Lizzie Borden and Her Axe


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And we're going to start off with a modified nursery rhyme here if - if you're ready. Are you ready, Sarah?

Sarah Dowdy: I'm ready for it.

Katie Lambert: Okay. Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 19 whacks and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 10.

Sarah Dowdy: Wait, that's not much of a nursery rhyme. It doesn't even rhyme.

Katie Lambert: Well, that's - that's because the real rhyme, Sarah, is a lie. It says she gave her mother 40 whacks and gave her 41. That is not true. And Lizzie Borden is one of the podcast topics that we have always resisted.

Sarah Dowdy: We probably get this request maybe more than any other topic. I don't know. I don't want to - I don't want to put one above the other but it's way, way up there along with Jack the Ripper, that kind of thing.

Katie Lambert: But the subject has never interested us much because, you know, here's the story. A woman was accused of brutally murdering her parents and hacking their faces to pieces but she's acquitted and we still don't know if she really did it. That's the - that's the whole story.

Sarah Dowdy: And that's kind of your standard nightly news fair. I mean, I hate to say it, but it's something that happens almost every day.

Katie Lambert: Well, and of course the story of some who murders a family member is nothing new. You know, we've got Cane and Able and Caligula [inaudible] but we had to rethink our point of view because if so many of you are captivated by this story there must be a reason why and we aim to put our prejudices aside and try to find it.

Sarah Dowdy: So, here we go.

Katie Lambert: Okay. The basics of our case, on August 4th, 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts, a woman is brutally murdered in her home with a hatchet not long after her husband meets the same fate while he's asleep on a couch in his living room. The main suspect is their 32-year-old daughter, Lizzie Borden, and we have a few possible motives; money, the father was a very wealthy man or hatred of the stepmother - stepmother, that's a crucial part to this story.

Sarah Dowdy: Or a combination of the two.

Katie Lambert: A combination of the two, yeah. So, the jury's verdict is acquittal and that's probably the main reason why people are so fascinated with this story. What really happened, how did Lizzie Borden get acquitted?

Sarah Dowdy: So, a little family background to start with. A Sarah Anthony Morse married Andrew Jackson Borden the Christmas of 1845 and they had three children together, Emma, Alice and Lizzie. Alice died at the age of two and Sarah herself died when Lizzie was about three so she never got to know her mother. And, as Sarah mentioned, Andrew was very wealthy. He owned property, he had holdings in textiles and banking, he directed corporations and one would imagine that made him an attractive prospect for a husband and so it did.

Katie Lambert: Plus, he has two young girls and so Lizzie's father remarries and he marries Abby Durfee and Lizzie was about five at the time and Emma, the older sister, about fourteen and according to Lizzie's testimony at the inquest, Emma always called her stepmother Abby but Lizzie always called her mother until about five or six years before the murder went down so make of that what you will but it seemed like this woman who she thought of as her mother for most of her life.

Sarah Dowdy: And, again, later when the DA, Jose Analton, a

sked if Lizzie's relationship with her stepmother was cordial, she replied it depends upon ones idea of cordiality perhaps which isn't exactly the picture of a happy home but Emma in her trial testimony said that their relationship was cordial and that Lizzie and her father had a very good one, so we're gonna give you the outline of if she did it, this is what happened.

Katie Lambert: Okay. So, here's just a basic starting fact. Lizzie and Emma both admitted that they were upset about their father giving one of his properties to Abby and her sister instead of them. They were both older, they're unmarried and they expected their elderly father would provide for them and set them up for the rest of their life financially and according to some, there was this rumor that he was gonna change his will in favor of his wife and that might cause a few family problems I'd say.

Sarah Dowdy: So, on August 3rd, which was the day before the murders, Lizzie attempted to by prussic acid, a poison, from pharmacist Ely Benz and he refused her but the Burdens' and their maid, Bridget Sullivan, all reported feeling sick that day and the next morning. Da, da, da.

Katie Lambert: So, on August 4th, Emma was in Fairhaven, Massachusetts but there were a few other people around, the maid we just mentioned, Bridget, but also, kind of randomly, the deceased Sarah's brother, John Moore so Lizzie's uncle from - on her mom's side, he's visiting, he had arrived the night before but he left in the morning to go visit another cousin. So, he's not around when the murders go down but he's there immediately before and then he comes back so he's there after.

Sarah Dowdy: Andrew Borden, her father, left the house that morning as well to get some business done in town. Abby stayed in the house and she began doing chores and headed to the guest room to make the bed, you know, put on pillow shams, tidy up and she asked Bridget to wash the outsides of the windows so she's in the house, Bridget is outside the house. The only other person who is inside the house is Lizzie Borden.

Katie Lambert: Okay. So, according to Lizzie's story, at this point, Abby received a note from some messenger, we don't know who, calling her to some sick persons home. We don't know the sick person either. And Abby left the house on this errand but this is where our events are gonna start down - like, if Lizzie did it, here's what happened. So, what happened then if - if Lizzie did it is she found Abby on the second floor, hit her from behind with an axe and then hacked her 18 more times.

Sarah Dowdy: And she left the body, she cleaned herself up and the axe. She knew her father probably wouldn't come home for a while. It ended up being and hour and a half so in the meantime, she did some reading and some ironing and some sewing, you know how you spend the time -

Katie Lambert: Just casual chores -

Sarah Dowdy: - between murders and when he returned, Bridget unlocked the door for him and as she did, she heard Lizzie laughing on the second floor landing after she had killed her stepmother.

Katie Lambert: All right. So, Lizzie told Andrew that his wife had received that note and had gone off on that errand and she settled him down on the couch and tried to convince Bridget to go out of the house. There was supposedly a really good sale on ribbons -

Sarah Dowdy: A ribbon sale, who can resist a ribbon sale?

Katie Lambert: - entice the maid but Bridget isn't interested. She instead goes to the attic. Probably worn out from all that window-washing and her upset stomach from the poison the night before -

Sarah Dowdy: Possible poison.

Katie Lambert: - possible poison - so, after Lizzie settled her father on the couch, he falls asleep and then supposedly, she hits him in the face and head with the axe 10 times so hard that she snaps the handle of the axe.

Sarah Dowdy: But then in 10 minutes, according to the timeline that the police tried to put together based on what everyone said they were doing that day and Lizzie's own conflicting testimony, she would've had to have clean herself off, her clothes and the murder weapon in 10 minutes and only then -

Katie Lambert: After axing someone 10 times. That's -

Sarah Dowdy: See, I imagine that would be a messy

scene.

Katie Lambert: Yeah.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, I think so.

Katie Lambert: And only after this, did she call to Bridget for help and announce that her father had died. She didn't say anything about Abby because she thought that Abby had left the house.

Sarah Dowdy: She's off on that errand. So, now we're going to move onto the bodies and the scene and this is pretty disturbing stuff but Abby had a five inch hole in her skull and her head and her face were completely unrecognizable. She was lying face down in coagulated blood and her clothes were soaked in it and the bed and the pillow sham next to her were all bloody and the wall and the chair and the bureau all covered in blood.

Katie Lambert: Just a small disturbing detail, her braid had even been hacked off.

Sarah Dowdy: And Andrew was on his back on a lounge. His face turned as he slept and his face and head, too, were no longer recognizable. You can find pictures of the crime scene online if you so desire, which you very well might not. The axe had gone through his cheekbone, it had severed his eye in half, there was blood dripping onto the floor and from the sofa and on the walls, a painting on the wall, the ceiling, the door and it was still wet and flowing when others entered the scene which is why we assumed that Abby had died first and he died second but it seems very personal to attack only a person's face and head to us.

Katie Lambert: Definitely and so many times, too, but here's an important detail. The rooms were perfectly in order. There was no sign of a break-in, no sign of a struggle; it seemed likely that whoever did this knew the couple.

Sarah Dowdy: And also the Borden's kept all of their doors locked all of the time, and supposedly, this is because there had been a theft in the home and perhaps Lizzie had a history of shoplifting so their house was always on lockdown.

Katie Lambert: Which paints a rather disturbing scene for the house, too, I'd say.

Sarah Dowdy: Make her move out.

Katie Lambert: Well, not - and don't think of it just as, like, the front door is locked like a normal house would but all of the rooms and everything just completely locked down all the time.

Sarah Dowdy: So, - and if it is all locked, the person probably would've had to be in the house the whole time.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, exactly.

Sarah Dowdy: So, after the murders, Lizzie called for Bridget after this 10-minute window we have and then sent Bridget to go get the family doctor, Dr. Bowen. Bridget couldn't find the doctor or he wasn't there. She comes back without him. And then Lizzie sent her out again, this time to get a family friend, Alice Russell, but in the meantime, their neighbor, Adelaide Churchill showed up and she went off for help. So, just imagine all of these people sort of coming in and out but large periods of time where Lizzie is in the house by herself, possibly doing anything.

Katie Lambert: Dr. Bowen does come to the house, finally, and Bridget and Adelaide return and they're the ones who discover Abby's body upstairs because of course that police officer asked Lizzie when is the last time you saw your mother, she said no -

Sarah Dowdy: Oh, she went off on this errand.

Katie Lambert: - my stepmother - yeah, and she said she was gone from the house but the last time she'd seen her was in the guestroom so the maid and their neighbor go upstairs and find Abby's body.

Sarah Dowdy: And you can imagine, we've already listed all of these people who are at the crime scene. Soon enough, we have more officers, more neighbors and onlookers, everyone is trampling all over everything, police are walking through the crime scenes, the evidence, whatever evidence there would've been, is completely contaminated and one - Katie just kind of mentioned this -

Katie Lambert: As we mentioned -

Sarah Dowdy: An officer on the scene asks Lizzie when she had last seen her mother and she was very careful to say, "No, it's my stepmother." And she said her mother died when she was a baby and this turns out to be a really big piece of evidence, or at least it's -

Katie Lambert: It keeps coming up in everything.

Sarah Dowdy: - it's turned into a big piece of evidence but I don't know how much - how much there is to that.

Katie Lambert: Maybe she was just trying to be very precise with her answers.

Sarah Dowdy: Abby is her stepmother no matter what kind of relationship they had.

Katie Lambert: So, no one thought Lizzie was guilty and instead all manner of suspicious characters are implicated. Lizzie had mentioned an angry tenant that she'd heard with her father; others recalled seeing suspicious men near the house recently including a mysterious Portuguese farmhand who perhaps was the fiendish murderer that ends up not panning out and another Portuguese guy had recently killed someone in town so they thought maybe it was him and arrested a different one so try not to be Portuguese around the Borden murders. But in early newspaper accounts, they said that Lizzie had been in the barn; she came into the house; she saw her father's body; rushed upstairs and found her mother's. And then they recounted any possible theory; this angry tenant; a man who'd been sleeping in the hayloft and planning these murders; someone who poisoning the families milk; some kind of trickster who sent Abby this note to try to get her out of the house and commit other sinful deeds and go after Mr. Borden.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, and the newspapers aren't suggesting Lizzie as the possible murderer at all at this point. According to the Boston Harold, "In Lizzie's Borden life, there is not one unmaidenly nor a single deliberately unkind act," so people were pretty confident it was not this well-breed young woman. It was some sort of dastardly man, preferably a Portuguese farmhand or -

Katie Lambert: Mysterious foreigner.

Sarah Dowdy: Just a mysterious man who is briefly in town. It couldn't be Lizzie Borden herself.

Katie Lambert: But the evidence starts piling up because who else could've done it, according to this timeline and all the other aspects like the locked doors. She was pretty much the only one and this mysterious man theory begins to seem a little thing. Lizzie is -

Sarah Dowdy: There isn't a good mysterious man around.

Katie Lambert: No, and she's emerging as the most likely suspect especially after her inquest testimony so the inquest was August 9th and its Jose Analton questioning her and also Bridget and John Moore and some of the others and Lizzie continually contradicts herself about times and the sequence of events and she says some very odd things. She seems confused by the questions and was disquietingly calm.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, and just a few days later, on the 11th of August, she was arrested and claimed she was not guilty. By August 22nd, there was a preliminary hearing at that, the judge said, "Well, she probably is guilty and she's gonna have to go in front of a grand jury," but the grand jury wouldn't agree to actually meet until they got this - just sort of decisive account from Alice Russell and Alice Russell said - she was the friend and neighbor remember, she said that she saw Lizzie burning a dress in the kitchen just a few days after the murder so once the grand jury hears that, they're, like, all right -

Katie Lambert: Here's an indictment.

Sarah Dowdy: - we better hear what Lizzie has to say.

Katie Lambert: The trial began June 5th, 1893 and, again, some more fabulous newspaper quotes - in the Boston Harold, "Her dark lustrous eyes ordinarily flashing were dimmed and her pale face was evidence of the physical suffering she was undergoing and had experienced." Poor Lizzie!

Sarah Dowdy: Poor Lizzie. So, the prosecution was lead by Jose Analton and William Moody; the defense lead by Andrew Jennings, Melvin Adams and George Robinson and Moody told the jury that Lizzie had planned the murders, committed the murders and then couldn't even keep her stories straight and they hadn't seen a tear from her, you know, she was not reacting as a woman in this position should, she hated her stepmother, she wanted her father's money, that's the story that they were presenting.

Katie Lambert: But there are plenty of things that Lizzie had going for her, starting with she's this woman of breeding from a good family. She has -

Sarah Dowdy: As those newspaper quotes suggest.

Katie Lambert: Exactly.

Sarah Dowdy: She had plenty of character recommendations and not many people thought a woman was capable of hacking someone's face to pieces, you know, poison sounds like a nice feminine way to kill someone; not a hatchet.

Katie Lambert: And then we have the character references coming in here, too, so her sister and her uncle and the maid all said that she had a good relationship with Andrew and Abby, there was no motive to kill either of them and then this is sort of the crucial thing, they didn't have the murder weapon.

Sarah Dowdy: They have some axes, of course, there's plenty around if you've got a barn and they've got one that doesn't have a handle but there's no blood anywhere on it and we're missing the handle.

Katie Lambert: So, it could be the axe but it could just be a broken axe sitting around from farm work.

Sarah Dowdy: And we also have no blood on her clothes or her shoes, we have nothing, no blood -

Katie Lambert: So, it's -

Sarah Dowdy: - on Lizzie Borden.

Katie Lambert: - not a really great case for the prosecution.

Sarah Dowdy: It's all completely circumstantial.

Katie Lambert: And then this is the - the killer thing here. Her inquest -

Sarah Dowdy: Haha, no pun intended.

Katie Lambert: Sorry. Her inquest testimony, which is what of course made the judge think she needed to go in front of a grand jury in the first place was ruled inadmissible in court and that's because the judge believed that she had been treated as a prisoner instead of as a suspect while she was having her inquest and she -

Sarah Dowdy: Right, like, she wasn't just a witness, she was under questioning.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, and should've had an attorney present. Since she didn't, he didn't think that they could actually take her inquest seriously.

Sarah Dowdy: Well, and as a side note, Dr. Bowen had dosed her with morphine before this inquest to keep her calm, but obviously that could've made her kind of loopy so, I mean, that could explain her contradictory testimony -

Katie Lambert: And why the story doesn't fit together.

Sarah Dowdy: - and why everything kind of confused her.

Katie Lambert: But the prosecution was saying, even in her inquest, she denied everything. There wasn't anything in the inquest -

Sarah Dowdy: No confession.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, she wasn't coerced into confessing to these murders in it 'cause she's all doped up on morphine. If she didn't confess to it, then why couldn't they use it? That was their - their point.

Sarah Dowdy: But the testimony was excluded and also ruled inadmissible was Ely Benz, the pharmacist, his testimony about her trying to buy poison from him. These are two key points that are missing from that entire trial.

Katie Lambert: So, that loopy inquest and the poison fact, which seems very significant so there is still a fair amount of evidence against her though. According to Bridget, the - the maid, there was no way anyone else could've gotten into the house during the timeline of the day without being seen and Lizzie was simply the only person who would've had access.

Sarah Dowdy: And I also thought it was very strange that Lizzie didn't wonder where her mother went and that she was also in the house and didn't hear her being murdered and falling to the ground. You know, maybe after you come across your father's body you begin to wonder what happened to your mother.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, or you would just hear her falling upstairs, but the family may have said that Lizzie and Abby had a pretty okay relationship but others were testifying, no, they - Lizzie hated her stepmother and the friend, the family friend, Alice Russell, said that Lizzie had come to her the night before the killings and said, "I feel afraid something is going to happen," so starting to paint a darker picture of Lizzie's psychological state before this.

Sarah Dowdy: Lizzie also said that she had been in the barn during the time of her father's homicide but when officers went to investigate the loft, it was very dusty and there were no footprints but the officers own which seemed a little bit strange and it was also extremely hot in there. She'd claimed to have been there for 30 minutes on this silly errand looking for lead for sinkers, which, again, something is not quite right there.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, maybe not an area - or a chore you do in the middle of the day. And then there's that note which seems very sketchy indeed, the note that Lizzie said Mrs. Borden received. No one ever found the note; no one ever figured out who the messenger was; no one ever even figured out who the sick person was who needed visiting g the first place. There was a reward offered, nobody came forward with any news.

Sarah Dowdy: And, again, her timeline that day made no sense and the dress Alice saw her burning, she said it had paint on it.

Katie Lambert: Just doing a little wardrobe cleaning -

Sarah Dowdy: Sometimes [inaudible] after murders.

Katie Lambert: - a few days after a murder.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And it could very well of course have been blood and the dress that she gave the police and said she was wearing that day wasn't the dress that she was wearing at all at the time of the murders.

Katie Lambert: It was a much too - it was silky and kind of a nice dress, not the sort of thing you'd wear around the house. And then Lizzie was eerily calm during the whole trial. According to the New York Times, "The most remarkable feature of the trial has been the demeanor of Lizzie Borden. From start to finish, she has manifested no feeling of weakness and has listened the recital of the most cold-blooded and shocking details of the crime with a perfectly and passive and unmoved [inaudible].

Sarah Dowdy: I maintain it could've been shock.

Katie Lambert: It could've been shock but here we do start to see the papers turn a little bit against her so she does faint when the skulls of her parents were revealed but -

Sarah Dowdy: They considered that a point for her.

Katie Lambert: Yeah.

Sarah Dowdy: There are some rebuttals as far as that whole dusty hayloft thing. There were some men doing work a few days before the murders and they were, like, listen, we were in there and there were no footprints of ours either so this is a ridiculous piece of evidence and also, would a killer be that open about burning a dress in the kitchen - that was the other point, wouldn't she be sneakier about it?

Katie Lambert: If you gotta get rid of the dress, you gotta get rid of it.

Sarah Dowdy: And, again, where is our bloody hatchet, where is this axe handle that supposedly came off from the force of the blows; how could she wash herself, her clothes and a murder weapon in about 10 minutes before she called Bridget. Some people were, like, maybe she did it naked and that's how but, I mean, come on -

Katie Lambert: It certainly paints a wilder scene. And then one more final important rebuttal; Andrew was a really rich guy so it's not too unlikely that somebody might have something against him or want to get money somehow, and then some people did say that they had seen suspicious characters, just nobody that they could specifically name hanging around the house right before the murders.

Sarah Dowdy: Well, and again, this is all circumstantial evidence and there is a reasonable doubt and I think we can all agree if we were on that jury that we would've thought the same thing and the judge agreed and Lizzie was acquitted.

Katie Lambert: So, picking up with Lizzie's life after the murders; what happens after a trial like this and sensational murders like this?

Sarah Dowdy: Emma and Lizzie bought a nice house together in Fall River. Lizzie named it Maple Croft and changed her name to Lizbeth; Emma became very involved in church but eventually moved out. They had some sort of falling out or argument, possibly because Lizzie had a relationship with an actress and Emma changed her name as well.

Katie Lambert: And they died only nine days apart which is one of those spooky little -

Sarah Dowdy: Connected to the end -

Katie Lambert: Yeah.

Sarah Dowdy: - in this bizarre little thing.

Katie Lambert: So, there you go guys, Lizzie Borden episode and I mean, we've gotta think about sort of modern connections to what we see in the news, rights?

Sarah Dowdy: Well and why it's so important. I mean, today - like you mentioned earlier, when you're looking at the news, the murder of a child or a spouse or a parents is, unfortunately, all too common and after a while maybe the horror of that stops being so shocking and maybe it's easier to contemplate a crime like this with the safety that distance provides. You're looking back at it in time. It's not so present and this has become such a part of American lore that we've got a nursery rhyme about it.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, Lizzie Borden has become a cold figure -

Sarah Dowdy: Not a nursery rhyme maybe - just a plain rhyme.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, it's not what you sing in the nursery. I know I visited Salem about a year and a year and a half ago and Lizzie Borden is not from Salem but there are all these shops with Lizzie Borden memorabilia and those hologram things where it's this stayed portrait of a nice buttoned up Lizzie Borden and then it's, like, scary ax portrait, that kind of thing. I think it just - she's a cult figure. She's caught people's attention somehow.

Sarah Dowdy: And of course we're always fascinated by gore and violence. Human beings in general, not just Sarah and I but also by what is unsolved because we like to tie up loose ends! We like to find our answers but in this case, the only real satisfying answer would be for Lizzie Borden to appear right before us and say, yes, I did it.

Katie Lambert: Perhaps in hologram form.

Sarah Dowdy: Perhaps. I hope it would just be the real her but that's the answer we can't have and that's what makes it all the more alluring. So, if you would like to tell us, all you requesters of Lizzie Borden, exactly why this matters to you, we're still wondering so you can email us at historypodcast@howstuffworks.com. We're also on Twitter at Mistinhistory. And we have a Facebook Fan page and there's an article that might go along with this, "How Blood Stained Pattern Analysis Works," that you can find if you search our homepage at www.howstuffworks.com.

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