Writing recently about the O.J. Simpson murders has rekindled an interest in another infamous American crime story, one that is not as well-known to modern readers. The Lizzie Borden axe murders of 1892 were in their day somewhat comparable to the Simpson case: both trials were highly publicized, the jury’s perceptions were skewed by preconceptions about race and gender, and–most importantly–in both cases the killers got away scot-free. The equivalence is not absolute, however. If the murders in the Simpson case were crimes of passion, the Borden killings were all about profit. It is this fact, perhaps, that makes the Lizzie Borden story even more chilling and despicable than the Simpson case.
On the sweltering hot day of August 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, Lizzie Borden picked up a small hatchet and used it to murder her stepmother, Abby Gray Borden. About two hours later, she used the same hatchet to kill her father. The evidence of Borden’s guilt is incontestable, and will be described in detail here.
Lizzie and her older sister Emma had feared for a long time that their father would bequeath all of his money to his second wife Abby. The Bordens were members of the New England gentry. The father, Andrew Borden, was a very wealthy man; at the time of his killing in 1892 his net worth was estimated at half a million dollars. This was a colossal sum in the 1890s and would be worth at least ten times that amount in today’s valuations. Lizzie had a track record of unstable and criminal behavior. She had at one point staged a “robbery” of her father’s desk and then pretended it had been done by an intruder. Even more ominously, she had procured poison and had actually administered it to her father and stepmother on the night of August 2. The two people had recovered, but their suspicions had been aroused. Lizzie now realized that her window of opportunity for disposing of her troublesome parents might be closing, and that she needed to act quickly.
On August 3, she attempted to purchase prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) from the D.R. Smith Pharmacy at the corner of South Main and Colombia streets in Fall River. She claimed that the highly dangerous chemical was needed to “clean a sealskin cape.” But prussic acid was a controlled substance, and the pharmacist refused to sell it to Borden without a prescription. Borden also tried to lay the groundwork for her later theory that some “wayward tramp” had killed her parents. In conversations with people around town (especially with a woman named Alice Russell), she would claim to be afraid that unseen “enemies” were stalking members of the household and tampering with their property.
On the morning of August 3, Lizzie had made careful preparations to stage the crime. She tried to get the family’s live-in maid, Bridget Sullivan, out of the house; and she had repeatedly locked and unlocked various doors to try to control the movements of her parents’ comings and goings. At some point that morning, Andrew Borden lay down on his living room sofa to take a nap: it would be one from which he would never awaken. His head and face were struck repeatedly with a hatchet: his entire face had been crushed and the sight was sickening. The physician who later examined him (a man named Bowen) later said: “Physician that I am, and accustomed to all kinds of horrible sights, it sickened me to look upon the dead man’s face…I calculated that nearly all the blows were delivered from behind with great rapidity.”
After striking his head repeatedly with a hatchet, Lizzie called out for the maid in fake distress, expressing shock at “finding” the body lying on the sofa. She sent Bridget and a neighbor named Mrs. Churchill out to try to get a doctor. She told people that she had “been out in the yard” when the alleged assault on her father had taken place. After Andrew Borden’s body was examined, Bowen, Churchill, and Bridget Sullivan then discovered upstairs the sprawled body of Abby Borden, whose head had been cloven in with a blunt instrument. The skull was opened and there were tufts of hair scattered around the room.
To kill with a knife or hatchet takes a different state of mind, it is fair to say, than killing with a firearm. This kind of murder involves a high degree of rage, hatred, and malice. A police officer named George Allen arrived at the Borden home around 11:30 a.m. and questioned Lizzie about where she was during the commission of the crimes. She now claimed to have been in the barn for about thirty minutes (near the house) collecting some “lead sinkers for fish lines.” When this alibi was investigated by a Western Union messenger named Ben Blakney (who was only a youth), it was found to be false; the walkways in the barn were covered with dust and cobwebs. No one had been in there for a long while. Blakney’s mother inexplicably told him to keep the information to himself, fearing that he might become a star witness at a murder trial. So the information was buried.
That night the mayor of Fall River directed that Lizzie Borden be placed under home detention as a suspect in the murders. She actually testified at an inquest that was held in August 1892. The disclosures she made at this initial interview caused her to be lodged in the Taunton jail and later charged formally with the double homicide. A preliminary hearing was conducted on August 25 at a state court in Taunton; she was represented at the hearing by her father’s attorney, Andrew Jennings. Judge Josiah Blaisdell “bound over” the case for trial in the Massachusetts Superior Court after finding that probable cause existed to try her for the murders. Incredibly, reporters from over forty national newspapers were present. The case had immediately attracted national attention for the viciousness of the slayings, for the fact that a woman was a defendant, and for the fact that it involved a wealthy family.
The case finally came to trial in June 1893. Borden was actually a respected person in the local community: she had been a Sunday school teacher, an active member of the YMCA (in those days more of a charitable organization than it is now), and a regular churchgoer. Very much like in the O.J. Simpson case, the judge in the Borden case tended to favor the defendant. Every ruling that could have gone Lizzie’s way, went her way.
The first ruling that went her way was the judge’s decision to bar any reference to her testimony at the inquest. This ruling was damaging to the defense, since Borden had given conflicting accounts of where she had been and what she had been doing on the day of the murders. The second ruling that severely prejudiced the prosecution was the judge’s decision to bar any reference to Lizzie’s attempt to buy prussic acid at the pharmacy several days before the murders. According the judge, this testimony was inadmissible because its probative value was outweighed by the likelihood of prejudice to the defendant. In his logic, prussic acid was a reasonably common chemical that could be purchased by anyone with a prescription.
As we have already noted, the prosecution also knew nothing of the testimony of young Ben Blakney, who could have destroyed Borden’s alibi in a single stroke. Thus handicapped by the judge’s rulings and the extreme bad luck of having an uncooperative witness, the prosecution had to stumble forward as best it could. There still was strong circumstantial evidence against Borden; but in the end, the jury was unwilling to believe that an apparently angelic young woman could be such a vicious killer. The trial lasted only from June 5 to June 20 and was held in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
When the “not guilty” verdict was read, the spectators in the courtroom applauded, much to the chagrin of the state prosecutors. It had been a humiliating–and avoidable–defeat. Borden tried to resume her normal life in Fall River, but as often happens, suspicion of her grew stronger in the months after her trial ended. When no other suspects materialized, and people began to consider the case objectively, the truth began to dawn on people. Reality could not be denied. But what is perhaps most shocking about the Borden case is that Lizzie actually confessed to the murders several years later. The circumstances are so bizarre as to defy belief.
In 1896, Borden was caught stealing several artworks from the Providence art gallery of the Tilden-Thurber Company. Four prominent local men (Henry Tilden, Stephen Metcalf, Morris House, and a Detective Parker–were then able to leverage their power over Borden to compel her to sign a confession that she had, in fact, committed the infamous murders years before. They essentially threatened her with prosecution for felony theft unless she agreed to sign a statement to the effect that she had killed her father and stepmother. She was at first adamant that she would sign no such statement. But once it became clear that the company was proceed with a theft case against her, she relented. The statement she signed read thus:
Unfair means force my signature here admitting the act of August 4, 1892 as mine alone. [Signed] Lizbeth A. Borden
The men had promised her that the confession would be kept absolutely secret. And it was kept secret until Lizzie died in 1927. It might be argued that the “confession” was worthless has having been the product of duress and coercion, but the fact remains that she still signed it. The house maid Bridget Sullivan eventually moved to Anaconda, Montana and died there in 1948 at the age of eighty-two. It has been speculated that Sullivan may have known far more about Lizzie’s guilt than she ever disclosed, but, if true, she never revealed anything.
The Borden and Simpson cases share some revealing similarities. Both defendants were able to manipulate irrelevant factors (gender and race) to help in their defense; both defendants were helped by court rulings that severely hamstrung their prosecutions; both defendants were wealthy, upper class citizens who enjoyed comfortable social standings; both defendants committed unrelated crimes after their acquittals. In some ways, I would argue that the Borden murders were even more cold-blooded than the killings in the Simpson case. This was patricide done for the basest possible motive, money; and it was done using a level of violence and premeditation that even now shocks the conscience.
Borden should have been convicted and hanged in due course. Massachusetts did have the death penalty in 1893. Indeed, the state executed two Italian anarchists–Sacco and Vanzetti–in the late 1920s in a case that many informed observers believed was flawed. But, of course, these were two poor Italians, not wealthy gentry from established families of the state. The outcome is obvious. The last recorded execution of a woman in Massachusetts before Borden, I believe, was in 1789. On October 8 of that year, Rachel Wall was hanged on Boston Common. She was America’s first female pirate and in those days piracy carried the death penalty.
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