How Lizzie Borden Got Away With Murder

Class, nativism and gender stereotypes all played a role in Borden’s acquittal for the 1892 killings of her father and stepmother

An 1890 portrait of Lizzie Borden
An 1890 portrait of Lizzie Borden Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Lizzie Borden murder case is one of the most famous in American criminal history. New England’s major crime of the Gilded Age, its barbarity captivated the national press. And the suspected killer was immortalized by an eerie rhyme passed down through generations:

Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

While the public largely believes that Borden committed the murders, the rhyme is not quite correct: the female victim was Borden’s stepmother, and the weapon wasn’t an ax, but rather a hatchet, a smaller, lighter tool. Also, the killer struck the victims around half as many times as stated in the rhyme—19 blows rained down on 64-year-old Abby Borden, and 10 or 11 rendered the face of Lizzie Borden’s 69-year-old father, Andrew Borden, unrecognizable. Still, the rhyme does accurately record the sequence of the murders, which took place about an hour and a half apart on the morning of August 4, 1892.

Newspaper sketches of Borden's stepmother, Abby Borden (left), and father, Andrew Borden (right)
Newspaper sketches of Borden's stepmother, Abby Borden (left), and father, Andrew Borden (right) Library of Congress

A key piece in the puzzle of the Borden murders is the societal identity of Fall River, Massachusetts, a textile mill town 50 miles south of Boston. Fall River was rocked not only by the sheer brutality of the crime but also by the identity of its victims. Cultural, religious, class, ethnic and gender divisions in the town shaped debates over Borden’s guilt or innocence, drawing the whole country into the case.

In the early hours of August 4, after the discovery of the bodies, the public only knew that the assassin had struck the victims in broad daylight at their home on a busy street, one block from the town’s business district. There was no evident motive like robbery or sexual assault. Neighbors and passers-by heard nothing. No one saw a suspect enter or leave the Borden property.

Moreover, Andrew was no ordinary citizen. Like other Fall River Bordens, he possessed wealth and standing. He had invested in mills, banks and real estate. But Andrew had never made a show of his good fortune. He lived on the unfashionable Second Street, in a modest house—now a spooky bed and breakfast—instead of on the “Hill,” Fall River’s lofty, leafy, silk-stocking enclave.

Borden, a 32-year-old who lived at home, longed to reside on the Hill. She knew her father could afford to move away from a neighborhood increasingly dominated by Catholic immigrants.

The Borden family's home in Fall River, Massachusetts
The Borden family's home in Fall River, Massachusetts Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Police initially considered the killings the work of a man, probably a “foreigner.” Within a few hours of the murders, they arrested a suspect: an innocent Portuguese immigrant from the town’s new diaspora of European workers.

Borden had absorbed elements of the city’s rampant nativism. On the day of the murders, she claimed that she’d come into the house from the barn and discovered her father’s body. She yelled for the Bordens’ 26-year-old Irish servant, Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, who was resting in her third-floor room. She told Sullivan she needed a doctor and sent the servant across the street to the family physician’s house. He was not at home. Borden then told Sullivan to get a friend down the street.

Yet Borden never sent the servant to the Irish immigrant doctor who lived right next door. He had an impressive educational background and served as Fall River’s city physician. Nor did Borden seek the help of a French Canadian doctor who lived diagonally behind the Bordens. Only a Yankee doctor would do.

These same divisions helped keep Borden off the suspect list at first. She was, after all, a Sunday school teacher at her wealthy Central Congregational Church. Members of her social class didn’t think a person like Borden would slaughter her parents.

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But during the interrogation, Borden’s answers to different police officers shifted. And her inability to summon a single tear aroused police suspicion. Then an officer discovered that Borden had tried to purchase deadly prussic acid from a nearby drugstore a day before the murders.

Another piece of the story is how, as Fall River’s immigrant population surged, more Irishmen turned to policing. On the day of the murders, Irish police were among the dozen or so who took control of the victims’ house and property. Some interviewed Borden. One even interrogated her in her bedroom. Borden was not used to being held to account by people she considered beneath her.

The case quickly became a flash point in an Irish insurgency in the city. The shifting composition of the police force, combined with the election of the city’s second Irish mayor, John W. Coughlin, were all pieces of a challenge to native-born control.

Coughlin’s newspaper, the Fall River Globe, was a militant, working-class Irish daily that assailed mill owners. Soon after the murders, it focused its class combativeness on Borden’s guilt. Among other reports, it promoted rumors that Borden’s family members on the Hill were pooling millions of dollars to ensure she would never be convicted. The Hill’s house organ, the Fall River Evening News, defended Borden’s innocence.

A newspaper sketch of Andrew Borden's body
A newspaper sketch of Andrew Borden's body The Boston Globe via

Five days after the murders, authorities convened an inquest. Borden took the stand on each of its three days; the inquest was the only time she testified in court under oath.

Even more than the heap of inconsistencies that police compiled, Borden’s testimony led her into a briar patch of seeming self-incrimination. She did not have a defense lawyer during what was a closed inquiry. But she was not without defenders. The family doctor, who staunchly believed in Borden’s innocence, testified that after the murders, he prescribed a double dose of morphine to help her sleep. Its side effects, he claimed, could account for her confusion. Her 41-year-old sister, Emma Borden, who also lived at home, claimed that the sisters harbored no anger toward their stepmother.

Yet the police investigation, and the family and neighbors who gave interviews to newspapers, suggested otherwise. On the day of the murders, with Emma 15 miles away on vacation, Borden and Sullivan were the only ones at home with Abby after Andrew left for his morning business rounds. Sullivan was outside washing windows when Abby was slaughtered in the second-floor guest room. While Andrew was bludgeoned in the first-floor sitting room shortly after his return, the servant was resting in her attic room. Unable to account consistently for Borden’s movements, the judge, district attorney and police marshal determined that she was “probably guilty.”

Authorities arrested Borden on August 11, one week after the murders. The judge sent her to the county jail. This privileged suspect found herself confined to a cheerless 9.5-by-7.5-foot cell for the next nine months.

A sketch of Lizzie Borden in court
A sketch of Lizzie Borden in court Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Borden’s arrest provoked an uproar that quickly became national. Women’s groups rallied to her side, especially the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and suffragists. Borden’s supporters protested that at trial, she would not be judged by a jury of her peers, as women did not have the right to serve on juries.

Borden’s upper-class status benefited her throughout her ordeal. During the preliminary hearing, one of Boston’s most prominent defense lawyers joined the family attorney to advocate for her innocence. The small courtroom above the police station was packed with Borden’s supporters, particularly women from the Hill. At times, they were buoyed by testimony. For example, a Harvard University chemist reported that he found no blood on two axes and two hatchets that police retrieved from the cellar. Two days after the murders, Borden had turned over to the police the dress she allegedly wore on the morning of August 4. It had only a minuscule spot of blood on the hem.

Her attorneys stressed that the prosecution offered no murder weapon and possessed no bloody clothes. As to the prussic acid, Borden was a victim of misidentification, they claimed. In addition, throughout the saga, her legion of supporters remained steadfast that Borden’s guilt was culturally inconceivable: A well-bred, virtuous Victorian woman—a “Protestant nun,” to use the words of the national president of the temperance union—could never commit patricide.

The reference to the Protestant nun raises the issue of the growing numbers of native-born women in late 19th-century New England who remained single. Historians have documented how the label “spinster” obscured the diverse reasons why women remained single. For some, the ideal of virtuous Victorian womanhood was unrealistic, even oppressive. It defined the socially respectable, true woman as morally pure and physically delicate. Preferably, she married and had children. But some women saw new educational opportunities and self-supporting independence as an attainable goal. (Nearly all the “Seven Sisters” colleges were founded between the 1870s and 1890s, four in Massachusetts.) Other women simply could not trust that they would choose the right man for a life of marriage.

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As for the Borden sisters, Emma fit the stereotype of a spinster. On her deathbed, Emma’s mother made her promise to look after “baby Lizzie.” Emma seems to have devoted her life to her younger sister. Borden, though not a reformer of the class social ills of her era, acquired the public profile of Fall River’s most prominent unofficial Protestant nun. Unlike Emma, she was engaged in varied religious and social activities, from the temperance union to the Christian Endeavor, which supported Sunday schools. She also served on the board of the Fall River Hospital.

At the preliminary hearing, Borden’s defense attorney delivered a rousing closing argument. Her partisans erupted into loud applause. It was to no avail. The judge determined she was probably guilty and should remain jailed until a state Superior Court trial.

Neither the attorney general, who typically prosecuted capital crimes, nor the district attorney was eager to haul Borden into Superior Court, though both believed in her guilt. There were holes in the police’s evidence. And while Borden’s place in the local order was unassailable, her arrest had also provoked a groundswell of support.

Though he did not have to, the district attorney brought the case before a grand jury in November. He was not sure he would secure an indictment. Twenty-three jurors convened to hear the case on the charges of murder. They adjourned with no action. Then the grand jury reconvened on December 1 and heard dramatic testimony.

She could not possess the physical strength, let alone the moral degeneracy, to wield a weapon with skull-cracking force.

Alice Russell, a single, pious, 40-year-old member of Central Congregational, was Borden’s close friend. Shortly after Andrew was killed, Borden sent Sullivan to summon Alice. She slept in the Borden house for several nights after the murders, with the brutalized victims stretched out on mortician boards in the dining room. Russell had testified at the inquest, the preliminary hearing and earlier before the grand jury. But she had never disclosed one important detail. Distressed over her omission, she consulted a lawyer, who said she had to tell the district attorney. On December 1, Russell returned to the grand jury. She testified that on the Sunday morning after the murders, Borden pulled a dress from a shelf in the pantry closet and proceeded to burn it in the cast iron coal stove. The grand jury indicted Borden the next day.

Still, the attorney general and the district attorney dragged their feet. The attorney general bowed out of the case in April. He had been sick, and his doctor conveniently said that he could not withstand the demands of the Borden trial. In his place, he chose a district attorney from north of Boston to co-prosecute with Hosea M. Knowlton, the Bristol County district attorney, who emerged as the trial’s profile in courage.

Knowlton believed Borden was guilty but realized the long odds against conviction. Yet he was convinced that he had a duty to prosecute, and he did so with skill and passion exemplified by his five-hour closing argument. A leading New York reporter who believed in Borden’s innocence wrote that the district attorney’s eloquent appeal to the jury “entitles him to rank with the ablest advocates of the day.” Knowlton thought a hung jury was within his grasp. It might satisfy both those convinced that Borden was innocent and those persuaded of her guilt. If new evidence emerged, Borden could be retried.

The district attorney perhaps underestimated the legal and cultural impediments he faced. Borden’s demeanor in court, which Knowlton perhaps failed to fully anticipate, also surely influenced the outcome. Here lies a gender paradox of Borden’s trial. In a courtroom where men reserved all the legal power, she presented herself as a helpless maiden. Her lawyers told her to dress in black. She appeared in court tightly corseted, dressed in flowing clothes, and holding a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a fan in the other. One newspaper described her as “quiet, modest and well-bred,” far from a “brawny, big, muscular, hard-faced, coarse-looking girl.” Another stressed that she lacked “Amazonian proportions.” She could not possess the physical strength, let alone the moral degeneracy, to wield a weapon with skull-cracking force.

The jury that acquitted Borden in 1893
The jury that acquitted Borden in 1893 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, with her father’s money in hand, Borden could afford the best legal team to defend her, including a former Massachusetts governor who had appointed one of the three justices who would preside over the case. That justice delivered a slanted charge to the jury, which one major newspaper described as “a plea for the innocent.” The justices took other actions that stymied the prosecution, excluding testimony about prussic acid because the prosecution had not refuted that the deadly poison could be used for innocent purposes.

Finally, the jury itself presented the prosecution with a formidable hurdle. Fall River was excluded from the jury pool, which was thus tilted toward the county’s small, heavily agricultural towns. Half of the jurors were farmers; others were tradesmen. One owned a metal factory in New Bedford. Most were practicing Protestants, some with daughters approximately Borden’s age. A sole Irishman made it through the jury selection process. Not surprisingly, the jury quickly decided to acquit Borden. Then they waited for an hour so it would not appear they’d made a hasty decision.

The courtroom audience, the bulk of the press and women’s groups cheered Borden’s acquittal. But her life was altered forever. Two months after the innocent verdict, the Borden sisters moved to a large Victorian house on the Hill. Yet many people there and in the Central Congregational Church shunned her. Borden became Fall River’s curio, followed by street urchins and stared down whenever she appeared in public. She withdrew to her home, but even there, neighborhood kids pestered Borden with pranks. Four years after her acquittal, a warrant was issued for her arrest in Providence. She was charged with shoplifting and apparently made restitution.

Borden enjoyed traveling to Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., dining in style and attending the theater. She and Emma had a falling out in 1904, and Emma left the house in 1905. The sisters never saw each other again. Both died in 1927—Borden first and Emma nine days later. They were buried in the same plot as their father and stepmother.

Joseph Conforti was born and raised in Fall River, Massachusetts. He taught New England history at the University of Southern Maine and has published several books on New England history, including Lizzie Borden on Trial: Murder, Ethnicity and Gender.

This essay is part of What It Means to Be American, a project of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Arizona State University, produced by Zócalo Public Square.

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