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True crime. Casually done.

Lizzie Borden – Innocent or Axe Murderer?

Written by Kevin Jennings

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lizzie_borden.jpg#/media/File:Lizzie_borden.jpg

          I can’t help but imagine that growing up in the 1980s was a lot different than it is for kids today. Getting in trouble at recess as a small child was very difficult to do back then. Granted, most of what we did was harmless, like playing tag or fooling around on the slide and monkey bars. At my elementary school we even created our own game for recess called “kill the man with the ball.” The rules were self explanatory: someone had a ball, and they ran around trying to hold it as long as possible while 30 other children chased them trying to beat the shit out them. Not a single teacher saw a problem with this game, despite us all yelling the name of the game very loudly while running around.

              But not all recess activities were physical in nature. Sometimes, the entire class would break out into song. It’s hard to believe this happens anymore, except maybe during that brief period when sea shanties were all the rage on Tik Tok, and it really is a shame. There were certain schoolyard songs and rhymes that, aside from minor variations, seemed to find their way across the entire country despite living in a pre-internet world. I feel like British children were more civilized, so these songs may be new to Simon, but who can forget such recess classics as:

“On top of the schoolyard

All covered with blood

I shot my poor teacher

With a .44 slug”

              Or, for the more religious types:

“Glory, glory hallelujah

Teacher hit me with a ruler

I sent her up to Heaven

With an AK-47

And she ain’t gonna teach no more”

              I am not exaggerating when I say there were many, many more examples of songs about murder that we sang as 4-7 year olds at school, but I’m guessing that shit hasn’t flown since 1999. However, there was one rhyme in particular that stuck out as different.

“Lizzie Borden had an axe

And gave her mother 40 whacks

When she saw what she had done

She gave her father 41”

              Sure, the central theme is still about murder, but this wasn’t about us murdering our teachers, it was some girl named Lizzie that we had never heard of. Despite the fact that teachers and other adults certainly heard us recite this rhyme, none of them bothered to actually tell us the actual story of what happened. The best answer we ever got was that it was some local girl who killed her parents, which told us little more than the rhyme did.

              Since my teachers never got around to telling me the story of Lizzie Borden and that rhyme, it’s high time we learned about it together. But let’s make a game of it! You see, Simon made a Biographics video about Lizzie Borden nearly four years ago, so prepare for tangents galore as he tries to recall the details of the case. Every time Simon says something immediately before it appears in my script, drink. Whenever he remembers a detail incorrectly, take a shot. And be sure to GET IN THE COMMENTS at the end of the post with your blood alcohol level. Now allow me to now regale you with the tale of Massachusetts’ most famous unsolved murder.

Andrew Borden

            Andrew Jackson Borden was born in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1822. He may have been descendent from wealth and power, but he still grew up in modest circumstances. It’s unclear if his parents lost their money or somehow never inherited anything from his grandparents, but as a young man, Andrew struggled financially. Eventually, he found his calling. Or at the very least, he found a way to make some money he could invest. His first success came from manufacturing furniture, specifically caskets. To give you an idea of just how popular Andrew was around town, the running joke was that he saved money by cutting the feet off corpses to fit them in smaller caskets. I assume that’s a joke anyway, but I wouldn’t put it past him.

              His casket sales, combined with being a penny pinching miser, were enough for him to invest and branch out. Andrew owned a number of properties, including commercial properties, and became director of several textile mills. He also became director of one bank and president of another. Despite being about as well liked as Ebenezer Scrooge, Andrew did marry Sarah Anthony Morse with whom he had two children.  

              Their first child was Emma Lenora Borden, born in 1851. The second child, Alice Esther Borden was born in 1856 but died before her second birthday. His third child, Lizzie Andrew Borden (And yes, Lizzie was her Christian name, not a nickname for Elizabeth), would not be born until nine years later on July 18, 1860. Three years later, Sarah would die of “uterine congestion and spinal disease”.

              It took only three more years for Andrew to find a new wife, Abby Durfee Gray. The children believed that Abby married their father for his money, which may very well be true, but it wasn’t necessarily the smartest of plans. Andrew was 41 years old at the time and Abby was 35, so she was a little younger than him, but hardly a young trophy wife. Average life expectancies weren’t what they are today, but they were trending upwards and it was very likely they would both live into at least their 70s. Abby was going to have to be prepared to shit in a pot by candlelight for the next three decades in order to enjoy Andrew’s money in the final years of her life, assuming she was able to outlive him.

              You see, despite both things being common amenities for people of their status, Andrew refused to pay for either electricity or indoor plumbing for his house. Despite owning a good deal of real estate, he also chose to live in the poorer area of Fall River closer to the industrial complexes, rather than living on “the Hill”, the area of town where the wealthy elites lived. But you don’t get rich by spending money, especially on your daughters who won’t even get married.

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Emma and Lizzie

            Emma and Lizzie’s biological mother had died when Lizzie was a toddler, so she would have had little if any memory of her mother. Emma, however, did remember her mother, as well as the promise she made to her. The twelve year old Emma promised to be a mother to Lizzie, a promise she would take very seriously. Lizzie always saw Emma as more of a mother than a big sister, and neither girl was happy when their father remarried.

              Neighbours claimed that Abby was a kind woman who tried tirelessly to earn the affection of her stepdaughters, but it was all in vain. Emma would only refer to Abby by her first name, never calling her “mother”. To be fair, Emma was 12 when her mother died and 15 when her father remarried, so this seems like the expected response from a teenager in that position. If Lizzie would have accepted her new mother without the influence of her older sister is something we can never know. Regardless of whether it was solely the result of following Emma’s example or not, Lizzie would also never refer to Abby as “mother”, instead calling her “Mrs. Borden.”

              Even though the girls seemed to hate their stepmother, by all accounts their household was believed to be relatively peaceful. Lizzie’s disdain for Abby was one of the few things she liked to talk about in school, but things were much quieter at home. One easy way to achieve this harmonious co-existence with the person they despised was to simply avoid the problem, and the two girls were noted as rarely ever eating dinner with their parents.

              Growing up in school, Lizzie wasn’t an unpopular girl, per se. She didn’t have many friends, but she wasn’t bullied and hated either. The massive childhood trauma of losing her mother likely played a large role in how Lizzie’s personality developed, but she generally liked to be left alone and keep to herself. This probably worked out well, as she wouldn’t have really fit in.

Despite not being allowed to live the life of luxury her father’s wealth would have afforded, it was no secret that the family had that money. Lizzie couldn’t go to parties and social gatherings on The Hill with her cousins and other family because her father thought it was a waste of money, but the poorer class around whom she lived also knew that Lizzie wasn’t one of them. As a teenager in school, she was noted to have a single friend, but this doesn’t seem to have been the cause of any mental anguish.

              Probably not, anyway, but it’s also hard to say. Mental health wasn’t looked at in the nineteenth century the same way it is today. When Lizzie was in high school it would still be another 15 years before Sigmund Freud would even begin his work with psychoanalysis over in Europe. Doctors could still identify what they referred to as “women’s problems”, things like hysteria or “the vapors”, and there absolutely was a prescription for that, but we’ll get to that later.

              Back to her school days, Lizzie was a good student. She wasn’t known for being particularly bright, but she took her studies seriously and always got good grades. Until she got bored with it and dropped out of high school at 16. She may not have been brilliant, but she was known for having a sarcastic, quick wit that she was more than happy to use any time another student saw fit not to leave her alone.

              Emma and Lizzie had a religious upbringing, which would go on to play a major role in Lizzie’s life. She may not have had a lot of friends at school, but she was very involved in church activities. She even went on to be a Sunday school teacher at the Central Congregational Church and was the secretary-treasurer of the Christian Endeavor Society.

Spinsters

            As the years went on, Emma and Lizzie both remained at the house where they lived with Andrew and Abby. They became what were known as spinsters, single women who were past the age at which it was deemed that women should be married. There’s a lot of speculation regarding why neither woman ever married, much of which is foolish. Neither Emma nor Lizzie were terrible attractive, but they weren’t terribly ugly either. Factor in their family’s wealth and that the miserly patriarch was now already in his 60s, and suddenly those two start to look a whole lot better.

              It’s harder to speak to why Emma never got married, but there are a myriad of reasons why Lizzie would not that don’t involve resorting to weird conspiracy theories. For starters, during this time period there was what is commonly referred to as a “surplus” of women, because women are obviously commodities. This gender imbalance was particularly prevalent in New England. It’s not unreasonable to believe that the sharp-tongued wit of Lizzie would be less than appreciated by potential suitors, who would instead opt for a more docile and subservient woman.

              Far from obedient, Lizzie was an activist. She was a member of various social movements, most notably the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. From their name they obviously were in favour of things such as prohibition and keeping businesses closed on Sundays, the latter of which was actually still the law in Massachusetts when I was a child, fucking puritans. Aside from those two examples, however, many of the causes championed by this organization were progressive.

              Lizzie was working to fight for Women’s Suffrage and against sexual harassment in the workplace. The organization also wanted to combat poverty and help immigrants assimilate to life in the United States.  Unlike her miserly and curmudgeonly father, Lizzie was a generous and compassionate soul who wanted to see social change, most of which was progressive in nature.

              Massachusetts had only passed their Married Women’s Property Act five years before Lizzie was born. Prior to this, while single women could own and sell property and enter into contracts, a married woman was no longer an actual person, she was just an extension of her husband. By virtue of marriage, women essentially forfeited their rights. This law changed that, allowing women to own and sell property, control their earnings (whereas previously any paychecks they earned at the few jobs available to women went to the husband), and to make wills and sue people.

              This would have been the law for over 20 years by the time Lizzie was of marrying age, but you can be sure there were still some sour grapes over the whole matter. But this uppity woman wasn’t happy enough being able to have her own money, she wanted the right to vote? Sounds like too much of a handful for your typical 1880s era man from the northeast.

              There’s one other important reason that may have prevented Lizzie ad Emma from getting married, as it was a leading cause of the growing spinster population. The reason, of course, was love. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there was a big push in society for people to marry out of love rather than as a predominantly transactional institution. Once this happened, even in areas with a so-called “surplus” of women, the proportion of unwed women increased as women held out looking for the right man.

              Or, maybe Lizzie was just gay. There’s a lot of speculation about this that seems pretty baseless. The key evidence seems to be that a physician once referred to her as having “manly” characteristics and a witness at her trial mentioned her having a “low voice”, though even that could have meant soft rather than deep as she was known to be rather reserved. From this, combined with an extremely vague love note that could have been written for literally anyone, many people assume that Lizzie never married because she was engaged in a relationship with the family’s live-in maid, Bridget.

              But for whatever reason neither of the girls married, Emma and Lizzie would live with their father and stepmother into Emma’s 40s and Lizzie’s 30s. They may not have gotten along, what with Andrew being an unlikable douche and Abby not being their real mother, but everyone was at least cordial and there is no evidence of any fighting or domestic disputes in the house. This was made easier by Emma and Lizzie spending as much of their time as they possibly could staying at a vacation home in New Bedford, 20 miles away.

Tensions Mount

              Though the family remained polite enough with one another, tensions began to mount in the months leading up to the murder. The major catalyst of these disagreements was money and property. Seemingly out of the blue, Andrew had given Abby’s sister a house. The girls were furious. They were his own daughters and had been given nothing, but the sister of their stepmother, a woman they thought only wanted Andrew for his money, was suddenly being gifted an entire house? This would not do.

              Emma and Lizzie were able to pressure their father into giving them the house they had grown up in until their mother died. Unfortunately, these were wealthy white women, and there were societal codes of ethics. While there was no law forbidding it, it would be deemed inappropriate for them to live in the house without a man present. It would be different if they were widows or their father was deceased, but as long as there was some sort of male relative around, these women had no business living in a house by themselves. A few weeks before the murder, they wound up selling the house back to their father for $5,000 (About $160,000 today).

              Then there was the matter of the pigeons. Everyone knows that serial killers love to kill and torture animals before moving onto people, but Lizzie was the exact opposite. Lizzie was a lover of animals, and built a roost for pigeons in their barn. There are conflicting reports about how important the pigeons were to her. Some say that she loved them like her pets, and some say that her attachment to these pigeons was exaggerated as a means to play up her motive for murder.

              Regardless of how she felt about them, there are two facts that cannot be disputed. The first is that Lizzie truly was a lover of animals, leaving $30,000 after her death to the Fall River Animal Rescue League, a sum that is equivalent to over half a million dollars today. The other fact that cannot be disputed is what happened after she built the roost. Andrew didn’t like it. He thought it would attract stupid children who would come to hunt the pigeons, so he set out to beat them at their own game. In May of 1892, in what would later turn out to be a brutal twist of irony, Lizzie father’s grabbed a hatchet and slaughtered the pigeons in cold blood. An alternate theory for Andrew’s rationale was that he wanted to kill the pigeons because hey, free food! Either way, dick move, Scrooge.

              In late June, Andrew and Abby took a short trip, something they rarely ever did because trips cost money. When they returned, they discovered that a desk had been broken into and ransacked with items like cash, a pocketbook, and a watch that was of particular sentimental value to Abby having been stolen. In today’s money it would be over $2,000 that was stolen, and it was all items that would have been targeted by a burglar.

              A police investigation turned up nothing, though it is heavily speculated that Lizzie was the guilty party. She is rumoured to have taken to shoplifting in the years prior to the murders, though nothing has ever been substantiated.

              The following month, the family had some sort of argument. Whatever it was about, it was bad enough that both Emma and Lizzie took a vacation to New Bedford. They would return a few days later, one week before the murders. For the first four days Lizzie was back she stayed at the 1890s equivalent of an air B&B before going back home.

Forty Whacks with a Wet Noodle

            On August 2nd, something the family ate did not agree with them. Andrew and Abby spent all night taking turns on the chamber pot. If Abby had indeed only married Andrew for her money, she was no doubt extremely regretting it by this point.

              The next morning, as soon as the family physician across the street opened, Abby immediately went to see him. Her first assumption was that someone was trying to poison them, or more specifically Andrew. Not only was Andrew disliked by the town in general for being a miserly douchebag, but he had made a lot of more specific enemies throughout his questionable business dealings as well.

              Dr. Bowen listened to Abby’s complaints and concluded that it was almost certainly food poisoning. There was mutton that was left on the stove for days on end to be reused in different meals that a family friend believed to be the source of the food poisoning, which certainly isn’t a terrible guess.

              Dr. Bowen had been concerned about how sick Abby seemed, fearing that she may begin vomiting in his office. Later that day, he crossed the street to check on Abby and Andrew and see if his prescription of castor oil had helped their symptoms at all. It is said that Lizzie immediately ran upstairs in shame when the doctor came by, instantly knowing what was about to happen.

              Andrew was incensed that his wife had incurred a doctor’s bill, and he refused to be examined by Dr. Bowen. He insisted that he felt fine, an obvious lie, and that he would not be paying for the house call. What a treat this guy was to live with.

              A few hours later, Lizzie went into town to the pharmacist. She insisted on being sold prussic acid, also known as cyanide, but the pharmacist refused believing that she wanted it with some nefarious intent.

              That same afternoon, John Morse arrived to stay with the family. John was the girls’ uncle and brother of their biological mother. He also seems to be the one and only friend that Andrew had in life. He had arrived in Fall River to stay for an indeterminate amount of time and discuss business with Andrew. There is speculation that these conversations pertained to property transfer which fueled further tensions within the house, but nothing substantive.

              That night, Lizzie went to visit her longtime friend Alice Russell for a couple hours. She talked about her family potentially being poisoned and mentioned that she was worried for her life, wanting to sleep with one eye open for fear that Andrew’s enemies would burn the house down with them all inside it. Was Lizzie genuinely afraid, or was she trying to create seeds of doubt for a possible defense? Yes. Yes, it was definitely one of those two options. She arrived home around 9 pm and immediately went to bed, ignoring her father and uncle who were in the sitting room.

              The next morning, August 4, 1892, the family began the day with breakfast. Lizzie did not join them, but as we said it was common for both Emma and Lizzie not to eat with their parents. John left the house to visit some family around town and Andrew went for his normal morning walk to run errands and other work related things. Emma went out to spend the day with friends while Bridget went out to the backyard to vomit from the food poisoning that had struck them all. She had also been ordered by Abby to wash the windows, both inside and out. This left only Abby and Lizzie inside the house.

              Bridget briefly came back inside to wash the dishes from breakfast, then went back out to clean the windows. She said Lizzie was lingering by the doorway and told her she didn’t need to lock the door as long as she was outside cleaning. This was in direct defiance of Andrew’s previous declaration that all doors should be locked at all times following the apparent break in and burglary.

              Abby spent the next hour cleaning up around the house, despite the fact they had a live-in maid. At some point, when she was in the guest bedroom making the bed, she was interrupted. Facing her attacker, she saw the hatchet swinging directly at her head. She collapsed to the ground on her hands and knees where she then suffered 17 more blows to the head, destroying her skull.

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              Andrew returned home at around 10:30 am. He was home much earlier than normal, likely because he was still suffering from the previous day’s food poisoning. He couldn’t get his key to open the door so he knocked on the door to be let in. Bridget was now inside cleaning the windows, so she heard the knocking and went to open the door. She unlocked the door, but struggled to open it, the intense August heat likely having caused the wood to expand and jam the door. As she struggled with the door, Bridget claimed to have heard Lizzie laugh from the top of the stairs, mere feet away from Abby’s body, but she never actually saw Lizzie.

              After letting Andrew in, Bridget went upstairs to rest both from the heat and also still being sick. Andrew rested on the couch in the sitting room. Just before 11 am, Andrew was asleep on the couch. He never woke up when the hatchet swung down, cutting one of his eyes cleanly in half, so he certainly wasn’t awake for the next ten strikes from the weapon.

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              Ten minutes later, Lizzie called to Bridget upstairs. “Come quick! Father’s dead. Someone came in and killed him.” Dr. Bowen arrived from across the street to pronounce the couple dead. Emma received a telegram while with her friends in Fairhaven informing her of the murder of her parents, but she didn’t take any of the first three available trains back to Fall River.

              With Abby having died first, all of her assets transferred to Andrew. Andrew was rumoured to have a will, but none could be found. Once Lizzie was accused of murder, she was no longer eligible to inherit. Emma became the sole benefactor of Andrew’s entire estate, worth nearly $10 million in today’s money.

The Trial of the Century

By B.W. Clinedinst – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BW_Clinedinst,_the_Borden_murder_trial_cph.3c23237.jpg, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71387462

            The rhyme I mentioned earlier has a much less known second verse:

“Andrew Borden now is dead

Lizzie hit him on the head

Up in heaven he will sing

On the gallows she will swing.”

              Considering how universally reviled Andrew was, it’s a bit surprising to hear children argue that he would now be up in heaven. It took nearly a year before Lizzie would finally go to trial, but everybody already knew the outcome. The famous rhyme began circulating long before the trial even commenced, and it left no ambiguity. Lizzie Borden murdered her parents, and she would hang for her crimes.

              The trial itself last 15 days, and was a sensational spectacle. People lined up outside the courthouse to fight for seats so they could watch the trial live in person rather than having to read about it later in the papers. It was a jury trial with three judges and twelve jurors.

              For days, the prosecution called witness after witness. They opened the trial by bringing in the actual skulls of Abby and Andrew, and showing how the hatchet head they had found was the perfect size. The hatchet came from the Borden’s basement, and the handle was broken off. It was a clean break, and appeared to have been done recently. Unlike the other two axes and two hatchets in the basement, the dust and dirt covering the alleged murder weapon had been placed there recently and intentionally to give it the impression of having been untouched like the others.

              Witnesses testified to Lizzie’s attempt to buy poison the day before the murder, the apparent poisoning of her family from which they had all been recovering, and Lizzie burning a dress in her backyard the night following the murder.

              By Lizzie’s own testimony, there was no one else in the house except her, her parents, and Bridget, and that Bridget could not have possibly committed the murders. She had also been interrogated by the police for two days after she was arrested. During that inquest, she gave contradictory answers, couldn’t keep her story straight, volunteered information that would hurt her case and refused to answer questions that would have been beneficial.

              During the trial, she testified that a messenger had delivered a letter to the house summoning Abby to a sick friend’s house the day of the murder. Lizzie had given the letter to Abby and assumed that she was no longer home rather than being murdered upstairs. As for her father, she claimed to have gone to the loft of the barn for about 20-30 minutes and found her father dead when she came back inside.

              The prosecution argued that the police had never found the note Lizzie claimed to have given to Abby. They also cited the facts that it was a sweltering 100 degrees out that day and there was no way that Lizzie could have survived the heat of the loft for that long. Further, they had found that the dust and dirt in the loft appeared to be undisturbed indicating that nobody had been up there.

              It took the jury only 30 minutes to decide on the verdict, but they chose to wait another hour before returning from deliberation so as not to give the appearance of having rushed their decision. They were clearly in unanimous agreement, and after their 90 minute deliberation they walked back into the court room. When asked for the verdict, the jury’s foreman simply stated, “Not guilty.”

How Did This Happen?

              Following the verdict, The New York Times published an editorial that seemed to echo the sentiment of every newspaper around the country. “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.”

              That insidious rhyme had poisoned the well in Fall River, and many residents were shocked and appalled by the not guilty verdict. If we can’t trust children’s rhymes to be an accurate source of local current events, then who can we trust? Residents may have been outraged by the verdict, but no one who watched the trial was surprised.

              First, there is the matter of the inquest. The two day long interrogation began with Lizzie asking to have her lawyer present. The police refused, stating that the inquest had to be performed in private. They argued that at that point she was merely a suspect and not being held under arrest, so there was no need to allow her lawyer to be present. The court disagreed, and said that not only should she have had her lawyer present, but that she should have been informed of her constitutional right to remain silent.

              Even if it couldn’t be used in court, from a historical standpoint in assessing her guilt, the inquest is useless garbage. Following the discovery of the bodies, the stress and trauma resulted in Lizzie experiencing those “women’s problems” we mentioned earlier. She had been visited by her doctor and given the only medication at the time that was known to handle such difficulties. So every moment of every day that she spent in the police station, for the entirety of her inquest, Lizzie was high off her tits on morphine. More specifically, she was on double the normal dose of morphine that was given at the time.

              Anything Lizzie said or did during her inquest that would be considered abnormal can essentially be thrown out. One thing of note though, is that despite being out of her mind on opiates while interrogated for two days by police who weren’t afraid to do things like refuse her request for a lawyer, at no point did she ever make anything resembling a confession. She was confused, contradicted herself, and made claims that seemed well outside the realm of possibility, but the police could not get a confession out of her.

              Then there’s the murder weapon. Was it the murder weapon? Other than the relative size of the blade being appropriate for the wounds found in Abby and Andrew’s skulls, there was nothing to tie it to the murder itself. The missing axe handle was never found, and the top half, particularly the wood where it was broken off, was sent for forensic testing. Not a single drop of blood was found.

              There’s also the matter of the poison she attempted to buy. The prosecution tried to call witnesses to attest to the fact that cyanide had no use in cleaning sealskin, but the court rejected these witnesses. It didn’t actually matter whether it was an effect method of cleaning her cape, all that mattered was whether or not she thought it was. The bodies had been subjected to an autopsy, and naturally they were checked for poison given the symptoms they had been experiencing before the brutal murders. No evidence of any poison was found; it really was just a piece of bad meat or fish.

              The burning of the dress is a pretty suspicious act, but it was something that Emma and Lizzie both did frequently to dispose of old clothes. Emma testified that she was the one that told Lizzie to burn the dress because some paint had spilled on it and dried. Both Emma and Lizzie’s friend Alice tried to testify that they routinely burned dresses, but the court did not allow that testimony.

              Ultimately, the prosecution’s entire case came down to the fact that no one else could have committed the murders. They had no real physical evidence to tie Lizzie to the crimes. The hatchet was not convincing as a murder weapon. The prosecution’s opening statement began with revealing the victims’ skulls, the sight of which immediately made Lizzie faint. Not a great way to start the trial for the prosecutors. And it was all downhill from there

              One by one, every witness was turned around by Lizzie’s high priced lawyers. Her two defense attorneys were Andrew Jennings (no relation), and former governor of Massachusetts George D. Robinson. The defense barely had any of their own witnesses, because they didn’t need them. The prosecution would make their case, but on cross-examination, nearly every witness contradicted their testimony and wound up siding with the defense’s portrayal of events.

              While the prosecution tried simply to prove that Lizzie must be guilty because no one else could be, the defense countered by asking how on Earth could Lizzie be guilty? The doctor put Andrew’s time of death at 8-13 minutes before Lizzie found the body and alerted Bridget. Allegedly Lizzie had just brutally murdered her stepmother with 18 blows from a hatchet and her father with 11 more. There was blood everywhere. There was an eyeball popped out of it socket. It was a gruesome scene, but there was not a drop of blood on Lizzie or her clothing.

              How could she possibly have committed these two murders and managed to keep her body, her clothing, and the hatchet perfectly clean, as well as place the hatchet back in the basement, cover it in dust, and dispose of the now broken handle in such a way that it would never be found, all in a span of 8-13 minutes? Before you try to answer that, remember that her cheap-ass father wouldn’t pay for indoor plumbing, so she had no access to running water to aid her in that cleanup effort.

              The prosecution countered this claim by arguing that Lizzie could have committed the murders in the nude, then covered her bloody body in a clean dress. This claim was largely ridiculed, and definitely did not help their case.

              Of the few witnesses that the defense called, there were neighbours that had seen Lizzie leaving the barn around the time she claimed to have and who saw no blood on her. Another neighbour saw a suspicious man around the house at some point that morning. There was also a plumber and an electrician that testified to having been in the loft of the barn the day before the murder. They didn’t witness anything important, but the fact that someone was absolutely up there the day before contradicted the prosecution’s claim that the dust and dirt proved no one had been up there in ages.

              As for if someone could have survived the heat of the loft on that warm, August day, well that was all a lie from the prosecution that still persists to this day. It was a very hot summer in Fall River to be sure. In fact, 90 people, mostly children, died from the heat. However, it was only 83 degrees on August 4. That’s still pretty hot, but it’s not the sweltering 100 degrees that was being claimed in court.

              Also, the attacks were vicious and required some amount of strength to break the skulls as severely as they were. Lizzie wasn’t exactly in danger of being called up by Vince McMahon to come wrestle for the WWE, but she was still a sturdy gal. There’s no doubt in my mind that she would have possessed the physical strength necessary to inflict the wounds that Abby and Andrew suffered.

              But I wasn’t on the jury, and the jurors felt differently. The twelve men looked at Lizzie and saw a petite woman, incapable of such a feat of strength. They saw the woman that fainted at the sight of her murdered parents’ skulls. And above all, they saw a wealthy, white woman who was generous, loved animals, and taught their children at Sunday school. With only circumstantial evidence and nothing physical to actually tie Lizzie to the crime, there was no way they could believe she was guilty under even the mildest of scrutiny, let alone beyond all reasonable doubt.

              Lizzie Borden’s trial was the OJ Simpson trial of the nineteenth century. It drew huge media attention, massive public interest, and thanks to that rhyme, everyone already knew she was guilty before the trial even began. The only difference is that no one who followed Lizzie’s trial closely could have possibly believed she was going to be convicted.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lizzie_Borden_Trial_Jury.jpg#/media/File:Lizzie_Borden_Trial_Jury.jpg

Life as a Free Woman

“Lizzie Borden got away

For her crimes she did not pay

Pray she doesn’t find you too

Or else she’ll give you 42”

After her acquittal, Lizzie burst into tears in the courtroom before hugging her sister and saying she wanted to go home. Now that they were extraordinarily wealthy and not restricted by their father’s need to never spend a penny, the girls were finally free to fulfill their dream of buying a house on The Hill. They moved into a large, modern house, complete with toilets and electricity. Lizzie would name the house Maplecroft. It is unclear whether she was now entitled to half of the inheritance or if her sister simply shared the money with her, as they had remained close throughout this entire ordeal.

              Lizzie may have been a free woman, but most of Fall River’s residents still believed she was guilty of murder and had updated the rhyme’s second verse to reflect the court’s failure to send her swinging in the gallows. Because of this, Maplecroft wasn’t the only thing that Lizzie was going to give a new name. And who would ever suspect that Lisbeth Borden was actually Lizzie Borden in disguise! I did mention that she got good grades in school because she worked hard, not because she was especially clever, right?

              Emma and Lizzie enjoyed the next 12 years living together on at Maplecroft with their staff of live-in servants. Lizzie was also quite found of theatre, and particularly of the actress Nance O’Neil whom she met in 1904 when O’Neil was performing in Boston. The two quickly became close friends, which immediately sparked controversy and gossip. Two women, one in her 30s and the other in her 40s, were good friends and neither of them was married? Well obviously they must be lesbian lovers, because what other rational answer could there be?

              Their actual relationship is probably not important. What mattered is that Emma did not particularly approve of this friendship, or at least of the lavish parties that Lizzie was throwing in Nance’s honour at Maplecroft. After the third such party, Emma and Lizzie got into a fight. The details of the fight are unknown, but Emma left Maplecroft and moved to New Hampshire to live the rest of her days as a recluse, pretty much the only reason anyone would ever move to New Hampshire.

              Lizzie would live alone with her housekeepers for the rest of her life, never marrying and remaining a pariah. She would also have to deal with neighbourhood children throwing eggs and pebbles at her house at night to see if they could anger the supposed murderer. I know kids are stupid, but this is a special kind of stupid. The only reason to throw eggs at her house is because you think she’s actually a murderer who unfairly got away with it. But if you think she’s actually a murderer, why would you go out of your way to piss her off? If you’re that bored, just go the pharmacy and got a bottle of children’s morphine, you dumbass kids.

              On June 1, 1927, Lizzie Borden died of pneumonia. Nine days later, Emma died at a nursing home in Newmarket, New Hampshire. The girls were buried side by side in the family burial plot in Fall River.

              I’m going to give all of these numbers in today’s values for simplicity’s sake, but at the time of her death Lizzie was worth over $5 million. I already mentioned she left over half a million to the Animal Rescue League. Her closest friend and one of her cousins each received $125,000 and many of her friends and other family members each received amounts ranging from $20,000-$100,000. She also willed $10,000 to be put into a trust for perpetual care and maintenance of her father’s grave, exactly like someone who brutally murdered their father to get his money would have done.

Wrap Up

            So who really killed Andrew and Abby Borden? Well, the prevailing theory is still that Lizzie did it. She had a motive and there’s no one else that was known to be in the house besides Bridget. Dr. Bowen had ruled that the murders happened about 90 minutes apart, which means if it was an intruder that they would have had to hide out in the house that entire time after killing Abby while they waited for Andrew, and hopefully only Andrew to return. That is possible, but seems unlikely. But is it less likely than Lizzie being able to commit both murders without getting a drop of blood anywhere on her?

              Also, the timeline put forth has been called into question as well. Medical science was a lot different 130 years ago, shocker I know. The time of death wasn’t scientific at all, it was literally just the doctor’s best guess based on his experience and on how dried the blood around the bodies was. The thing is, the room where Abby was found was on the second floor and facing the sun while the room where Andrew was found was on the first floor and facing the shade. The temperatures in these rooms would have been different by at least 3-4 degrees, if not more. There is no indication that this was accounted for by Dr. Bowen, which means the murders could have been as little as 15 minutes apart. Suddenly, the idea of an intruder doesn’t sound nearly as implausible.

              And what about Emma? Sure she has an alibi, but Emma’s ghost came to visit a former resident of Fall River in her dream and explained exactly how she committed the murders. That may be ridiculous, because ghosts aren’t real, but there are those who believe that Emma actually committed the murders and met with her friends afterwards.

              Then there’s the uncle/brother-in-law, John Morse. It was considered noteworthy that John traveled to visit them for an indeterminate amount of time, but brought almost nothing with him. He was also a butcher by trade, and allegedly brought a meat cleaver with him everywhere, a weapon that potentially could have fit the crime scene better than a hatchet. I want to call bullshit on this based on my experience as a butcher, but I wasn’t a butcher in the 1800s so I guess it’s possible.

              Lizzie may be the best specific suspect we have, but I think it being an intruder may be more likely. Andrew was hated enough that Abby genuinely thought one of his enemies had tried to poison them to death, and if the timeline was only 15 minutes instead of 90 minutes then it’s a lot easier to believe. Much of the lack of evidence against Lizzie could be explained by the fact that she was not immediately considered a suspect so her room was not thoroughly checked the day of the murder, but the lack of blood anywhere on her is a really big thing thats hard to explain.

There’s no way she could have committed these murders without getting covered in blood. Even if she quickly changed her dress, washing the blood off herself without running water was going to be more than a little difficult.

Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely that any new evidence is going to suddenly appear in this case, dream ghosts notwithstanding, so we will never have a satisfying suspect for this case.

If there’s anything to be learned from this story, it’s to never underestimate the power of a rhyme. The people of Fall River had been hearing the rhyme about Lizzie Borden for months before the trial, and most of them believed it was true without any proof or explanation. Likewise, it didn’t matter how strong a case there was against OJ Simpson. All of the DNA evidence in the world can’t compete with “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

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