A Trial With A Twist: Lizzie Borden

lizzier2_converted_thumb

She gazes faintly from behind the deputy sheriff as she watches complete strangers determine her fate, listening to the prosecution rest its case against her. The courtroom is crowded, and everyone is anxious to know the verdict. Is she guilty or innocent? The trial is receiving attention from all over Massachusetts. Headlines have been reporting what is known of the wealthy Andrew Borden’s death, labeling him a “vulnerable citizen,” calling his death a “shocking crime,” even going as far as to speculate that the daughter of Mr. Borden, who first discovered his murder, was actually responsible for it. When did this become her life? A woman with excellent social background, a Sunday school teacher, a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and member of the board of the Fall River hospital, is now a suspect of a gruesome murder. Social background doesn’t matter, truth doesn’t matter; truth is out of her hands, out of her control. All she can do at this moment is listen to the allegations against her and worry for her life.

It was August 4, 1892 at 11 A.M when thirty-three year old Lizzie Borden let out a scream. “Maggie, come down! Come down quick; father’s dead; somebody came in and killed him.” Upon entering the house, the Borden maid Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan saw the lifeless body of the wealthy Andrew Borden with his face hacked away on a love seat, and his wife Abby Dufree Gray laying upstairs, hacked and lifeless as well. Police were notified, and immediately upon arriving at the Borden home, they began searching. Blood trails couldn’t be located, a weapon couldn’t be found, and forced entry wasn’t possible because police reported the house being orderly. It was determined that the couple was murdered fifteen minutes apart, but with the lack of further evidence, the murder became an immediate mystery.1

With a lack of evidence and no suspects, Police Chief Marshal Hillard questioned all those present in the Borden home at the time of the murders. Bridget reported that she was cleaning the windows, and Lizzie said she was putting shams on the pillows. A guest who wasn’t present at the time of the murders, John Morse, uncle to Lizzie Borden, was later questioned, along with Lizzie’s sister Emma, who was out of town during the murders. It was reported by Lizzie that she heard a man speaking with her father earlier that morning, saying, “I would like to have that place; I would like to have that store,” after which Mr. Borden asked him to leave. This inquisition moved to the courts on August 9, 1892, and Bridget and Lizzie were again questioned. When asked where Lizzie was during the fifteen minutes apart from the two murders, she told Hillard that she was in the barn looking for iron bars; however, upon investigation, no footprints were found in the barn, out of the barn, or near the barn. Lizzie failed to provide solid accounts, and police found it difficult to believe that Lizzie had no idea of her stepmother’s whereabouts. A statement from a local druggist, Eli Bence, claimed that Lizzie had earlier sought to purchase a lethal item, prussic acid. The idea of an intruder was once again revisited, but the evidence never once pointed to an intruder. On August 11, 1892, Lizzie Andrew Borden was arrested for the murders of Andrew Borden and Abby Dufree Gray.2

The preliminary hearing for Lizzie began on August 22, 1892, in Taunton, Massachusetts, and Lizzie entered a plea of not guilty. Judge Josiah Blaisdell pronounced the accused as “Probably guilty,” and made the decision to allow Lizzie to face a grand jury. The jury met for the first time in November of 1892, consisting of twelve white and wealthy men.3

Lizzie Borden’s Grand Jury | Courtesy of famous trials

Accounts of Lizzie and her behavior prior to the murders and after were reviewed by the jury along with new information from family friend Alice Russell, who stated that she witnessed Lizzie burning a blue dress after the murders had occurred, to which Bridget stated that Lizzie was wearing a blue dress the day of the murders. With this knowledge, the grand jury was convinced that it was time to proceed with an indictment. On June 5, 1893, the trial for Lizzie Andrew Borden opened in the New Bedford courthouse. Before her stood a panel of three judges, a strong defense team consisting of Andrew Jennings (a family lawyer) and George Robinson, and the people that no one would ever want to have to see face to face: the prosecution, made up of District Attorney Hosea Knowlton and Thomas Moody.

Everyone was on the edge of their seats, waiting to see if a woman with excellent standing could possibly be responsible for the foul crimes committed. However, Lizzie was on edge too, because her life depended on the outcome. The prosecution’s case opened with Thomas Moody stating, “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.” Moody made mention of the blue dress that Lizzie supposedly burned, and presented the jury with four axes and hatchets taken as evidence from the Borden home.4

Moody Presents his case| Courtesy of famous trials

The defense team now presented its case, exploiting the fact that the prosecution had only 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.” The prosecution called Alice Russell to the stand. When asked about Lizzie’s dress, Russell recounted Lizzie saying, “I am going to burn this old thing up; it is covered with paint.”5Russell also testified that Lizzie came to her house, speaking about leaving Fall River due to a bad feeling she had. The prosecution argued that the burning of the dress was an implication of guilt, and the defense argued that a guilty person would be wise not to burn compelling evidence in plain sight. Russell also mentioned that Lizzie said she received a note from a messenger on the morning of the murders which read for Abby to visit a friend, therefore, Lizzie had no reason to believe that Abby was in the home at the time of Mr. Borden’s death. According to the prosecution, the note was never found.6

The prosecution highlighted the relationship Lizzie had with her stepmother with witnesses Bridget Sullivan and John Fleet. Bridget testified that she always thought that Lizzie and her stepmother maintained a good relationship, that is, until she overheard dressmaker Hannah H. Gifford say that Lizzie called her stepmother “a mean good for nothing.” Marshal John Fleet reported that when he called Abby “Lizzie’s mother,” she corrected him by saying, “She was not my mother, sir. She was my stepmother; my mother died when I was an infant.” To further their case, Lizzie’s doctor, Dr. Seabury, was called to the stand to report that he had prescribed Miss Borden with some morphine, which may have been the cause of Lizzie’s inconsistent statements. Unfortunately, the morphine also falls into the theory that medical examiners presented, stating that the murders were committed by a woman who was unconscious of what she was doing.7 Another witness, neighbor Abelaide Churchill, reported that she saw Lizzie in a blue dress but could not recall if it had a blood stain on it.

With witnesses testifying against Lizzie, the defense argued that the prosecution only used witness testimonies, all with the same outcome. The question of the ax head held in the state’s possession as evidence was also revisited and the timeline the government offered between the murders was challenged by stating that the timeline didn’t fit the right amount of time it would take one to clean off blood. Without as many witnesses as the prosecution and the exclusion of evidence from Eli Bences’ testimony, Charles Gifford and Uriah Kirby both reported seeing a strange man at the Borden home, perhaps the man Lizzie mentioned speaking to her father, once again, offering the theory of an intruder. Emma Borden was then called to the stand and made one the most compelling statements of the trial.

Emma testified that Lizzie and their father maintained a good relationship and that a ring found on his body was a ring Lizzie had gifted him ten to fifteen years prior to the murders, and he wore it everyday since then.8 Emma also testified that although there existed resentment for Abby among the two sisters, that Lizzie and Abby maintained a cordial relationship. The most important piece of information that Emma presented was that it was she who told Lizzie to burn the dress. According to Emma, the dress was old, as Lizzie stated, and it had many bad memories tied to it.

To rest his case, defense attorney Andrew Jennings concluded that there was no practical direct evidence, only a case based on reasonable doubt. There was no blood spot on Lizzie’s dress, and there certainly did not exist a murder weapon. A further conclusion was that had Lizzie committed these murders, she’d have to have been “stark naked” in order to fit the timeline given by the government, yet even still, would require sufficient time to wash off the blood.

Lizzie Andrew Borden is acquitted of the crimes | Courtesy of famous trials

The jury was then left with the ultimate decision about Lizzie Borden’s guilt or innocence. After an hour of recounting evidence, the jury determined that Lizzie Andrew Borden was “Not Guilty.” Lizzie let out a cry with joy and sunk into her chair, covering her face, and soon, Emma and others rush to counsel her.

After the acquittal, newspapers had headlines that read, “Vanity of ignorant and untrained men charged with the detection of crime” and “ The usual inept and stupid muddle-headed sort that such towns manage to get for themselves.”9

Citizens of Fall River continued to stand firm in their belief that Lizzie Andrew Borden was a patricidal/matricidal axe murdering maniac. To this day, the murders of Andrew Borden and Abby Dufree Gray remain a mystery; however, speculation of Lizzie’s guilt still exists and fascinates people today.10

  1. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, s.v. “Lizzie Borden,” by Michele L. Mock.
  2. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, s.v. “Lizzie Borden,” by Michele L. Mock.
  3. Joseph A. Conforti, Lizzie Borden on Trial: murder, ethnicity, and gender (Lawrence, Kansas, 2015), 42.
  4. Famous Trials, accessed October 5, 2018, Professor Douglas O. Linder, http://www.famous-trials.com/lizzieborden/1455-jenningsstatement.
  5. Famous Trials, accessed October 5, 2018, Professor Douglas O. Linder, http://www.famous-trials.com/lizzieborden/1455-jenningsstatement.
  6. Famous Trials, accessed October 5, 2018, Professor Douglas O. Linder, https://famous-trials.com/lizzieborden/1437-home.
  7. Famous Trials, accessed October 5, 2018, Professor Douglas O. Linder, https://famous-trials.com/lizzieborden/1449-bowentestimony.
  8. Famous Trials, accessed October 5, 2018, Professor Douglas O. Linder, https://famous-trials.com/lizzieborden/1437-home.
  9. Robert Booth, “Vengeful Daughter, How Lizzie Borden Got Away With Murder,” American History, Vol. 47 Issue 6, (February 2013):  48.
  10. Sarah Schmidt, “Did this woman murder her parents with an axe…and get away with it?” The Telegraph, May 5, 2017, Accessed September 05, 2018. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/05/truth-americas-worst-daughter-lizzie-borden-axe-murderer-innocent/ .

Tags from the story

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

This Post Has 67 Comments

  1. Briley Perkins

    I really LOVE this article so much, because I have watched the episode of buzz feed’s unsolved mysteries on youtube. They had talked about the Lizzie Borden case, and this article is really close to the video in regards to the information being correct. I still can not believe that she was declared innocent when most of the evidence was pointing towards her.

  2. Like many others, I assumed Lizzie Borden was guilty of killing her father and stepmother without considering the lack of direct evidence against her. I do agree that her burning the dress soon after the brutal deaths of her father and stepmother was strange, however it does not indicate guilt. Like the article discusses, much of the evidence against her was circumstantial at most. Her behavior was in fact strange as was the changing of her timeline of events, however this again does not indicate guilt. The neighbor who saw Lizzie in the blue dress would definitely have noticed if there was blood on it, stabbing two humans to the point where it is overkill would leave an incredible amount of blood. Even then, Lizzie would have to get rid of the rest of the outfit she was wearing and take a long, thorough shower to get rid of all the blood that would be on her if she did this. I think it is incredibly sad that Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in such a horrific way, however I think there would be a great amount of direct evidence against Lizzie Borden if she did carry this out, but the evidence simply isn’t there.

  3. I do not believe Lizzie Borden should’ve been eligible for trial. There was absolutely no evidence connecting her to the crime beside that it was her parents who had been murdered. All evidence presented in court was circumstantial evidence and to me, that just isn’t enough for a conviction. The only useful evidence would be the burning of her dress, bus as stated, they never found the dress itself or remains. I believe that everyone has a chance at innocence if no evidence is presented, and this is why our criminal justice systems now have rules and laws preventing this.

  4. How frightening. If Russel hadn’t seen Lizzy burning her blue dress post to the murder, nobody probably would have even suspected it would have been her to commit the crime given her reputation, positive background, and association with unions and hospitals. She may have been been found not guilty but probably would not have had it had it easy in today’s system.

  5. This article was very well written! I was always under the impression that Lizzy Borden just got away with the murder but, after reading this, I have come to the conclusion
    that it is possible that she did not do it or that the prosecution did not have enough substantial evidence. I had no idea about the morphine that was prescribed and how the prosecution thought the killer was unconscious. I don’t know how they could come to that conclusion, especially in that time period. It would be interesting to get a deep dive on forensics in this time period.

  6. Kathryn Martinez

    It’s very interesting to read about the development of Lizzie Borden’s case as it is a fairly popular one. Nowadays Lizzie Borden is used as a character and is seen almost like a celebrity. What is most interesting is that in our current court system Lizzie would have most likely been charged with murder. Especially since the day before the murders, witnesses identified Lizzie Borden as having visited Smith’s drug store in Fall River, where she attempted to purchase poison, prussic acid. She explained that she needed the acid to clean a sealskin cape but then the druggist refused to sell the prussic acid. It’s very interesting to just how the criminal court system has changed over the years.

  7. Having not been familiar with the story of Lizzie Borden before reading the article, this article does an interesting job of portraying the events. While there is no way of knowing what really happened, the scene and the events described leading up to the court hearings and the ultimate verdict are very thought-provoking. On the one hand, how could someone commit such a perfect crime in such a short amount of time, on the other hand, what is there that suggests anyone else could have done it? I find myself noting that barring some odd conspiracy between Lizzie and her sister Emma, who, as mentioned, was not in town during the murder, any evidence pointing back to Lizzie is presented in-story as circumstantial, but still second-guessing it. Incredible job.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Close Menu