The Lizzie Borden Case
The Lizzie Borden Case
The Borden Family. Andrew Jackson Borden was one of the leading businessmen in Fall River, Massachusetts. r Senior partner in Borden, Almy, and Company, he had been president of the Fall River Savings Bank and owned : textile mills and other real estate. Despite his wealth, estimated at $500,000 in 1891, Borden lived simply with his wife, Abbie Durfee Gray Borden (his first wife had, died in 1863), and his two grown daughters from his first marriage: Emma, aged forty, and Lizzie, aged thirty-one. The aging Mr. Borden may have lived simply, but his life was far from peaceful. His daughters ; grew jealous of their stepmother, especially in the 1880s when Mr. Borden gave his sister-in-law some property ; for a home. The father tried to soothe his children with ; gifts of money and rental property, but afterward they i called their stepmother “Mrs. Borden” instead of “Mother,” as they had done for twenty years.
Murder of Andrew and Abbie Borden. After dinner on 3 August 1892 the senior Bordens were ill. The next morning Bridget Sullivan, the housekeeper, also became sick. Mrs. Borden thought someone was trying to poison
them. While Mr. Borden went downtown to his office, his wife went upstairs to clean the guest room. Meanwhile, Lizzie suggested to Bridget, whom she always called “Maggie,” that she go downtown to a department store, which was having a sale. Bridget did not feel up to it, and instead cleaned the windows before taking a nap. At around 10:30 A.M. Mr. Borden returned home. When he asked for his wife, Lizzie told him that she had gone to visit a sick friend. Mr. Borden then lay down on a sofa in the parlor. Shortly after 11 A.M. Lizzie woke up Bridget, telling her an intruder had come into the house and killed her father. Bridget and Lizzie went downstairs where Mr. Borden’s body lay on the sofa, his head hacked to pieces. Bridget quickly left to summon a doctor. When they returned they searched the house and found Mrs. Borden’s body in the guest bedroom, also with her head horribly mangled. Mrs. Borden was found to have been struck nineteen times on the head with an axe; Mr. Borden had been hit ten times.
Lizzie’s Arrest. The youngest daughter of Andrew and Abbie Borden quickly became a suspect. (Emma had been at a friend’s house at the time of the murders.) Lizzie told Bridget that she had been in the barn when the intruder had killed her father. There was neither sign of forced entry nor evidence of robbery; no weapon was ever found. However, the circumstantial evidence against Lizzie was very strong. A few days before the murders, Lizzie bought prussic acid, a poison, saying she needed to kill rats. A friend reportedly found Lizzie burning a dress at the kitchen stove a few days after the slayings; she said she had spilled paint on it. The police arrested Lizzie on 13 August. Neighbors who were shocked at the crime were not stunned by Lizzie’s arrest. Lizzie engaged in charitable causes, but, like her mother, she had a reputation for being hot tempered, “worse than insane.” Moreover, she was “known to be ugly” and jealous of her stepmother. Nonetheless, the prosecutor doubted that he could convict Lizzie without a weapon. The brutal murder of the elderly couple generated national publicity, and people from all over the country wrote to the police with theories and suggestions. Some said Mr. Borden had an illegitimate son who committed the murders or that Bridget Sullivan was somehow involved.
The Trial. Lizzie Borden went on trial in Taunton in June 1893. Prosecutor Hosea M. Knowlton was assisted by William H. Moody, later attorney general of the United States and justice of the Supreme Court. George D. Robinson, former congressman and governor of Massachusetts, defended Borden, arguing that the case against her was circumstantial. His argument was strengthened on the day the trial opened, when a Portuguese servant committed a similar murder in a nearby town. Though this killer was not in the United States when the Bordens were killed, his crime cast doubts on the case against Lizzie. Robinson played upon appearances; during his closing argument he pointed to his prim client and asked the jury: “To find her guilty, you must believe she is a fiend. Gentlemen, does she look it?” On 20 June the jury deliberated for an hour before finding Lizzie Borden not guilty.
Reaction to the Borden Case. Public opinion seemed to support Lizzie’s innocence, but her neighbors shunned her after the trial. Some thought Lizzie had escaped conviction because her lawyers had skillfully cast doubts on the case of the prosecution and because news reporters had come to like Lizzie. Boston lawyer N. Sumner Myrick wrote, “Miss Borden seems to have ‘hoodoed’ the Court and jury, not forgetting the newspaper men. Had Bridget Sullivan been on trial, I venture to say she would at this moment be confined in a convict’s cell.” A year after the trial Lizzie and Emma moved from their home, where the neighbors did not speak to them, to a more fashionable Fall River address. Free from the constraints of her father and stepmother, Lizzie called herself Lizbeth A. Borden and took an interest in the theater, entertaining friends from the stage and traveling to performances in New York and Boston. In 1905 Emma moved to New Hampshire, spending the rest of her life under an assumed name. She avoided the public eye and any further contact with her sister. Emma and Lizzie Borden died within a few days of one another in 1927.
Michael Martins and Dennis A. Binnette, eds.,. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Lizzie A. Borden: The Knowlton Papers, 1892-1893 (Fall River, Mass.: Fall River Historical Society, 1994).