Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Arnold Brown's Theory of the Lizzie Borden Case

Lizzie Andrew Borden (July 19, 1860 – June 1, 1927) was a New England spinster and central figure in the brutal axe murders of her father and stepmother on August 4, 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts. Although acquitted, no one else was ever tried, and she has remained a notorious figure in American folklore. The slayings, trial, and the following trial by media became a cause célèbre; and the incident has endured in American pop culture and criminology as one of the seminal cultural events of the Victorian era. Dispute over the identity of the killer or killers continues to this day.

The Murders

On August 4, 1892 Andrew J. Borden, Lizzie Borden's father, and her step-mother, Abby Borden, were murdered in the family home. The only other people present at the residence at the time were Lizzie and the family maid, Bridget Sullivan. An uncle, John V. Morse, (brother of Andrew Borden's first wife) was visiting at the time, but was away from the house during the time of the murders. Lizzie's older sister Emma was also away from home. That day, Andrew had gone into town to do his usual rounds at the bank and post office. He returned home at about 10:45. About a half-hour later, Lizzie found his body. According to Bridget's testimony, she was napping in the second floor of the house shortly after 11:00 am when Lizzie called up the stairs to her, saying someone had killed her father, whose body was found slumped on a couch in the downstairs sitting room.

Shortly thereafter, while Lizzie was being attended to by neighbors and the family doctor, Bridget discovered the body of Mrs. Borden upstairs, in the guest bedroom. Mr. & Mrs. Borden had both been killed by blows from a hatchet, which in the case of Mr. Borden, not only crushed his skull but cleanly split his left eyeball.

Motive and Method

Study of the facts in the case reveals that over a period of years since the death of the first Mrs. Borden, life at 92 Second Street had grown stale and unpleasant in many ways, and that affection among the older and younger family members had waned considerably if any was present at all. The upstairs floor of the house was divided -- the front being the territory of Lizzie and her sister Emma, and the rear that of Mr. and Mrs. Borden. Meals were not always taken together, and conflict had come to a head between the two daughters and their father about his decision to divide up valuable property among relatives before his death -- a house had been turned over to relatives of their stepmother, and Uncle John Morse had come to visit to facilitate transfer of farm property which included what had been a summer home for the Borden daughters that week. Shortly before the murders, a heated argument had taken place which resulted in both Emma and Lizzie leaving home on extended "vacations" -- Lizzie, however, decided to cut her trip short and return early.

When she was refused the opportunity to purchase cyanide by a local druggist, which Lizzie claimed was for cleaning a seal skin coat. Shortly before the murders, the entire household -- Lizzie included -- took violently ill. As Mr. Borden was not a popular man in town Mrs. Borden feared they were being poisoned but the family doctor diagnosed it as bad food.

Lizzie's testimony as given at the original inquest incriminated her in several ways.

The Trial

Lizzie's stories proved to be inconsistent, and her behavior suspect. She was tried for the murders, defended by former Massachusetts Governor George Robinson.

During the police investigation, a hatchet was found in the basement and was assumed to be the murder weapon. Though it was clean, most of its handle was missing and the prosecution stated that it had been broken off because it was covered with blood. However, police officer Michael Mullaly stated that he found it next to a hatchet handle. Deputy Marshall John Fleet contradicted this testimony. Later a forensics expert said there was no time for the hatchet to be cleaned after the murder.

No blood-soaked clothing was ever taken as evidence by police. A few days after the murder, Lizzie tore apart and burned a light blue Bedford cord cotton dress in the kitchen stove, claiming she had brushed against fresh baseboard paint which had smeared on it.

Despite incriminating circumstances, Lizzie Borden was acquitted by a jury after an hour's deliberation. The fact that no murder weapon was found and Lizzie was clear of blood just a few minutes after the second murder pointed to reasonable doubt. Some blame the fact that her entire original inquest testimony was barred from the trial, as was evidence she attempted to purchase cyanide from a local drugstore days before the murders took place, for her acquittal. Others have suggested the all-male jury did not like the idea of acknowledging that a respected man's daughter could possibly have committed such an act. Certainly, another axe murder in the area which took place shortly before the trial was a great stroke of luck for Lizzie.


Several theories have been presented over the years suggesting Lizzie may not have committed the murders, and that other suspects may have had possible motives. One theory was that Lizzie was having a lesbian affair with the maid and was discovered by her step-mother. Another was that any number of townspeople could have carried out a grudge against Mr. or Mrs. Borden. Another theory is that the maid did it, possibly out of outrage for being asked to clean the windows, a backbreaking job on a hot day, just a day after having suffered from food poisoning. Yet another theory is that Lizzie suffered petit mal epileptic seizures during her monthly period, at which times she entered a dream-like state, and unknowingly committed the murders then.

Sullivan allegedly gave a deathbed confession to her sister, stating that she had changed her testimony on the stand in order to protect Lizzie.

Public reaction

The trial received a tremendous amount of national publicity, a relatively new phenomenon for the times. It has been compared to the later trials of Bruno Hauptmann and O.J. Simpson as a landmark in media coverage of legal proceedings.

The case was memorialized in a popular jump-rope rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took (or "had") an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

The anonymous rhyme was made up by a writer as an alluring little tune to sell newspapers even though in reality her stepmother suffered 18 or 19 blows, her father 11. Though acquitted for the crimes, Lizzie Borden was ostracized by neighbors following the murders. Lizzie Borden's name was again brought to the public forefront when she was accused of shoplifting several years following the murders.

Alleged affair with actress Nance O'Neil

In 1904, actress Nance O'Neil met Lizzie Borden in Boston. In the early 20th century, it was still considered socially unacceptable for women to become actresses. O'Neil was a spendthrift, always in financial trouble, and Borden came from a wealthy background. The two had an intense relationship, despite Borden's notoriety. O'Neil was married at the time.

While it has never been definitively proven that the two were intimate, the termination of the relationship two years later in 1906 was a significant loss to Borden, and she is alleged to have had difficulty in recovering emotionally. O'Neil was later a character in the musical about Lizzie Borden, entitled Lizzie Borden: A Musical Tragedy in Two Axe, where she was played by Suellen Vance. Feminist Carolyn Gage refers to O'Neil as an overt lesbian, and although there are few documented details of any affairs other than Borden, Gage claimed that her sexual orientation was well known in entertainment circles, despite her marriage. The book Lizzie by Evan Hunter (real name Salvatore Lombino, and also famous for writing under the name Ed McBain) is the chief source of this conjecture.


The house on Second Street where the murders occurred is now a bed and breakfast. It is open for daily tours. When the house was renovated some years ago by a previous owner, at least one hatchet was found. It was given to the police. Nothing came of it. Ongoing work has restored the home to a close approximation of its 1892 condition.

"Maplecroft," the mansion Lizzie bought after her acquittal, on then-fashionable French Street in the "highlands" is privately owned, and only occasionally available for touring.

Haunted By Humans and A Dog

The House where the infamous murders took place is reported to be haunted. A door upstairs opens and shuts by its self and a womans plea's and screams come from the room where Lizzie's mother was killed. Sometimes you can hear someone run up and down the stairs when no one is there and a ghost of a small dog is also reported.

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