Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
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 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.” 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 behind.”
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 friend forever
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