The Lizzy Borden trial

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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.

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The case was a cause célèbre throughout the United States. Following her release from prison, where she was held during the trial, Borden chose to remain a resident of Fall River, Massachusetts, despite facing ostracism. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts elected not to charge anyone else with the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden.

 

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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 un-maidenly 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.”

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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 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.

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Before a jury of twelve men, Moody opened the state’s case.

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Prominent points in the trial (or press coverage of it) included:

  • The hatchet-head found in the basement was not convincingly shown to be the murder weapon. Prosecutors argued that the killer had removed the handle because it was bloody. One officer testified that a hatchet handle was found near the hatchet-head, but another officer contradicted this.
  • Though no bloody clothing was found, a few days after the murder Lizzie burned a dress in the stove, saying that it had been ruined when she brushed against fresh paint.[21]
  • According to testimony, the maid, Bridget, went upstairs at around 10:58 a.m. and left Lizzie and her father downstairs.[24]Lizzie told many people that at this time, she went into the barn and was not in the house for “20 minutes or possibly a half an hour”.[25] Hyman Lubinsky testified for the defense that he saw Lizzie leaving the barn at 11:03 a.m. and Charles Gardner confirmed the time.[26] At 11:10 a.m., Lizzie called the maid downstairs, told her Mr. Borden had been murdered, and told her not to go into the room where he died. Instead, Lizzie sent the maid to fetch a doctor.
  • There was a similar axe-murder nearby shortly before the trial, though its perpetrator was shown to have been out of the country when the Bordens were killed.[27]
  • Evidence was excluded that Lizzie had sought to purchase prussic acid (for cleaning a sealskin cloak, she said) from a local druggist on the day before the murders when the judge ruled that the incident was too remote in time to have any connection.[28][29]
  • Because of the mysterious illness that had struck the household before the murders, the family’s milk and Andrew’s and Abby’s stomachs (removed during autopsies performed in the Borden dining room) were tested for poison; none was found.
  • The victims’ heads were removed during autopsy. The skulls were used as evidence during the trial – and Lizzie fainted upon seeing them the heads were later buried at the foot of each grave.
  • The presiding Associate Justice, Justin Dewey (who had been appointed by Robinson when he was governor), delivered a lengthy summary that supported the defense as his charge to the jury before it was sent to deliberate.

On June 20, after deliberating an hour and a half, the jury acquitted Lizzie.[21]

The trial has been compared to the later trials of Bruno Hauptmann, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and O.J. Simpson as a landmark in publicity and public interest in the history of American legal proceedings

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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.”

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