Unsolved Murders: The Lizzie Borden Story
Just The Ax, Ma'am
Just before midday on August 4, 1892, Andrew J. Borden, a wealthy businessman, was found murdered in the parlor of his home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Having been struck eleven times with a heavy, sharp edged weapon, his face was virtually unrecognizable. Abby Borden, his wife, was subsequently found dead in a bedroom upstairs. She had received nineteen blows from presumably the same weapon. The following week, Lizzie Borden, Andrew's younger daughter, was arrested and charged with both murders. In a time in which women were perceived as the "weaker" sex, and female murderers were almost unheard of, the trial of Lizzie Borden became a media sensation, and its macabre legacy lives on to this day.
On the morning of the murders, Andrew had gone to town on business. John Morse, Abby's brother, had dropped by unexpectedly the night before, but also went into town to see his niece. So alone in the house were left Abby, Lizzie, and Bridget Sullivan, the maid. Abby instructed Bridget to clean the windows of the home, which was a large undertaking. Andrew returned to the home shortly after 10:30 a.m., and lay down to take a nap. Within an hour of Andrew's arrival back home, Lizzie told Bridget to summon the family doctor, Dr. Bowen, and that "Father's dead! Somebody came in and killed him!"
But those are really the only relatively solid facts of the matter. Very little would come to be known with certainty in the case, as witnesses at the trial would come to contradict each other and even themselves. The murder weapon remains a mystery, as well as how the murderer was able to commit the crime and get away without being covered in blood. There was one theory at the time that the killer committed the murders while naked, and simply took a bath afterwards. This added to the already sensationalist nature of the trial.
The Pesky Problem Of Evidence
Soon after the murders, an ax was found by police in the basement of the Borden home, which the prosecution claimed as the murder weapon. Most of the handle was missing, however, and the ax was clean. The handle had been broken off and burned to destroy blood evidence, claimed the prosecution. But Michael Mullaly, a police officer, later testified that the ax head had been found next to the ax shaft, which cast serious doubt on the prosecution's assertion that the handle had been burned. To add to the confusion, Deputy Marshall John Fleet contradicted Mullaly's testimony, saying that he never saw an ax shaft to begin with. Later, a forensics expert would testify that there was not enough time after the murders for the ax head to have been cleaned of blood.
So, with the murder weapon in doubt, another problem was that the crime scene was much less bloody than one would expect. And, with such a violent murder, one would expect the murderer's clothes to be spattered in blood. Conveniently, a few days after the murders, Lizzie claimed to have spilled paint on one of her light blue dresses, and burned it. These consequences would seem to point heavily to Lizzie as the killer, but the problem was that none of the witnesses could agree on which dress Lizzie had worn that day. Add to this the fact that Lizzie was menstruating on the day of the killings, and as police searched the house, they had ignored several bloody rags that Lizzie had carried down from her chamber. Keep in mind this was the Victorian Age, and the gentlemanly manners of the officers apparently outweighed accurate police investigation. In addition, the maid, Bridget, was given no attention by police when she carried a "bundle" to the exterior of the house. Also, just after the bodies were found, Bridget had been sent to get the doctor and police, which would have given her enough time to dispose of bloody clothes.
With the evidence and witness testimonies in a shambles, maybe motive can shed some light on the scenario, right? Well, it turns out that one could find any number of reasons why someone might want to kill Andrew Borden. He was one of the wealthiest men in town, and also one of the most unpopular. He was extremely frugal and made a lot of enemies during his rise to become the head of one of the largest banks in town and the owner of a substantial amount of land. Some speculate that Andrew and Abby were killed as an act of revenge for one of Andrew's shady business deals.
Some speculate that it may have been an intruder. Andrew Borden had a lot of money, and he had no plans of sharing it with anyone else, not even blood relatives. Some even suspected John Borden, who was Andrew's illegitimate son, and who was known to be violent.
Others say that Bridget, the maid, did it, and got rid of the bloody evidence while performing her duties as housekeeper. But what would her motive be? She could have been disgruntled with the miserly ways of Andrew Borden, or maybe the fact that she had been told by Abby to wash all of the windows of the house on a sweltering day was the final straw.
Most people believe Lizzie was the murderer. It was said that Andrew Borden was in plans to change his will, giving Lizzie a tiny amount compared to Abby (Lizzie's step-mother) and her family. Abby was always closer to her own family than to her step-daughters, Lizzie and Emma Borden. Some suggest that even if Lizzie didn't do it herself, that she may have known about it but kept her knowledge a secret, not being particularly upset over the murders of two people that she loathed. Those who insist that Lizzie was the killer say that she did, in fact, burn the bloody dress, or covered it with rags. The prosecution stated that she was angry with her family about the money, and that she was stricken with petit mal epileptic seizures while on her menstrual periods, in which she became entranced in a dream-like state and acted without thinking clearly. There was even a jump-rope rhyme invented, which got the number of blows wrong, but is pretty chilling nonetheless:
Lizzie Borden took an ax,
And gave her mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
On her deathbed, Bridget confessed to her sister that she had altered her testimony during the trial to protect Lizzie. So it would seem that Lizzie did it, and that Bridget kept quiet about it, perhaps wanting a cash reward or out of fear or pity.
Lizzie Borden was found not guilty of the murder charges and, though alienated from her neighbors, continued to live in Fall River until she died in 1927.