Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Women Who Kill: Part One

Did She or Didn't She?

The following story is taken from a dozen books, a documentary, court records from Fall River, MA, newspaper accounts, the Fall River museum, and certain recorded witness statements. All are listed in the bibliography.

Andrew Borden, victim photo
Andrew Borden, victim

Andrew Borden, 70, was one of the richest men in Fall River, with a net worth estimated at $300,000 to $500,000. He was a white-haired, dour man, known for his thrift. His second wife, Abby, was a stout, goodhearted woman, although she did not get along well with Andrew's grown daughters, Emma and Lizzie, who lived with them in their small house in Fall River, Massachusetts.

On August 4, 1892, the bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden were found in their home. Abby's body was on the floor of the upstairs guest bedroom, while Andrew's corpse lay, half sitting, on the living room couch, his feet still resting in his congress boots. There were blood spots on the floor, on the wall over the sofa, and on the picture hanging over the sofa, but there was no injury other than to his face, which was cut by eleven blows. It appeared that he had been attacked from above as he took a nap.

Portrait of Abby Borden (CORBIS)
Portrait of Abby Borden

Abbey was hit by a sharp instrument, inflicting upon the back of her head eighteen to twenty blows. She was killed around ninety minutes before Andrew.

Police investigators pieced together the following initial scenario:

It was the family practice to keep all doors on the first floor locked. On that day, Lizzie, the younger daughter who was then in her thirties, came down for breakfast around 8:40-8:45 and sat around reading. She spoke to Bridget about Abby receiving a note from a sick friend, upon whom she had gone out to call. No one knew where Lizzie was between 8:50 and 9:30, when she came to the side door to see what Bridget was doing. Bridget was cleaning windows when she heard Andrew at the front door at around 10:30, so she let him in. She heard someone upstairs laugh in a muffled way.

Lizzie Borden (AP)
Lizzie Borden (AP)

Lizzie says she went upstairs for five minutes to her room to sew a loop on a dress. She then went down to the kitchen, where she greeted her father. (First she admitted she was on the steps, then changed her story.)

Lizzie told Andrew about the note to Abby. Andrew went up the backstairs to his room and then came back down to the sitting room. Lizzie helped him to get comfortable. He was preparing to take a nap, as he was feeling ill.

Lizzie then claimed to have gone out to the barn at 10:45 to look for some lead, leaving the screen door unlocked in back. She was there for 20 minutes to half an hour.

At about 11:10, Bridget heard Lizzie cry out, "Maggie, come down!"

She asked what the matter was and Lizzie said, "Come down quick! Father's dead! Somebody has come in and killed him!"

When Bridget came down, she saw Lizzie standing at the back door. Lizzie instead instructed her to fetch the doctor. Bridget ran across the street to their neighbor and family physician, Dr. Seabury Bowen.

In the meantime, a neighbor, Mrs. Adelaide Churchill, called to Lizzie and asked if anything was wrong. Lizzie made some offhanded comments about the heat and then urged her to come over and help, saying that her father had been murdered. Mrs. Churchill inquired after her mother and Lizzie said that Abby Borden, her stepmother, had received a note asking her to respond to someone who was sick. "I don't know but they've killed her, too."

After the doctor came and covered Andrew, Lizzie then said she had heard her stepmother come in and told Bridget to go upstairs to look for her. Bridget refused, so Mrs. Churchill went up. Before she reached the landing she could see that Abbey was lying in the guestroom.

However, no one made a move to leave the premises, although the murderer must have been on the second floor if Lizzie had indeed heard her mother come in since her father had been killed. No one had passed by them.

In fact, it was odd that Lizzie had remained in the house when she first found her father, since the murder had obviously just been done and the "maniac" could still be there.

In the meantime, Lizzie's friend, Alice Russell, had arrived. Dr. Bowen had gone to telegraph Lizzie's older sister Emma, who was visiting friends in Fairhaven.

Alice went with Lizzie to her room. She asked Lizzie why she had been in the barn and Lizzie said she was looking for lead to fix a screen. (This was the only time she gave this purpose.) Then someone else asked her and she said she was looking for fishing sinkers. Lizzie asked for an undertaker, so Alice went down to talk to Dr. Bowen. When she came back up, she saw Lizzie coming out of Emma's room, wearing a pink and white wrapper, whereas she had been wearing a light blue dress with dark sprigs. Later she saw a bundle in Emma's closet. A police officer searching there pressed it but did not open it.

Inspector Medley went to the barn and determined that the thick dust in the loft had not been disturbed. It was impossible to breathe in the heat. He placed his hand on the floor and formed an impression, but the coating on the loft floor was free of any other marks or footprints. Officer Harrington went up shortly afterward and made the same observation.

Police searched the premises and found two axes and two hatchets, and a hatchet head with part of a freshly broken handle still in the eye. The hatchet head was dusted with ashes on both sides and lay in a box a few feet from a pile of ashes.

It was also determined that the evening before, members of the family had been ill, with Abby complaining to Dr. Bowen of being poisoned.

No footprints were found around the house on the grass, and the cellar door was locked, as was the front door.

As investigators searched, Lizzie went to her room and would not let anyone in, and did so only under orders. Officer Harrington later remarked on the fact that Lizzie seemed calm, with no stated interest in catching the killer. He had the impression she knew more than she was saying. She showed no sorrow or grief.

Harrington then went down to the kitchen where he saw Dr. Bowen with some scraps of paper in his hand, on which there was some writing. Bowen said, "It's nothing. It is something about my daughter, I think, going through somewhere." Harrington recalled that it was addressed to "Emma." Bowen then took the lid off the kitchen stove and tossed the scraps inside. Harrington noticed a cylindrical object in the ashes, about a foot long and two inches in diameter. He thought it might have been paper scrolled up.

Dr. Albert Dedrick spotted a basin in the wash stand that had water stained in blood. He was told that perhaps some of the doctors had washed their hands there.

Borden home in Fall River, MA (CORBIS)
Borden home in Fall River, MA (CORBIS)

Officer Medley noticed a pail of water in the wash cellar that had small towels that seemed to have been covered in blood. He asked Lizzie and she said she had explained it all to Dr. Bowen, who assured Medley it was all right (indicating these were menstrual rags, but no one checked for sure. Men were squeamish in those days about female privacy.) Lizzie said the pail had been there three or four days, although Bridget claimed she had not seen it before that day. It could not have been there two days before or she would have seen it when she did the washing.

Nothing was found in the yard to indicate that a killer had passed through. When questioned, neighbors who were out at the time saw no one suspicious.

On the night of the murders, police officer Joseph Hyde was guarding the door and saw Lizzie and Alice Russell go down to the cellar with a slop pail. Alice carried a lamp. Alice stopped short of entering the washroom, where the clothing of the murder victims was stored. Lizzie went in and rinsed out the pail. Then Lizzie came down alone a second time, about 15 minutes later. The officer saw her put something into the cupboard under the sink, but he could not see clearly what she was doing.

There were numerous suspects, ranging from Emma to an illegitimate son of Andrew Borden's to a disgruntled customer to a maniac off the streets. Yet Lizzie was arrested and imprisoned until her trial. Alice made things more difficult for her by admitting that she'd seen Lizzie burn a dress right after the murders.

Nevertheless, Lizzie was acquitted, and many believe it was because 1) she was wealthy and it was a political hot potato to send a well-bred woman to the gallows, and 2) much of the important evidence was not admitted into the trial.

Evidence that indicates that Lizzie was implicated includes:

  • There was blood on the sole of one of Lizzie's shoes.
  • There was a small spot of blood on one of her underskirts, one-sixteenth of an inch in diameter and more extensive on the outside than in. It was consistent with human blood, which Lizzie explained as being due to a flea bite.
  • The dress received into evidence on August 6th as the one Lizzie wore on the morning of the murder was not positively identified by those who saw her, and several even claimed it was not the dress.
  • A few days before the incident, Lizzie accompanied Emma to New Bedford, apparently leaving home after a family disagreement over a suspected property transfer to Abby. Then Lizzie turned back, but instead of going home, she spent four nights at a rooming house, returning home on August 2nd. Andrew and Abby were then complaining of stomach disorders. Abby had confided to Dr. Bowen that she thought they were being poisoned, with the implication that it was by Lizzie.
  • On August 3, Lizzie went to a drug store and asked to purchase prussic acid to rid a sealskin cape of bugs. The druggist refused to sell it without a prescription.
  • That night, she visited Alice Russell and remarked on a strong sense of foreboding that someone was trying to harm her father, and she mentioned a man who had argued with her father recently about property.
  • She lied to police about the bucketful of bloody rags in the basement.
  • On Sunday morning after the murders, Alice observed Lizzie burning a dress in the kitchen stove.
  • Alice apparently told a neighbor that there were places the police should have searched, but did not. There were things they might have found.
  • Hannah Reagan, a policewoman, overheard an argument between Emma and Lizzie in which Lizzie accused Emma of giving her away.
  • When Andrew came in that morning, Bridget heard a muted laugh from the landing. She assumed it was Lizzie, and if so, Lizzie must have seen Abby's body.
  • There was no blood found in closets where the intruder must have hidden, or on stairs or any room through which he needed to pass.
  • She said she'd been in the barn, but there was no dust on her dress or hands
  • The note to Abby was never found and no one came forward to say they had sent it

One significant mystery that stumps many scholars is the lack of blood on Lizzie's person or clothing. While she may have cleaned up after Abby, she did not have sufficient time after Andrew before she called Bridget. However, the fact that Andrew's coat was found rolled under his head was suspicious, since he'd never have treated it that way. It's speculated that Lizzie pulled it on over her dress, killed him, and then wrapped the coat and placed it under his head. Already blood-soaked, it would have appeared the blood was from his wounds. Blood on her face might have been wiped with rags and tossed into a bucket of "menstrual rags."

Oddly, the prosecutor received a package from Lizzie after the trial containing the official photographsincluding the crime scenewith a note to the effect that she thought he might like them "as souvenirs of an interesting occasion."

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