The Notorious Lizzie Borden Case: Was She Really Guilty?

In 1892, Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her parents, and even though the crime of the century took place nearly 130 years ago, her actions are still lingering in the public consciousness. She was tried and ultimately acquitted of the double murder, but that didn’t stop popular culture from forever casting her as one of America’s most notorious killers.

The Borden’s House / Lizzie Borden / The Borden’s house / Lizzie Borden.

Source: Getty Images

So, there’s one question that remains relevant: Did she do it or not? Believe it or not, as recently as 2020, a jury decided to answer that question. That’s right; a very cold case was reopened to decide once and for all – whether Lizzie Borden really did kill her parents. What was the verdict? Well, obviously, you’re going to have to read to find out.

Who Is Lizzie Borden?

Lizzie Borden is known for being arrested and tried for the 1892 ax murders of her father and stepmother when she was 32. She then shocked the nation a year later when she was acquitted of both murders. Once word was out that Lizzie was accused of such a horrific crime, it didn’t take long for people to start obsessing over the case.

A portrait of Lizzie Borden.

Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

The case made headline news right away after that hot August day in 1892. People read, in awe, about the prim, proper churchgoer from Fall River, Massachusetts, who “may” have brutally killed her parents with a hatchet. This was definitely not any regular piece of news.

We’re Still Obsessed With Her

What made people obsess even more was the fact that Lizzie was acquitted the following year. And people never stopped talking about it. I’m sure you’ve heard (or even sung it yourself) the “Lizzie Borden took an ax” schoolyard chant. Heck, even a couple from Fall River got married after meeting at the annual dramatization of the ax murders on August 4, 1892.

An actress impersonates Lizzie Borden.

Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

The bride played the part of Lizzie, and the groom played a detective. There were also renovations done to the Maple Croft – the home Lizzie lived in for the rest of her life after the murders. On top of that are all the new materials that have been discovered, like the letters and journals belonging to Lizzie’s attorney.

The Verdict Was Unanimous

They even found her very own meatloaf recipe, not to mention the movies, operas, and books revolving around her. It’s pretty remarkable just how newsworthy a 129-year-old cold case can be. The crimes were so violent that people thought the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper had come to America (from London).

An illustration of Lizzie Borden and her friends in court.

Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The case was all about whether or not someone like Lizzie could have committed such brutal crimes. According to a jury of 12 men, she couldn’t have. The verdict was unanimous: not guilty. Remember, this was the 1890s – women were not considered murderers. It just didn’t happen (at least not often). But then again… maybe she did it.

Getting to the Bottom of It

Apparently, 48 Hours wanted to get to the bottom of this age-old mystery, so they assembled a team of paid consultants, including two highly experienced lawyers: Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi, a Brooklyn DA for 21 years, and Matt Troiano, a criminal DA in New Jersey.

A portrait of Lizzie Borden hangs on a wall of her house.

Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

There were also two seasoned investigators: Erin Rubas, a crime scene investigator and former homicide detective, and Andrew Schweighardt, a Criminalist in NYC. They were very intrigued by the cold case: or as they put it, “sucked in” by the “fascinating story.” So, what’s the story? Well, it began in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892.

Andrew Borden: Rich and Frugal

Andrew Borden was a prominent local businessman, both wealthy and frugal. He chose to live with his second wife, Abby Borden, a block away from the town center. The house was modest, even in those days, with no indoor plumbing or gaslighting. According to Cara Robertson, a devoted researcher of the Borden case, the man was “at the extreme end of Yankee frugality.”

A framed portrait of Andrew Borden.

Photo by Sepia Times/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

This A-team of lawyers and investigators needed to see where it all took place to re-analyze the crime. So, 48 Hours brought CSI Erin Rubas to the Borden house – she wanted to put all the pieces together.

The (Very Creepy) Borden Home

The house, oddly enough, was turned into bed and breakfast (for the horror-story lovers out there). Restored in the era’s style, the place comes complete with actual crime scene photos and displays. In the dining room is a replica of Andrew Borden’s skull.

An exterior view of Lizze Borden’s home.

Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

To the right is the one belonging to Abby Borden. As Rubas sees it, this was personal – there was a lot of rage. So, then, if it was Andrew’s daughter who killed them, was she as rageful as the murder made her out to be? Who was Lizzie Borden?

Lizzie Borden: An Unremarkable Woman

Lizzie Borden was a pretty unremarkable woman. She was unmarried, active in her local church, and the younger sister to Emma Borden, who took on a bit of a maternal role with her baby sister. At the time of the murders, Emma was out of town for two weeks visiting friends.

A framed portrait of Lizzie Borden hangs on her home.

Source: YouTube

On July 19, 1860, Lizzie was born in Fall River; her birth mother – Andrew’s first wife – was named Sarah. But she died not long after. Andrew remarried Abby Durfee Gray three years later. The family lived well. Both daughters lived with them into adulthood.

Abby Borden: The (Not So) Evil Stepmother

Abby is often cast as the “evil stepmother.” But according to Robertson, Abby might very well have been the nicest person in the home. Still, her relationship with her stepdaughters wasn’t a close one. They called her “Mrs. Borden.”

A portrait of Abby Borden.

Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Abby was a short woman of about 200 lbs. The daughters figured Abby only married their father for his money. The daughters helped manage the rental properties that their father owned. Abby was 67 when she was killed.

The Morning of August 4, 1982

On the morning of the murders, Lizzie stood at the house’s side door and told her next-door neighbor, Adelaide Churchill, that her dad had been killed. That neighbor, who came over immediately, didn’t see any blood on Lizzie – not on her face or her hands – nothing.

A portrait of Lizzie Borden.

Source: YouTube

When the police arrived, they found Lizzie’s father stretched out on the couch in the living room, bludgeoned to death. Rubas looked at the photos during her recent investigation and saw how the man’s entire face was brutally bashed in. What about Abby?

A Total of 19 Blows

Lizzie, who was sitting in the kitchen with Adelaide, the neighbor, remarked. She said she thought she heard her stepmother come in. At that point, the maid, Bridget Sullivan, and Adelaide went upstairs to find the body of Abby Borden, face down, in the guestroom.

A view of the Borden home.

Source: YouTube

Abby’s attack was even worse than her husband’s. She suffered a total of 19 blows – with the back of her head getting the brunt of it. Initially, the police assumed that it must have been some deranged outsider considering how shocking the crimes were. But then suspicions turned toward the family…

Fingers Pointed at Lizzie

Both the front and back doors were locked – even triple locked. So, an intruder was unlikely. The only door that could potentially have been unlocked was the side door. Every murder needs a suspect, and the fingers soon pointed toward Lizzie.

A drawing of Lizzie Borden and her lawyer in court.

Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Two days after the murders, Andrew and Abby Borden were laid to rest. Meanwhile, the news of their deaths was spreading like wildfire as the Fall River Police Department began its investigation. Once again, let me remind you that this was 1892 – and forensics were pretty primitive. In other words, it was the right time to get away with a crime like this.

Abby Went Before Andrew

The Borden house was bombarded with police, doctors, reporters, neighbors, and even people just coming to check out the scene. This means that anything discovered at the crime scene was seriously compromised because, according to CSI Schweighardt, they don’t know when or by whom the evidence was deposited.

A view at the crime scene.

Anne Meacham. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

As carpets, furniture and clothing were searched for blood evidence; investigators wound up with more questions than answers. One thing was clear, though: Abby was killed before Andrew. When Andrew was found, his injuries were so fresh that he was still oozing blood.

Lizzie’s Version of the Story

In fact, he was still warm to the touch. But Abby, who was upstairs, had already clotted dark blood on her injuries. Unlike her husband, she was cold to the touch. Five days later, in a police interrogation, Lizzie gave her version of the story.

Lizzie Borden’s portrait illustration.

Source: YouTube

On the day of the murders, five people were in the Borden household: Andrew and Abby, Lizzie, Bridget the maid, and Lizzie’s uncle, John Morse. John was Andrew’s brother-in-law – Abby’s brother – who was visiting from out of town and staying in the guest room.

His Last Waking Moment

John left on the morning of the murders to visit other relatives in another part of town. Andrew walked into town to see some of the buildings he owned. And Abby went to clean the upstairs guest room. As Lizzie recounted it, she was in the dining room, ironing, while Bridget was outside washing windows.

An illustrated portrait of Andrew Borden.

Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

It was at about 9:30 a.m. that the police believed Abby was killed. Lizzie reported that she never heard a thump above her. Lizzie’s story holds that her father came home at 10:45 a.m., said hello to both the maid and Lizzie, and then went to the living room to take a nap on the couch.

A Build-Up of Resentment

The medical examiner noted that it was another 45 minutes before Andrew was killed. The police figured they had the “when” question answered. But they didn’t have the “why.” What was the motive here? Lizzie gave something of a hint…

A portrait of Lizzie and her sister.

Source: YouTube

Rubas said that Lizzie and her sister wanted to live a better life, and they resented their father for not providing them with the life they knew he could afford. In Robertson’s research, she learned that Andrew decided to help out his wife’s sister by buying a house and putting it in Abby’s name. It led to a lot of resentment.

Where Was All the Blood?

Lizzie was not happy that the house was going to her stepmother’s sister… instead of his own daughters. But is that enough of a motive to kill? And in such a brutal way? One of the most fascinating and peculiar aspects of this case is the fact that – other than the bodies – there was no blood anywhere.

A view to the Borden’s basement.

Source: YouTube

If Lizzie did it, how could it be that none of the blood splattered on her? The neighbor said that she was spotless. How could it be? Police searched the house in full and only found two pieces of evidence…

She Had an Explanation for That

There was a very tiny spot on Lizzie’s undergarment and a bucket of bloody rags in the cellar washroom. But she had an explanation for that – one that couldn’t really be argued. You see, she said she was menstruating.

A portrait of Lizzie Borden.

Source: History Channel

And in those days, no man was going to challenge her. Also, blood analysis back then was nowhere near as advanced as it is today. But something else rang an alarm: Lizzie’s choice to burn one of her dresses in the kitchen stove the day after her father’s funeral. Yup, pretty suspicious.

The Most Valuable Piece of Evidence

Lizzie (and Emma) had an explanation for that, too. They both said the dress was stained with paint and thus “needed to be burned.” The timing wasn’t an issue for them – they figured it was as good a time as any.

A picture of Emma Borden / A picture of Lizzie Borden.

Source: YouTube

Schweigardt says that dress was the most valuable piece of evidence. If she was the killer, the dress would have blood from the victims on it. And when it came to explaining things, Lizzie would have had a difficult time arguing that fact. The deeper investigators looked, the less they found.

Then, they went into the cellar…

The Handleless Hatchet

In the cellar was a hatchet found in a box of abandoned tools. (I know what you’re thinking – how on earth was this girl acquitted? It’s baffling for sure, but those were the days, I guess?) Anyway, that hatchet became known as the “handleless hatchet” and was debated for years.

Lizzie Borden’s handleless hatchet.

Source: New York Post

For the police, this was a fresh break. The hatchet only had a piece of a handle, and it looked like it had been deliberately covered with ashes. The blade was about three-and-a-half inches long, which was consistent with the wounds on Andrew and Abby’s bodies.

Was It the Murder Weapon?

Schweighardt theorized that Lizzie could have quickly rinsed off the hatchet head and thrown it into a pile of ash to get rid of any blood. Perhaps she then tossed it down into the cellar to make it look like it was an old piece of junk.

A bottle of acid.

Photo by SSPL/Getty Images

The hatchet might very well have been the murder weapon, but police later indicated that it might not have even been Lizzie’s first weapon of choice. She reportedly tried to purchase prussic acid on the day before the murders. Prussic acid is a lethal poison that, in those days, was only available if prescribed by a doctor.

She Tried to Buy Prussic Acid

Lizzie claimed that she needed it to “put an edge on a seal-skin cape.” It sounds weird, yes, but Lizzie did actually have seal-skin capes. The pharmacist, however, claimed that he never heard of the acid being used that way, so he refused to sell it to her.

A man holds a poisonous bottle.

Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Since she didn’t get the prescription for the acid, she found another more readily available household tool – a hatchet. The police decided to arrest Lizzie for the double homicide. Ten months later, on June 5, 1893, she sat in the superior court in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for the trial of the century.

The Trial of the Century

The trial attracted a huge crowd, with reporters coming in from across the country. People stood for hours in line. What’s interesting is that those who were most interested in the case – the ones who waited for hours to get a glimpse of the notorious female killer – were women.

An illustration of Lizzie crying in court.

Source: YouTube

They were curious to see this monster of a creature that shared their gender. Although they were welcome to watch the trial, they weren’t allowed to sit on the jury. In fact, the first time women were allowed to be jurors in Massachusetts was in 1951!

Lizzie Fainted in Court

The prosecutor began his opening monologue with a simple idea: Lizzie Borden is the only person with both the opportunity and the motive to kill her father and stepmother. The way he wrapped up the opening statement shocked the courtroom.

Protesters supporting Lizzie stand outside the court.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

He hinted at the fact that he had the skulls of the victims right there, in the court. Lizzie’s reaction? She fainted. The following week was full of prosecution witnesses and displays of evidence. The evidence of who was killed first had implications. Nicolazzi pointed out that if Andrew was killed first, then Abby’s family would get part of the money.

She Easily Could Have Wielded That Hatchet

On the other hand, if Abby had been killed first, everything would have been left for Andrew’s daughters. Then there was the evidence matching the skulls to the suspected murder weapon – the dimensions of the injuries aligned with the dimensions of the hatchet.

A picture of Lizzie Borden.

Source: Wikipedia

There was also the testimony of Lizzie’s ability to wield the hatchet. All the medical experts who testified asserted that a woman of her size could have committed the murders. There was one thing, though, that the judges didn’t allow the jury to hear…

No Wonder She Was Acquitted

The fact that Lizzie tried to buy prussic acid before the murders was – for some reason – left out of the courtroom. But that bit of information is incriminating and, therefore, should have been heard by the jury. It also helps explain why she was ultimately acquitted. But there’s more…

A portrait of the trial jury.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

After nine days, it was time for Lizzie’s defense team to give their side of the story. And that’s just it; the defense is more interested in providing a story – a narrative – about an ordinary girl who was caught up in an extraordinary situation.

A Case of Reasonable Doubt

There was a true lack of evidence, and the defense needed just two days of witness testimonies to make its case – that there was reasonable doubt. Since there are questions that can’t be answered, it casts reasonable doubt on whether she committed the murders.

A view to the journals from Lizzie Borden’s lawyer.

Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

The most powerful witness was Emma, who testified that it was her idea to burn the dress – not Lizzie’s. That alone makes it seems like Lizzie had a more innocent part in the act. Lizzie herself never testified in court, and after three weeks, the trial ended.

A Verdict Is Reached

Before the jury went into deliberations, Lizzie wanted to say one thing: “I am innocent. I leave it to my counsel to speak for me.” The case was then in the jury’s hands. Everybody waited as the jury deliberated, and luckily for them, it didn’t take long.

A picture from Lizzie Borden.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Within two hours, a verdict was reached. The foreman reportedly couldn’t contain his excitement as he blurted out: “Not guilty.” That’s when Lizzie suddenly fell into her chair as if shot and put her head on the rail. The courtroom erupted into cheers.

Moving On With Her Life

The cheers outside could even be heard a mile away. While people were evidently very happy with the verdict, some still found it baffling. Okay, so Lizzie was acquitted. What then? Well, she wasted little time getting on with her life.

A view inside the home of Lizzie and Emma.

Source: Tumblr

Lizzie stayed in Fall River but moved to a different house (obviously). She ended up inheriting almost $350,000 from her father’s estate – about $10 million in today’s money. Lizzie and Emma bought the home they always wanted at the top of the hill, in the rich part of town.

People Started Turning on Her

Lizzie also changed her name to Lisbeth and named her house Maple Croft. Soon, people started to realize that if Lizzie hadn’t done it, then SOMEONE had. Who was it? Lizzie (or Lisbeth) now found herself unwelcome at the very church she had spent so much of her life in.

An exterior view of the Maple Croft.

Source: Tumblr

Twelve years later, even her own sister turned her back on her. Emma was reportedly so troubled by something going on in their house that she felt it necessary to sever all ties with her sister.

The Sisters Died Within Nine Days of Each Other

Lizzie never married and lived the rest of her life as a recluse, alone with her dogs, until she died in 1927. Did she ever talk to the press and give her side of the story? No. She remained silent. Emma, who was living in New Hampshire, died nine days later.

A view of the sitting room of the crime scene.

Photo by Alyson Horrocks

Both sisters were laid to rest next to their father and stepmother. Today, Fall River embraces the woman who brought notoriety to the town. Remember the schoolyard chant? “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.”

The 2020 Jury

Lizzie Borden’s house was recently sold for $1.8 million. And although the case was technically closed, people still can’t stop thinking about it. Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi, the Brooklyn DA, thinks Lizzie was definitely guilty.

A view inside Lizzie Broden’s home.

Source: Facebook

At the end of the day, people were happy because they didn’t want to believe that a young woman could do such a thing. But did she? That’s why a new jury (hired by 48 Hours) of eight men and women came together in 2020 to deliberate. Would they find her guilty this time?

The Prosecutor’s Pitch

Of course, it was not a retrial but a presentation, argued by the show’s consulting attorneys (the “A-Team”) in their own words and without guidance from 48 Hours. The rules were simple: the only evidence presented was the same evidence from the original trial.

Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi poses for the press.

Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Prosecutor Nicolazzi and defense attorney Troiano delivered their opening statements. “This case is about bitterness, resentment, and fear,” Nicolazzi began. “Greed was what drove Lizzie Borden to do what she did.” Then it came time for Troiano to make his opening statement…

The Defense’s Pitch

He began: “This is a woman of 32 years old who is accused of the most vicious and heinous murder that one could imagine.” He went on to emphasize the lack of evidence – that there was no blood. “The story is good, but the evidence is lacking,” he stated.

Erin Moriarty from 48 Hours delivers her statement to the new jury.

Erin Moriarty. Source: YouTube

“And if you are going to come back and convict somebody of this crime, you better get a little bit more than a story.” Nicolazzi then called on her expert witnesses to explain all the evidence – the locked doors, the hatchet, the bloody rags, the burned dress.

What About the Lack of Blood?

Nicolazzi’s biggest challenge was the lack of blood evidence. Crime Scene Investigator Rubas believes it’s because the murder was done by “someone facing him and directly almost over top of him.” In Abby’s case, there were 19 wounds – 18 to the back of the right side of her head and one at the base of her neck.

Erin Moriarty from 48 Hours speaks on a stand.

Source: YouTube

Based on the type of wounds, is it possible to commit those murders and not get much blood on you? According to Rubas, yes, “absolutely.” Andrew didn’t have any defensive wounds, either. But why wouldn’t the victims fight back?

Her Fate Was in the Jury’s Hands Once Again

Nicolazzi proposed that there was no fight because if you see someone you’re familiar with – like your daughter – your defenses would be down. It came time for both lawyers to make their closing statements for the jury to hear. And once again, Lizzie Borden’s fate was in the hands of the jury.

Empty jury seats in court.

Source: YouTube

This time, however, the lawyers listened as the jury deliberated. And so, after a century and then some, a jury of eight people found themselves wrestling with many of the same questions. The jurors were asked what their main concerns were.

The Pressing Questions

One juror named Aimee said that it was the mention of Lizzie’s “bitterness and greed.” She reasoned: “Either she’s a sociopath or possibly not guilty.” As for juror Michael, there needs to be “malice and forethought” in such a murder, and that wasn’t proven.

A golden watch that belonged to Lizzie Borden.

Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

“I feel like it has to be someone familiar with the house,” Michael added. Unlike the original jury, this new panel didn’t have any trouble believing a woman could kill. The only question was if it was THIS woman. The jurors also believed that Lizzie had the motive.

A Hung Jury

There were other questions, though, like why did the maid make it out alive? And why leave the bloody rags lying out? After about an hour of deliberation, the jurors took a final vote. On the charge of the first-degree murder of Abby Borden? Seven out of eight jurors said “guilty.”

A still from the jury.

Source: YouTube

On the charge of the first-degree murder of Andrew Borden? Again, seven jurors said “guilty;” only one said “not guilty.” Jarrell was the juror who wasn’t convinced. He thinks the murder of her father was spontaneous – not pre-meditated. And so, on both counts, there was a hung jury.

So That’s It?

Does this mean that nothing was solved, and the mystery of Lizzie Borden will be argued for yet another 120-odd years? According to Nicolazzi, they solved the mystery of Lizzie Borden, just not whether she was guilty or not. Troiano added: “maybe that’s the beauty of the system, and maybe it’s not.”

Erin Moriarty speaks about the Borden case on television.

Source: YouTube

It might be unsatisfactory to hear that the result is a hung jury, but that’s life, folks. Not everything can be tucked away into a pretty little folder. Is it uncomfortable? Does it make you lose sleep? No. At least it shouldn’t …

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