Lizzie Borden Trial: 1893

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Lizzie Borden Trial: 1893

Defendant Lizzie Borden
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Andrew Jennings and George D. Robinson
Chief Prosecutors: Hosea Knowlton and William H. Moody
Judges: Caleb Blodget, Justin Dewey, and Albert Mason
Place: Fall River, Massachusetts
Dates of Trial: June 5-20, 1893
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: On the basis of circumstantial evidence, prosecutors accused Lizzie Borden of murdering her father and stepmother. In an attempt to circumvent its lack of direct evidence, the prosecution appealed to popular stereotypes about the slyness and cleverness of women. Lizzie nonetheless was acquitted. The acquittal was significant in that it represented the triumph of the rule of law over common prejudice.

Born in 1860 and never married, Lizzie Borden lived in quiet obscurity in the small town of Fall River, Massachusetts, until August 4, 1892. On that day an ax-murderer killed her father, Andrew J. Borden, and her stepmother, Abby Durfee Gray Borden. The police arrested Lizzie for the crime, and her trial made her a figure of national notoriety.

Lizzie's birth mother, Sarah M. Borden, died when Lizzie was a small child. Lizzie lived in her parents' house together with the family maid, her uncle, and her older sister, Emma Borden, who was, like Lizzie, a spinster. The Bordens' family life was quite ordinary and unremarkable until the morning of August 4, 1892, when a neighbor looked out of her window and noticed Lizzie, visibly upset, clinging to the screen door that opened onto the Bordens' yard. When the neighbor, Adelaide Churchill, asked Lizzie what the problem was, she replied, "Oh, Mrs. Churchill, do come over. Someone has killed father."

Churchill immediately notified the police. When a policeman, followed by a doctor, arrived at the Borden house, they found Andrew Borden's body in the family living room. Someone had come upon him, apparently while he was napping, and brutally and repeatedly attacked him with an ax. Although blood splattered the furniture, there were no signs that he had fought with an intruder. Churchill and another neighbor, Alice Russell, had accompanied the policeman and doctor into the Borden house. Churchill went upstairs with the maid to look for Abby Borden. They found her in a guest room, murdered in the same terrible fashion. Like Andrew, Abby's morning routine had been unremarkable and there was no sign of resistance to an intruder. Apparently Abby had been making the bed at the time of her murder.

Lizzie Charged with Murder

The police began an investigation and questioned Lizzie on the events of the morning of the murder. Whether out of shock or deliberate evasiveness, her answers were rambling and inconsistent. The police asked her where she had been at the time of the murders, and she answered at different times with different versions. Lizzie at various times told the police that she had been getting a piece of fishing gear from the family barn, or that she had been in the yard, or that she had been picking pears.

Turn-of-the-century-police questioning tactics, particularly those used on a murder suspect, were often less than sensitive to the effect of trauma upon a suspect's answers. It is difficult to determine, therefore, whether Fall River Mayor John Coughlin was justified in ordering the police to arrest Lizzie on the basis of their investigation and her inconsistent answers. The local coroner conducted a formal inquest, and Lizzie's answers were just as confused.

The police charged Lizzie with the murder of her father and stepmother. They suspected that Lizzie's motive was either a deep-rooted resentment related to her natural mother's death, or a desire to collect her father's sizable fortune. The police did not, however, attempt to implicate Lizzie's older sister Emma in the murders. Logically, Emma could have had the same motives as Lizzie and have committed the murders herself. With this question hanging in the air, the state of Massachusetts opened Lizzie Borden's trial on June 5, 1893.

Judges Caleb Blodget, Justin Dewey, and Albert Mason presided over the trial. The prosecutors were Hosea Knowlton and William H. Moody. Knowlton was the more experienced attorney, but because he was feeling ill he had brought Moody along as co-counsel. Lizzie's defense lawyers were Andrew Jennings and George D. Robinson. Robinson was a particularly distinguished lawyer, having once been the governor of Massachusetts.

Moody opened the prosecution's case by describing the facts to the jury and preparing them to accept the idea that a woman could have committed such horrible crimes:

Upon the fourth day of August of the last year an old man and woman, husband and wife, each without a known enemy in the world, in their own home, upon a frequented street in the most populous city in this County under the light of day and in the midst of its activities, were, first one, then, after an interval of an hour, another, severally killed by unlawful human agency. Today a woman of good social position, of hitherto unquestioned character, a member of a Christian church and active in good works, the own daughter of one of the victims, is at the bar of this Court, accused by the Grand Jury of this County of these crimes.

The prosecution's case rested in large part on circumstantial evidence. For example, Moody made a point of emphasizing that Emma Borden had seen Lizzie burning a dress after the murders. Implying that Lizzie had burnt the bloodstained dress she wore while murdering her parents, Moody said to the jury:

Now, gentlemen, it will appear that about the two rooms in which the homicides were committed there was blood spattering in various directions, so that it would make it probable that one or more spatters of blood would be upon the person or upon the clothing of the assailant.

The prosecution went on to present four axes and hatchets found in the Borden house. None of these implements had any bloodstains on them, however.

Andrew Jennings, who had been the Borden family's attorney for many years, opened Lizzie's defense with a direct attack on the prosecutors' reliance on circumstantial evidence:

They have either got to produce the weapon which did the deed or else they have got to account in some reasonable way for its disappearance. There are two kinds of evidence: direct evidence and circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence is the testimony of persons who have seen, heard or felt the thing or things about which they are testifying. [T]here is not one particle of direct evidence in this case, from beginning to end, against Lizzie Andrew Borden. There is not a spot of blood: there is not a weapon connected with her.

Jennings and Robinson went on to challenge the prosecution's assertion that Lizzie's dress-burning was an implication of guilt. They brought Emma Borden to the witness stand and were able to elicit testimony, favorable to Lizzie, that the dress had in fact been very old, faded and stained and thus was legitimately destroyed. After nearly two days, the defense concluded its case.

Attorneys Wrap Up

Robinson made the closing argument for the defense. Of course, he could not dispute that a particularly heinous crime had occurred:

One of the most dastardly and diabolical of crimes that was ever committed in Massachusetts was perpetrated in August, 1892, in the city of Fall River, the terror of those scenes no language can portray.

Robinson went on, however, to stress how close Lizzie and Andrew Borden had been. Many years ago, Lizzie gave her father a ring to symbolize her love for and fidelity to him. Robinson used this fact to emphasize how unlikely it would be that Lizzie would murder her father:

Here was a man that wore nothing in the way of ornament, of jewelry but one ring, and that ring was Lizzie's. It had been put on many years ago when Lizzie was a little girl and the old man wore it and it lies buried with him in the cemetery. He liked Lizzie, did he not? He loved her as a child: and the ring that stands as the pledge of plighted faith and love, that typifies and symbolizes the dearest relation that is ever created in life, that ring was the bond of union between the father and the daughter.

When the prosecutors' turn came to make their closing argument, Knowlton and Moody knew that their principal weakness was their heavy reliance on circumstantial evidence. They deliberately appealed to the all-male jury to decide the case on the basis of prevailing attitudes toward women:

If they lack in strength and coarseness and vigor, they make up for it in cunning, in dispatch, in celerity, in ferocity. If their loves are stronger and more enduring than those of men, on the other hand, their hates are more undying, more unyielding, more persistent.

In the hope that the jurors would accept at face value this assessment of the female psyche, prosecutor Knowlton went on to dismiss the prosecutors' failure to find any bloodstained clothing belonging to Lizzie:

How could she have avoided the spattering of her dress with blood if she was the author of these crimes? I cannot answer it. You cannot answer it. You are neither murderers nor women. You have neither the craft of the assassin nor the cunning and deftness of the sex.You are merciful men. The wells of mercy, I hope, are not dried up in any of us. But this is not the time nor the place for the exercise of it!

The end of the prosecutors' closing argument marked the end of the trial. All that remained were the judges' final instructions to the jury. Before the judges adjourned the court, however, they gave Lizzie the opportunity to make a statement to the jury. Under Massachusetts law, she had not been required to testify at the trial. Thus, the following words were the first that the jury had heard from Lizzie: "I am innocent. I leave it to my counsel to speak for me."

If she were convicted, the state of Massachusetts would execute her in a newly invented machine, popularly known as the electric chair.

Judges' Instructions Favor Lizzie

Judge Dewey spoke for the three judges when he gave the jury their instructions concerning the law and evidence in the case. First, he reiterated the defense's point that the prosecutors had relied on circumstantial evidence. Second, he dismissed her inconsistent statements to the police after the murders as being normal under the circumstances. Having thus effectively challenged the basis of the prosecution's case, Judge Dewey went on to remind the jury members of their duty to Lizzie:

If the evidence falls short of providing such conviction in your minds, although it may raise a suspicion of guilt, or even a strong probability of guilt, it would be your plain duty to return a verdict of not guilty. [S]eeking only the truth, you will lift this case above the range of passion and prejudice and excited feeling, into the clear atmosphere of reason and law.

On June 20, 1893, the jury left the courtroom to deliberate. Perhaps Judge Dewey's instructions had swayed the jury, or perhaps the jury was truly convinced of her innocence. In either event, after little more than an hour of deliberation the jury returned to the courtroom with its verdict. It found Lizzie Borden not guilty of the murder charges.

After two long weeks of what was one of the nation's most widely publicized trials, Lizzie left the courtroom a free woman. To this day, historians have speculated that she had been covering up for sister Emma. It is possible that Emma committed the murders, or hired someone to enter the Borden house and murder her parents. There were conflicting accounts, not fully explored by the prosecutors or Lizzie's attorneys, that a hired assassin had been seen fleeing Fall River. Other accounts about visits that Emma had made to a nearby town, visits that could have related to the murders, were also left unexplored.

Her trial over, Lizzie left the old Borden residence and moved into a new house. Collecting her inheritance from her father's estate, Lizzie could live a comfortable life. She invested this money wisely, and became a prominent local benefactor of worthwhile charities, particularly animal shelters. By all accounts, she led a respectable life for nearly 35 years until her death in 1927. The infamy of her trial, however, has outlived her death.

Despite her acquittal, to this day Lizzie is still popularly regarded as one of America's most famous murderesses. In fact, her acquittal was really a triumph for women, because the jury refused to bend the rules of law that protect defendants when the prosecution played upon popular stereotypes about the "sly sex."

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Hunter, Evan. Lizzie. New York: Arbor House, 1984.

Lincoln, Victoria. A Private Disgrace. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1967.

Porter, Edwin H. The Fall River Tragedy. Portland, Maine: King Philip Pub. Co., 1985.

Radin, Edward D. Lizzie Borden. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961.

Satterthwait, Walter. Miss Lizzie. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Spiering, Frank. Lizzie. New York: Random House, 1984.

Sullivan, Robert. Goodbye Lizzie Borden. Brattleboro, VT: Greene Press, 1974.