Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lizzie Borden

Theories 1: Lizzie Committed the Murders

The literature that exists on the Borden case is extensive. Without exerting one's self, it is still possible to find in a modest public library three or four books about Lizzie. A visit to a second library, equally modest, will reveal another two or three titles that the first library did not have. Soon, there will be a stack of more than a dozen volumes to say nothing of the dozens of magazine articles staring at anyone who attempts to be even a bit responsible in producing a study of Lizzie Borden.

These books and articles each have their own special spin to the case, usually using the same sets of facts, evidence, interviews, etc., to argue who really hacked Andrew and Abby Borden to death. Some of these theories range from the carefully argued, judicial analysis of the trial, to rather startling assertions naming some other person than Lizzie. Some combine theories, constructing elaborate conspiracies that defy belief. A number of them place great importance on interviews with second and third generation descendants of witnesses.

During the early days of the investigation, and well into the time of the trial itself ten months later, a number of accusations were made. The murderer, at various times, was declared to be Uncle Morse, Bridget, a madman in a straw hat, Dr. Bowen, and fantastically one of Lizzie's Chinese Sunday School students.

I have tried to summarize these theories and their variants. They are from books that are either still in print, or books that can be found in most libraries or second-hand bookstores. The bibliographical information for each is given. A more extensive bibliography is also provided, but it is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather "accessible."

I claim the privilege of authorial wisdom, and I have assigned, on a scale of one to ten, my judgment as to the credibility of each theory.

Variation One: Lizzie committed the murders

Under this category, one runs into most of the books published before 1940, with a few exceptions.

1) Porter, Edwin H. 1893. The Fall River Tragedy. J.D. Munroe, Fall River. (reprinted by Robert Flynn, 1985, King Philip Publications, 466 Ocean Ave., Portland, Me.)

Porter's account is the first thorough work on Lizzie Borden. He was the police reporter for the Fall River Daily Globe, and was an observer of both the investigation and the trial. While he did not explicitly state that Lizzie had committed the crime, his analysis makes it unlikely (in his mind) that the murder could have been done by an outsider. Of the several hundred copies of his book that J.D. Munroe printed, only a few until the recent reprint by Flynn were known to exist. One of those, the copy in the Library of Congress, has disappeared. On the day of its publication, Lizzie, on the advice of Mr. Jennings, bought all the available copies and burned them, although this is an assumption, since there is no direct evidence that she was the purchaser of all but four or five of the volumes. Until the reprint, four of the copies were in the possession of the Fall River Historical Society, and one other was said to be in private hands.

Arnold R. Brown, an author discussed below who is very much intrigued by conspiracy theories, states in his book that Porter "...was an outstanding reporter, and yet after 1893 there are no reported by-lines of his from anywhere in the country. He simply was never heard from again." Brown's implication is that Porter was paid off to both disappear and never publish his book again.

Credibility Score: 8

2) Pearson, Edmund. 1937. The Trial Book of Lizzie Borden. Doubleday.

Pearson was the preeminent writer of "true-crime" for a number of years. He died in 1937. His book is an abridgment of the trial record, with accompanying information to fill in the material that he deleted. Two of his essays on Lizzie Borden are reprinted in the book of his writings edited by Gerald Gross, one of which discusses the myths surrounding the case. He had earlier analyzed the Borden case in a long essay in his Studies in Murder in 1924. His conclusion was unequivocal. Lizzie did it. He was willing to report legends, myths, and odd beliefs. It is he that reports (and rejects) the fanciful suggestion that Lizzie stripped herself naked before killing her victims, thereafter washing off the blood at the water tap in the cellar, and replacing her unblemished clothes. An interesting television movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie used this premise, adding some titillating views of an almost nude Lizzie to the account. To quote the acerbic Pearson, "... the maidens of Massachusetts are not accustomed to undress before committing homicide. In fact, so rigid are their notions of propriety that a good many of them do not slaughter their parents at all, even when fully clothed."

Pearson has gathered a considerable number of legends, recounts them, and enjoys them as the absurdities that they are. He particularly enjoyed two stanzas of a poem written by A.L. Bixby, published during the trial:

There's no evidence of guilt,
Lizzie Borden,
That should make your spirit wilt,
Lizzie Borden;
Many do not think that you
Chopped your father's head in two,
It's so hard a thing to do,
Lizzie Borden.
You have borne up under all,
Lizzie Borden.
With a mighty show of gall,
Lizzie Borden;
But because your nerve is stout
Does not prove beyond a doubt
That you knocked the old folks out,
Lizzie Borden.

Pearson was selective in his analysis of the evidence that confirmed, for him, Lizzie's guilt, dismissing information that was favorable to her. Still, he is convincing in his discussion of motive and opportunity.

Without a doubt, Pearson is the most gifted stylist of any of the writers whom I have read in my research on Lizzie Borden.

Credibility Score: 8

3) Sullivan, Robert. 1974. Goodbye Lizzie Borden. Penguin Books.

Like Pearson, Sullivan concludes that Lizzie was guilty, and emphasizes even more strongly how poorly structured and presented was the prosecution's case. One difference between the two accounts of the case is that Sullivan, a former justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, examined the official trial record exhaustively, without the subjective selectivity of Pearson. A second difference is that Sullivan credits an extraordinary set of lucky events that helped Lizzie avoid a guilty verdict.

The trial record, some two thousand pages, as well as the information contained in the earlier judicial proceedings, is carefully dissected by Sullivan. He notes every critical piece of testimony, either within the context of the law or with reference to specific procedures. It is a very professional account, as one would expect from a lawyer and jurist.

Sullivan makes much of the court's actions and rulings, and discusses Justice Dewey's instruction to the jury, a strange, virtual summation for the defense. He was not impressed with either the prosecution's case, nor was he in agreement with "the recurring fiction(s)" that Robinson was an accomplished defense lawyer. "Either the able Jennings or the experienced and able Adams could have tried the case as successfully as did Robinson, and even more credibly; and probably for a much smaller fee," the staggering sum of $25,000, five times the annual salary of each of the judges presiding at the trial.

Lizzie's deliverance was due mostly to two judicial rulings: the exclusion of her inconsistent statements made under oath at the inquest, and the exclusion of the prussic acid evidence. A second piece of luck for Lizzie was the sensational axe murder of Bertha Manchester in her Fall River home, five days before jury selection began. Almost immediately, a Portuguese immigrant was arrested and charged. The implication, of course, is that Jose Corriera had also murdered the Bordens, even though he had not arrived in the United States until eight months after the Borden murders.

Credibility Score: 9

4) Lincoln, Victoria. 1967. A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight. G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Victoria Lincoln was a novelist who grew up in Fall River, and, as a child, occasionally talked to Lizzie Borden as Lizzie was out feeding the birds and squirrels in her backyard at Maplecroft. Her family knew the Borden family, and Ms. Lincoln spent her childhood little more than a block away from Lizzie's house on the Hill.

This book asserts that Lizzie planned the murder of her stepmother and then, in order to prevent the father she loved very much from testifying against her, killed him as well.

There are three interesting twists to Lincoln's understanding of the case. The first is that Lizzie suffered from epilepsy of the temporal lobe, and that she committed the first murder while "suffering one of her spells." These epileptic seizures occurred during her menstrual periods, it is reported, and, on August 4, 1892, she was having her period.

The second twist is that Lizzie was indeed in the barn in the time interval she claimed to be say, ten thirty to eleven because there was running water in the barn, where she could remove some of Abby's blood from her skirts and the hatchet. Also, the barn had a large vise, where she could break off the handle of the hatchet, burn the handle in the kitchen stove, and dip the cleaned, wet hatchet head in wood ashes.

Finally, Lincoln proposes that the bloodstained dress was not found because the investigators were men. If Lizzie had been wearing a dress of a fabric other than cotton, then the police would have ignored it, since they were confining their search to "a cotton wrapper." Therefore, all Lizzie had to do was to hang a silk dress worn during the murder of her father under another silk dress, and the bloodstained dress would be overlooked.

Lincoln uses her novelist's skills well, and her analyses seem not only plausible, but entirely possible. Even if what she has produced is fiction, it is pretty good.

Credibility Score: 8