Mystery & Crime

Inadmissible - The Case of Lizzie Borden & Other Murderous Women


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The story of Lizzie Borden revolves around one of the most sensational unsolved crimes in American history. Andrew and Abby Borden, Lizzie’s father and stepmother, were killed in a horrifying double axe murder.

Their violent deaths occurred in the nineteenth century, at a time when women were ruled by the heavy hand of patriarchy, and still had no legal rights. Also in this era, the Women’s Suffrage movement emerged as a powerful force that began to shift society toward greater freedom and legal protections for women. 

As I looked deeply into the Borden case, I discovered numerous murderous women in the Victorian era whose circumstances echoed elements of Lizzie’s story. They, too, struggled with harshly restrictive laws and cultural norms that deprived them of so much. Did these unendurable pressures and expectations drive all of them to murder?

 It was a warm Thursday morning, August 4th, 1892. The U.S. Signal Weather Service at 7am registered the temperature at 67 degrees. As the day moved on, the temperature grew warmer and at 2pm it was 83 degrees. (46)

City Marshal Rufas B. Hilliard was sitting at his desk at the Central Police Station. It was a quiet time. Every year, most of the night patrolmen and many day officers made their way to Rocky Point in Providence Rhode Island for The Fall River Police Association outing. This left Hilliard with a skeleton crew of officers, who were tired from working double shifts. Rufas sat on the cracked leather of his creaky old chair in silence. He was twisting his puffy mustache, his eyes unfocused as he stared at the endless paperwork. The phone rang and he picked it up. It was John Cunningham, a news dealer. He was frantic and breathless as he yelled, “There is a disturbance at the Borden house. Come quick.” Marshall Hilliard gave the order immediately, “Mr. Allen, I want you to go up on Second street, the house next to Mrs. Buffington’s above Borden street, and see what the matter is.” (55,6)  

Officer Allen, a five-year rookie, went swiftly and arrived at the two-and-a-half story Borden house at 11:20am. Charles Sawyer, a neighbor greeted him. Entering the house, Allen asked Sawyer to stand at the back door. “Let no one in except other officers and medical doctors,” he said. When Allen entered the kitchen, he saw Lizzie Borden sitting still at the table. There were no signs of terror and no signs of fear. Sitting with Lizzie were the maid Bridget Sullivan and two friends, Mrs. Churchill and Miss Russell. Dr. Bowen was also there and upon Allen’s arrival, he escorted him to the sitting room where Andrew Borden was lying dead on the sofa. Then at Lizzie’s request, Dr. Bowen left to go to the post office to send a telegram to her sister Emma Borden, telling her to come home.

Allen slowly removed the sheet covering Andrew Borden. He gasped when he saw Andrew. He wanted to look away from the cruelty that slashed through Andrew’s fragile flesh. The vision would be impressed into his memory forever. Andrew’s head was bloodied and gashed beyond recognition. It was chopped to pieces, leaving his eye lying out of its socket cut in two. His jawbone was exposed and twisted, his nose almost cut off from his face, leaving crimson wet tissue and hanging flesh, and an image of death sprayed on the walls. Blood was still oozing out of the fresh wounds, sending a chill over Allen, who took a few steps back. He was unprepared for the brutality, and was shaken deeply and almost vomited but swallowed it down. Tears glistened in his eyes.

Struggling to keep himself together, he left the room, going out into the front hallway. Carrying out his duties as a police officer, he examined the front door and found it was triple locked. He looked behind the door and found no one. Catching his breath, he went into the dining room and looked in the closet. Empty. He quickly looked into the kitchen, and then left the house and headed back to Central Station to report his findings. He left the occupants of the house alone and unattended. 

Allen’s arrival back at Central Station caused Marshall Hilliard to send word out to the few officers who were on duty. “Go quickly to the Borden House,” he ordered. Back at the Borden house, the women started to wonder about Mrs. Borden. Lizzie said to the ladies that she had heard the door and thought Mrs. Borden had come in. “Can someone check?” she asked.

Bridget Sullivan, the housemaid, and Mrs. Churchill, the neighbor, went reluctantly together to look for Abby. They started in the front of the house. They climbed the narrow, twisted staircase, gripping the banister as they went. When Mrs. Churchill reached the seventh step, which was eye level to the upstairs front hall, she looked across the floor and could see into the front spare room. She saw a person lying under the bed. She froze as Bridget went around her and up into the room. Bridget stood over the body and gasping, ran back into the hallway.

The women quickly ran back down the stairs and back into the kitchen. Miss Russell looked at Mrs. Churchill’s frightened face and asked, “Is there another?” Mrs. Churchill squeezed her eyes shut, pausing. As she opened them she choked out, “Yes, Mrs. Borden is killed too.” No tears were seen on Lizzie’s face.

Bridget and Mrs. Churchill now discovered the second body. Upstairs in the guest room the body of Abby Borden lay in an undignified position. She had met a fate similar to her husband’s. Her head was hacked to pieces, bits of her hair chopped off, and she lay in a pool of coagulated blood. It was a sad fate that her last duty in life would be to ruffle up pillowcases.

When Dr. Bowen returned to the house, Mrs. Churchill told him they found Mrs. Borden upstairs in the front bedroom. Bowen immediately went through the dining room into the front hall and up the stairs. The board shutters in the room were partly closed, leaving the room dim, with the sun barely slanting through. He walked over to an area between the bureau and the bed. Abby Borden was lying face down in a pool of blood. He worked his way into the narrow area, checking her injuries. He leaned over and placed his hand on her head. It was wet and cold. Then he lifted her right wrist, felt her pulse and was convinced that she was dead. He left the room.

Other officers arrived, cluttering the house. Police officer Doherty, Assistant Marshal John Fleet, Officers Mullaly, John Devine and Medley all came. Dr. Dolan, the medical examiner, arrived too. As Dr. Dolan and Dr. Bowen examined the bodies, the scene became chaotic with officers clumsily checking rooms, closets, some descending to the cellar, and others went outside and into the barn. All were searching for a killer and a weapon.

News in town traveled fast. Reporters and townspeople made their way to the Borden house. Cotton mills shut down as workers left to see if the rumor was true. The streets soon became so crowded that the only way into the house was blocked.

While looking at the murder scenes the first thing noticed was: nothing was out of place, nothing was stolen and nothing was overturned. Suspicions of a robbery were soon ruled out. There was, however, a great deal of blood. There was blood on the walls, blood on the floor, blood on the doors and of course, blood on the dead bodies. The front stairway that was covered with a light gray wallpaper had no blood on it, nor did the banister. A person leaving the house would likely have left some kind of evidence if carrying a bloody, dripping hatchet. A closer inspection found no trail of blood, footprints or blood drippings.

Most puzzling was the official determination that the murders happened one hour apart. Abby’s murder occurred between 9:30am and 10:00am, and Andrew’s murder took place between 10:45am and 11:05am. 

The theory of an outsider coming into the house was considered. But police soon learned that the only way into the house was through the rear side door. The front door was triple locked. The cellar door was locked too. The windows were also barred. The family was in the downstairs part of the house most of the morning until 9:30am. Abby was killed first between 9:30 and 10:00am, leaving the killer to wait an hour for Andrew to get home and then murder him. Andrew got home at 10:40am. The killer then had between eight and fifteen minutes to kill Andrew, and leave undetected, onto a very busy street. This would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible. 

Was Lizzie Borden the murderer? One theory held that she ran down into the basement, broke the handle off the hatchet, rubbed ashes onto the hatchet blade and put it in a box up on a shelf. Another theory was that she ran outside into the backyard and threw the hatchet up onto the neighbor’s barn roof. She would have had to wash her face, hands, and hair, clean her shoes and change her dress, all in a short time frame. Did she wear something over her clothing to protect herself from getting blood spatter?

As the search went on, the police started to question the only two people in the house the time of the murders, Bridget Sullivan, the maid and Lizzie Borden, the youngest daughter of Andrew Borden. The same question was asked over and over to Lizzie. “Where were you Miss Borden?” 

Bridget told police that at the time of Andrew’s murder, she was upstairs in her bedroom, resting. She heard Lizzie call to her and came downstairs. Bridget asked, “Miss Lizzie, where were you?” Lizzie said, “I was out in the back yard and I heard a groan and came in, and the screen door was wide open. Go for Dr. Bowen.” Bridget left the house but came back in minutes because Dr. Bowen wasn’t at home. Lizzie then sent Bridget to get Miss Alice Russell, leaving her, Lizzie, alone in the house again for a short time. Mrs. Churchill had seen Lizzie standing inside the back screen door and thought something was wrong. She opened the window and yelled over, “Lizzie, what is the matter?” Lizzie replied, “Oh, Mrs. Churchill, do come over. Someone had killed Father.” Mrs. Churchill then showed up at the house to help.  

At the time of Abby’s murder, Bridget was outside washing windows. She had a solid alibi, as she was also talking with a neighbor girl. Forensics evidence determined that the same murderer hacked both Andrew and Abby. Bridget was cleared.  Lizzie told police she was out in the barn at the time of Andrew’s murder, came in and discovered him dead on the couch. Her alibi for Abby’s murder was more complicated, and she changed her story numerous times as to her whereabouts. This raised suspicions. However, the police saw that Lizzie’s hair was in order, no blood was on her dress, no blood was on her body, minutes after Andrew’s murder. This was hard to explain if Lizzie was the murderer.  

John Morse, Andrew’s brother-in-law to his first wife, stayed in the guest room the eve of the murders. This is the same room where Abby Borden’s body was found by police. Thursday morning, the day of the murders, John had eaten breakfast with the Bordens, then left at 8:45am to visit his niece, a mile from the Borden house. He had a solid alibi and was also cleared of the murders.

Emma Borden, Lizzie’s older sister, had been visiting friends, and she too had an alibi. About three in the afternoon, the bodies were photographed, and the first autopsies were performed, wherein Andrew and Abby’s stomachs were removed for examination. The state of the bodies indicated death of a violent nature, perhaps even motivated by hatred. The murder weapon was eventually established as a hatchet.

There was never any direct evidence against Lizzie. No blood was found on her except one little spot. No weapon was found except a hatchet head, which most likely was not the weapon. Why then should we think that Lizzie was guilty? I maintain that we should reconsider the likelihood of her guilt because of the items that were not introduced during the trial, and were thus left inadmissible. To understand this case, we must try and understand Lizzie. Next, some history. 

About the author

Kimbra Eberly grew up in York, Pennsylvania, and moved to New York City, where she studied psychology at the College of Staten Island, Kimbra lives happily in Staten Island, New York, with her partner and their two cats. view profile

Published on December 12, 2020

Published by xlibra

120000 words

Genre: Mystery & Crime

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