Monday, August 03, 2009

Lizzie Borden: Did She Or Didn't She?

Note to readers: I am one of those fascinated by the Lizzie Borden case. Settle in for a long read, possibly my longest post ever! And may you find the case as fascinating as I do.

You may have heard the sing-song jump-rope ditty:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Certainly, Lizzie herself heard that tune and was taunted, possibly even tormented, by it for the rest of her life.

Common knowledge at the end of the Nineteenth Century held her guilty. Many believe the same today, particularly if they've seen the 1975 made-for-television film The Legend of Lizzie Borden. Turn up the volume, and view the ending sequence of the film:

But what are the facts of the case?
On the morning of August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden (age 70) and his wife Abby Borden (age 63), the latter the stepmother of Lizzie and Emma Borden, were found brutally slaughtered in their home on Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts. View the crime-scene photos HERE. Although the Borden sisters Emma and Lizzie and their stepmother had been close for many years, both sisters ceased calling Abby "mother" and taking meals with the parents in 1887 because of a financial dispute with Andrew Borden.

Andrew Borden, previous to his success as a businessman, had been a funiture maker and coffin maker. He was infamous as a miser and married Abby Borden after the death of his first wife, who had given him two living daughters. Revealingly, when news of the crime spread throughout Fall River, one gentleman stated, "Well, somebody did a good job."

Although the Bordens were among the wealthiest families in the town, the family didn't live on "the hill," but rather in the working-class section of town, in a crackerbox of a house only twenty feet wide, with no running water, no gas, no hallways, and virtually no privacy because of the lack of hallways and flimsy structure of the house. Once word of the murders got out on the morning of August 4, nearly the entire town stopped work. Some 2000 people gathered outside the small house.

Today the house is the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast/Museum and available for tours, as well as the site for August 4 re-eneactments of the crime. The bed and breakfast, renovated, restored, and upgraded for creature comforts, is listed as number one on the Top 10 Scariest Travel Destinations in the World!

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden's body was discovered sprawled on the sofa in the sitting room:

Floor plan of the first floor:

Abby Borden's body was discovered in the upstairs guest room. She was murdered some two hours before her husband. Floor plan of the second floor:

Because of the August heat, the funerals were held quickly. Autopsies were conducted a week later, on August 11, 1892. Photos of the victims are below. The rest of the autopsy photos can be viewed HERE and HERE.

The skull of Abby Borden. She received more blows than her husband, and her customary braid was completely severed from her head.

The skull of Andrew Borden. Notice the near obliteration of the eye socket on one side.

At the trial, Lizzie Borden fainted in the courtroom when the above skulls were brought in as evidence.

Aside from the murder victims, only two other people have been confirmed as present in the house the morning of the murders — Lizzie and the maid Bridget Sullivan. Emma was visiting friends in the nearby town of Fairhaven. The front door of the Borden home was triple-locked from the inside.

At the inquest, Lizzie gave conflicting response to police inquiries and conflicting testimony at investigative hearings as to her whereabouts that morning: in the kitchen reading, out in the yard eating pears, searching in the barn for fishing sinkers . Her conflicting testimony was thown out during trial because she was under morphine sedation administered by her doctor immediately following the murders.

Lizzie Borden, age 32, was arrested on August 11, 1892 and stood trial a year later. She faced three counts of murder: one for the murder of Andrew Borden, one for the murder of Abby Borden, and one for the murder of both elder Bordens. Her trial was a sensation and dubbed "The Trial of the Century" and has been compared to the trial of O.J. Simpson. The trial of Lizzie Borden was covered in depth, and numerous drawings such as the one to your right abound.

Even in the Twenty-first Century, the Lizzie Borden case still occasionally makes front-page news:

The case against Lizzie was purely circumstantial, partly because of limited investigative technology at the time, and lacked any physical evidence whatsoever — no proven murder weapon, no blood on Lizzie's person or clothing, no convincing motive. One particular circumstance played in her favor: the abhorrence of administering death by hanging to a woman. Furthermore, she was an upstanding citizen of Fall River and known for her religious piety, her church being her only social outlet.

Recent Discovery Channel video about the physical evidence:

At trial, Lizzie Borden had a dream team for her defense, and the prosecution team was a dream team as well. According to Wikipedia:
She was tried for the murders, defended by former Massachusetts Governor George D. Robinson and Andrew V. Jennings. One of the prosecutors in the trial was William H. Moody, future United States Attorney General and Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lizzie Borden's closing words at trial were "I am innocent. I leave it to my counsel to speak for me."

Justice Dewey's instructions to the jury amounted to a resetatement of the defense's case and encouragement to acquit. Indeed, the jury acquitted Lizzie after a mere one and one-half hours of deliberation. Crowds cheered in the street upon the acquittal as her case had been a celebrated cause by virtue of the fact that she was a woman and an upstanding citizen of Fall River.

Following acquittal, Lizzie Borden later took the name "Lizbeth A. Borden." Very shortly after the trial, she and her sister Emma moved to Maplecroft, a fourteen-room mansion on "The Hill" of Fall River. The house had summer and winter bedrooms and baths, a library, indoor plumbing, hand-painted porcelain fixtures for the bathrooms, as well as other luxuries, and required a full staff of servants and maids. In 1905, the two sisters had a falling out, and Emma vacated the house. Neither of the Borden sisters ever married.

Upon her death in 1927, Lizzie Borden was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Fall River and left a sizeable portion of her estate to the Fall River Animal Rescue League. She also aportioned some funds for the perpetual care of her father's grave. Her grave still draws visitors, mostly aficionados of the case.

Today, the entire family of Andrew Borden rests near this marker in Oak Grove Cemetery in Fall River, Massachusetts:

This Scottish poem was carved into the mantel at Maplecroft and sung at Lizzie's request at her funeral:

The green leaf of loyalty's beginning to fall.
The bonnie White Rose it is withering an' all.
But I'll water it with the blood of usurping tyranny,
And green it will grow in my ain countree.

Conjecture as to who murdered Andrew and Abby Borden and why continue, with numerous books written about every conceivable possibility. But there is no way to know the definitive answers. All who might have known the answer to who perpetrated the crimes on August 4, 1892, are long dead.

So, what do I think? Did Lizzie commit parricide?

As one interested in the case, still officially unsolved, I've visited Fall River several times. I even attended the Lizzie Borden Conference at Bristol Community College in 1992!

On my first visit in 1985, before the town of Fall River officially acknowledged outsiders' interest in the Borden murders, I conversed at length with Florence C. Brigham, past curator emeritus of the Fall River Historical Society and one who had met Lizzie when Ms. Brigham was a child. She told me, "Oh, Lizzie did it." She spoke of Lizzie fondly and said that Lizzie was a kind lady. I asked Ms. Brigham about the incest theory, which opines that Lizzie murdered her father because she was furious that he had so taken advantage of her and held her prisoner in the house. Ms. Brigham replied, "We didn't speak of such things in those days."

I also asked, "Was Lizzie Borden a lesbian?" because, according to one theory, Lizzie committed the crime because Andrew and Abby Borden had recently discovered her affair with the maid Bridget Sullivan; this theory likely hatched because Emma's falling out with Lizzie in 1905 resulted from Lizzie's friendship with Nance O'Neil, also reportedly a lesbian. Ms. Brigham's response was the same as her previous response. Unfortunately, I didn't discuss with Ms. Brigham the story of retired nurse Ruby Cameron, who tended Lizbeth Borden in her later years. Ruby Cameron stated, "Lizzie Borden's boyfriend did it." I'd have liked to have heard Ms. Bingham's response to that question!

More recently, once the house on Second Street was opened to the public, I took a tour of the house. My conclusion: no way could Lizze have done those murders without the maid Bridget Sullivan hearing and knowing of the crime, particularly the fall of Abby Borden, a portly woman, to the floor. That fall would have shaken the entire structure! Please see the floor plans earlier in this post, and keep in mind that the house is only twenty feet wide. I also believe that the maid assisted Lizzie to some extent although the maid may not have committed the actual murders. I can't say that I blame the two women, however. That breakfast served on the morning of August 4, 1892, may well have provided the reason for justifiable homicide:
On the morning of the 4th, the family sat down to a breakfast of 5-day-old mutton, mutton broth, rotten bananas, johnnycake, bread, cookies, and coffee.
As I mentioned earlier in this posting, Andrew Borden was quite the penny pincher, so refrigeration in the Borden household was primitive, to say the least. The mutton and mutton broth may well have "gone off."

Of course, my conclusions about the case are merely my opinions. The oft-cited explanation of "Who else could have committed the crimes?" does not a legal case make.

The details of the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden continues to hold its fascination, as evidenced by the following video, much of which was filmed in the house on Second Street:

Additional reading

For those interested in the case, I do recommend this documentary, available at NetFlix and released in 2005 by The History Channel.

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posted by Always On Watch @ 8/03/2009 08:00:00 AM