(The case of Lizzie Borden and 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 intriguing crimes in American History.  On a warm Thursday morning, August 4th, 1892, a horrid double axe murder occurred and 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 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.

Twenty-five years ago is when my obsession started and 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. 

I am a psychology major, with a concentration in forensic psychology. I have always been interested in unsolved crime, but more so, I became interested in what makes a person commit murder? How does a person get to a point that they want to kill?

I have studied some of the most famous serial killers, Ted Bundy who was handsome, charismatic and confessed to 30 homicides.  John Wayne Gacy who buried 26 victims in the basement of his house while married to a homemaker. These were horrible men, the worst of the worst and were labeled as lust murderers, who would randomly select anyone and kill them.  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 there victims. Was Lizzie Borden one of these women?

This was one of the most barbarous crimes you could ever imagine. But they never found a murder weapon. No blood was found on Lizzie, minutes after the murders. The jury had doubt.  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 she 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 that was brewing for years? 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. The first time I visited the house, I had no idea what to expect. When you step inside the Borden House, which is now a Bed and Breakfast, you’re transported back into the 1800s. Everything in the house is preserved or replicated right down to the murder couch where Andrew Borden was killed. It is creepy and haunting, but at the same time exciting and historic. Also, It makes it easier to plot out how the murders could have been done. 

I also was excited to participate on a mock trial two years in a row, planning the prosecution side to win an impossible case, built by circumstantial evidence. It was very disappointing that we could not win this case. However, being in the house again, gave me some new ideas and insights. 

I also participated in a paranormal investigation at the house. I am a skeptic, and this is really not my thing, but because of a strange happening, my research took me to a whole new level. I then added to my research, 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, and while haunting, I have since learned that it is also factually inaccurate like many things about the case, which is what bothers me the most. All the stories, all the shows, movies are made to entertain, not to tell the story;
the story about a woman who maybe was 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 that reported every day about the crime and the trial were at war with each other. They had extreme differences and points of view. Similar to what we are experiencing today with Fox News and MSNBC News and Fake News. 

When Lizzie was in jail waiting for the preliminary hearing, an argument was overheard by the Matron. 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. This is just one example as to why this case is so interesting. 

Another similarity is a woman’s march. You have to remember that 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.” (pg. 42 Pearson)

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 and when the court room doors opened the women would march courageously, lunch baskets in hand, 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 in support of 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 was going to be put to death.
With some of the best attorneys of their time, the Borden trial provides us with opposing 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, which I reference 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 juniors thinking that maybe she was capable of hacking her father and stepmother to pieces. The defense used Miss Lizzie, a happy, pretty, feminist name. This illustrated she wasn’t capable of such violence. Also, Lizzie’s demeanor during the trial was that of “calm and dignified”, a sign of innocent or others saw it as “cold and heartless.” Both painted a picture of good and bad. 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 also a lot of controversy with Justice Dewey. Two factors that may have helped in Lizzie’s acquittal, first Justice Dewey prejudicial jury instructions and 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. I wanted to get to the facts. 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 women who have committed murders 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 the women explaining that their was something wrong with them.  Were women frustrated trying to cope with the norms set, where men rule in the society and where women had no rights?  We must pay attention to the social pressures, which surrounded them. 

This story starts with the Crime itself and what happened that August morning. Then I will describe to you Fall River, to give you a feel of what it was like to live in the 1800s.  I will also discuss women’s social class in society, which played an important role in Lizzie’s acquittal. I will break down the myths, explore the testimony, showing you again, the important items that were left out of the trial. I will break down for you other suspects and why they were dismissed. I will discuss the psychology and the later years of Lizzies life and how pop culture is now playing an important role in the case of Lizzie Borden. Lastly, I will tell stories of other murderous women who lived in the Victorian time and discuss the many similarities and what drove them to murder.

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 carriages were a way of transportation, timekeeping was primitive and murder without good forensics, was difficult to prove.

First, “The Crime” 

Chapter 1
The Crime

It was a cool Thursday morning,  August 4th, 1892. The U.S. Signal Weather Service at 7am registered the temperature at 67 degrees. As the day grew on however, the temperature grew warmer and at 2pm it was 83 degrees.  City Marshal Rufas B. Hilliard was sitting at his desk at The Central police station. It was a quiet time. Every year almost all 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 until the phone rang and it was John Cunninham a news dealer. He was frantic and could hardly breathe as he yelled, “their is a disturbance at the Borden house. Come quick”. Marshall Hilliard gave the order immediately to one of his officers, George Allen, a five-year rookie. 

Officer Allen went swiftly and arrived at the two-and-a-half story Borden house at 11:20am. He was greeted by Charles Sawyer, a neighbor. Entering the house, Allen asked Sawyer to stand at the back door.  “Do not let anyone 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, no signs of fear even though her glossy eyes were turbulent. Sitting with Lizzie, were the maid Bridget Sullivan and two friends, Mrs. Churchill and Miss Russell.  Doctor Bowen was also there and upon Allens arrival, escorted him to the sitting room where Andrew Borden was lying dead on the sofa.  Then at Lizzie’s request, Doctor Bowen left to go to the post office to send a telegram to Emma Borden.

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 dispersed into his memory forever. His head was bloodied and gashed beyond recognition.  His head was chopped to pieces leaving his eye laying out of its socket, His jaw bone was exposed, his nose almost cut off his face leaving crimson, wet tissue and 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. 

Overcome, 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 took a look 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 wondering 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 up and 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. Mrs. 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.

The second body was now discovered.  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 Doctor Bowen returned to the house, Mrs. Churchill told him that 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 infiltrating the house. Police officer Doherty, Assistant Marshal John Fleet, officers Mullaly, John Devine and Medley all came. Doctor Dolan, the medical examiner arrived too. As Doctor Dolan, along with Doctor 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. All looking for a killer and a weapon. Reporters and people made the streets un-walkable as they blocked the 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 of course blood on the dead bodies. A closer inspection found no trail of blood, footprints, drippings, any kind of evidence that a person leaving the house with a bloody hatchet would leave.  The most puzzling, was the determination that the murders happened an hour apart. 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 20 minutes or so to kill Andrew and leave undetected, on a very busy street.  This would be extremely difficult if not next to impossible.   

As the search went on, the police started to ask questions to the only two people that were 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 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.  Since it was 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 Andrews murder, came in and discovered him dead on the couch.  Her alibi for Abby’s murder was a bit 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 on her dress, no blood 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 Abbys 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 on her except one little spot, no weapon 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. Fall River just established itself as a city and young Lizzie was coming of age.  Next, some history.