(The case of Lizzie Borden and other Murderous Women)

By Kimbra Eberly


“Murder is the work of stealth and craft, in which there are not only no witnesses, but the traces are attempted to be obliterated.” 
Hosea Knowlton TT2- 1767

The story of Lizzie Borden is perhaps one of the most mysterious crimes in American History.  On a warm Thursday morning, August 4th, 1892, a horrid double axe murder occurred that would stain lives, leave a local community stunned and spark imaginations for over a century.

Andrew Borden, one of the richest men in Fall River, Massachusetts and his wife Abby Borden, were the victims of this heinous crime. Andrew was struck eleven times in the head with a hatchet and his wife Abby was struck nineteen times with a hatchet.  Lizzie Borden the youngest daughter was the accused and after a fifteen day trial she was acquitted.

One hundred and twenty-five years later, the murders remain unsolved. Movies are still being made, theories are still being speculated and many books have been written.  The house on 92 Second Street has since been converted into a bed and breakfast museum and stands as a monument to murder and mystery.

My obsession started twenty-five years ago when I became fascinated with the story of Lizzie Borden. Like others, I have read books, watched lots of documentaries, tv shows and movies, listened to lots of ideas and scenarios and still found myself wanting more. 

As a psychology major with a concentration in forensic psychology, I have always been interested in unsolved crime. What makes a person want to commit murder? How does a person get to the point that they want to kill?

Some of the most famous serial killers were: Ted Bundy who was handsome, charismatic and confessed to thirty homicides. John Wayne Gacy, who buried twenty-six victims in the basement of his house while married to a homemaker. These were horrible men, the worst of the worst, who would randomly select anyone and kill them. They were labeled as lust murderers.  People that knew them said most of the time, they seemed normal. 

Throughout history there were murderous women too. Women have struck down Kings. They have displayed fury and strength almost superhuman at times and all for a wicked purpose. However, unlike the evil men, women did not kill strangers. They usually knew their victims. Was Lizzie Borden one of these women?

This was one of the most mysterious, barbarous crimes you could ever imagine. The police never found a murder weapon. No blood was ever found on Lizzie minutes after the murder of her father. The jurors had doubts.  Also, they never found the killer. Why?  They never even tried to look for a killer. Why? Rufus B. Hilliard, the City Marshal of Fall River, declared the case closed, implying that the police had found the murderer and the court had let her go. He was convinced Lizzie was guilty.

Looking deeper into the case, I found out that Lizzie expressed anger towards her stepmother. She had resentment and was upset when she returned home from “a Grand Tour” in Europe months before the murders. Was there a deep-seeded hatred brewing? This set off my curiosity. I wanted to know more about this woman and why so many people thought she killed her father and stepmother. 

Thus, my personal journey began.  When you step inside the Lizzie Borden bed and breakfast, you’re transported back into the 1800s. Everything in the house is preserved or replicated right down to the couch where Andrew Borden was slain. It is creepy and haunting, exciting and historic. Also, It makes it easier to plot out how the murders could have been done. 

Built upon circumstantial evidence, I was excited to participate in a mock trial, organized by paranormal investigators, Chris Mancuso and Brain Cano.  Two years in a row, we planned the prosecution side to win an impossible case. It was very disappointing that we could not win both trials. However, being in the house again gave me some new ideas and insights. 

I later took part in a paranormal investigation, again hosted by Chris Mancuso and Brian Cano on the premises. I am a skeptic, but because of an unexplained incident that occurred there, my research took me to a whole new level, adding the family lineage and the history of the town itself.

“Lizzy Borden took an ax, she gave her father forty whacks, when she saw what she had done, she
gave her mother forty-one.” 

Did she? Like many others, I recall this famously morbid mantra from my childhood. While haunting, I have since learned that it is also factually inaccurate like many things about the case.

All the stories, all the shows, and all the movies were made to entertain, not to tell the true story. The story of a woman who was maybe ahead of her time. Can I have compassion for her? Was she innocent? Or was she a calculated killer with greed driving her? 

Through my research, I found similarities in our present world and in Lizzie’s world. For example: the newspapers at the time reported continuously each day offering extremely different points of view, similar to what we are experiencing today with Fox News and MSNBC News and Fake News. 

One example occurred when Lizzie was in jail waiting for the preliminary hearing.  An argument was overheard by the Matron when Lizzie said to her sister,

“You gave me away, Emma, didn’t you? Emma said, “I only told Mr. Jennings what I thought he ought to
know.” Lizzie said, “Remember Emma, I will never give in one inch, never.” 

Newspapers latched on to this quickly and published the account. It was soon stamped as “fake” news in an effort to prejudice the public against Lizzie. Sound familiar?

Behind the scenes, however, the defense attorneys were attempting to squash this incriminating evidence by having the Matron sign an affidavit that she never heard Lizzie and Emma’s conversation. Her refusal to sign this document brought up controversy during the trial. Emma took up for her sister stating the conversation never happened.  

Another similarity between both of these time periods is the forming of a woman’s march. This was a time when women had no legal rights and lived by their husband or father’s hand.
Mrs. Mary A. Livermore, President of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, led a movement to support Lizzie.

“In the autumn of 1892, Mrs. Livermore leaped into the fray, cheering for Miss Borden, and denouncing
her "persecutors" in a manner that seemed to indicate that she regarded the arrest in Fall River as merely
one more outrage perpetrated by "the tyrant Man.” (17, p 42)

From the start of the trial, hundreds of spectators gathered hoping to get a glimpse or even a seat in the courtroom. The crowds were mostly all women deserting their husbands at dinner time and neglecting their home duties. Some “wild-eyed, haggard-featured, thick-skinned women…stared at her through their spectacles and opera glasses as though she were a beast.” (51 p 271)  Others, when the courtroom doors opened would march courageously, with their lunch baskets, to get a seat in support of their female heroine. These were women, some who where abused, some who secretly hated their repressed lives, all of them to support a murderer or an innocent woman. 

This brings me to the trial, which I found amazing, almost poetic. If you look at the time period, there was no way that a woman would be put to death. With some of the best attorneys of their time, the Borden trial provides us with bewildering narratives intended to convince a jury of Lizzie Borden’s innocence or guilt. In searching for answers, the trial testimony explains the facts of the case, referenced throughout this book.

Because of the time, they did not dare to venture into certain areas, which would have upset many people. The attorneys were brilliant. To symbolize her guilt, the prosecution used “Lizzie Andrew Borden” in the trial, a masculine sounding name. By portraying her this way, it enticed the jurors into thinking that maybe she could hack her father and stepmother to pieces. The defense used “Miss Lizzie”, a happy, pretty, feminine name. This illustrated she wasn’t capable of such violence.  Her defense lawyer Jennings was eloquent and “championed her cause with an ancient knight’s consideration for her sex.” (51 p 288)  Also, Lizzie’s demeanor during the trial was that of “calm and dignified”, a sign of innocence or others saw it as “cold and heartless.” Both painted a picture of good and evil. She was either a crazed woman, or a victim of injustice. The lawyers knew this was a direct correlation with societies ideology of women and they used this to their advantage.

There was a lot of controversy with Justice Dewey. There were two factors that may have played a part in Lizzie’s acquittal, First Justice Dewey’s prejudicial jury instructions and secondly, Justice Dewey’s participation in the grand jury proceedings and the trial.

Over the years I have committed myself in trying to understand Lizzie honestly.
This book is an attempt to show you all the things that were left out of the trial (inadmissible) as well as men’s unwillingness to discuss certain women’s issues. 

My research has also taken me down paths looking at other murderous women in the Victorian Era.  I found that there were domestic confines and many restrictions put down as law.  The word “peculiar” comes up in describing many of these women explaining that there was something wrong with them.  Were women frustrated trying to cope with the set norm, where men ruled and where women had no rights?  We must pay attention to the social pressures that surrounded them at that time. 

From the beginning until well after the trial into her old age, Lizzie remained silent, never speaking a word about what had happened. The only time she ever spoke was at the inquest hearing. She changed her alibi numerous times, saying she was in the kitchen; in the dining room; upstairs. Was this uncertainty because she was high on morphine or was she trying to cover up the real story?

Let’s go on a journey back in time, to a place where lanterns lit the way, horse drawn carriages were a way of transportation, timekeeping was primitive and murder without good forensics, was difficult to prove.
First, “The Crime” 

Chapter 1 - THEN CRIME
It was a warm Thursday morning,  August 4th, 1892. The U.S. Signal Weather Service at 7am registered the temperature at 67 degrees. As the day moved on, the temperature grew warmer and at 2pm it was 83 degrees.(46)  City Marshal Rufas B. Hilliard was sitting at his desk at The Central Police Station. It was a quiet time. Every year most of the night patrolmen and many day officers made there way to Rocky Point in Providence Rhode Island for The Fall River Police Association outing. This left Hilliard with a skeleton crew of officers and they were tired from working double shifts. Rufas sat in silence, twisting his puffing mustache, staring at the endless paperwork.  The phone rang and it was John Cunninham a news dealer. He was frantic and could hardly breathe as he yelled, “there is a disturbance at the Borden house. Come quick”. Marshall Hilliard gave the order immediately, “Mr. Allen, I want you to go up on Second street, the house next to Mrs. Buffington’s above Borden street, and see what the matter is.” (53,6)   

Officer Allen, a five-year rookie, went swiftly and arrived at the two-and-a-half story Borden house at 11:20am. Charles Sawyer, a neighbor greeted him. Entering the house, Allen asked Sawyer to stand at the back door.  “Let no one in except other officers and medical doctors”, he said.  When Allen entered the kitchen, he saw Lizzie sitting still at the table. There were no signs of terror and no signs of fear. Sitting with Lizzie, were the maid Bridget Sullivan and two friends, Mrs. Churchill and Miss Russell.  Dr. Bowen was also there and upon Allen’s arrival, he escorted him to the sitting room where Andrew Borden was lying dead on the sofa. Then at Lizzie’s request, Dr. Bowen left to go to the post office to send a telegram to Emma Borden, telling her to come home.

Allen slowly removed the sheet covering Andrew Borden.  He gasped when he saw Andrew.  He wanted to look away, but he knew he couldn’t. The vision would be impressed into his memory forever. His head was bloodied and gashed beyond recognition. It was chopped to pieces leaving his eye laying out of its socket.  His jaw bone was exposed and twisted, his nose almost cut off from his face leaving crimson, wet tissue and hanging flesh, an imagery of death sprayed on the walls. Blood was still oozing out of the fresh wounds sending a chill over Allen, who then took a few steps back. He was not prepared for this and was shaken deeply and almost vomited but swallowed it all down.  Tears started to glisten in the corner of his eyes. 

He pulled himself together, left the room going out into the front hallway. Doing his police officer duties, he looked at the front door, it was tripled locked. He looked behind the door finding no one. Catching his breath, he then went into the dinning room and looked in the closet, no-one there. He quickly looked in the kitchen and then left the house and headed back to Central Station to report his findings, leaving the occupants of the house alone. 

Allens arrival back at Central Station caused Marshall Hilliard to send word out to the few officers who were on duty, to go to the Borden House.  

Back at the Borden house, the girls started to wonder about Mrs. Borden. Lizzie said to the ladies, she heard the door and thought Mrs. Borden had come in. Can someone check? 

Bridget Sullivan and Mrs. Churchill went reluctantly together to look for Abby.  They started in the front of the house. They climbed the narrow, twisted staircase, gripping the banister as they went. When Mrs. Churchill reached eye level to the upstairs front hall, she looked across the floor and could see into the front spare room. She saw a person lying under the bed. She froze as Bridget went around her and up into the room. She stood over the body and in a gasp ran back into the hallway.

The girls quickly ran back down the stairs back into the kitchen. Miss. Russell looked at Mrs. Churchill’s frightened face and asked, “Is there another?” Mrs. Churchill closed her eyes and when she opened them tears fell down her cheeks and she replied, “Yes, Mrs. Borden is killed too.”  No tears were seen on Lizzie’s face.

They now discovered the second body.  Upstairs in the guest room the body of Abby Borden lay in an undignified position.  She had met a similar fate. Her head was also hacked to pieces, bits of her hair chopped off and she was laying in a pool of coagulated blood. It was a sad fate that her last duty in life would be to ruffle up pillowcases.

When Dr. Bowen returned to the house, Mrs. Churchill told him they found Mrs. Borden upstairs in the front bedroom.  Bowen immediately went through the dinning room into the front hall and up the stairs. The board shutters in the room were partly closed leaving the room dark, the sun barely slanting through. He walked over to a space between the bureau and the bed. Abby Borden was lying face down in a pool of blood. He worked his way into the narrow space, checking her injuries.  He leaned over and placed his hand on her head. It was wet and cold. Then he lifted her right wrist, felt her pulse and was convinced that she was dead. He left the room.

Other officers started to arrive cluttering the house. Police officer Doherty, Assistant Marshal John Fleet, officers Mullaly, John Devine and Medley all came. Dr. Dolan, the medical examiner arrived too.  As Dr. Dolan, along with Dr. Bowen examined the bodies, the scene became chaotic with officers checking rooms, closets, some went down to the cellar, others outside and into the barn. They were all looking for a killer and a weapon.
News in town traveled fast and reporters and people made their way to the Borden house. Cotton mills shut down as workers left to see if the rumor was true. The streets soon became un-walkable and blocked the only way into the house.

While looking at the murder scenes the first thing noticed was: nothing was out of place, nothing stolen and nothing was overturned.  Suspicions of a robbery was soon ruled out. There was however lots of blood. There was blood on the walls, blood on the floor, doors and blood on the dead bodies.  However, the front stairway was covered with a light gray wallpaper and had no blood on it, nor did the banister. A person leaving the house would have left some kind of evidence carrying a bloody dripping hatchet.  A closer inspection found no trail of blood, footprints or drippings.

The most puzzling, was the determination that the murders happened one hour a part.  Abby’s murder occurred between 9:30am and 10:00am. Andrews murder occurred between 10:45am and 11:05am. 

The theory of an outsider coming into the house was thought about.  But police soon learned that the only way in was through the back side door. The front door was triple locked. The cellar door was locked too.  The windows were also barred.  The family was in the downstairs part of the house most of the morning until 9:30am. Abby was killed first between 9:30 and 10:00am, leaving the killer to wait an hour for Andrew to get home and then kill him. Andrew got home at 10:40am. The killer then had between eight and fifth-teen minutes to kill Andrew and leave undetected, on a very busy street. This would be extremely difficult if not next to impossible. 

If Lizzie Borden was the murderer one theory was, she ran down into the basement, broke the handle off the hatchet, rubbed ashes onto the blade and put it in a box up on a shelve.  Another theory was, she ran outside into the backyard and threw the hatchet up onto the neighbor’s barn roof.  She would have had to wash her face, hands, and hair, clean her shoes, change her dress all in a short time frame. Did she wear something over her clothing protecting her from getting spattered with blood, a theory? 

As the search went on, the police started to ask questions to the only two people in the house the time of the murders, Bridget Sullivan, the maid and Lizzie Borden, the youngest daughter of Andrew Borden. The same question was asked over and over to Lizzie. “Where were you Miss Borden?” 

Bridget told police that at the time of Andrew’s murder, she was upstairs in her bedroom resting.  She heard Lizzie call to her and came downstairs. Lizzie said, “Father is dead, go for Dr. Bowen.” Bridget left the house but came back in minutes because Dr. Bowen wasn’t at home.  Lizzie then sent Bridget to get Miss Alice Russell, leaving her alone in the house again, for a short time.  Mrs. Churchill then showed up at the house to help.  

At the time of Abby’s murder, Bridget was outside washing windows. She had a solid alibi, even talking with a neighbor girl.  They established that it was the same murderer that hacked both Andrew and Abby, Bridget was cleared.    

Lizzie told police she was out in the barn at the time of Andrew’s murder, came in and discovered him dead on the couch.  Her alibi for Abby’s murder was more complicated and she changed her story numerous times as to her whereabouts.  This raised suspicions.  However, the police saw that Lizzie’s hair was in order, no blood was on her dress, no blood was on her body, minutes after Andrew’s murder.  This was hard to explain if she were the murderer.

John Morse, Andrews brother-in-law to his first wife, stayed in the guest room the eve of the murders.  This is where they found Abby Borden’s body. Thursday morning, the day of the murders, John had eaten breakfast with the Bordens, then left at 8:45am to visit his niece, a mile from the Borden house. He had a solid alibi and was also cleared of the murders.

Emma Borden, Lizzie’s older sister,  had been visiting friends and she too had an alibi. 

About three in the afternoon, the bodies were photographed and the first autopsy was performed where Andrew and Abby’s stomachs were removed for examination. The state of the bodies indicated a violent nature, even hatred.  The murder weapon was established as probably an ax of some sort.

There was never any direct evidence against Lizzie. No blood was found on her except one little spot, no weapon was found except a hatchet head, which most likely was not the weapon. Why then should we think that Lizzie was guilty?  Because it is the things that were not introduced to the trial and left inadmissible. To understand this case, we must try and understand Lizzie. Next, some history.