John R. McGinn, who once housed his printing business in the building where the Borden murders took place, was quoted as saying “the Lizzie Borden thing is dead. We’ve had lots of interviews and they’ve come up with nothin’. Just rehash and rehash.” 1
I believe that McGinn is wrong. Like England’s Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden will continue to haunt the world. The reasons for Lizzie’s hold on the public imagination fall into two categories. The first is historical and cultural. The acquittal of Lizzie Borden was deeply symptomatic of the late nineteenth century’s attitudes about gender, class, and family. The second is logistical: assuming the simplest hypothesis, that of Lizzie Borden’s guilt as sole murderer, real puzzles exist as to how she did it.
The Borden murders occurred toward the end of the Victorian era, in 1892. Woman suffrage was a controversial issue, as was temperance. The suspected Miss Borden was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an organization that also supported suffrage.
It was a period when the word “lady” carried special weight and meaning. While some have thought that Miss Borden owed her acquittal to being a woman, that is far from the case. Lower-class women, “fallen” or promiscuous women, and those of ethnic minorities, were not “ladies” and, as Sojourner Truth noted in her famous powerful “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, they were neither protected from life’s harsh realities nor believed incapable of vileness.
A lady, on the other hand, was considered a creature of special delicacy and refinement. Her moral sense was thought superior. These perceptions were accepted by most people on both sides of the suffrage issue. Indeed, at the time, many pro-suffrage groups had adopted the classist argument that the votes of privileged, upper-class ladies were needed to offset the possibly deleterious effects of having extended the vote to lower-class men.
Lizzie Borden, like her sister Emma, was a lady. Thus, the accused Lizzie was supported by an odd coalition of conservative religious groups and progressive suffragettes.
As is commonly known to students of the Borden affair, Miss Lizzie may have made an unsuccessful attempt to purchase prussic acid, a powerful poison, only a couple of days before the killings. This more “feminine” method of murder would not have shocked to the same degree as a hatchet slaying and, if she had succeeded in making such a purchase and murdered with the prussic acid, I believe Lizzie Borden might well have been convicted and forgotten about.
However, the flamboyantly physical method she settled on – assuming again, the major assumption of her guilt — was literally unbelievable to a large part of the public. Equally hard to stomach was the prospect of putting a lady to death either by hanging or, in what was then a new invention, the electric chair.
One interesting aspect of the case is that there was a brief, botched attempt to “de-lady” Lizzie by suggesting that she was sexually experienced. The “Trickey-McHenry Affair,”2 was as unfortunate as its befitting name. Investigator Edwin D. McHenry informed Boston Globe reporter Henry Trickey (he was the one who got tricked) that the killings had been preceded by a fierce family argument when Andrew Borden discovered that Lizzie was pregnant and screamed that he would throw her out of the house unless she “name[ed] the man who got [her] in trouble.” 3
The Globe aborted the misbegotten tale the next day in language which symbolized the position of females at the time. They offered “our heartfelt apology for the inhuman reflection on her honor as a woman.” 4 In those days, an unmarried pregnancy was about as bad for a woman’s reputation as the allegation that she had committed a grisly double murder.
When Lizzie Borden went into the courtroom, her ladyhood perfectly intact, the twelve men on the jury had good reason to resist believing the charges. They were, after all, fathers themselves and would draw little comfort from knowing that a lady like their own daughters had butchered her father.
All that said, there are genuine problems as to how the murders were perpetrated which mean that the case will never be finally, definitely, solved to the satisfaction of all observers.
How Did She Do It?
“I do not do things in a hurry.” 5
If one accepts the hypothesis of Lizzie guilt as sole murderer, this may have been her biggest lie.
However, it would have competition from a couple of other possible whoppers. One was the tale of the note. Lizzie informed Bridget, and later the authorities, that her step mother had gone out early that morning to visit a sick friend. No one ever found the note, the boy who delivered it, or the woman who sent it. However, this does not necessarily mean that there was no note since, if the ailing friend happened to be of the upper-class society in Fall River, she might have been extremely averse to involving herself in a scandal. Furthermore, even if the note was phantom, it does not necessarily mean that Lizzie lied about it. There is a theory that Andrew Borden intended to transfer more property to Abby that morning and did not want his daughters to know about it. This theory holds that Abby made up the story of the note to explain her own absence from home to Lizzie.
Lizzie also told the people who saw her immediately after her father’s body was discovered that she had missed his murder because she had been in the barn looking for iron to fasten a screen. At the inquest, she testified that her trip to the barn was for sinkers for her fishing lines.
At any rate, “I do not do things in a minute” was said at the inquest. She was answering Prosecutor Hosea Knowlton’s question about why, according to her testimony, it had taken her some twenty minutes to eat two or three pears in a barn loft while, supposedly unbeknownst to her, someone was hacking her father to death.
The time available for the murder of Andrew Borden was indeed brief and, by some accounts, simply too short for Lizzie to have possibly done the deed.
Andrew Borden is said to have left work at 10:30 AM. He arrived home at approximately 10:40 and went to the couch for a nap. He was seen by Bridget as well as Lizzie. Bridget later testified that she went upstairs to take a nap herself and, after she had been lying down for about three minutes, heard the clock strike 11:00. She further testified that Miss Lizzie called her downstairs some “ten or fifteen minutes after [she] had heard the clock strike eleven.” 6 On cross examination, she backed off a bit, saying she couldn’t be certain of the number of minutes that passed before hearing the clock strike.
Another witness, Hyman Lubinsky, testified that he saw a woman, who was not Bridget, although he could not positively identify her as Lizzie, walking to the Borden house from the barn at 11:00.
Police reported receiving a telephone call notifying them of Mr. Borden’s death at 11:15.
Moreover, they got that fateful call — which did not come from the Borden house — after several other events are known to have occurred. Lizzie called Bridget to come downstairs because “somebody” had killed her father. Acting on Lizzie’s orders, Bridget walked across the street to summon Dr. Bowen but found he wasn’t at home. She then went to get Lizzie’s best friend, Alice Russell.
In the meantime, Adelaide Churchill saw Lizzie at the Borden back door and responded to the latter’s plaintive plea, “Oh, Mrs. Churchill, do come over. Someone’s killed Papa.” Mrs. Churchill offered to find a doctor. Upon leaving, Mrs. Churchill crossed the street and spotted Thomas Bowles, an employee of hers and asked him to fetch a physician. John Cunningham was there and heard this conversation. He went to a nearby store and made the 11:15 phone call.
We should remember that some of these things were happening at the same time rather than in order. However, that still gives Lizzie about seven minutes or less to commit the crime and cover it up — if Mr. Lubinsky’s story of the woman coming from the barn is to be trusted.
A witness was called to back Lubinsky up. He was Charles E. Gardner who “operated the stable on Second Street where Lubinsky’s horses were kept.” 7 He testified that Lubinsky had “left his stable between five and ten minutes past eleven o’clock.” 8
However, Gardner was impeached on cross-examination, when he said that he “himself had passed the Borden house in his own team fifteen minutes after Lubinsky had left his stable” yet had “observed no activity.” 9 This was hardly credible since it would mean that Gardner had passed the Borden house at 11:30 when a crowd was gathering in front of the house.
Lubinsky’s testimony was also refuted by a police officer who had taken down the former’s story “as Lubinsky told it on 8 August. Lubinsky said at that time that when he saw the woman it was exactly 10:30 AM.” 10
Still, Hyman Lubinsky’s recollection cannot be dismissed out of hand. As far as is known, he had no relationship with Lizzie Borden and no reason to lie on her behalf but a good reason, as everyone does, to avoid a perjury charge.
Bridget Sullivan’s longer recollection of the timeline is irreconcilable with the police record of a 11:15 phone call. After all, if Lizzie called her down fifteen minutes after 11:00, and the police time is accurate, there was no time for any intervening events to occur! However, if it were ten minutes later that Lizzie gave the cry, a five-minute interval would be possible — which would still give Lizzie almost no time to murder her father and get rid of the evidence.
Could Sullivan have been lying? If so, why? Was Lubinsky lying? Again, why? There is fertile ground here, as elsewhere in the Borden record, for conspiracy theorizing.
By any account, there was a very modest window of opportunity for Lizzie to kill her father. So why did witnesses not find her drenched in blood?
The movie of the week starring Elizabeth Montgomery had Lizzie committing the murders nude in order to explain her post-killing cleanliness. This scenario seems particularly improbable in the Victorian era when traipsing around one’s own home naked might be more shocking than a double homicide! At any rate, the hypothesis of a nude Lizzie does not explain how she was able to wash all the blood off of herself and get back into the cumbersome clothing of the era in such a brief amount of time. Additionally, her hair was not wet (either with blood or the water that would have been needed to wash it out) or even disarranged.
Many people believe that the dress Lizzie burned days after the murders was stained by blood but that does not explain why no one saw blood on her so shortly after her father’s killing. Nor does it account for the failure of the police to find a bloody dress when they examined each garment in her closet.
Furthermore, witnesses reported that she did not even have a hair out of place. How likely is this after swinging a hatchet some eleven times?
The disposal of the weapon is yet another puzzle casting doubt on Lizzie’s guilt as sole killer. The infamous “handleless hatchet” was introduced at trial as the probable weapon but no one testified with certainty that it did the ghastly deeds. If it was the weapon and Lizzie the only villain, then she raced downstairs to the cellar, broke the handle — perhaps because it had bloodstains — put the wood into a fire, washed the hatchet, and finally covered it with ashes to simulate disuse within the space of a few minutes. This meant that she was working very, very quickly indeed.
These very real problems with the hypothesis of Lizzie as sole murderer will continue to be fertile ground for conjecture and theory about the “true villain(s),” or Lizzie’s accomplice(s).
Because of the Borden case’s symbolic value as a microcosm of its Victorian era, and because of the very real puzzles in the case, it will haunt us forever regardless of how many times it is declared “solved” or “dead.” After all, the old Borden home is no longer occupied by John R. McGinn’s printing business. It is now the Lizzie Borden Bed-and-Breakfast. (The home which she moved to after her acquittal and named Maplecroft, is a Lizzie Borden Museum.) And Lizzie Borden: Hash & Rehash is the title of a documentary about the case.
1. Newsweek, June 4, 1984, Gates, David, p. 12.
2. Spiering, Frank, Lizzie, Pinnacle Books, New York, NY, 1984, pp. 136-141/
3. Ibid., p. 139.
4. Ibid., p. 140.
5. Sullivan, Robert, Goodbye Lizzie Borden, The Stephen Greene Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, 1974, p. 216
I6. Ibid., p. 85.
I7. Ibid., p. 130.
I10. Ibid., p. 164.
“Why Lizzie Will Forever Haunt” was originally published on page 8, 20-21 of the April, 2002 issue of The Lizzie Borden Quarterly, © 2002. Article reproduced courtesy of the “Lizzie Borden Quarterly,” Maynard F. Bertolet, editor.