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The Borden Murders: If Lizzie Didn't Do It, Who Did?

Updated on March 20, 2016
(photo by Jacques Monnin)
(photo by Jacques Monnin) | Source

Lizzie Borden: Murder in Massachusetts

Much has been written about the infamous murders that occurred in Fall River, Massachusetts back in 1892. Transcripts of the inquest and trial have been poured over by true crime enthusiasts and historians. Most seem to believe that Lizzie, who was accused and ultimately acquitted, got away with murder. But did she? Consider the possibilities and come to your own conclusion.

The Facts of the Case

Thirty-two year old Lizzie Andrew Borden lived with her elder sister Emma, her father Andrew Borden, and her step-mother Abby Durfee Borden in a modest home in the city of Fall River, Massachusetts. Her own mother had died when Lizzie was a small child, and her father had remarried a few years later. Lizzie was not fond of her step-mother, but by all accounts she was devoted to her father. She, in turn, was her father's favorite.

Borden House 1892 (public domain photo)
Borden House 1892 (public domain photo)

Andrew Borden was not well liked in the community. Though he had been very successful, first as a furniture and casket salesman, and later through developing and running textile mills, he had made many enemies due to his gruff and parsimonious nature and his reputation for being very tight with money. He was not a man with many friends, and he was just as happy without them. He was 70 years old at the time of the murders.

Andrew and Abbey Borden

(public domain photo)
(public domain photo)

Abby Borden was a rather plain woman who was thankful to have made a good marriage much later in life (age 36) than a woman usually married for the first time. She was short, rotund and fairly shy. She was close to a younger half sister, whom she had raised, but not particularly close to her two step-daughters. In fact, Lizzie had stopped calling her "mother" some years earlier, and instead called her "Mrs. Borden".

Andrew Borden in death
Andrew Borden in death | Source
Abbey Borden's Body/ Upstairs Guest Room
Abbey Borden's Body/ Upstairs Guest Room | Source

Bloody Murder

On the morning of 4 August 1892 sister Emma was away visiting friends, so Mr. and Mrs. Borden began their day at 93 Second Street with Lizzie and their Irish house maid, Bridget Sullivan. Mr. Borden went out for a short time on errands and returned to the house at 10:45 am. Mrs. Borden had gone upstairs after breakfast to change the linens in the guest room, where Mr. Borden's brother-in-law from his first marriage, had stayed over the previous night. Bridget went up to her attic room to lie down, after having washed the lower floor windows, as the day was humid and stifling hot. Where Lizzie was is unclear, but she testified that she had gone out to the barn to eat some pears.

AT 11:10 am, Bridget heard Lizzie call up the stairs to her. "Come down quickly! Father is dead! Someone came in and killed him!" She found LIzzie standing by the back door, and she was sent out to raise the alarm and summon help. A family friend came over right away and saw the body of Mr. Borden in the parlor. He was lying on the sofa, and his head was a bloody mess. Wondering where Mrs. Borden might be, the friend and Bridget headed up the stairs. From halfway up the stairs, they were able to see that Mrs. Borden was lying on the floor of the guest room in a puddle of blood. She too had been hacked to death with a hatchet.

Lizzie Borden (pubic domain photo)
Lizzie Borden (pubic domain photo)

Soon the premises were swarming with police and Lizzie was being administered a sedative by the family doctor. In the days that followed, Lizzie was questioned several times and her answers seemed to vary and not make sense. Suspicion fell on her, and an inquest was held. Still her answers as to where she was and what she had done on the day of the murders was murky and inconsistent, and on August 11th she was arrested and accused of the murders of her father and step-mother.

The trial was held the following June, and it was every bit as much followed by the public as the OJ Simpson trial would be, more than a hundred years later. People scoured the papers as the fascinating details of the murders, the inquest and the indictment were sensationalized by the press. By the time the trial began, the public had been whipped into a fury, and everyone had an opinion. Mobs formed outside of the courthouse each day of the trial, eager to catch any hints as to what was occurring inside. Finally, on 20 June 1893, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the double murder.

Theories of the Borden Murders

Theories abounded during the trial, and the acquittal did nothing to stop the speculation. No one else was ever accused of the crimes, and the case was never solved, which leaves historians and crime solvers with an enduring mystery. Did the 32 year old spinster brutally kill her father and step-mother with a hatchet? If so, why? And if not, then who could have committed such a hideous crime? What was the motive?

Predictably, there have been dozens of scenarios that have been suggested over the ensuing century. Some are plausible, others wild, but none has ever been able to put the questions surrounding the case to rest.

Those who think Lizzie must have done it have put forth various theories as to why and how the crime was committed. Some have suggested that Lizzie had been abused by her father as a child, and killed him in a "fugue state", resulting from an episode of PTSD. But not only is there zero evidence to suggest childhood abuse, but Mrs. Borden was killed first. Why would Lizzie have killed her and then her father?

Here is another theory that has gained some followers over the years:

The trouble with this one is, first, where did Lizzie get the hatchet, if she killed Abby in a fit of rage? Secondly, why then go and murder her father, whom almost all agree she cared deeply for?

There are plenty of theorists who do not believe that Lizzie could have committed the crimes. Most of the "she didn't do it" theories are far-fetched and implausible at best. One suggests that Emma secretly returned from her visit with friends, committed the murders, and returned so that she would have an alibi. But Emma had no discernible motive, and her friends testified that she was with them the entire morning of the murders.

Bridget Sullivan, the Borden maid (public domain photo)
Bridget Sullivan, the Borden maid (public domain photo)

Others have postulated that Bridget, the maid, murdered the two in a fit of rage over the way she was treated by them. Bridget's terrified reaction to the discovery of the bodies belies this theory, and her testimony at trial was universally thought to have been honest and complete. Bridget refused to spend another night in the house after the murders, and left the employ of the Bordens shortly thereafter.

A third person whom some have accused was Uncle John Morse, the in-law of Mr. Borden who had spent the night prior to the murders at the Borden home. However, no realistic motive has ever been conjectured for Mr. Morse, and there was considerable evidence given that he had been far from the home doing errands at the time the murders occurred.

Arnold Brown's Theory

A Unique Theory of the Borden Case

There is one theory that seems to tie many of the "loose ends" of the case together, and could be the most likely of them all. It was put forth in a book entitled "Lizzie Borden: The Legend, the Truth, the Final Chapter" by author Arnold Brown in 1991.

According to Brown, there was an illegitimate son of Andrew Borden's whom the family all knew about, but was never discussed. Just prior to the murders, both Lizzie and Emma had been angry with their father who was apparently planning to disburse his fortune via his will in ways that would not be of great benefit to them. With changes to the will looming, Lizzie contacted the illegitimate son, named William, to muster his help in persuading their father against it.

Brown speculates that William, not being of very sound mind, had a particular hatred for Abby, whom he saw as having taken the place of his own mother who "should have" married Andrew Borden. While he was waiting for Mr. Borden to return from town, when he planned to confront him about the will, something ignited his fury, probably Abby mocking him or telling him that he had no chance of an inheritance, and he killed her with a hatchet which he carried with him at all times in a burlap bag.

He then waited for Mr. Borden to return, probably confronted him and perhaps argued. Mr, Borden likely dismissed him, turned his back to him and laid down on the sofa, ignoring the agitated William. His rage re-ignited, William then hacked his father to death and left the house. Indeed, there were some witnesses who saw an unknown man near the house just after the time of the murders. He was never identified.

Here is Arnold Brown, giving a synopsis of his theory:

Whether Mr. Brown is correct in his estimation of what happened that hot day in August 1892 will never be known. But, of all the theories that have been concocted throughout the years, his may be the one that ultimately makes the most sense.

Lizzie Borden lived out her life in Fall River in a bigger and more luxurious home that she named 'Maplecroft'. She died 1st June 1927 at the age of 66. As far as anyone knows, if she did know what happened on that horrible day, she took it to her grave.

The house on Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, where the murders took place is now a bed and breakfast, and guests may spend a night in the bedroom where Abby Borden was murdered. It has been restored to much the way it was on that fateful day, and tours are available for Borden enthusiasts.

Don't forget to answer the poll below!

The Borden House Today

(photo by dbking/ flickr)
(photo by dbking/ flickr) | Source

DVD: Excellent Dramatization of the Lizzie Borden Story

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© 2016 Katharine L Sparrow

Comments Appreciated!

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    • Aroosa Hermosa profile image

      Aroosa Hermosa 22 months ago from Islamabad, Pakistan

      It ran my blood cold.

    • Sparrowlet profile image

      Katharine L Sparrow 22 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

      She admitted that she had said to their family friend and neighbor across the street the day prior that she would "sleep with one eye open" because she was afraid something bad was going to happen. However, if you apply Brown's theory to this, it makes sense. She was well aware that her half brother was going to confront her father the following day and she knew the man was a little off-balance and very angry. Thanks for stopping in and commenting!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 22 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      I read the book about the murders quite some time ago. Wasn't there something that said that she supposedly "confessed" to a close friend? If not, the illegitimate son sounds like the most likely suspect. Great read!