Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lizzie Borden

Theories 2: Lizzie did not Commit the Murders

I have included in this category books that have a certain plausibility, and I have avoided those theories that strain even heated imaginations. In order to be included, I have considered only those books where the author has done reasonably thorough research, so that the interpretations come out of fact, rather than fancy. Some of these authors often take evidence already circumstantial and expand it into for want of a better word megacircumstantiality.

1) Radin, Edward D. 1961. Lizzie Borden, The Untold Story. Simon and Schuster.

Radin's book is fundamentally an attack on Pearson, whose book on Lizzie he considers "a literary hoax." In the long run, Pearson was biased against Lizzie, simply because his wide experience in the study of crime and his common sense told him so. Thus, his selection and interpretation of the evidence reflected his belief in her guilt.

In the process of debunking Pearson, Radin builds a case that Bridget, the maid, was the murderess. According to Radin, Bridget, ordered to wash windows on the hottest day of the year, went mad and hacked Mrs. Borden to death. She then murdered Mr. Borden in order to prevent him from reporting the hypothesized argument that Bridget had had with Mrs. Borden earlier in the morning, for such a report would incriminate her. This again is a theory that suggests that Mrs. Borden is the target victim, and that Mr. Borden is killed to keep him from identifying her murderer.

Unfortunately, assigning the motive of rage to Bridget is difficult, since there is no evidence that suggests that she harbored great hostility toward her employer. Was Bridget Lizzie's lover, and so her rage against Mrs. Borden was fueled by Lizzie's unjust treatment at the hands of her stepmother and father? There is no evidence to support this idea. Radin, I think, is seduced by the story that Bridget, in her old age, "almost" confessed during an illness that she supposed was her last.

Credibility Score: 2

2) Spiering, Frank. 1984. Lizzie. Random House. Paperback reprint, 1985.Pinnacle Books.

This book attempts to prove that Emma was the murderess, with Lizzie as a frightened accomplice. The motive for Emma is the same as Lizzie's, that is, the desire to inherit all of Mr. Borden's estate, and resentment over financial arrangements that Mr. Borden was making for his second wife.

Spiering uses the testimony, newspaper accounts, other documents to develop a case in which Emma, the "Little Mother" to Lizzie, hatches the elaborate plot. First, she establishes her alibi away from the crime scene some fifteen miles away at Fairhaven while surreptitiously driving her buggy to Fall River, hiding in the upstairs, committing the murders, and driving her buggy back to Fairhaven, where she awaits the telegram from Dr. Bowen. Once Lizzie is accused, the sisters work together to protect each other.

However, there is a point where it seems to Spiering that Emma is trying to double-cross Lizzie and Lizzie forces Emma to share the rewards of the murder with her. It includes legal documents that establish the division of Andrew Borden's wealth.

The lingering suspicion of one another is evidenced from time to time by Emma's estrangement from Lizzie, beginning with her disapproval of Nance O'Neil, with whom, Spiering asserts, Lizzie had an affair. Later, the two sisters went to court over Emma's intent to sell the A.J. Borden building, resolved only by Lizzie buying Emma's share of the building.

Interviews, or records of interviews, with people who knew Lizzie and Emma in their later years are important to Spiering, and he basically creates a scenario of Emma's guilty behavior as his argument that it was Emma who was the actual murderess.

Credibility Score: 6

3) Brown, Arnold R. 1992. Lizzie Borden. Dell.

This recent book concocts an elaborate conspiracy to explain the murders. Brown, a native of Fall River, was a friend of the son-in-law of a man who purportedly knew the identity of the murderer. Further, that man's mother-in-law had actually been a witness to the murderer's leaving the scene of the crime.

Taking this as a point of departure, Brown examines the case and reconstructs it to propose the following, astonishing solution: The murderer was William Borden, the retarded, supposedly illegitimate son of Andrew Borden. Because of his illegitimate status, and a possible claim he might have to his natural father's estate, Lizzie, Emma, Uncle John, Dr. Bowen, and Mr. Jennings conspired to keep his crime hidden. Browns peculates that William was making demands of his father, who was in the process of making his will, and that these demands were rejected by Andrew. William, full of rage, killed Mrs. Borden first, hid in the house with Lizzie's knowledge, and then killed his father. The conspirators then either paid William off or threatened him, or both, and decided that Lizzie would allow herself to be suspected and tried for the murders, knowing that she could always identify the real killer, should that be necessary.

Brown works very hard on his hypothesis, discovering such bits of information as William Borden's fascination with hatchets, his possible connection to the Bertha Manchester murder could that have been a "contract" murder to divert guilt away from Lizzie? and his unique combination of repulsive body odors remembered by the witness who saw him in the Borden's side yard, wild-eyed and fragrant, just after the murders.

As in the case of Spiering's book, a great deal of massaging of the facts of the case takes place. Lizzie's testimony at the inquest, for example, is completely recast in the form of clever red herrings, intended to keep William Borden from being discovered.

Credibility Score: 4

4) Gross, Gerald. 1963. "The Pearson-Radin Controversy over the Guilt of Lizzie Borden" in Masterpieces of Murder: An Edmund Pearson True Crime Reader, Gerald Gross, editor. Little, Brown and Company.

An odd compromise between Pearson and Radin is offered by Gerald Gross. The final selection in his collection of famous crime pieces written by Pearson is a brief essay written by Gross himself. He presents Radin's attack on Pearson, a summary of Radin's contention that Bridget is the murderer, and his own hypothesis.

Gross proposes that Lizzie did indeed murder her parents, but that she could not have brought off the crime successfully without Bridget's assistance. It was Bridget who spirited away virtually under the very noses of the police the murder weapon and the bloodstained dress. Gross suggests the possibility that Lizzie plotted the murders with Bridget. This connivance explains the mutually non-accusatory testimony of Lizzie and Bridget with respect to each other. Gross points out that only the two of them were in the house when the two-hundred-pound Abby Borden fell heavily and noisily to the floor after being struck. He finds significance in Bridget's passage being paid so that she could return to Ireland was it Lizzie's part of the bargain? He also attaches importance to Bridget's "almost-death-bed confession" over half a century later, when Bridget was living in Butte, Montana.

Most of the writers on the case have described Bridget as open and guileless, but it is possible that she might have had some guilty knowledge of the crimes. Gross's brief account, relying heavily on Radin's arguments, at least serves as a counter argument for the absence of a reasonable motive for Bridget as the murderer.

Credibility Score: 5