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The Borden Murders: If Lizzie Didn't Do It, Who Did?

Katharine has been fascinated by the Borden case since adolescence and resides not far from the scene of the crime.

Lizzie Borden was acquitted of murder, but many believed she was actually guilty.

Lizzie Borden was acquitted of murder, but many believed she was actually guilty.

Lizzie Borden: Murder in Massachusetts

Much has been written about the infamous murders that occurred in Fall River, Massachusetts, back in 1892. Transcripts of the inquest and trial have been pored over by true crime enthusiasts and historians. Most seem to believe that Lizzie, who was accused and ultimately acquitted, got away with murder. But did she? Consider the possibilities and come to your own conclusion.

The Facts of the Case

When the murders occurred, Lizzie Andrew Borden was 32 years old. She lived in a modest home in the city of Fall River, Massachusetts, with her elder sister Emma, her father Andrew Borden, and her stepmother Abby Durfee Borden.

Lizzie's own mother had died when Lizzie was a small child, and her father had remarried a few years later. Lizzie was not fond of her stepmother, but by all accounts she was devoted to her father. She, in turn, was her father's favorite.

The Borden home in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892

The Borden home in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892

Andrew Borden

Lizzie's father, Andrew Borden, was not well-liked in the community. Though he had been very successful, first as a furniture and casket salesman, and later through developing and running textile mills, he had made many enemies due to his gruff and parsimonious nature, as well as his reputation for being very tight with money.

He was not a man with many friends—and he was just as happy without them. He was 70 years old at the time of the murders.

Lizzie's father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden

Lizzie's father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden

Abby Borden

Lizzie's stepmother, Abby Borden, was a rather plain woman who was thankful to have made a good marriage much later in life (age 36) than most women typically married for the first time. She was short, rotund, and fairly shy.

She was close to a younger half-sister, whom she had raised, but not particularly close to her two step-daughters. In fact, Lizzie had stopped calling her "mother" some years earlier, and instead called her "Mrs. Borden."

Abby Borden's body was found face down in the upstairs guest room.

Abby Borden's body was found face down in the upstairs guest room.

Andrew Borden was found dead on the sofa.

Andrew Borden was found dead on the sofa.

Bloody Murders

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie's sister, Emma, was away visiting friends. Mr. and Mrs. Borden began their day at 93 Second Street with Lizzie and their Irish housemaid, Bridget Sullivan.

Mr. Borden went out for a short time on errands and returned to the house at 10:45 a.m. Mrs. Borden had gone upstairs after breakfast to change the linens in the guest room, where Mr. Borden's brother-in-law from his first marriage had stayed over the previous night.

Bridget went up to her attic room to lie down, after having washed the lower floor windows, as the day was humid and stiflingly hot. The whereabouts of Lizzie at this time is unclear, but she later testified that she had gone out to the barn to eat some pears.

At 11:10 a.m., Bridget heard Lizzie call up the stairs to her. "Come down quickly! Father is dead! Someone came in and killed him!" Bridget found Lizzie standing by the back door, and Bridget was sent out to raise the alarm and summon help.

A family friend came over right away and saw the body of Mr. Borden in the parlor. He was lying on the sofa, and his head was a bloody mess. Wondering where Mrs. Borden might be, the friend and Bridget headed up the stairs. From halfway up the stairs, they were able to see that Mrs. Borden was lying on the floor of the guest room in a puddle of blood. She too had been hacked to death with a hatchet.

Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden

Sensational Trial

Soon the premises were swarming with police and Lizzie was administered a sedative by the family doctor. In the days that followed, Lizzie was questioned several times and her answers seemed to vary and not make sense. Suspicion fell on her, and an inquest was held. Still her answers as to where she was and what she had done on the day of the murders were murky and inconsistent.

On August 11, she was arrested and accused of the murders of her father and stepmother.

The trial was held the following June, and it was followed by the public as much as the OJ Simpson trial would be, more than a hundred years later. People scoured the newspapers for the sensationalized details of the murders, the inquest, and the indictment.

By the time the trial began, the public had been whipped into a fury, and everyone had an opinion. Mobs formed outside of the courthouse each day of the trial, eager to catch any hints as to what was occurring inside. Finally, on June 20, 1893, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the double murder.

Theories of the Borden Murders

Theories abounded during the trial, and the acquittal did nothing to stop the speculation. No one else was ever accused of the crimes, and the case was never solved, which leaves historians and crime-solvers with an enduring mystery.

Did the 32-year-old spinster brutally kill her father and stepmother with a hatchet? If so, why? And if not, then who could have committed such a hideous crime? What was the motive?

Predictably, there have been dozens of scenarios that have been suggested over the ensuing century. Some are plausible, others wild, but none has ever been able to put the questions surrounding the case to rest.

Those who think Lizzie must have done it have put forth various theories as to why and how the crime was committed. Mrs. Borden was killed first. Why would Lizzie have killed her and then her father?

Who Did It? Five Possible Theories

The video above outlines five theories about who might have committed the crime.

Theory #1: The Wild-Eyed Man

Lizzie told police that she had seen a "wild-eyed man" lurking around her home on the morning of the murders. Several locals reported seeing a suspicious man who matched Lizzie's description in the vicinity later in the day.

My thoughts: I think there may be some truth to this. I discuss this further below.

Theory #2: Lizzie and the Maid

According to this theory, Lizzie was having an affair with Bridget, the maid. In this scenario, Abby discovered their relationship and threatened to tell Lizzie's father, prompting Lizzie to kill her stepmother in order to prevent that from happening.

Why I think this is wrong: There is no evidence whatsoever that Lizzie was having an affair with the maid. Even if it were true, while Lizzie disliked her stepmother, she adored her father, and it is unlikely that she would perpetrate such brutality on him just to conceal a secret—no matter how shocking.

Theory #3: The Maid

Some people have speculated that Bridget perpetrated the murders because she was being mistreated by her employers.

Why I think this is wrong: Bridget was reported to have had a reasonably cordial relationship with the family. She was not treated with any more disregard than other Irish maids of the day, and she was employed of her own free will. It seems that Bridget could have quit rather than hack her employers to death. She did, in fact, leave the employ of the Borden sisters shortly after the murders.

Theory #4: The Half-Brother

William Borden was Andrew Borden's illegitimate son. At the time of the murders he was 26 years old. According to this theory, he killed his father and stepmother after failing to extort money from them.

My thoughts: I think there may be closer to the truth (see below).

Theory #5: Lizzie and Her Sister

According to this theory, Lizzie and Emma conspired together to kill their father and stepmother. There is indeed some evidence that there was tension in the household, some of which had to do with the daughters' concern that their father was transfering money to Abby's relatives. Others have suggested that perhaps Andrew abused the girls as children, and that the murders were perpetrated in revenge.

Why I think this is wrong: There is zero evidence that Lizzie and Emma were ever abused by their father. On the contrary, Lizzie was his "favorite" and he tended to spoil her, often giving in to her somewhat unreasonable whims.

Emma, on the other hand, was known to be a reserved and private person who would go visit friends to escape the volatility of the Borden household. It is unlikely that such a person would collude with her sister to murder their parents in cold blood, not to mention that Emma had an iron-clad alibi.

Bridget Sullivan, the family maid

Bridget Sullivan, the family maid

Yet Another Theory: Uncle John Morse

Another theory, not mentioned in the video above, was that Uncle John Morse, the brother-in-law of Mr. Borden who had spent the night prior to the murders at the Borden home, was the killer.

Why I think this is wrong: No plausible motive has ever been posited for Mr. Morse, and there was considerable evidence given that he had been far from the home doing errands at the time the murders occurred.

My Opinion: The Most Likely Culprit

Who, then, could have committed this horrendous crime? Who had both motive and opportunity? And who would have chosen such a macabre and vicious weapon to accomplish the deed?

In my opinion, the most likely culprit is, in fact, the "wild-eyed man" who was seen by several witnesses about the house on the morning in question.

This man would have been William Borden, the illegitimate son of Mr. Borden, who was trying to extort money from his wealthy father who was reportedly preparing a will. This theory is well supported in Arnold Brown's book, Lizzie Borden: The Legend, the Truth, the Final Chapter. As Brown shows, this theory ties many of the case's "loose ends" together, and it seems to be the most plausible.

Brown's Theory: The Illegitimate Son

According to Arnold Brown's book, Andrew Borden had an illegitimate son, William Borden, whom everyone in the family knew about but was never discussed.

Just prior to the murders, both Lizzie and Emma had been angry with their father, who was apparently planning to disburse his fortune via his will in ways that would not be of great benefit to them. With changes to the will looming, Lizzie contacted William to muster his help in persuading their father against it.

Brown speculates that William, not being of very sound mind, had a particular hatred for Abby, whom he saw as having taken the place of his own mother who "should have" married Andrew Borden.

While he was waiting for Mr. Borden to return from town so that he could confront his father about the will, something ignited his fury—possibly Abby mocking him or telling him that he had no chance of receiving an inheritance. In his rage, he killed her with a hatchet that he carried with him at all times in a burlap bag.

After killing Abby, Andrew waited for Mr. Borden to return to the house. When he did so, Andrew confronted his father and they presumably argued. Mr. Borden likely dismissed him, turned his back on him, and laid down on the sofa, ignoring the agitated William.

His rage reignited, William hacked his father to death and then fled the house. Indeed, there were some witnesses who saw an unknown man near the house just after the time of the murders. He was never identified.

Lizzie, according to Brown's theory, then allowed herself to be named a suspect rather than disclosing the "real" killer so that, once acquitted, she and Emma would be the only, undisputed heirs to the Borden fortune rather than face the possibility of having to share with any heirs of their half-brother. She took a terrible risk in the name of greed—a gamble that she won.

Synopsis of Arnold Brown's Theory

Lizzie Borden Lives Out Her Life

Whether Mr. Brown is correct in his estimation of what happened that hot day in August 1892 will never be known. But, of all the theories that have been put forward throughout the years, his may be the one that is the most plausible.

Lizzie Borden lived out her life in Fall River in a bigger and more luxurious home that she named Maplecroft. She died June 1, 1927, at the age of 66. As far as anyone knows, if she did know what happened on that horrible day, she took it to her grave.

The original family home on Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, where the murders took place, is now a bed and breakfast. Guests may spend a night in the bedroom where Abby Borden was murdered. It has been restored to much the way it was on that fateful day, and tours are available for Borden enthusiasts.

The Borden house is now a bed and breakfast. You can stay in the room where Abby Borden was murdered.

The Borden house is now a bed and breakfast. You can stay in the room where Abby Borden was murdered.

Interested in Digging Deeper?

© 2016 Katharine L Sparrow

Comments Appreciated!

Aroosa Hermosa from Islamabad, Pakistan on March 21, 2016:

It ran my blood cold.

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on March 18, 2016:

She admitted that she had said to their family friend and neighbor across the street the day prior that she would "sleep with one eye open" because she was afraid something bad was going to happen. However, if you apply Brown's theory to this, it makes sense. She was well aware that her half brother was going to confront her father the following day and she knew the man was a little off-balance and very angry. Thanks for stopping in and commenting!

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on March 18, 2016:

I read the book about the murders quite some time ago. Wasn't there something that said that she supposedly "confessed" to a close friend? If not, the illegitimate son sounds like the most likely suspect. Great read!