A Century Later, Crime Buffs Still Seek Clues in Lizzie Borden Case : Anniversary: People the world over remain fascinated with the 1892 ax murders. Fall River, Mass., tries to make the best of it.


Lizzie Borden of Fall River rose early on the morning of Aug. 4, 1892, one of the hottest days on record, nearly 100 degrees, in that old mill town by the sea.

Before noon, the 32-year-old spinster ate three pears, ironed some handkerchiefs, flipped through a magazine and then--depending on whom you believe--either did or didn’t take a hatchet to her father and stepmother in one of history’s most publicized murders.

At the time, the case riveted the world. Since then, generations more have learned about Lizzie Borden through a grim skipping-rope rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an ax,

And gave her mother 40 whacks.


When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father 41.

Despite what this ubiquitous doggerel says, Lizzie was acquitted after a sensational trial, and no one else was ever charged. But a century later, as Borden buffs plan a centennial conference on the case, Lizzie lore abounds.

And not just in Fall River. “There are people all over the world who are just fascinated with this crime,” said Michael Martins, director of the Fall River Historical Society.

Every year, up to 9,000 tourists visit the society’s Lizzie Borden exhibit to gape at gory police photographs, a bloodstained pillowcase and a broken hatchet. Orders for the society’s sepia-toned centennial sweat shirts are rolling in from as far away as Alaska, Puerto Rico and Japan. Recently, a forensic expert scanned the Bordens’ graves with radar, hoping that high technology would provide new clues to unlocking the mystery.

A weeklong observance marking the 100th anniversary of the crime that put the textile city on the map will include three days of academic presentations, a partial re-enactment of Lizzie’s trial in New Bedford Superior Court, bus tours to key settings in the saga, and, of course, souvenir sales.

And although the double homicide has already inspired more than 30 books, several more are under way, undoubtedly raising new theories about what really happened at 92 2nd St. on that sweltering Thursday morning.

What is known is that four people were in the house at 9 a.m. By 11 a.m., two were dead.

The principal players:

Andrew Jackson Borden, 70, a self-made businessman who, despite assets of about $500,000, lived in a cramped shoe box of a home in an unfashionable neighborhood. Borden was in the furniture business. He also was an active investor in several textile mills and a board member of several local banks.

* Abby Durfee Borden, 64, his second wife, whose relations with her two stepdaughters were strained.

* Lizzie Borden, Andrew’s daughter by his first wife, Sarah, who died when Lizzie was about 5. Moon-faced, with red hair and gray eyes, Lizzie was active in the Congregational Church.

* Bridget Sullivan, about 26, an Irish immigrant and the family’s live-in maid for three years.

* Lizzie’s sister, Emma, 41, who also lived there, was visiting friends 15 miles away.

* Lizzie’s uncle, John Vinnicum Morse, 69, of nearby South Dartmouth, had stayed overnight, but left after breakfast.

Later, Lizzie and Bridget would both testify that they spent much of the morning outside the house, Lizzie in the barn and Bridget following Abby’s instructions to wash the outside windows.

Between 9 and 9:30 a.m., according to medical estimates, somebody smashed in Abby’s skull as she made up a bed in a second-floor guest room. Neither Lizzie nor Bridget heard a struggle or a cry, according to the testimony. Nor did they hear Abby, who weighed more than 200 pounds, hit the floor. She would lie undiscovered for two hours.

Andrew Borden, who had left for work after breakfast, arrived home unexpectedly between 10:30 and 10:35 a.m. Bridget unbolted the triple-locked door to admit him. Within 30 minutes, he, too, was dead, his head hacked to pieces as he napped in a first-floor sitting room.

Again, no one claimed to have heard a thing. Lizzie found Andrew’s bloody body shortly after 11 a.m. as she returned from the barn, where, she said, she had snacked on some pears and looked for weights for a fishing line.

She shouted to Bridget, and both ran next door for help. They returned a few minutes later with neighbors and Dr. Seabury Bowen, the family physician, whose office was across the street.

As they clustered around Andrew’s body, waiting for the police, someone asked about Abby. Earlier, Lizzie had told Bridget that Abby had gone out visiting after receiving a note from a sick friend. But now, Lizzie said, she was certain she’d heard her stepmother return. She told the maid to look for Abby upstairs.

Bridget and a neighbor climbed the stairs. They started to enter the guest room, then stopped.

“Is there another?” someone called up.

“There’s another,” the neighbor replied.

Over the next week, during an intensive police investigation, the case captivated an international audience under headlines such as “Double Horror on Second Street,” “Tragic Affair” and “Murder Most Foul.”

Lizzie was a suspect from the start. With no witnesses, the evidence against her was circumstantial, and those first on the scene saw no blood on her skin or clothes.

But Lizzie was unable to produce the note Abby supposedly received before going visiting. The note was never found--by some accounts, Lizzie said she had burned it--and the friend never identified, despite newspaper ads asking the sender or messenger to step forward. During an inquest, Lizzie made vague and contradictory statements.

And then there was the dress. Three days after the murder, Lizzie burned a garment in the kitchen stove. She did so in front of Emma and a friend, Alice Russell, saying that--despite the oppressive heat--she wanted to get rid of an old frock stained by paint. The odd timing raised questions even among Lizzie’s supporters. “I am afraid, Lizzie, the worst thing you could have done was burn that dress,” Alice Russell would later testify that she told her friend.

Investigators also learned the Borden household wasn’t a happy one. Several years earlier, upset because Andrew had deeded property worth $1,500 to his wife, Lizzie stopped addressing Abby as “Mother” and began calling her “Mrs. Borden.” The daughters dined apart from their parents. And the family members, who already triple-locked the house’s outside doors, began locking their bedrooms, bureaus and closets against each other.

A week after the murders, Lizzie was arrested. She remained in jail until her trial the following June.

Through detailed newspaper accounts, the case captivated the world for 13 days. While murders weren’t, of course, unknown in the 19th Century, a double murder was still highly unusual, one charging the victims’ daughter rarer still and one involving a socially prominent family practically unprecedented.

Evidence included Andrew Borden’s skull. Prosecutors tried to match the hatchet wounds to an ax head found in the house.

Lizzie did not testify. Her inquest testimony, which contained some statements that strained credulity, was excluded from evidence. (Lizzie had said, for instance, that she spent about 20 minutes in the stuffy barn loft eating pears on the hottest day of the year.)

She spoke only two sentences during the proceedings. “I am innocent. I leave it to my counsel to speak for me,” she said as the trial closed.

“It is not your business to unravel the mystery, but simply to say whether this woman is guilty--that’s all,” Lizzie’s attorney, former Massachusetts Gov. George D. Robinson, told the jury. “Not who did it, how could it have been done, but did she do it?”

The jury decided there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that she had.

“Lizzie Borden Acquitted!” read the next day’s headlines. “It Took the Jury but an Hour and the Crowd in the Court Cheered Wildly. The Poor Young Woman, Overcome With Joy, Hastens to Her Home.” Another paper reported that 2,000 people gathered outside the Borden home, where a band played “Auld Lang Syne.”

But after initially celebrating Lizzie’s acquittal, Fall River society shunned her for the rest of her life.

With their parents’ estate, Lizzie and Emma bought a stately 14-room mansion on “the Hill,” still a showplace of grand homes. Lizzie changed her name to Lizbeth and traveled frequently, but still made local headlines.

One local newspaper annually marked the case’s anniversary, in one case reminding readers that “no man--or woman” had ever been convicted of the crime.

In 1897, Lizzie was accused of stealing two paintings from a store in Providence, R.I. The allegations weren’t unprecedented. Historians say that, before the murders, Lizzie lifted items from local jewelers, who quietly billed her father and “the bills were always paid,” said Martins, of the Fall River Historical Society. In the later case, newspapers reported that an arrest warrant was issued, but the case apparently was not pursued.

In 1905, Emma abruptly left the home they called Maplecroft. She moved to New Hampshire, and the sisters never spoke again. Emma never explained her departure, though some chalked it up to Lizzie’s frequent entertaining of socially unacceptable “theater people,” particularly her close friendship with an actress named Nance O’Neil. Years later, in a rare interview, Emma said she still believed her sister innocent.

In her later years, Lizzie was often seen feeding birds and squirrels at Maplecroft. The late Russell Lake, who lived near Maplecroft when he was a child, told Martins and others that Lizzie was “the nicest little old lady I ever knew,” the kind who always bought a glass of lemonade when neighborhood kids set up their stands.

Emma and Lizzie died 10 days apart in 1927, and are buried side by side in the family’s cemetery plot. Lizzie’s headstone reads “Lizbeth.” Lizzie left the bulk of her estate to the Animal Rescue League of Fall River, with a smaller bequest to a similar organization in Washington, because, her will said, “I have been fond of animals, and their need is great, and there are so few who care for them.’

A century later, lots of people still think Lizzie got lucky--especially because Abby told Dr. Bowen the day before the murder that she believed her stepdaughter had been poisoning her food. (Others cite the 100-degree heat--and lack of a refrigeration--and say the meals were simply rancid.)

If Lizzie did do the hatchet job, money was most likely the motive. Perhaps she resented the miserly ways of her father, who, despite his six-figure estate, sold eggs from his farm on the way to work and refused to equip his house with electricity, indoor plumbing or a telephone. Or she may have feared that Andrew would leave his estate solely to Abby, leaving his spinster daughters destitute. Some suggest that she intercepted draft documents that day outlining just such a transaction.

As a Borden, a well-known name in Fall River even before the killings, Lizzie likely yearned for a more comfortable life. She was known to favor fine clothes and jewelry, and it is indisputable that she lived more lavishly after the murders than before.

Not surprisingly, some theorists suggest an illicit affair. Under one theory, Abby discovers Lizzie and Bridget in an embrace. Under another, Andrew and Lizzie learn they are in love with the same woman. In both scenarios, Lizzie panics, fearing she might be forced out of the house. This was, after all, the sexually repressed Victorian era.

Some social historians suggest Lizzie was acquitted either because the all-male jury simply couldn’t accept that an upper-crust young woman could commit such a heinous act--or that they couldn’t condemn her to death even if she had. It had been more than 100 years since a woman had been executed in Massachusetts.

Inevitably, some suggest the maid did it. But why? By all accounts, Bridget was loyal to Abby Borden. And why, at a time of strict class consciousness and anti-Irish sentiment, didn’t police target Bridget instead of her mistress? Paul Fletcher, a Bristol Community College professor who has extensively studied the case, puts it this way: “If there was any way to pin it on the Irish maid, they would have.”

Others suggest that Lizzie’s uncle or her sister sneaked back to do the job. The most recent theory targets an illegitimate half-brother, William, who supposedly hanged himself nine years after the murders.

There are those who blame an outsider. Lizzie herself told investigators that Andrew recently had been threatened by a disgruntled tenant. Several neighbors reported seeing strange men around that day. One newspaper headline blamed “a drunken farmhand.”

In any case, plenty of others took credit. According to newspaper accounts, more than 50 people wrote to Lizzie’s attorney to claim that they had committed the murders.

Perhaps Lizzie left her own clue in a poem by an obscure Scottish poet, Allan Cunningham. Lizzie had the poem carved into the fireplace mantel at Maplecroft and requested it sung at her funeral:

The green leaf of loyalty’s beginning to fall.

The bonnie White Rose it is withering an’ all.

But I’ll water it with the blood of usurping tyranny,

And green it will grow in my ain countree.