Probably the most widely discussed, hotly controversial, and weirdly perpetrated murders in the endless annals of American crime were the mystifying assassinations of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Jackson Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts, on August 4, 1892.
Hazy in the minds of the present generation, these homicides, and the subsequent trial of Lizzie Borden, daughter of the victims, are still green in the memories of men and women past middle age, undimmed by the passing decades and the sensational murders which have followed in appalling succession.
Mr. Borden was seventy years of age when he died. He was a director in several banks, president of one, and a director and shareholder in numerous textile and realty enterprises. He was worth half a million dollars, equivalent to several times that sum today. His hair was white, a snowy beard fringed his face, he wore no mustache, and he was a tall, silent, dour descendant of his Puritan ancestors.
Mr. Borden's second wife — he had buried the mother of his children several years before Appomattox — was Miss Abby Durfee Gray, as uncompromising a lineal replica of her Pilgrim forebears as the banker. The second marriage was made in 1865, and Mrs. Borden was about sixty-four years old when she was chopped to death with a hatchet.
Mr. Borden had two daughters: Emma L. Borden, about thirty-seven at the time of the tragedy; and Lizzie Andrew Borden, five years younger.
Between Mrs. Borden and her stepdaughters no affection existed. There was an unconcealed resentment, on the one hand, by daughters whose father had taken unto himself a successor to their mother, and on the other hand there was resentment of that resentment. Add to this an actively nourished and growing mutual dislike; mix in a female rivalry for the old man's fortune; make allowance for the close and daily contact, in one small house, of an unyielding attitude and the sour introspection of a mildewed Puritan blood line, and you have a situation pregnant with violent possibilities.
So harsh and vindictive had the household discord become that it was seldom that the younger women ate at the same table with their elders; and Lizzie never addressed or alluded to her stepmother except as "Mrs. Borden." With Bridget Sullivan, a servant, these four persons lived in a frame dwelling at 92 Second Street.
An interesting feature of the mystery is the fact that in half a dozen known generations of Bordens and Morses — the name of the first Mrs. Borden — there never had appeared the faintest semblance of lawlessness. Indeed, in New England Puritanism there may be meanness and narrowness and intolerance, but there is not likely to be the emergence of jungle traits that contemplate, plan, and execute major crimes.
There were few recognizable preliminaries to this double murder; that is, there was no outbreak of passion, no sex complications, no love, no jealousy, no overt signs of insanity, no serious quarrels, no single premonition that would have prepared the family or the neighborhood or the busy seaport for the stupendous horror of the murders. It came suddenly and unheralded; and when it came it rocked the country, dividing the adult population into two camps — those who blindly believed Lizzie Borden innocent and those who with equal conviction and no little cynicism believed that nobody else could have committed the crimes.
On Tuesday, August 2, Mrs. and Mrs. Borden had been very ill after eating supper. Lizzie said she been, too. John Vinnicum Morse, a brother of the first Mrs. Borden, was visiting the family, but arrived too late to partake of that meal. Emma Borden was visiting friends in Fairhaven, a nearby town.
On Wednesday Lizzie called on Alice Russell, her best friend, in her home a block or so away. They talked of this and that, and referred to a vacation which Lizzie had looked forward to.
"But," said Lizzie, "I am worried. I fee, as if something was hanging over me that I can't throw off."
The prosecution was presently to dilate on that remark as significant, as well as on a previous boast of Lizzie's, that "she always had her way when she once made up her mind."
Lizzie also told Miss Russel of the strange illness of her parents the night before: and voiced a suspicion that; "somebody was putting poison in our milk." She then went on to say that her father had an enemy, and had quarreled with a man who had called to see him about some real estate. Also, Lizzie continued, there had been some burglaries in the house, and Mrs. Borden's purse had been opened and several dollars taken from it.
"Why," quoth Lizzie, "I'm afraid that some time they'll burn the house down."
She did not then identify "they," but later said she meant "foreigners." There were many foreigners in the mills and other Fall River industries, and they might easily have suspected that the wealthy old banker kept some of his wealth in his home. Most of the crimes in Fall River were committed by this foreign element.
The next morning, the 4th, Bridget went downstairs at 6 o'clock and prepared breakfast. And what a priceless commentary on Puritan menus it is, that breakfast that Mr. and Mrs. Borden and Mr. Morse ate together — sugar cakes, bananas, mutton broth, mutton, unbuttered bread, and black coffee! On a torrid August morning!
At 8 o'clock Mr. Morse left to visit relatives on the other side of town. We know he was with his kinsfolk, and so he passes out of the picture as a possible assassin.
Following his departure Lizzie came down. She told Bridget she wanted only coffee and cookies. While she ate, Mr. and Mrs. Borden performed their usual chores, emptying slop jars and so on, for Mr. Borden was so penurious that he would tolerate no bathroom. At 9:30 he went down to his office in the Union Savings Bank, of which he was president.
A little later Mrs. Borden came into the kitchen and told Bridget and Lizzie that she had just made the bed in the guest room and was going back up there to put fresh slips on the pillows. She gave Bridget orders about washing the downstairs windows and went upstairs. She was not again seen alive.
Bridget went to the barn and to the cellar for rags, pails, and dry cloths. When she returned, Lizzie had vanished. Bridget went outside and washed the windows, stopping at times to gossip with a neighbor's servant.
When she finished out there, she carried her impedimenta within. It was about 10:45 o'clock. While getting ready to wash the windows inside, she heard fumbling at the front door. She opened it and admitted Mr. Borden. They were surprised to find the door had been triple locked on the inside with bolt, key, and spring lock. Mr. Borden had already been to the side door, but had found the screen caught fast inside by its hook. He commented on the fact that locking that screen door with its catch was contrary to custom.
Precisely at that moment they both heard Lizzie laugh. She was at the head of the front stairs and was coming down. She joined her father in the dining room, talked about the morning mail, and when he asked where Mrs. Borden was, replied:
"She has gone out. Somebody came with a note that somebody was sick, and she went away. She'll be back for dinner, she said."
Mr. Borden then ascended the back stairway to his room, remained there a moment, and came down, going to a chair near the living-room window. Bridget went on with her window cleaning. Lizzie went to the kitchen, got an ironing board, and took it to her dining-room table, where she began to iron some handkerchiefs.
"Bridget," said Lizzie, "are you going out after dinner?"
"I don't know," said Bridget. "I don't feel very good."
"Well, if you do go out, don't forget to lock the door, as Mrs. Borden is out on a sick call and I may go out, too. By the way, Bridget, there is a sale of dress goods at Sargent's today; it's selling at eight cents a yard."
Bridget then went up to her room and lay down for a short nap before fixing the noon meal. She said that soon after she closed her eyes she heard the Town Hall clock strike eleven. She dozed off, and about ten minutes later she heard Lizzie call out to her from downstairs. "Bridget, come down, quick!"
"What is it, Miss Lizzie?" she called back.
"Hurry down. Father is dead. Somebody came in and killed him."
Bridget flew down and started to enter the sitting room, when Lizzie, who was just outside the door, stopped her.
"Oh, Bridget, don't go in there. I must have the doctor. Run quick and call him."
She meant Dr. Bowen, the family physician. Bridget ran to his house, across the street and up the block a bit. Mrs. Bowen said he was out, so she ran back.
"Where were you, Miss Lizzie, when this thing happened?" she asked — the first of countless times Lizzie was to hear that question.
"I was out in the yard under the pear tree. Suddenly I heard a groan and came in. The screen door was wide open. Bridget, run over and bring Miss Russell."
Bridget ran. Meanwhile, a neighbor, a Mrs. Churchill, noticed the excitement and looked across the narrow space between the houses. She saw Lizzie standing near the screen door and called across to her.
"Mrs. Churchill," cried Lizzie, "do run over! Somebody has killed father."
"Mrs. Churchill came over and said: "Where were you when it happened?"
"I went to the barn to get a piece of iron." said Lizzie.
Mrs. Churchill went out to get another doctor and asked some men at a nearby stable to help. One of them telephoned Police Chief Hilliard. This was at 11:15 o'clock. Events had moved swiftly since Mr. Borden returned from his office a little before 11 o'clock!
A few moments after Mrs. Churchill returned, Dr. Bowen reached the Borden house. Before the police arrived they entered the living room. On a sofa across from the windows lay the body of Mr. Borden, his head and face so cruelly chopped that his features were obliterated. He had donned a woolen house coat and under his head he had folded his coat before lying down for a brief rest before dinner. He had not struggled after the first blow had split his skull. There had been no need for further blows, but it was evident that some mutilating fiend had been abroad in that fearful house.
While Dr. Bowen covered the body of his friend with a sheet, Mrs. Churchill and Miss Russell, who had also arrived, were comforting the bereaved daughter. They rubbed her wrists and fanned her face and hovered about. There really seemed small need for these feminine ministrations, since Lizzie did not cry or shudder or manifest any emotion at all.
After a moment or so, Lizzie remarked that somebody ought to tell Mrs. Borden about the affair. She said that maybe Mrs. Borden had returned, because "I think I heard somebody come in." Bridget and Mrs. Churchill went up the front stairs, and as their heads reached the level of the second floor they glanced between the banister raïlings through the open door of the guest room, and saw a woman's body on the floor beyond the bed.
They entered the room, rounded the bed, and found Mrs. Borden's corpse. Her head and face had been hacked until she was unrecognizable. She lay in a pool of coagulated blood. She had been dead nearly two hours.
Joseph Allen, the first policeman to reach the premises, was a simple chap, and at the sight of Mr. Borden he ran back to the police station to notify his superiors. No guard, therefore, was stationed in the house to prevent further concealment of clews or to try to find out who slew the couple. Indeed, there had been time enough between the moment Bridget went upstairs and the moment Lizzie called her — fifteen or twenty minutes — to dispose of all clews.
Within an hour after the police arrived, all the clews that ever were to be found had been gathered. Dr. Emmett Dolan, the coroner, examined the bodies. Mr. Borden's pockets had not been rifled. Mrs. Borden had evidently been struck down while putting the fresh slips on the pillows.
Told of the strange illness that had seized the elderly couple two days before. Dr. Dolan took samples of the milk for analysis, and later examined the stomachs. He was to find no poison in either.
The next morning the Fall River Globe contained a notice signed by Emma and Lizzie Borden offering $5,000 reward for apprehension and conviction of the culprit.
Reluctantly, the police finally were compelled to question Lizzie. From the moment the bodies were discovered until the jury returned its verdict nearly a year later, the good people of Fall River, including most of the authorities, strove to protect "that poor, innocent, godly girl," Lizzie Borden, tat thirty-two, against insinuations of the skeptics — and weight of circumstantial evidence.
Following the double funeral on Saturday, the 6th. Mayor J. W. Coughlin and Chief Hilliard went to the Borden home. Coughlin asked the inmates not to leave town for a few days.
"Why," exclaimed Lizzie, "is anybody in this house suspected?"
The mayor hesitated and then replied: "Miss Borden, I'm sorry, but I must say that you are."
"I am ready to go now," said Lizzie.
But the official merely asked her not to leave the house, and promised the family full protection against the curious crowds outside.
On Tuesday the investigation began. It lasted until Thursday, and was participated in by District Attorney Hosea M. Knowlton, the chief, the mayor, the coroner, Albert E. Pills-bury, attorney general of Massachusetts, who had stepped into the case because of its notoriety, and the Borden family. Lizzie was represented by Attorney Andrew J. Jennings.
Among the witnesses at this inquest were Eli Bence and Fred E. Hart, clerks in D. R. Smith's drug store on South Main Street, and Frank H. Kilroy, a citizen who had happened to be in the pharmacy on Wednesday, August 3.
These three men testified that Lizzie Borden, whom they had known for years, had that day tried to buy prussic acid, giving as her purpose the killing of moths in her sealskin coat. The clerks had refused to sell her the poison. We shall see what happened to their testimony at the murder trial.
Following the inquest, Lizzie was arrested for the murder of her father. No mention was made in the charge as to Mrs. Borden's death. The next morning she was arraigned before District Judge Blaisdell. She pleaded not guilty, and preliminary hearing was set for August 25. She was taken to the jail at Taunton, and was returned, to Fall River on that day.
Lizzie declined to take the stand. Indeed, following her statement at the inquest, she never again referred to the mystery in public. The state's case consisted largely, after a few witnesses were heard, of a résumé of all the statements she had made to friends and neighbors and police and inquest inquisitors. This, abbreviated, is what The People submitted as proof that Lizzie should be held to the Superior Court for formal trial:
"My father married my stepmother in 1865," said Lizzie, volunteering information and answering questions. "I don't know how much he was worth. He once sold me and my sister a farm and later bought it back. I never knew he had made a will until Mr. Morse, my uncle, told me recently.
"My father had trouble with a man several weeks before his death. He came to the house and I heard them talking about a store. My father ordered him out of the house. The man said he would be back to talk to father. Father also had trouble with Hiram C. Harrington, who married my father's only sister, but I don't think it was serious.
"About five years ago I had trouble with Mrs. Borden about her stepsister. Mrs. George Whitehead After that I did not regard Mrs. Borden as I did my mother. I did not call her mother because I did not want to.
"The day they were killed I had on a blue dress I changed it in the afternoon to a print dress first time I saw father Thursday morning, he was read his newspaper. The iron wasn't right, so I didn't finish ironing the handkerchiefs. I was in my room upstairs sewing on a piece of lace when my father returned around 11 o'clock.
"I last saw Mrs. Borden when she said she was going upstairs to put on the pillow slips. I don't know when she went out, or if she went out at all; but she did tell me she had received a note from a sick friend and was going out.
"I did no more ironing after father returned. He sat on the sofa and I told him I was going to the barn to get some lead for a sinker so I could go fishing. I went upstairs in the barn, unhooking the screen door when I left the house. I had no fishing apparatus at the house, but I had some at the farm. It is five years since I used that fishing line.
"I stayed up in the loft about fifteen or twenty minutes looking for the lead. Also I ate some pears. The loft was frightfully hot. No, I did not have any hooks or line to fish with, but I intended to go down and buy some, and thought I could save some money by using the lead in the barn for a sinker. I picked the pears from the ground on my way to the barn.
"I don't know where Bridget was all this time, but when I returned from the barn I took off my hat and then found father dead and called her. I saw one hatchet not long ago on the chopping block in the cellar. I don't know how many axes or hatchets there were down there. If there was a hatchet there with blood on it, or recently washed and scrubbed with ashes, I don't know anything about it.
"The screen door was wide open when I returned from the barn. I gave the police officers the skirt I wore that day. I wore black tie shoes and stockings. I was under the pear tree four or five minutes on the way to the barn. The white-and-blue striped dress I wore in the afternoon is home in the attic.
"I never went to any drug store to buy prussic acid, and did not go into the guest room where Mrs. Borden was killed all that day.
"One night not long ago I saw the shadow of a man near the house as I was coming home. I hurried in the front door. I saw somebody run around the house last winter and jump over the fence. I know nothing about the unfortunate murders."
After the defense called Hilliard and Dr. Bowen, the latter especially solicitous in protecting Lizzie, Judge Blaisdell somewhat apologetically held her to the Superior Court for formal trial.
On December 2 the grand jury found three indictments against Lizzie, one for killing her father, one for killing her stepmother, and one for killing both of them. She was arraigned before Superior Judge Hammond in New Bedford on May 8. 1893, pleaded not guilty to the writs, and was ordered to trial on June 5.
On June 5 there were three judges on the bench — Chief Justice Albert Mason and Associates Caleb Blodgett and Justin Dewey. Knowlton led the prosecution and was assisted by William H. Moody, afterwards in Roosevelt's cabinet and on the United States Supreme Court bench.
The defense was headed by George R. Robinson, thrice governor of Massachusetts, aided by Jennings and Melvin O. Adams.
Twelve jurors were selected from a panel of 108. Forty newspaper reporters were present, almost all of them reflecting popular feeling in their respective communities by frantically defending Lizzie and frantically denouncing the prosecutors.
The state strove to prove: that Lizzie had the motive for the crime — the fear that her step-mother would be favored in the distribution of the Borden fortune; that she had exclusive opportunity to commit it, the means and the capacity; and that she had betrayed consciousness of guilt.
Premeditation was alleged in the conversation with Alice Russell and the effort to get Bridget out of the house by sending her to buy dress goods.
Exclusive opportunity was insisted on by the prosecution; physically she was capable of committing the murders; and the handleless hatchet produced in court might easily have been the weapon. The handle had been chopped off recently, and it appeared to have been washed and scrubbed with ashes.
Consciousness of guilt was shown, the state held, by her falsehoods as to the note sent Mrs. Borden — since nobody ever appeared to say he or she had taken such a note to the house; and by the conflicting stories she told as to her whereabouts when the old man was killed — having said she was in the yard, under the pear tree, in the barn — and also about the groan and the screen door.
Alice Russell was an unexpected and important witness for the state. She had not previously testified to anything of importance save Lizzie's ominous conversation. Now she testified that when she reached the Borden house that morning she asked her friend why she had gone to the barn, and Lizzie replied: "I went to get a piece of tin or iron to fix the screen."
On the Sunday following the homicides, Miss Russell said, she went into the Borden kitchen and saw Lizzie with a dress in her hand approaching the stove. Emma Borden asked, "What are you going to do?" Lizzie said, "I am going to burn this old thing up; it is covered with paint." Miss Russell said she remarked: "Lizzie, I wouldn't let anybody see me ripping and burning a dress, if I were you." Lizzie said nothing.
Miss Russell described the dress as a "cheap cotton Bedford cord with light blue ground and a small dark figure on it."
Mrs. Churchill testified the dress Lizzie wore that morning was a "light blue and white background with a dark navy blue diamond on it." Shown a dark blue dress which Lizzie had given to the police as the one she had on when she found her father slain, Mrs. Churchill said it was not the one Lizzie wore that day.
The prosecution suffered a severe blow when the three judges, all of whom were noticeably favorable to Lizzie's legal battalions, excluded the prussic acid testimony of the drug-store clerks and the bystander. Indeed, the prosecutors halted the trial forthwith while they discussed the propriety of refusing to continue. They refrained from taking this step for fear the judges would merely turn to the jury and order it to acquit the defendant.
The defense, having scored mightily by this ruling, proceeded to attack The People's case. It showed that the screen door had been open and that the slayer could have entered, thus proving that Lizzie did not have exclusive opportunity. It showed that nothing had been produced to prove the weapon was among the hatchets and axes in court. It showed there was soft lead in the barn loft, fit for making into sinkers. It showed that in the excitement any woman might have told conflicting stories.
Its strongest point was made when the first five or six persons to see Lizzie after the murders were unanimous in swearing that she had no bloodstains on her person or clothing, experts having previously testified that in hacking a person so brutally it was almost inevitable that some blood should splash on the assassin.
Finally, the state was shown to have failed completely in producing one single bit of direct evidence connecting Lizzie with the crimes. Circumstantial evidence in abundance, yes; but nothing of a genuinely direct nature
The defense called few witnesses, the defendant's previous good character having been conceded by the state. One or two persons told of seeing strangers, foreigners, lurking about the premises from time to time; and Emma Borden completed the list of witness helping her sister by bravely admitting strained relations with her stepmother while insisting that Lizzie had "made up" with Mrs. Borden.
Lizzie did not take the stand. Following prolonged and passionate arguments to the jury, Judge Dewey read the charge. That charge has been the topic of heated controversy in legal journals and among lawyers for nearly thirty-six years. The mildest comment made about it by disinterested authorities is that it was extremely favorable to the prisoner's case.
In any event, the jurors retired from the courtroom at 3:24 P. M., June 20, the thirteenth day of the trial, returning at 4:30 O'clock with a verdict of not guilty.
Emma and Lizzie continued to live in the house of tragedy for several years, but finally quarreled over the estate and separated. Emma went to Providence. Rhode Island, to live, and Lizzie removed to a larger dwelling about two miles from her former home. There she lived under the name of Lizbeth A. Borden.
In February, 1897, Lizzie made the newspapers again. A warrant was said to have been sworn out by Tilden-Thurber Company, silversmiths, charging Lizzie Borden with the theft of two paintings from the store. The shoplifting episode was finally adjusted, officials of the company reported, and the warrant was not served.
Everybody connected with the case is dead. All the judges, the police officials, the politicians, the lawyers, the preachers, the neighbors, the witnesses, all are dead.
On June 1, 1927, Lizzie died in Fall River, sixty-six years of age, alone and friendless, all the shouting and protesting adulators and partisans in her crisis having quietly withdrawn their friendship. Her will left most of her fortune to animal charities, and cut her estranged sister Emma off without a penny.
Nine days later Emma died in Newmarket. New Hampshire. She had lived there in seclusion for many years, her mind affected by the long years of brooding over the tragedy.
Today, Emma and Lizzie and their father and mother and their stepmother sleep eternally side by side in the Borden family plot in the Fall River cemetery.
Publication Date: 1929