All countries have their famous criminals: Jack the Ripper, John Wayne Gacy, Joseph Fritzl, Ned Kelly and Dr. Joseph Mengele are just a few of these. But what about those people who might have committed a crime, but got off because of a lack of evidence and were declared innocent, and who were hounded by the judgemental public, who had already slapped down the sticker that said ‘Guilty’? These are people we don’t always hear about, or if we hear about them, we don’t always remember them.
Probably the most famous of these people, who got off scott-free in a famous crime where people thought she should have hung, was the chief suspect in one of the United States’ most famous murder-investigations of all time. The crime? Killing her father and stepmother. Her weapon? An axe. Her name? Elizabeth Borden.
One Big Happy Family
Lizzie Borden, 1889
Known to all as “Lizzie” Borden, Elizabeth Andrew Borden (no, that’s not a mistake, ANDREW is her middle name, presumably named for her father, also named Andrew) was born on the 19th of July, 1860. Her father was Andrew Jackson Borden and her mother was Sarah Anthony Borden (maiden name ‘Morse’). Lizzie had one older sister, Emma Lenora Borden, born 1851 and who died in 1927. Lizzie would’ve had two older sisters, but her mother’s second child, Alice, died in 1858, two years after her birth.
Apparently, the Borden family didn’t have much luck in keeping a family together. Mirs. Sarah Borden had three daughters but lost one. Three years after Lizzie was born, Mrs. Borden herself would also die. As a result of this, Lizzie, her sister Emma and her father, Andrew, grew up alone. Alone apart from a lady named Abby Gray, who was Andrew Borden’s second wife, and therefore Emma and Lizzie’s stepmother.
Andrew Jackson Borden was a wealthy man. One of the wealthiest in the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, where the Borden family lived on 92, 2nd Street. 70-year-old Andrew was a successful landlord and bank-director. He was able to buy a nice house for his two daughters, his wife, his second wife when the first one died, and his family’s maid. He might have been a bit tight-fisted, but he was fairly generous to his family, giving them enough money to lead comfortable lives with. To him, life was wonderful…but not to everyone else.
Andrew Jackson Borden, Lizzie’s father
The truth was that the Borden Family was probably the kind of family you’d find on Jerry Springer, Maury Povich or on Dr. Phil these days. It was about as harmonious as the Battle of the Somme. While Emma and Lizzie probably loved their father dearly, they were not pleased at all with several of their father’s decisions in life. Andrew’s new wife, Abby, caused all kinds of problems in the house and she and her new stepdaughters just never managed to get along with each other. The family argued frequently and the two Borden sisters often took long vacations to get away from their stress-inducing stepmother.
Abby Borden, Andrew’s second wife, and Lizzie and Emma’s stepmother
Apart from their stepmother, however, the two daughters were also not happy with other things that their father had done. In the years after their mother’s death, Mr. Borden had been dividing up the family fortune, giving away various properties under the Borden name to Abby and her family. This was something which the two Borden sisters did not agree on. They wanted the fortune kept together for them, not given out to strange women who had nosed their ways into their family’s private lives! In the weeks leading up to the murders, things finally exploded. Lizzie and her sister Emma had a terrific quarrel with their father, either about his new wife, or about his handling of the family’s funds and properties. Whatever it was, it caused both sisters to pack their bags and leave home for another one of their ‘holidays’ to get away from their stressful home-lives.
Lizzie Returns Home
The year was 1892, it was July when Lizzie and her sister Emma packed up their bags and left home to get away from their infuriating father in the latest of their escapades. While both sisters had decided to stay away for several weeks, Lizzie decided to cut her trip short. She returned home at the end of the month, returning to the family’s home at #92, 2nd Street, Fall River, Mass, to this house, which still stands today, as the Lizzie Borden House, a bed-and-breakfast which occasionally gives tours:
The Lizzie Borden House, Fall River, Massachusetts
The house was just as it was when she had left it, except there was an addition to the family, John Morse, or “Uncle John” to Lizzie and Emma, their dead mother’s brother, had come to visit his brother-in-law, nieces, and relatives from his side of the family, who also resided in Fall River.
August 4th, 1892. Lizzie has been home a few days now. Her sister Emma is still in a neighbouring town, visiting friends. Her Uncle John, though staying at the Borden house at the time, was not actually at home. The Borden family’s maid, Bridget Sullivan, a young Irish immigrant, was upstairs in the attic when she heard Lizzie scream and call out her name. Bridget (called “Maggie” by the family), ran downstairs to find Lizzie standing in the doorway to the living room, staring at the dead body of her father, lying on the couch.
On the 4th of August, Andrew Borden had gone to work as usual. He had returned home at about 10:45 and had been lying on the couch, presumably having a nap. Shortly after, Lizzie found her father’s dead and mutilated body in the living-room.
Andrew Borden, photographed as he was found, lying dead on the couch in his living-room
Lizzie would not allow Bridget to enter the living-room, presumably because she thought the maid would not be able to take the shock of the sight of her dead employer. Lizzie ordered Bridget to run for the family physician, Dr. Bowen. Dr. Bowen lived across the street from the Borden family, but was not at home at the time. Mrs. Bowen agreed to notify her husband at once, when he got home, to visit the Borden house.
By now, word of the murder of Mr. Borden began to spread. Another neighbour, Mrs. Adelaide Churchill heard about the news. She called from her house to Lizzie’s to ask what was wrong. Lizzie responded by saying: “Oh, Mrs. Churchill, please come over! Someone has killed Father!”
Mrs. Churchill hurried over and asked Lizzie where her stepmother, Abby Borden was. Lizzie replied that she did not know. She also told Mrs. Churchill of Bridget’s inability to find a doctor. Mrs. Churchill suggested sending her handyman to try and find a physician and to call for help. At 11:15am, the police-station about 400 meters from the Borden House, recieved a telephone-call to the effect that officers were dispatched to respond to the murder of Mr. Borden.
While the police were on their way, Dr. Bowen had returned home. He went straight to the Borden household to examine the body of the dead Mr. Borden whereafter Lizzie asked Bridget to find a white sheet to cover the corpse. The whereabouts of Mrs. Abby Borden were still a mystery. Bridget the maid suggested that Abby had gone to visit her sister, but Lizzie was sure that her stepmother was home, and asked Bridget to search the house. Nervous to go upstairs by herself, Bridget enlisted the help of Mrs. Churchill and together, they headed upwards.
To understand what happened next, you need to understand how the Borden house was constructed. Upon entering the front door of the house, you are confronted by the front staircase. Beyond the staircase was the living-room where Mr. Borden’s body was discovered, lying on the couch. On the second storey, the bedrooms are situated on the left side of the house, opening onto a central landing, with the staircase, leading down to the entrance-hall, on the right. After heading up the stairs only halfway, Mrs. Churchill and Bridget were able to look through the ballustrades around the stairs and through the open door of the guest bedroom, the door of which opened so that the two women could see directly into the room beyond, without even reaching the landing.
From their position on the stairs, both women were able to see the bedroom with the bed in it, but more importantly, they were able to see under the bed and beyond, to the far wall of the guestroom. Between the far wall and the bed, lay the dead body of Mrs. Abby Borden.
The photograph of Mrs. Borden as she was found in the guestroom. To the right, you can see the bed. Beyond the bed was the door, which opened onto the landing. From the bed, you would have a direct view of the head of the staircase
Another photograph of Abby’s body. You can see the tripod and camera reflected in the mirror of the dressing-table. Between the camera and the table is the bed and behind the camera is the door leading into the landing and the head of the staircase, beyond
Mrs. Churchill ran back downstairs, crying out “There’s another one!”
A few minutes later, Dr. Bowen, who had left the house momentarily to send a telegram to Lizzie’s sister, Emma, returned to the Borden house to resume his examination of the dead Mr. Andrew Borden. His initial examination led him to conclude that Mr. Borden had been struck in the head and face at least a dozen times by a heavy weapon, possibly an axe. Mr. Borden’s wounds were horrific: His nose had been hacked off in the attack, his left eyeball had been cut in half and stuck out a bit from the rest of his body. The corpse was still bleeding slightly when Dr. Bowen examined it. Blood-spatter was everywhere; on the floor, the couch, the walls and the painting that hung above the couch. Dr. Bowen believed that if Mr. Borden had been napping, his attacker had snuck into the room and had attacked Mr. Borden from behind, swinging the weapon downwards onto his face, in order to kill him and inflict the injuries that were present.
Shortly thereafter, Dr. Bowen headed upstairs to examine the corpse of Mrs. Borden. He concluded that she too, had been struck by a weapon similar to an axe or a hatchet and was attacked from behind, with at least a dozen blows to the back of the head.
By this time, policeman George W. Allen of the Fall River Police Department had arrived at the house, it was now approaching 11:30am. After ordering a passer-by, Charles Sawyer, to stand guard over the crime-scene, Allen ran back to the police-station and resturned to the house shortly after 11:35, with seven more police-officers. At 11:45, medical examiner Dr. William Dolan, passing by the house, had his curiosity aroused by the number of policemen milling around, and entered the crime-scene to assist Dr. Bowen in his examinations.
After the flurry of excitement regarding the murders had settled down, police and detectives started their official murder-investigation. They interviewed townsfolk, members of the Borden family, shopkeepers who had interacted with the Borden family and Dr. Bowen, the Borden family’s neighbour and family physician. The following facts were established:
1. Abby Borden had gone to visit Dr. Bowen on the 3rd of August, one day before the murder. She alleged that she and her husband, who was not a particularly popular man in town, were being poisoned. They had both been violently sick during the night. Dr. Bowen listed her symptoms and examined them, but did not believe that it was a murder-attempt. Bowen attempted to speak to Mr. Borden, who sent him away, insisting that he was perfectly fine. It’s surmised that the Bordren’s illnesses were not due to poisoning, but rather to bad or poorly-prepared food.
2. Lizzie had visited Smith’s Drugstore, a druggist’s shop in Fall River, and had spoken to Eli Bence, a clerk there, asking to buy 10c worth of prussic acid, which she claimed was for killing insects. Mr. Bence refused to sell the acid without a prior prescription. Witnesses at the store identified Lizzie as the woman who tried to buy the acid.
3. Uncle John Morse had come to visit the Borden family. John Morse was the brother of Sarah Morse Borden, Andrew’s first wife and Lizzie and Emma’s deceased mother. Both John and Lizzie testified that neither had seen each other until the afternoon of the murders, but Lizzie said she was aware that her uncle had intended to pay the family a visit that day.
4. Miss Alice Russell was a friend of the Borden family. According to Russell, Lizzie had come to visit her on the 3rd. She seemed agitated and worried about something. When Miss Russell pressed the point, Lizzie confessed that she was worried for her father’s safety and feared that someone had really tried to poison him.
6:15am. Bridget Sullivan, the Borden maid, wakes up. Uncle John Morse also wakes up for the day.
7:05am. Abby and Andrew come downstairs for breakfast.
8:45am. John leaves the house for the day. Shortly after his departure, Lizzie comes downstairs.
8:55am (approx). Abby asks Bridget to wash the downstairs windows. Abby goes upstairs to straighten out the bed in the guestroom, which John occupied.
9:00am. Andrew leaves the house for work. Mrs. Adelaide Churchill, the Borden family’s neighbour, observes Mr. Borden leaving the house at this time.
Sometime after 9:00am. Abby is killed, struck on the head repeatedly from behind.
10:40am. Andrew Borden leaves a shop which he owns, and heads home. Carpenters working at the shop see him leave. He arrives home a few minutes later. The front door is locked and Bridget unlocks it to let him in. Lizzie says that she was in the kitchen at the back of the house, at this time. Mr. Borden goes through the house, passes his daughter Lizzie in the kitchen, who is ironing handkerchieves. He heads upstairs via the back staircase and heads into his bedroom. He returns a few minutes later by the same way and heads into the living-room.
10:55am. Mr. Borden lies down for a nap. It is shortly after this time that he too, is struck repeatedly on the head from behind, killing him and mutilating his face. Bridget is upstairs in her room at this time. Lizzie goes to the barn (more of a shed in the back yard) to search for fishing equipment. She had intended to visit her sister and go fishing with her.
11:10am. Lizzie returns to the house and finds her father beaten to death on the couch. She calls for Bridget, still upstairs in her room, to come down and to go for Dr. Bowen across the street.
11:15am. The local police-station recieves a telephone-call asking officers to respond to an incident at 92, 2nd Street. Within minutes, eight policemen, a passer-by, Dr. Bowen and medical examiner, Dr. William Dolan, are at the crime-scene, taking down witness-statements and examining the bodies.
Over the next few hours, all persons in the house are questioned. Lizzie is asked if there are any tools such as axes or hatchets in the house. Lizzie tells the officer that there are plenty and instructs Bridget to show the officer. A total of four hatchets are found. One had blood and hair on it, which was later determined to be animal blood and hair, and therefore not the murder-weapon. One hatchet had a blade which didn’t look like it could have inflicted the injuries seen. Two other hatchets were covered in dust and probably hadn’t been touched for several months. One of these had its handle broken off at the end. The break looked recent and policemen surmised that this was the murder-weapon and that the handle had been broken during the murders. This hatchet was collected for evidence and was photographed.
Uncle John was accosted by police-officers after arriving home shortly after the discovery of the hatchets. He told policemen that he wasn’t sure if the doors to the cellar (where the hatchets were stored) was opened or closed when he left the house that morning.
Policeman Sergeant Harrington and another officer examined the barn where Lizzie claimed to have been, searching for fishing-sinkers. They saw no evidence (disturbed dust, for example) to suggest that someone had been in the barn recently.
3:00pm. The bodies of Abby and Andrew Borden were laid out on the table in the dining-room where Dr. Dolan carried out autopsies on the two corpses.
Upstairs, Deputy Marshal John Fleet interviews Lizzie about everyone’s actions and movements that day. Lizzie, like her sister, held little love for her stepmother, and she reminded Fleet throughout the interview that Abby Borden was no mother of hers.
Over the next few months, police and detectives continue chasing down leads. Eli Bence, the clerk at the drugstore, is interviewed by Sergeant Harrington regarding Lizzie’s attempted purchase of prussic acid.
On the 6th of August, the funerals of Abby and Andrew Borden were carried out. On the 7th of August, Lizzie’s friend, Alice Russell, noticed Lizzie burning a dress in the stove in the Borden house.
The next several months was filled in by the police investigation. Witnesses were interviewed, statements were taken, the bodies of Abby and Andrew Borden (which had not actually been buried on the 6th of August), were retained for further medical examinations. Preliminary hearings before the big trial resulted in Lizzie being arrested and charged with the murder of her father and stepmother.
The Big Trial
These days, big criminal trials have news-reporters out the front of the courthouse, there are journalists, cameramen, photographers, curious townsfolk and police-officials all over the place, either milling in the streets outside, or jammed into the courtroom to witness the “Crime of the Century”.
Remove the camera-men and the suited, microphone-wielding TV-reporters, and this was pretty-much the scene during the Borden trial. The trial was big news all throughout the town of Fall River, and people hurried to grab seats in the courthouse to witness this historic event. The Borden family was one of the wealthier families in town and therefore, one of the most well-known. The deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Borden, and the suspicion that fell on their daughter caused everyone to be hanging on tenterhooks to find out what a judge and jury would think.
Of course, the crime’s impact spread a lot further than just Fall River. The New York Times, in an issue dated August 7, 1892, stated on its front page:
- “The Fall River Mystery”.
Looking for the assassin
of Mr. & Mrs. Borden
In interior pages, the paper continued to report…
- “Lizzie Borden’s Triumphs”
The Evidence Chiefly Relied on for Con-
victing the Prisoner Ruled Out by the
Court – The Case of the Commonwealth
Weakened by Blow after Blow – Lizzie’s
Friends Very Hopeful of an Acquittal
And sure that the Jury will
Not Convict Her.
- The New York Times, August 7th, 1892; original spelling, typesetting & grammar retained
The Borden trial was phenomenal. It went on for fourteen days, and over those fourteen days, the case put forward by the prosecution was hacked to pieces by the defence. The prosecution put it to the jury (made up of farmers and tradesmen) that Lizzie had killed her father and stepmother because Andrew Borden had thought of, or had written up a new will. No such recent document was found, the defence said. The hatchet found by police could not be proven definitively by the prosecution, that it was indeed the murder-weapon. Furthermore, the defence alleged, the prosecution could not definitively say that Lizzie had used the hatchet to bludgeon her parents to death, even if it was the murder-weapon. The Fall River Police Department was skeptical of the then, brand-new forensic technology of taking fingerprints, and thus had no definitive proof that Lizzie had even touched a hatchet.
Another pillar of the prosecution’s case against Lizzie Borden was her attempt at purchasing prussic acid from Smith’s Drugstore. Clerk Mr. Eli Bence was called forward to give evidence to the effect that Lizzie had tried to buy the acid without a prescription, but the defence objected on this point, and the judge ruled Mr. Bence’s testimony as inadmissable evidence.
The trial ended on Monday, the 19th of June, 1893. The jury took just an hour and a half to find Lizzie Borden Not Guilty of the crime of Murder. The New York Times reports it thus:
- Lizzie Borden Acquitted
Jury declares her guiltless
of the crime of murder
- The New York Times, Wednesday, June 21, 1893; original spelling, typesetting and grammar retained
With the trial over, Lizzie and her sister Emma moved out of their house on 2nd Street and moved into 306 French Street, a large, Victorian house which Lizzie named “Maplecroft”. While the two sisters were close before the trial, their relationship gradually broke down over the next few years. In 1897, Lizzie was charged with the theft of two paintings, in an incident that was settled without scandal. Lizzie became friends with an actress, Nance O’Neil, in 1904. This, it seemed, broke the Borden sisters’ relationship forever. They separated and didn’t see each other again. Elizabeth Andrew Borden died on the 1st of June, 1927, age the age of 67…her sister Emma did not attend her funeral. Emma herself died on the 10th of June, that same year. Their former maid, Bridget Sullivan died in Montana in 1948.
The Borden Legend
Your mother or your grandmother or your GREAT-grandmother might know this old-time jump-rope rhyme. It goes like this:
- Lizzie Borden took an axe,
She gave her mother forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one!
While certainly not the kind of thing you wanna hear your daughters jumping-rope to, this little rhyme is proof of the “legend of Lizzie Borden”. The Lizzie Borden murder-trials was one of the biggest trials and crimes in the USA, indeed, in the world. It ranks up there, in the annals of great crimes, along with the Lindburgh Baby Kidnapping, Jack the Ripper and Madame Daphne LaLaurie. The Borden killings happened at a time of change, when newspapers were beginning to spread the news and when investigative techniques were beginning to fit into the mould we recognise today. A stereotype of criminal history is the judge or jury convicting an innocent person of a crime that he or she didn’t commit, based on mostly circumstantial evidence. The Borden trial was a complete reversal of this, of a person being acquitted based on the evidence gathered by several months’ investigating by Fall River law-enforcement authorities. Did Lizzie Borden really take an axe to her father and stepmother? Some people believe the answer is ‘Yes’ and that she really did murder her parents by bashing their heads in, while others say ‘no’, and that she was innocent all along. I would like to think that she was genuinely innocent, but that’s not the point of this article, which is in fact, merely to bring to light, one of the most famous crimes in American history.