In the realms of true crime, not many cases can match the fascination garnered by the one involving Lizzie Borden. The case even has it’s own famous ditty that is known around the world:
” Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.“
On a hot August morning in 1892 Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby were savagely murdered. Lizzie soon became the prime suspect and was tried for the murder of her father and step-mother. A jury found her not guilty. Was Lizzie just an easy target for an incompetent police force? Or did Lizzie get away with murder? Here Unsolved Casebook takes a look at the murders.
The Borden Family
The Borden family lived at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts. It was a strange choice of home. The father of the family Andrew Borden was one of the wealthiest men in Fall River, he could undoubtedly have owned any home in the area, however, Borden was something of an Ebenezer Scrooge-like figure. A thin, tall man with white hair and of a somewhat unlikeable disposition, he was well known for his miserly tendencies. It was consequently no real surprise he chose to live in a modest, unremarkable home in one of the more unattractive areas of the city.
Abby Borden was Andrew’s second wife. By 1892 she was aged sixty-four. She and Andrew had been married since June 6, 1865, two years after the death of Andrew’s first wife Sarah who had died aged thirty-nine. Sarah was the birth mother of Andrew’s daughters Emma and Lizzie Borden, who still lived with the couple at 92 Second Street in 1892. Emma and Lizzie were not close to their stepmother, Lizzie had even taken to calling Abby Mrs Borden and resented it when people referred to Abby as her mother.
The Borden Family home had one other occupant, a twenty-six-year-old Irish maid named Bridget Sullivan. Bridget had been in the families service since 1889, this included a small room on the third floor of the home.
One final person of note is John Morse. John Morse was the maternal uncle of Emma and Lizzie Borden. On August 3, 1892, he arrived at the Borden residence where he planned to stay for a day or two.
The Murder Of Andrew Borden
On the morning of August 4, 1892, at around 11 am Bridget, who had gone for a rest, was disturbed by Lizzie calling her name. When Bridget asked what was the matter Lizzie replied that her father had been murdered. Before Bridget could get to the room to see for herself Lizzie sent her to go find a doctor. Bridget did as she was asked.
Doctor Bowen, the family physician, lived just across the street. The doctor wasn’t home so Bridget left a message with his wife telling her that Andrew Borden had been murdered. Upon returning Bridget was then sent for a friend of Lizzie’s named Alice Russell.
Adelaide Churchill, a nearby neighbour, saw Lizzie stood at the rear of the house looking distressed and called out to Lizzie asking if anything was wrong. Lizzie told Adelaide her father had been murdered and that Dr Bowen wasn’t home. Adelaide sent her own handyman off on the errand of finding a doctor and informing the police. Upon returning to the Borden residence Adelaide found that Dr Bowen was now in attendance.
The Discovery Of Abby Borden
Bridget returned soon after and was told by Lizzie to go and see if Abby was upstairs as she thought she had heard her return home. Lizzie had stated that she believed her stepmother to be out as she had received a note from a sick friend and Abby had gone to visit. Bridget, however, was unhappy to do so on her own. Adelaide Churchill offered to go with her and the two women made their way upstairs. As they reached the top of the landing they saw the body of Abby Borden on the floor of the nearby guestroom.
The City Marshall had by this time received news of the murder of Andrew Borden and sent Officer George Allen to the scene. Upon confirming the death several other officers were dispatched to the Borden residence. William Dolan, the medical examiner, also arrived at the Borden home as he had been passing by and seen the ever-growing numbers around the scene.
Dr Bowen briefly left the scene in order to send a telegram informing Lizzie’s sibling of what had occurred. Emma (who was the older of the two sisters) had been away from Fall River visiting a friend in nearby Fairhaven.
Cause Of Death
The examination of Andrew Borden’s body revealed several ghastly details that made for grim reading. His face had been badly disfigured by eleven heavy blows. In the attack, his nose had been severed and one of his eyeballs had been chopped in half and left distending from his skull.
It was believed Andrew Borden had fallen asleep on the sofa and his killer had struck him from above. The murder weapon was likely a hatchet or axe.
Abby Borden had been attacked from behind. A total of nineteen deathly blows had brutally reigned down upon the poor victim. The murder weapon was believed to be the same as the one which had been used upon her husband.
Far from the forty and forty-one “whacks” of the famous rhyme but a horrific scene nonetheless.
The investigating officers asked Lizzie if there were any axes or hatchets on the property. She told them that there were many and asked Bridget to take the officers to them. In the basement, Bridget guided one of the investigators, Officer Mullally, to the hatchets. A total of four hatchets were discovered, two of which proved of interest.
The first had dry blood upon it and the second a recently broken handle which was also covered in ash. The blood on the first hatchet was later determined to be cow’s blood. The second hatchet was thought to be the murder weapon and put forward as evidence.
It was around this point that John Morse returned from his errands. He didn’t immediately enter the house, instead, he went to the backyard and picked a pear to eat. Some have noted this as strange behaviour as he would surely have seen the police presence and wanted to know what had happened.
The Events Of August 4, 1892
Officers began looking at the events of that day:
- Bridget began work at around 6 15 am at which point John Morse was also already up.
- Abby, closely followed by Andrew, arose around 7 am and had breakfast.
- At approximately 8 45 am John Morse left to run some errands, Lizzie came down shortly after.
- Andrew headed out at 9 am to check on his businesses.
- Abby told Bridget to clean the windows. Bridget was reportedly unhappy with this as she was feeling unwell.
- Abby went upstairs to tidy the room John Morse had slept in shortly after 9 am. It is in all likelihood Abby was murdered shortly after as her time of death was put at around 9 30 am.
- Lizzie, however, said Abby had left to visit an ill friend after receiving a note. Bridget did not see Abby leave, nor was a note found. Lizzie claimed she may have burned the note.
- Andrew Borden returned to the family home at around 10 45 am. Whilst letting Andrew in Bridget said she heard Lizzie laughing upstairs. Lizzie said she was in the kitchen when her father returned home.
- At 10 55 am Bridget went for a rest in her room. Andrew went for a nap in the room. Lizzie said she was either in the yard or the barn at this point looking for fishing sinkers.
- Shortly after 11 am Lizzie found her father dead.
The investigation also found several events of interest that had occurred the day prior to the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden.
At around 7 am on August 3 Abby Borden had visited Dr Bowen across the street. She claimed that she and Andrew had been violently ill all night and that she feared they had been poisoned. The doctor saw no evidence of this and didn’t believe there was anything to worry about.
Just to be on the safe side the doctor decided to make a call on Andrew Borden that morning. Andrew Borden sternly told the doctor he wasn’t sick and furthermore that he would not be paying for a housecall he didn’t request, true to his miserly ways.
When the autopsies on Andrew and Abby Borden were completed there was no evidence of any poisoning.
The Drug Store Witness
Another event involving poison took place on the 3rd of August. Eli Bence told officers that Lizzie Borden had attempted to buy ten cents of prussic acid from Smith’s Drug Store where he worked (she was denied due to no prescription).
A fellow clerk and a customer both confirmed the story that Lizzie was in the store that morning. Lizzie, however, denied this had happened although her story did change.
Originally Lizzie said she had been out that morning but had not visited Smith’s Drug Store, she would later state that she never left the house at all that day until the evening.
A final point of interest that occurred on August 3 comes from a visit Lizzie made to a friend Alice Russell in the evening. Lizzie apparently told Alice that she had growing concerns about the safety of her father and that she was worried something was going to happen to him.
Andrew had supposedly made a number of enemies according to Lizzie. She also had noticed a number of strange, unsavoury looking individuals loitering about outside the family home.
On August 7, the day after the funerals of Andrew and Abby Borden, Alice Russell would again become a key part of the investigation. Alice witnessed Lizzie burning a dress which contained a red stain in the kitchen stove. Upon questioning from Alice, Lizzie said the dress had been ruined by a paint stain and she was burning it.
The Secret Inquest
A secret inquest into the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden began on August 9 and lasted until August 11. After hearing the testimonies of several individuals including Lizzie Borden and Alice Russell, Judge Blaisdell took the decision to charge Lizzie with the murders.
On August 12 Lizzie pleaded not guilty. She was remanded in custody in Taunton Jail. Eventually, Lizzie was charged with three counts of murder and a trial date of June 5, 1893, was set.
NOTE: Lizzie received three charges of murder as she was charged with the murder of Andrew Borden, the murder of Abby Borden, and then bizarrely the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden together.
The Trial Of Lizzie Borden
Ten months after the brutal murders the trial of Lizzie Borden began. The trial lasted two weeks, starting on June 5, 1893, and ending on June 20, 1893, when an all-male jury found Lizzie not guilty.
The prosecution found it difficult to prove a motive for the murders. They argued that Lizzie Borden planned the murders after finding out her father planned to make a new will. John Morse was a key witness called for this claim.
He stated that Andrew Borden planned to leave Emma and Lizzie $25,000 each. The rest of his estate and money totalling in the region of $500,000 to Abby. John Morse wasn’t the only witness called in regards to the will but the problem was there was no proof it existed.
Another problem was that John Morse contradicted his own testimony. He originally stated Andrew had told him he already had a will and this was a new will to replace it but then later stated he didn’t know if Andrew already had a will as he had never mentioned it. No will, new or old, was found.
Key Evidence Ruled Inadmissible
The prosecution also tried to argue that the fact Lizzie’s version of events changed several times and her erratic behaviour after the murders were signs of her guilt. Unfortunately for the prosecution, the evidence they had was ruled inadmissible in court.
The evidence they tried to introduce was Lizzie’s contradictory statements made during the secret inquest held shortly after the murders. The judges, however, agreed with the defence, stating that as she hadn’t been charged at the time what she had said couldn’t be used in court.
The judges proceeding the case also ruled out another piece of key evidence for the prosecution. Eli Bence told his story of how Lizzie Borden had attempted to buy poison the day before the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden. The next day it was ruled that the information had no bearing on the case and should be ignored.
The jury took a little over an hour to deliver there not guilty verdict. Despite the verdict, Lizzie Borden was ostracised by the majority of the Fall River community and remained so until her death in 1927.
If Not Lizzie Borden Then Who?
Almost one hundred and thirty years have passed since the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden. Dozens of books, movies and even TV series have been based on the murders, with the main focus almost always on Lizzie Borden over the victims themselves. However, not every author or expert on the case puts the blame at Lizzie’s feet.
Uncle John The Murderer
One person often in the firing line is the uncle of Lizzie Borden, John Morse. On the face of it, Morse had a perfect alibi that day but oddly this has led to doubts as the alibi was almost too perfect. He knew the conductor’s badge number as well as the exact number of the streetcar, as well as introducing himself to several priests. The timing of his stay along with his behaviour upon returning from his errands have only fueled those who believe he was guilty.
The big question against John Morse his motive. Morse gained nothing from the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden financially. He didn’t seem particularly close to his nieces (he reportedly never bothered with them after the murders) so it is hard to see him doing it for there benefit. One theory was that he did it for his sister but by the time of the murders, Andrew and Abby had been married nearly twenty years – so why now?.
Bridget Did It!
The maid Bridget Sullivan has also had her accusers. The most common idea is that Bridget snapped after been forced to clean the windows on a hot day and whilst feeling unwell. I’m not sure I can see that but even if I could why go on to kill Andrew sometime later.
Bridget is also apart of another theory in which she and Lizzie were lovers. The story goes that the pair were caught by Abby. Her horrified reaction led to her death at the hands of Lizzie. When Lizzie tried to explain the events to Andrew he acted in much the same way. He too was killed as a result. Although Lizzie did the killing Bridget was part of the cover-up.
There is very little proof to back up this theory, it is true that Lizzie may have been a lesbian, however, no such evidence exists to say Bridget was in any way attracted to women.
The final suspect other than Lizzie Borden is a secret half brother by the name of William Borden. Author Arthur Brown claimed William was the result of a liaison between Andrew Borden and Phebe Hathaway, Williams mother. Upon finding out William attempted to blackmail and extort money from his birth father. After the deaths, William Borden was also heard talking to his axe. He said the following according to Brown:
“You knew my father and that fat sow he married when he should have married my mother. Of course you knew them; you were there when they died!”
The theory is built purely around hearsay and conjecture with no form of hard proof. Evidence that William was the illegitimate son of Andrew Borden also doesn’t exist. William Borden was real and lived in nearby Taunton. He also hanged himself as the book says. However, his father was shown on records to be Charles Borden. There was no evidence of William having ever known Emma, Lizzie, Abby or Andrew Borden.