NOTE = This posting is coming a day early, due to the fact thta I can’t get to a computer tomorrow!!
The Fall River Herald,
August 4, 1892:
“SHOCKING CRIME. A Venerable Citizen and His Aged Wife HACKED TO PIECES IN THEIR HOME. Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Borden Lose Their Lives AT THE HANDS OF A DRUNKEN FARM HAND. Police Searching Actively for the Fiendish Murderer.
The community was terribly shocked this morning to hear that an aged man and his wife had fallen victims to the thirst of a murderer, and that an atrocious deed had been committed, The news spread like wildfire and hundreds poured into Second street. The deed was committed at No. 62 Second street, where for years Andrew J. Borden and his wife had lived in happiness.
It is supposed that an axe was the instrument used, as the bodies of the victims are hacked almost beyond recognition. Since the discovery of the deed the street in front of the house has been blocked by an anxious throng, eagerly waiting for the news of the awful tragedy and vowing vengeance on the assassin.”
This was how the world first learned of the grisly murder of Andrew Borden and his wife Abby on today’s date, August 4 in 1892. The belief that the assailant had been a drunken farm hand was the result of one of many rumors that were rampant at the time, and was soon discarded. But this early account proved quite correct in one particular. The one who was shortly accused of the crime was none other than the victim’s daughter, Elizabeth or “Lizzie” (pictured, above) as she soon became known to the world. In this quiet, more innocent time, the story of a young woman accused of the brutal murder of her parents captured world-wide attention, and was one of the key events in the development of the sort of sensational coverage that we see so frequently today. For in spite of the verdict of the court, just as that first account said, the crowd would indeed vow vengeance on the assassin.
Andrew Borden and his Wife are Murdered
In 1892, Fall River, Massachusetts was a growing town of over 74,000 inhabitants, built on granite rock, and riding the wave of prosperity brought by the booming American textile industry. Andrew Borden had been a successful landlord in the city, with extensive real estate holdings who also served as director on the boards of several local banks. He was and was known to be one of the wealthiest men in town. But he was also a man of a rather dour temperament. In fact he was, and was also known to be a skinflint of the first order. In spite of the fact that he could easily have afforded a more spacious home with modern conveniences in a nicer section of the town, he chose to house his family in a fairly narrow home without running water in a decent, but decidedly middle-class section of the city. There he lived with his daughters from his first marriage, Lizzie and Emma, his second wife, Abby, and their Maid, Bridgett “Maggie” Sullivan. The girls mother had died some years earlier, and Abby’s relationship with her step daughters was sufficiently strained that Lizzie addressed her as “Mrs. Borden.” And it was there at about 11:10 a.m. on the morning of this date, Thursday, August 4, 1892 that Lizzie cried out to Maggie “Father’s
dead! Some- body’s come in and killed him!” Andrew Borden was found sprawled on the couch of the first floor sitting room, with his face and head having been brutally hacked to pieces (above). His wife, Abby was soon after found on the floor between the bed and a dresser in a second floor bedroom. She had shared her husbands fate, her head and neck having been savaged by 19 hatchet wounds.
Lizzie Becomes the Prime Suspect
Two days after the murder, papers began reporting that thirty-three-year-old Lizzie may be involved in her parents’ murders. Their reasons for suspecting Lizzie were largely circumstantial; Eli Bence, a clerk at S. R. Smith’s drug store in Fall River, told police that Lizzie had come to his store the day before the murder and tried to purchase prussic acid, a deadly poison. Lizzie would later claim that she had never been to Smith’s store, but two witnesses placed her there. 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..”Police had concluded that the murders had to have been committed by someone within the Borden household, as there was no sign of any forced entry, and nothing had been stolen. They had determined that Abby had been murdered first at around 9:30 a.m. with Andrew having been killed between 10:55 and 11:10 a.m. . And since nobody had been seen leaving the home, the murderer had evidently been present in the home during the interval between the killings nearly 90 minutes. Police had not found any sign of blood anywhere except on the bodies, but Lizzie had been seen burning a dress days later, claiming that it had paint stains. Emma (below) had been away visiting friends in Fairhaven, so she could not have done it. Thus, Lizze was charged on Aug.11.
The Trial of Lizzie Borden – A Late 19’th Century Media Circus
The trial which started on June 5, 1893 had everything associated with modern day courtroom show trials such as the O.J. Simpson, and the Casey Anthony trials. It had an unlikely defendant – a meek and seemingly inoffensive woman at a time when accusing a woman of such a brutal murder seemed in itself terribly offensive to much of the public. It had star lawyers – Lizzie was defended by former Massachusetts governor George D. Robinson and one of the prosecutors was William H. Moody, a future United States Attorney General and Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. And it featured wall to wall media coverage, much of it clearly sensational. In the words of Lloyd Chiasson in his book “The Press on Trial: Crimes and Trials as Media Events”:
“Some newspapers covered everything they could get their hands on, including transcripts of the hearings and the trial. Others were as likely to report rumors as anything else. A final group of newspapers — one with the most influence on public perceptions and the conduct of the proceedings and trial itself — would report only what their reporters could generate. This group depended more than others upon information supplied by those close to the case — police, lawyers, friends and enemies of the Bordens. They were absolutely ripe to be had by those with an agenda to promote.”
Those agendas frequently had more to do with the protection of the newspapers reputation after publishing trumped-up stories than with reporting the truth. And the trial featured extensive use of trial sketches (such as the one above), now so common, but a new and highly dramatic inclusion at the time.
Lizzie is Acquitted, But Ostracized
The Defense was able to take advantage of some key decisions to bolster its case. Introduction of Lizzie’s frequently contradictory testimony at the Inquest before the trial was barred, as was any inclusion of testimony regarding her alleged attempts to buy poison days before the murders. Also, while a weapon was found – the ax which police claimed
had been the murder weapon (above), the handle was missing. And because the technique of using fingerprint evidence was at that time new and was considered untrustworthy, no prints were taken. In addition, the defense was able to present witnesses to say that an unidentified young man had been seen near the Borden home on Aug. 4, and Emma testified that Lizzie got along decently enough with Abby. Thus with no clear proof of a motive, and no direct evidence to link Lizzie to the crime, the jury acquitted her on June 19, 1893 after deliberating for just over one hour.
But relentless publicity during the trial had turned public opinion sharply against her. It was during this period that a familiar children’s rhyme began being heard, some say invented by an anonymous writer to sell newspapers:
“Lizzie Borden took an axe And gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done She gave her father forty-one.”
Regardless of its authorship, the rhyme accurately reflects the public perception at the time.
Lizzie was roundly ostracized by her neighbors following the trial. No other person or persons were ever charged with the crime which remains officially unsolved to this day. She used the money which she and Emma inherited to live something of the more luxurious lifestyle which their father had always denied them, moving into a spacious new
home in a fashionable section of Fall River. Lizzie christened the home with the name “Maplecroft”, and soon began going by the name “Lizbeth”. Lizbeth began cavorting with all sorts of theatrical types, who were at that time considered very low company indeed. In fact, she began a very close association with an actress named Nance O’Neil (right), which was rumored to be of a sexual nature. This ultimately lead Emma to break with her entirely, and she moved out of Maplecroft in 1904. Lizzie lived on until her death after a long illness on June 1, 1927. Emma would follow her to her grave just a few days later, on June 10. They were both buried together in the family plot at Fall River, leaving their estates to Animal Protective charities.
Whodunnit? Lizzie As a Part of American Popular Culture
So who actually did commit the vicious murder of Andrew and Abby Borden? This is a question for which countless answers have been suggested in countless books, plays, movies, and yes even in operatic form. The very first time which this author heard of the case was in a 1975 TV movie entitled “The Legend of Lizzie Borden” starring Elzabeth
Montgomery who as it turns out, is a distant relative of the real Lizzie Borden. The movie suggested that Lizzie had indeed committed the murders, but in the nude, which would account for why no blood-spattered clothing was found, as Lizzie would simply have washed the blood off before redressing. Then there was a 1984 book by author Frank Spiering which this author read in which Spiering says that the murders were committed by Emma, who had returned from Fairhaven long enough to commit the crimes before going back afterward to preserve her alibi. Beyond that, author Edwin Radin said in a 1961 book that Bridget Sullivan had been the killer, motivated by a homosexual passion for Lizzie. The list of suggestions and popular depictions goes on: “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, “the Armstrong Circle Theater”, and “The Discovery Channel” and “The History Channel” on TV… this author can even recall a mention of the case on the sitcom “Maude” in the 1970’s. Composer Morton Gould and choreographer Agnes de Mille created a ballet based on the life of Borden in 1948, entitled “Fall River Legend”. Composer Jack Beeson, librettist Kenward Elmslie, and scenarist Richard Plant created an opera, “Lizzie Borden”, in 1965. And there have been numerous stage plays, among them was “The Testimony of Lizzie Borden”by Eric Stedman, a docudrama staged in an accurate reproduction of the Borden sitting room which re-created much of Borden’s actual inquest testimony, premiered at Theatre on the Towpath in New Hope, Pa. in 1994 and was presented in Fall River in 1995. The fact remains that the identity of the real killer has never been established and likely never will be. Thus that little childish rhyme about Lizzie Borden, the axe, and the “40 whacks” however inaccurate, will probably remain the final word on the case.
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“The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Crimes” by Micheal Newton, Checkmark Books, New York, 2009.
“The Most Notorious Crimes in America” – Hildegard Anderson, writer/reporter, Time/Life Books, New York, 2010.
Lizzie the Story of Lizzie Borden by Frank Spiering, Dorsett Press, New York, 1984.
“The Press on Trial” Ed. by Lloyd Chiasson Jr., Praeger Paperback, 1997.