Dear Straight Dope:
Recently a TV show about Lizzie Borden gave possible theories as to who the "real" killer was (an illegitimate son was mentioned and it said that in a letter he even confessed to the crime), as well as why Lizzie might have done it. One of the Lizzie-ologists said it was almost certain that Lizzie was having an affair with the maid Bridget Sullivan and her stepmother walked in on the two of them in bed and that is what prompted the first murder. The Lizzie-ologist went on to say Lizzie tried the "I'm sleeping with the Irish maid and stepmother caught me with her so I HAD to kill her" excuse on her Dad but he didn't buy it so she ended up axing him as well. Apparently Lizzie was even named as the offending party in a divorce case, where the husband was filing for divorce on the grounds of adultery. GASP!!! I had never heard that theory before!!! So was Lizzie having an affair with a married woman at one point? Did a love affair with the maid make her go off the deep end and axe her family? Or is it more likely that someone else really did it?
John Corrado replies:
If this were a nice little murder mystery by A. C. Doyle or Agatha Christie, then perhaps we could simply look over the evidence, and with critical eye, find the theory that best fits the available evidence and sentence someone to bear forever the title of murderer of Andrew J. and Abby Borden. As it stands, though, this is a case that would cause M. Poirot to tear out his mustaches and drive Holmes directly to his stash of cocaine.
The problem is, there’s very little about the case that can be known with certainty. The witnesses called at the initial inquest contradicted each other. The witnesses called at the trial contradicted each other, contradicted the testimony at the inquest, and even at times contradicted themselves. We don’t know what the murder weapon was. We don’t know how the murderer got away without being drenched in blood. If it weren’t for those two pesky dead bodies, we’d be tempted to say no murder had occurred at all, because it couldn’t have.
What we do know is this. On August 3rd, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, Abby Borden sent for the family physician, Dr. Bowen, because she had received an anonymous note stating that the family was being ”poisoned.’. Most of the family had been ill the previous few days. Dr. Bowen dropped by the Borden place in an attempt to check up, but Mr. Borden, a wealthy but tight-fisted businessman, refused to allow him into the house, claiming he was in fine health and would be damned if he would pay for a house call from Dr. Bowen.
The next morning, A.J. went to town on business. John Morse–Abby’s brother, who had dropped by unexpectedly the previous night–also went to town to visit his niece. That left Abby, Lizzie, and their maid Bridget Sullivan alone in the house. Abby told Bridget to clean the windows of the house. Just after 10:30 a.m., A.J. returned home from his morning business and went directly to the couch to take a nap. Less than an hour later, Lizzie told Bridget to summon Dr. Bowen, because "Father’s dead! Somebody came in and killed him!"
A.J. Borden had been struck eleven times with a heavy edged weapon, his face almost unrecognizable from the blows. Abby Borden was later found upstairs, having been struck nineteen times, presumably with the same weapon. While not exactly the eighty-one whacks of legend, it was more than enough–in fact, both are believed to have been killed with the first blow.
And that’s all we know for certain. Everything else is hearsay, conjecture, and conflicting statements.
Take the murder weapon. Not long after the murders the police found an axe in the basement of the Borden home that the prosecution later claimed had been used to commit the murders. The axe was clean but most of the handle was missing–the prosecution claimed that it had been broken off and burned because it was covered in blood. However, police officer Michael Mullaly testified that he had found the axe head next to the shaft of an axe, casting doubt on the prosecution’s claim. Deputy Marshall John Fleet contradicted Mullaly, stating he had never seen an axe shaft near where the axe head was found. But then a forensics expert testified that there was no way the axe head could have been cleaned of blood in the short time after the murders.
And what about the blood? Even if, as some have conjectured, the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Borden died with the first blow reduced the amount of blood flow, the murder scenes were much less bloody than you’d expect. And wouldn’t the murderer’s clothes be covered with blood? In contrast to the murder weapon, which we have no real theory about, where the blood is concerned we have too many theories. Three days after the murders, Lizzie Borden burned one of her light blue dresses, claiming she had spilled paint on it. But none of the witnesses from the day of the murders could agree which dress she had worn that day. Officer Mullaly and Borden neighbor Adelaide Churchill described it as a light blue dress. Phoebe Bowen, the doctor’s wife, described it as dark blue. Dr. Bowen couldn’t answer the question, and Bridget Sullivan called it light blue, but differed in her description from that of Mrs. Churchill and Officer Mullaly.
Of course, Lizzie’s dress may be a moot point; there are plenty of other theories regarding what could have happened to the bloody clothes. Lizzie was menstruating that day, and even while the police searched the house for clues, as proper Victorian gents they ignored several bloody rags she carried down from her chamber. Likewise Bridget, the maid, was ignored by police when she carried a "bundle" out of the house. Bridget had also been sent to summon the doctor and later the police–ample time to dispose of a bloody wardrobe. Then there’s the theory that the murderer had committed the crime in the buff and simply taken a bath afterwards.
So there’s no help there–either Bridget or Lizzie could have done the deed and hidden the evidence. But what about hiding from each other? Bridget was washing windows at the time of the crime; there was ample time for Lizzie to do her dirty deeds while Bridget was on the opposite side of the house. And as for Lizzie–well, at first she said she had been in her room. Then she said she had been in the basement. Finally, at the inquest, she stated that, after A.J. had returned home, she had spent forty minutes out in the barn looking for fishing line sinkers and eating pears. The prosecution would attack this alibi with vehemence, claiming that the barn–and the loft she was sitting in–were unbearably hot that day (the temperature had reached over a hundred degrees), and no sane person would try to escape the outdoor heat by going to a hotter location. This was contradicted by some neighborhood boys who stated that they had hidden in the loft to watch the police once the bodies were discovered, and they found the loft very cool. The prosecution tried to counter this argument by stating that Lizzie must have opened a window in the loft some time after the police arrived but before the boys snuck in.
As for motive–well, we’ve got motive in abundance, but much of it is conjectural. Old man Borden was going to change his will, it was said, and Lizzie would get a pittance compared to Abby Borden and her family (Lizzie was Abby’s step-daughter, and Abby was much closer to her own sisters than to her step-children). Except that no one could find a draft of a new will, or even an old will. The Boston Globe printed the revelation that Lizzie was pregnant, and that A.J. had flown into a rage over the revelation and kicked her out. Except that she was menstruating, which is an odd condition in a pregnant woman. The Globe later claimed it had been taken in by a con man (who, conveniently perhaps, had fled to Canada and been hit by a train) and retracted the story.
But even discounting those stories, there were still motives a-plenty. A.J. and Abby were spiteful, nasty people by all reports. Though one of the richest men in New England, A.J. was a penny-pincher who refused to pay for indoor plumbing or for Lizzie’s entrance into society, and was rumored to have cut the feet off corpses so they would fit into cheaper coffins as a way of making money with his funeral home. In fact, the ”poisoning” that the Bordens complained of was directly attributable to the dinner meat that they eaten after it had spent three days in a malfunctioning ice box A.J. refused to replace. Abby never accepted Lizzie or Lizzie’s sister Emma as her own children; in fact, she fought them tooth and nail in order to get what little money A.J. was willing to parcel out, so that Abby could spend it on her own sisters.
So. Lots of motive, lots of opportunity, though no known weapon. Who did it?
Some say an intruder. Perhaps John Marsh slipped back into the house, or Lizzie’s sister Emma rented a carriage to drive to the house, or John Borden, A.J.’s illegitimate and often violent son, came to the house and killed A.J. in a frenzy. In all case, the motive is money–A.J. had plenty, but wasn’t planning on giving any of it to anyone, including relatives by blood, marriage, or affair.
Some say Bridget did it. She disposed of the bloody clothes and the murder weapon while doing her ”maid” duties under the noses of the police. Edward Radin suggests this theory in Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story. Why Bridget? Maybe being asked to wash all of the windows–one of the biggest and hardest household tasks–while still suffering from food poisoning on a blisteringly hot day had driven her over the edge. Or maybe it was A.J.’s constant penny-pinching. But even if Bridget did do it, many suggest Lizzie knew but kept quiet about it, being in no great state of upset over the deaths of two people she despised.
But most say Lizzie did it. She burned the dress that had blood on it, or covered it up with rags. Why? She was angry with her family over money, said the prosecution. She did it because she suffered from petit mal epileptic seizures during her menstrual periods, during which she fell into a dreamlike state and acted without thinking, says Victoria Lincoln, author of Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight. At the very least there’s some likelihood Lizzie was a thief. She was the main suspect in three ”burglaries” at the Borden residence and was arrested for shoplifting several years after her famous trial for murder.
Or, and this finally gets to the point of your question, she did it because she was having an affair with Bridget and Abby found out about it. That’s the conjecture of the book Lizzie by Evan Hunter (real name: Salvatore Lombino–he’s also famous for writing under the name Ed McBain). But this argument doesn’t really have much merit. Lizzie did remain a spinster, as well as an activist for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (a pre-suffrage NOW), and she was very close friends with Nance O’Neil, an actress whom feminist Carolyn Gage refers to as an overt lesbian. It was because Lizzie threw a party for Nance that Lizzie’s sister Emma moved out of the house they were living in.
But I can’t find any evidence that Lizzie was ever named in a divorce suit. Given the publicity that followed her arrest for shoplifting, it’s hard to imagine a lid could have been kept on scandals involving divorce and lesbianism. The belief that Lizzie Borden was a lesbian basically comes down to the assumption that any woman not married by thirty must be gay. Even if she was, it’s a long leap from there to murder. The New York Times‘s John Hunter said of Lizzie: "[E]pisodes entirely based upon conjecture are more important than those rooted in fact when it comes to shoring up Mr. Hunter’s ultimate argument."
My take? The chance of a mysterious intruder killing A.J. and Abby Borden without being noticed by Lizzie and Bridget is minuscule. Either Lizzie did it, or Bridget did it while Lizzie looked the other way. Radin makes a good case that Bridget seemed to know Abby was dead before her body had been found (she refused to go upstairs to look for Mrs. Borden, and when someone sent out for a sheet for Mr. Borden commented, "we’ll need two"). But Bridget gave a deathbed confession to her sister that she had changed her testimony on the stand to protect Lizzie. So I believe Lizzie did it, and Bridget knew but kept quiet out of fear, pity, and/or the promise of cash. Were they lovers? Doubtful.
Lizzie was tried for the murders but acquitted by the jury after an hour’s deliberation. Though ostracized by her neighbors, she continued to live in Fall River until her death in 1927. Her sister Emma died a few days later and the two were buried in the family plot, not far from A.J. and Abby. For more details on the crime, see http://www.crimelibrary.com/lizzie/lizziemain.htm.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.