The Trial of Lizzie Borden
by Doug Linder (2004)

The Borden home in Fall River, Mass.

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

Actually, the Bordens received only 29 whacks, not the 81 suggested by the famous ditty, but the popularity of the above poem is a testament to the public's fascination with the 1893 murder trial of Lizzie Borden.  The source of that fascination might lie in the almost unimaginably brutal nature of the crime--given the sex, background, and age of the defendant--or in the jury's acquittal of Lizzie in the face of prosecution evidence that most historians today find compelling. 


On a hot August 4, 1892 at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, Bridget ("Maggie") Sullivan, the maid in the Borden family residence rested in her bed after having washed the outside windows.  She heard the bell at City Hall ring and looked at her clock: it was eleven o'clock. A cry from Lizzie Borden, the younger of two Borden daughters broke the silence: "Maggie, come down! Come down quick; Father's dead; somebody came in and killed him."  A half hour or so later, after the body--"hacked almost beyond recognition"--of Andrew Borden had been covered and the downstairs searched by police for evidence of an intruder, a neighbor who had come to comfort Lizzie, Adelaide Churchill, made a grisly discovery on the second floor of the Borden home: the body of Abby Borden, Lizzie's step-mother.  Investigators found Abby's body cold, while Andrew's had been discovered warm, indicating that Abby was killed earlier--probably at least ninety minutes earlier--than her husband. 

The body of Andrew Borden

Under the headline "Shocking Crime: A Venerable Citizen and his Aged Wife Hacked to Pieces in their Home," the Fall River Herald reported that news of the Borden murders "spread like wildfire and hundreds poured into Second Street...where for years Andrew J. Borden and his wife had lived in happiness."  The Herald reporter who visited the crime scene described the face of the dead man as "sickening": "Over the left temple a wound six by four had been made as if it had been pounded with the dull edge of an axe.  The left eye had been dug out and a cut extended the length of the nose.  The face was hacked to pieced and the blood had covered the man's shirt."  Despite the gore, "the room was in order and there were no signs of a scuffle of any kind."  Initial speculation as to the identity of the murderer, the Fall River Herald reported, centered on a "Portuguese laborer" who had visited the Borden home earlier in the morning and "asked for the wages due him," only to be told by Andrew Borden that he had no money and "to call later."  The story added that medical evidence suggested that Abby Borden was killed "by a tall man, who struck the woman from behind."

Two days after the murder, papers began reporting evidence that thirty-three-year-old Lizzie Borden might have had something to do with her parents' murders.  Most significantly, Eli Bence, a clerk at S. R. Smith's drug store in Fall River, told police that Lizzie visited the store the day before the murder and attempted to purchase prussic acid, a deadly poison.  A story in the Boston Daily Globe reported rumors that "Lizzie and her stepmother never got along together peacefully, and that for a considerable time back they have not spoken,"  but noted also that family members insisted relations between the two women were quite normal.  The Boston Herald, meanwhile, viewed Lizzie as above suspicion: "From the consensus of opinion it can be said: In Lizzie Borden's life there is not one unmaidenly nor a single deliberately unkind act."

Police came to the conclusion that the murders must have been committed by someone within the Borden home, but were puzzled by the lack of blood anywhere except on the bodies of the victims and their inability to uncover any obvious murder weapon.  Increasingly, suspicion turned toward Lizzie, since her older sister, Emma, was out of the home at the time of the murders.  Investigators found it odd that Lizzie knew so little of her mother's whereabouts after 9 A.M. when, according to Lizzie, she had gone "upstairs to put shams on the pillows."  They also found unconvincing her story that, during the fifteen minutes in which Andrew Borden was murdered in the living room, Lizzie was out in the backyard barn "looking for irons" (lead sinkers) for an upcoming fishing excursion.  The barn loft where she said she looked revealed no footprints on the dusty floor and the stifling heat in the loft seemed likely to discourage anyone from spending more than a few minutes searching for equipment that would not be used for days.  Theories about a tall male intruder were reconsidered, and one "leading physician" explained that "hacking is almost a positive sign of a deed by a woman who is unconscious of what she is doing."

On August 9, an inquest into the Borden murders was held in the court room over police headquarters.  Before criminal magistrate Josiah Blaisdell, District Attorney Hosea Knowlton questioned Lizzie Borden, Bridget Sullivan, household guest John Morse, and others.  During her four hours examination, Lizzie gave confused and contradictory answers.  Two days later, the inquest adjourned and Police Chief Hilliard arrested Lizzie Borden.  The next day , Lizzie entered  a plea of "Not Guilty" to the charges of murder and was transported by rail car to the jail in Taunton, eight miles to the north of Fall River.  On August 22, Lizzie returned to a Fall River courtroom for her preliminary hearing, at the end of which Judge Josiah Blaisdell pronounced her "probably guilty" and ordered her to face a grand jury and possible charges for the murder of her parents.  In November, the grand jury met.  After first refusing to issue an indictment, the jury reconvened and heard new evidence from Alice Russell, a family friend who stayed with the two Borden sisters in the days following the murders.  Russell told grand jurors that she had witnessed Lizzie Borden burning a blue dress in a kitchen fire allegedly because, as Lizzie explained her action, it was covered with "old paint."  Coupled with the earlier testimony from Bridget Sullivan that Lizzie was wearing a blue dress on the morning of the murders, the evidence was enough to convince grand jurors to indict Lizzie for the murders of her parents.  (Russell's testimony was also enough to convince the Borden sisters to sever all ties with their old friend forever.)

The Trial

Borden trial jurors

The trial of Lizzie Borden opened on June 5, 1893 in the New Bedford Courthouse before a panel of three judges.  A high-powered defense team, including Andrew Jennings and George Robinson (the former governor of Massachusetts), represented the defendant, while District Attorney Knowlton and Thomas Moody argued the case for the prosecution. 

Before a jury of twelve men, Moody opened the state's case.  When Moody carelessly threw Lizzie's blue frock on the prosecution table during his speech, it revealed the skulls of Andrew and Abby Borden.  The sight of her parents' skulls, according to a newspaper account, caused Lizzie to fall "into a feint that lasted for several minutes, sending a thrill of excitement through awe-struck spectators and causing unfeigned embarrassment and discomfiture to penetrate the ranks of counsel."  For most of the two hours of Moody's speech, Lizzie watched from behind a fan as the prosecutor described Lizzie has the only person having both the motive and opportunity to commit the double murders, and then pulled from a bag the head of the axe that he claimed Lizzie used to kill her parents. 

The first several witnesses for the state testified concerning events in and around the Borden home on the morning of August 4, 1892.  The most important of these witnesses, twenty-six-year-old Bridget Sullivan, testified that Lizzie was the only person she saw in the home at the time her parents were murdered, though she provided some consolation to the defense when she said that she had not witnessed, during her over two years of service to the family, signs of the rumored ugly relationship between Lizzie and her stepmother.  "Everything was pleasant," she said.  "Lizzie and her mother always spoke to each other." (Other prosecution witnesses disputed Sullivan's assertion that all was fine between Lizzie and her stepmother.  For example, Hannah H. Gifford, who made a garment for Lizzie a few months before the murders, described a conversation in which Lizzie called her stepmother "a mean good-for nothing thing" and said "I don't have much to do with her; I stay in my room most of the time.") Sullivan also testified that Andrew and Abby Borden experienced stomach pains on the day before the murder and told jurors that at the presumed time of Abby's  Borden she was washing outside windows.  She testified that she opened the door for Andrew Borden after he returned home from his walk about town, and then described hearing Lizzie's cry for help a few minutes after eleven o'clock.   Several witnesses described seeing Andrew Borden at various points in town in the two hours before he returned home to his death.  Household guest John Morse, age sixty, described having breakfast in the Borden home on the morning of the murders and then leaving the house to perform chores.

The next set of witnesses described events and conversations after discovery of the murders.  Dr. Seabury Bowen, the Borden family physician summoned to the home by Lizzie in the late morning of August 4, recounted Lizzie's story about looking for lead sinkers in the barn and her contention that her father's troubles with his tenants  probably  had something to do with the murders.  On cross-examination, Seabury agreed with the defense's suggestion that the morphine he prescribed for Lizzie might account for some of the confused and contradictory testimony she gave at the inquest following the murders. Adelaide Churchill, a Borden neighbor and  another important witness, remembered Lizzie wearing a light blue dress with a diamond figure on it, but did not recall seeing any blood spots it.  John Fleet, the Assistant Marshal of Fall River, recalled his interview with Lizzie shortly after the murders.  Lizzie corrected him, he testified, when he called Abby Borden her "mother."  "She was not my mother, sir," Lizzie replied, "She was my stepmother: my mother died when I was a child."

The most compelling testimony came again from Alice Russell.  Russell described a visit from Lizzie the night before the murders in which she announced that she would soon be going on a vacation and felt "that something is hanging over me--I cannot tell what it is."  Then, according to Russell, after describing her parents' severe stomach sickness (which she attributed to bad "baker's bread"), Lizzie revealed, "I feel afraid something is going to happen."  Explaining her feeling, Lizzie told Russell that "she wanted to go to sleep with one eye open half the time for fear somebody might burn the house down or hurt her father because he was so discourteous to people."   Turning his questioning to the Sunday after the murders, District Attorney Moody asked Russell about the dress burning incident.  Russell recounted that when she asked Lizzie what she was doing with the blue dress, she replied, "I am going to burn this old thing up; it is covered with paint."  On cross-examination, defense attorney George Robinson attempted through his questions to suggest that a guilty person seeking to destroy incriminating evidence would be unlikely to do it in so open a fashion as Lizzie allegedly did.  Russell also recounted a conversation with Lizzie about a note, which according to Lizzie's account, she received from a messenger on the morning of the murders summoning her to visit a sick friend.  (Lizzie used the note to explain why she thought her mother had left the home and therefore didn't think to look for her body after discovering her father's. Despite  a thorough search of the Borden home, the alleged note never was found.)  Russell said she sarcastically suggested to Lizzie that her mother might have burned the note.  Lizzie, according to Russell, replied, "Yes, she must have."

A newspaper account of the prosecution case likened it to "a pigeon shooting match in which District Attorney Moody kept flinging up the birds and defying his antagonist to hit them, while the ex-Governor (defense attorney Robinson) constantly fired and often, but by no mean always, wounded or brought them down.  Robinson's performance impressed reporters, with one writing that the ex-Governor "is certainly without equal in New York City as a cross-examiner."  Robinson seemed any to "turn more or less to his own account" nearly every government witness, according to one trial account. 

The defense made its case using, for the most part, the state's own witnesses.  "There has never been a trial so full of surprises," wrote one reporter covering the trial, "with such marvelous contradictions given by witnesses called for a common purpose."  The defense kept hammering at the contradictory testimony of key prosecution witnesses.  The defense also explored holes in the prosecution case: Where, the defense asked, is the handle that supposedly broke off from the axe head that the state hauled into court and claimed was part of the murder weapon?  The state had no answer.  The defense also exploited the government's own timeline, which allowed from eight to thirteen minutes between Andrew Borden's murder and Lizzie's call to Bridget Sullivan, Robinson tried to suggest the difficulty of washing blood off one's person, clothes, and murder weapon of blood, and then hiding the murder weapon, all within that short span of time. 

The decisive moment in the trial might have come when the three-judge panel ruled that Lizzie Borden's inquest testimony, full of contradictions and implausible claims, could not be submitted into evidence by the prosecution.  The judges concluded that Lizzie, at the time of the coroner's inquest, was for all practical purposes a prisoner charged with two murders, and that her testimony at the inquest, made in the absence of her attorney, was not voluntary.  Lizzie should have been warned, the judges said, that she had a right under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution to remain silent.  The judges rejected the state's argument that Lizzie was only a suspect, not a prisoner, at the time of the inquest, and that anyway her statement should be admitted because it was in the nature of a denial rather than a confession.

The prosecution rested its case on June 14 after one final defeat.  The state wanted to have druggist Eli Bence recount for the jury his story of Lizzie Borden visiting a Fall River drug store on the day before the murders and asking for ten cents worth of prussic acid, a poison.  With the jurors excused, each leaving the courtroom with a palm leaf fan and ice water, the state tried to establish through medical experts, druggists, furriers, and chemists, the qualities, properties, and uses of prussic acid.  The judges, after listening to the state's foundational case, concluded that the evidence should be excluded. 

The defense presented only a handful of witnesses.  Charles Gifford and Uriah Kirby reported seeing a strange man near the Borden house around eleven o'clock on the night before the murders.  Dr. Benjamin Handfy testified that he saw a pale-faced young man on the sidewalk near 92 Second Street around 10:30 on August 4.  A plumber and a gas fitter testified that in the day or two before the murders they had been in the Borden's barn loft, casting doubt on police assertions that Lizzie's alibi was suspect because dust in the loft appeared undisturbed. 

Emma Borden, the older sister of Lizzie, was the defense's most anticipated witness.  Emma testified that Lizzie and her father enjoyed a good relationship.  She told jurors that the gold ring found on the little finger of Andrew Borden's body was given to him ten or fifteen years ago by Lizzie and he prized it highly.  Emma also insisted that relations between Lizzie and her stepmother were cordial, even as she admitted to lingering resentment herself over the transfer by her father of a Fall River home (which Emma called "grandfather's house") to Abby and her sister. The defense had also hoped that Emma might testify that the Borden's had a custom of disposing of remnants and pieces of dresses by burning, but the court ruled the evidence inadmissible. 

Summing up for the defense, A. V. Jennings argued "there is not one particle of direct evidence in this case from beginning to end against Lizzie A. Borden.  There is not a spot of blood, there is not a weapon that they have connected with her in any way, shape or fashion."  Following Jennings, Governor Robinson, in his closing speech for the defense, insisted that the crime must have been committed by a maniac or a devil--not by someone with the respectable background of his client.  He said the state had failed to meet its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and that it was physically impossible for Lizzie, without the help of a confederate, to have committed the crime within the timeline suggested by the prosecution.  Robinson ridiculed the theory that Lizzie might have avoided getting blood spots on her clothes by killing her parents while "stark naked," and argued that the murders might well have been committed by an intruder who passed out of the house undetected.

After Hosiah Knowlton's able summing up of the prosecution's evidence, Justice Dewey charged the jury.  According to one newspaper report, had the judge "been the senior counsel for the defense, making the closing plea in behalf of the defendant, he could not have more absolutely pointed out the folly of depending upon circumstantial evidence alone."  It was, the newspaper said, a "remarkable" charge--"a plea for the innocent."  Justice Dewey told jurors they should take into account Lizzie's exceptional Christian character, which entitled her to every inference in her favor. 

The jury deliberated an hour and a half before returning with its verdict.  The clerk asked the foreman of the jury, "What is your verdict?"  "Not guilty," the foreman replied simply.  Lizzie let out a yell, sank into her chair, rested her hands on a courtroom rail, put her face in her hands, and then let out a second cry of joy.  Soon, Emma, her counsel, and courtroom spectators were rushing to congratulate Lizzie.  She hid her face in her sister's arms and announced, "Now take me home.  I want to go to the old place and go at once tonight."


Borden trial courtroom

Papers generally praised the jury's verdict.  The New York Times, for example, editorialized: "It will be a certain relief to every right-minded man or woman who has followed the case to learn that the jury at New Bedford has not only acquitted Miss Lizzie Borden of the atrocious crime with which she was charged, but has done so with a promptness that was very significant.  The Times added that it considered the verdict "a condemnation of the police authorities of Fall River who secured the indictment and have conducted the trial."  Not stopping there, the Times editorialist blasted the "vanity of ignorant and untrained men charged with the detection of crime" in smaller cities--the police in Fall River, the editorial concluded, are "the usual inept and stupid and muddle-headed sort that such towns manage to get for themselves."

It is probably fair to say that, however likely it might be that Lizzie did murder her parents, the prosecution failed to meet its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  The state's case rested largely on the argument that it was impossible for anyone else to have committed the crime.  For the Borden jury that, and a few other suspicious actions on Lizzie's part (such as burning a dress), turned out not to be enough for a conviction.  Had the defendant been a male, some speculate, the jury might have been more inclined to convict.  One of the defense's great advantages was that most persons in 1893 found it hard to believe that a woman of Lizzie's background could have pulled off such brutal killings.

After the trial, Lizzie Borden returned to Fall River where she and her sister Emma purchased an impressive home on "the Hill" which they called "Maplecroft."  Lizzie took an interest in theatre, frequently attending plays and often associating with actors, artists, and "bohemian types."  Emma moved out of Maplecroft in 1905.  Lizzie continued to live in Maplecroft until her death at age 67 in 1927.  She was buried by the graves of her parents in Fall River's Oak Grove Cemetery.