had something to do with the murders.” During cross-examination, he admitted that the morphine he had prescribed for Lizzie after the murders, may have played a part in the confused and contradictory testimony she gave at the inquest.
Adelaide Churchill, the neighbor who had gone to the house to comfort Lizzie, testified that Lizzie had been wearing a light blue dress with a diamond figure on it, but said she could not recall seeing any blood on it. Next, John Fleet, the Assistant Marshal of Fall River, recalled that when he interviewed Lizzie shortly after the murders, she had corrected him when he called Abby her mother; “She was not my mother, sir, she was my stepmother: my mother died when I was a child.”
Alice Russell’s testimony was said to be the most compelling, she described that Lizzie had visited her the night before the murders and had told her that she (Lizzie) would soon be going on a vacation and “felt that something is hanging over me-I cannot tell what it is.” Russell added that when Lizzie revealed, “I feel afraid something is going to happen.” And 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.” Moody, then began to question her about the dress burning incident. Russell testified that when she asked Lizzie what she was doing with the blue dress, Lizzie replied, “I am going to burn this old thing up; it is covered with paint.” In his cross-examination, defense attorney George Robinson, suggested that someone attempting to destroy incriminating evidence would not do so in such an open fashion. Furthermore, Russell also recounted a conversation she had held with Lizzie about the supposed note Abby had received telling her about her sick friend which had never been recovered. Russell claimed that when she sarcastically suggested to Lizzie that her mother might have burned the note. Lizzie, replied, “Yes, she must have.”
Newspaper reports of the trial praised Robinson for his performance claiming; “is certainly without equal in New York City as a cross-examiner.” The defense asked questions the state could not answer, such as “was the handle that supposedly broke off from the axe head that the state hauled into court and claimed was part of the murder weapon?” And questioned, the timeline put forward but the state, which only allowed between 8-13 minutes between Andrew’s murder and Lizzie’s call to Maggie, and suggested, it was not enough time for Lizzie to wash the blood from her clothing and clean and hide the murder weapon.
A crucial moment in the trial came when the three-judge panel ruled that the testimony Lizzie gave during the inquest could not be used. They concluded at the time of her testimony Lizzie 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.” Adding, “Lizzie should have been warned she had a right under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution to remain silent.” The prosecution suffered a further loss, when they were blocked from having Eli Bence, the chemist from whom Lizzie had supposedly tried to buy prussic acid, testify. They rested their case on the 14th of June.
The defense only called a handful of witnesses. Charles Gifford and Uriah Kirby, testified they had seen a strange man near the Borden house at around eleven PM 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 were called to testify that in the two days before the murder they had been inside Borden’s barn, thus, casting doubt on police assertions that Lizzie could not have been inside the barn because dust was undisturbed.
Emma Borden, was the most anticipated witness. She testified that Lizzie had a good relationship with their father, and told the court “…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.” She also testified that the relationship between Lizzie and Abby was ‘cordial’ but admitted to feeling resentment that her father had given what she called “grandfather’s house” to Abby and her sister.
When summing up for the defense, A. V. Jennings argued that, “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, Robinson, insisted that the crime must have been committed by a maniac or a devil, not someone like his client who had a respectable background. He further claimed that it would have been impossible for Lizzie to commit the murders without getting blood on herself and laughed off the prosecution’s claim that she committed the crime “stark naked” to avoid blood splatter.
After Hosiah Knowlton summed up the prosecution’s case, Justice Dewey charged the jury, telling them take into account Lizzie’s exceptional Christian character. The jury deliberated for half an hour before returning their verdict of not guilty. Hearing this, “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.” Lizzie was soon joined by her sister, her counsel, and courtroom spectators who all rushed to congratulate her.
The press agreed with the jury’s verdict, a New York Times editorial wrote; “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.” And considered the verdict,“a condemnation of the police authorities of Fall River who secured the indictment and have conducted the trial.”
After the trial, Lizzie returned to Fall River where she and Emma lived together in an impressive house which they called “Maplecroft.” Lizzie took an interest in theatre, and would often attend plays and enjoyed mixing with actors, artists, and ‘bohemian types.’ Emma moved out of Maplecroft in 1905, but Lizzie continued to live in the house until 1927, when she died aged 67. She was buried in Fall Rivers, Oak Grove Cemetery near the graves of her parents.
Over the years many theories of the crime have been suggested, from greed to unsubstantiated claims Andrew abused his daughters. Whilst nothing has ever been proved, most agree Lizzie likely killed her parents and was acquitted because the state could not prove its case, and because a jury could not believe a woman, especially one of Lizzie’s class could ever commit such brutal murders.
The Lizzie Borden case continues to fascinate and has become something of an industry, with the story being ‘retold’ in fiction and the Borden house being turned into a bed & breakfast, and as such the case will live on.