Lizzie Borden: Damned by the Press?

Fall River Post

Lizzie Borden: Damned by the Press?

Lizzie Borden
Lizzie Borden

The silence of a small New England town was shattered on the afternoon of August 4, 1892.  Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abby, were brutally murdered with an ax.  No one heard anything while the crime was being committed, but the media sensation it caused was heard across the country.

Maid Bridget Sullivan was awaken from a nap by Lizzie Borden’s screams.  Sullivan was ill and had gone up to her room in the late morning.  She was under the impression Abby Borden was out of the house.  Lizzie, Andrew’s youngest daughter, had said Abby received a note from a friend and left.

Andrew Borden’s body was found on the first-floor sofa.  He had been struck in the face multiple times.  It was a gruesome sight.  His nose was hacked from his body, and an eyeball was cut in half.

Sullivan ran for help while the neighbors, suspicious of the commotion, called the police. Sullivan soon returned with the town doctor, Seabury Bowen, and not long after found Abby dead upstairs.  She, too, had been struck multiple times, and Dr. Bowen concluded Abby was killed first.

Fiendish Murder

The body of Andrew Borden
The body of Andrew Borden

“A most brutal and shocking murder stirred this city [Fall River, Massachusetts] as it has seldom been stirred this morning, and no crime has ever been committed here which would compare with it in fiendishness,” the Boston Globe reported the day of the murders.

“Lying on the lounge, with his face upwards toward the ceiling was the body of her father,” the Globe said of Andrew’s murder scene.  “The head was covered with wounds from half an inch to six inches in length, and the wall of the skull had been crushed in.  One gaping cut extended from the forehead diagonally across the face to the shoulder blade and had evidently been inflicted by a butcher’s cleaver or broadax.  The unfortunate man’s blood had flowed on to his shirt front and stained the sofa pillow.”

Of Abby’s murder scene, the Globe said, “Stretched in a sickening pool of blood was the wife and mother.  The body lay between the bed and a dressing case, and the skull had been battered in apparently by the same weapon which had been used on Mr. Borden, although the nature of the wounds suggested the murderer had dealt his blows with the blunt edge.”

Lizzie, the Globe said, retained remarkable control of herself.

Lizzie Borden Took an Ax

The body of Abby Borden
The body of Abby Borden

Other suspects, including Sullivan, were considered, but it didn’t take long before the police settled on Lizzie.  She was the only person with means and a motive.  She even claimed her parents had been poisoned even though the coroner found no evidence.

Lizzie looked suspicious for several reasons:

  • She could not locate the note she claimed Abby had received the morning of the murder.
  • She hated her step-mother.
  • She had tried to purchase cyanide the day before the murder.
  • She burned one of her dresses days after the murder.
  • She often contradicted herself in her account to police.

It is worth mentioning that Lizzie was taking high doses of morphine to calm her nerves, and this could explain the contradictions.

“It is said, too, that the Mayor wished to secure from Dr. Bowen some facts relative to Lizzie Borden’s mental characteristics, with the view to determine if it is probable that she would be subject to hysteria or temporary aberration under given circumstances,” the Globe said August 8.

Many in the community told the media they felt Lizzie was innocent.

Guilty or Innocent?

The courtroom where Lizzie Borden faced trial
The courtroom where Lizzie Borden faced trial

The trial opened nearly a year after the murders.

“Confronted with the skulls, she fainted,” the Globe said June 7, 1893, the trial’s opening day.

The district attorney aimed to prove Lizzie was the only person with the opportunity and the motive to murder the Bordens.

“According to the prosecution’s theory, Miss Borden had determined to kill her father and mother and deliberately prepared to the do the deed,” the Globe said.

The defense was able to create a credible case for reasonable doubt, and on June 20, 1893, Lizzie was found not guilty.

“If she were an ordinary woman, she would have cried and cried, perhaps fainted, then smiled, and … reasserted the habitudes of her sex,” the Globe said the following day.  “The difficulty is she is not an ordinary woman: she is a puzzle psychologic.”

Next to Jack the Ripper, the most notorious killer of the 19th century is Lizzie Borden.  Although she was acquitted of the crimes, she remains guilty in the eyes of public opinion.

Alternate Theories on Who Killed the Bordens

The jury that acquitted Lizzie Borden
The jury that acquitted Lizzie Borden

If Lizzie was not the killer, than who was?  There have been many theories over the decades.  They include:

  • William Borden, Andrew’s illegitimate son
  • John Morse, the Borden’s houseguest and the brother of Andrew’s first wife
  • Suspicious strangers seen around town

There also is the theory Lizzie committed the murders naked, and that’s why no bloody clothing was ever found.

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Updated:  27 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

2 thoughts on “Lizzie Borden: Damned by the Press?

  1. The case continues to fascinate and has spawned numerous books, both fiction and non-fiction. One of the best alternate theories I\’ve read is presented in Lizzie Borden, The Legend, The Truth, The Final Chapter by Arnold R. Brown. One of the better fictional presentations (also with an alternate theory) is Lizzie by Evan Hunter.

    1. Yes, you’re absolutely right. The fact the crime is still unsolved has kept it in the forefront for all these decades. An interesting theory I have heard is that the crime was the work of a serial killer who also committed the Villisca ax murders.

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