The Bordens of Fall River
On August 4th, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts--about 50 miles south of Boston--,two bodies were found in their fashionable home brutally hatcheted to death. While not commonplace--there had been murders before in this small river town--this multiple murder caught the imagination of popular culture for over a century.
Andrew Jackson Borden, age seventy, and Abby Durfee Borden, age sixty five, second wife of Andrew, were killed with multiple hatchet blows to the head. Abby was found lying on the floor upstairs in her bedroom. Her body was situated in such away that it was hidden from view to casual hallway traffic. In fact, one of her step daughters, Lizzie, had passed by the room several times and had not seen the body. And, although she died first, Abby's corpse was not discovered until Andrew's body brought the police. Andrew was reclining on a couch in the downstairs sitting room. Medical experts--given the technology of the 1890s--placed Abby's death at 9:30am. At that time Andrew--who was to die an hour or so later--was making his business rounds downtown.
Both Andrew and Abby Borden came from a long line of Fall River residents going back over a century. Andrew's first wife, Sarah A. Morse (the mother of Emma and Lizzie and sister of "Uncle John") died in 1863. Two years later Andrew married Abby. Stories varied over Abby's role in this strictly patriarchal family but it was clear that Emma and Lizzie were not close to their step mother. Andrew--through shrewd business dealing and a propensity towards thriftiness bordering on stinginess--had accumulated considerable property and wealth. His initial fortune was made in the undertaking business. His reputation as a funeral director was such that he was often cited as an example for the need of extensive reform in that occupation. He was known in particular for overcharging and under-servicing and cheating his clients particularly the poorer Portuguese and Irish patrons. In fact his death was the cause of much rejoicing in some Fall River circles.
There were other business holdings downtown--only a short block or two from the house on Second Street--some farm land ideal for horse raising and unknown amounts of money. The Bordens, therefore, were well off, even rich. But they did not belong to the old elites who lived on The Hill, the enclave of mansion dwelling rich people who made up the aristocracy of the town. Of course, socially they would have never fit, but economically they might have had a chance for social power. But Andrew's thrift and obsession with making money rather than spending it relegated the Borden family, instead, to the solid middle class area.
Five people lived in the Borden house. Of course, there was Abby and Andrew. In addition, there was Bridget Sullivan--who everyone according to the prejudicial practices of the day called "Maggie", a reference to all Irish female servants--a live in servant. Then there were the two daughters of Andrew (and step daughters of Abby): Emma and Lizzie. With increased frequency in the last several years an "Uncle John", a brother of deceased Sarah, made many overnight visits.
Their lives had been calm and orderly over the years except for three incidents. First, the house had been broken into a year ago and some minor--almost memento type--of things were taken. Second, someone had been prowling around the yard grounds lately at night. Third, the day before the murders everyone in the house had become sick. Abby went to the doctor and related her suspicions that the family was in danger of poisoning. Even Lizzie while visiting some friends the night before the crime had premonitions and felt that the family--particularly her father--had an "enemy." Later that night--after she returned home--Lizzie heard loud arguments between her father and someone else who she supposed to be her uncle. Later it was learned that the uncle was not in at that particular time. Of course, the next day two of the family were dead.
Physical evidence for such a gruesome crime was scant. In part this was due to the chaotic early investigation carried out by the police. Soon the crime scene was filled with people--other police, journalists and the curious. In addition, the family was given surprising leeway in cleaning up the house. Undoubtedly, much information was lost. Even Lizzie was caught burning in the stove a stained dress. Part of it was recovered and though the "stains" looked like blood but she claimed them to be grease. Furthermore, there were rumors of some missing wills of the two victims. It was believed that if Andrew pre-deceased his wife all his money would go to her. Her will left most of the money to charity, only a small portion going to her step-daughters. On the other hand, if Abby died first Andrew's money automatically went to the daughters. There was talk that Andrew was about to prepare a new will more in line with that of Abby's. Furthermore, Andrew's position indicated that he was taking a nap. But his clinched fists and blood splatter on the wall suggest that he was up and alert to the first blow, even talking or arguing with the assailant. In short, he likely knew the killer.
Suspects immediately emerged after the killings. The first were the Portuguese. Fall River had several immigrant groups appear over the recent years, all of whom were "suspected folks." First had been the French-Canadians and although their presence was no longer a threat considerable hostility remained. Second, were the Irish. And finally by the 1890s it was the Portuguese. Immediately Bridget and other sidewalk passerbys claimed a foul smelling "crazy looking" male was seen in or near the Borden yard on the morning of the murders. To feed such concerns was the murder of Bertha Manchester almost a year later in May 1893. Manuel Jose Correiro--a Portuguese from the Azores--had been accused of that killing. Bertha had been struck numerous times with a hatchet early in the morning just like the Bordens. There was only one small problem here, however, and that was that Correiro had been out of the state at the time of the Borden killings. He later claimed his innocence but was imprisoned anyway in an institution for the criminal insane only to be released and deported in 1901. Nonetheless, there was considerable suspicion--and Bridget Sullivan was the main proponent here--that other Portuguese were forming gangs of thugs to do such things.
More about this so-called "mystery man." Dr. Handy, while riding by the Borden house at about 10:30 or 10:40am an the day of the murders noticed a "stranger" walking very slowly by the house. He was described as about 5`4", of medium weight and wearing a dark mustache. His face was "deadly white" but round and full. He appeared to be in his early twenties. Officer Joseph Hyde--of the Fall River police--had noticed a man of this descriptions as well. Ellan Eagen, a young woman walking up the street near the Borden house, saw a man in the Borden yard. Her description was less precise but one thing was sure to her: she smelt an odor from the man that she had never smelt before. Thirty years later she could still testify to the awful and weird smell. She claimed this person to be Portuguese or Irish, depending upon their current prejudice. But all of the eyewitnesses to this mystery man believed him to be someone else, even the devil.
Bridget Sullivan, herself, was an immediate suspect. She had been in or around the house at the time of the killings. "Maggie" had come to the United States in 1887. After working for three other families she came to the Bordens in 1889. Her duties--washing, ironing, cooking and cleaning--were basically confined to the downstairs part of the house. She seldom was in the "family rooms" on the second floor. The fact that she was Irish made her guilty of something: the actual murder or covering up and protecting the killers, according to popular prejudices. By all accounts Bridget was at home during the killings. Most likely she was outside washing windows--under order of Lizzie--when Abby was killed and was inside later when the butchery of Andrew occurred.
Emma Borden, born in March of 1851, was twelve years old when her mother died. Unlike her younger sister--Lizzie--Emma was not known to complain about her lot in life. She did not, however, like her step mother. She got along passably with her father, though his stingy ways got in the way of her finding a suitable husband thus dooming her to spinsterhood. There was a falling out a few years before the murders because Andrew sold some land that the two daughters wanted. But like a dutiful daughter she ate and swallowed her anger. Emma was the antithesis of her almost ten year younger sister--Lizzie--to whom she was always subservient. When Emma had any power or position she freely relinquished it to Lizzie and acquiesced to Lizzie's every whim and demand. Emma very rarely left the house and even more rarely left Fall River. However, on the week prior to the murders (and including the actual day of the killings) Emma was several miles away in Fairhaven visiting friends.
Lizzie Borden was two years old when her mother died. She was 32 the year of the murders. Lizzie was more active and outgoing than her sister. She belonged to the Central Congregational Church, The Hill's "in" church. She was not unattractive either. There was that red hair and a temper to match but all agreed that she could be "tamed." There were several suitors and escorts, as well, but none of them were from The Hill, a society and residency she aspired to. The Hill would not accept her unless there was a more ostentatious display of money coming from the Borden household and her father rejected all other serious suitors as "fortune hunters." Both she and her sister seemed doomed to spinsterhood. It was no secret that Lizzie resented the "tight-fisted, penny-pinching" ways of her father. Like Bridget, Lizzie was home at the time of the murders. However, stories vary as to where she was exactly. At first, she said she was in the barn annex doing some chores. Later she said she was ill and resting under a fruit tree in the backyard far from the house. Lizzie's illness was something everyone in the house had experienced the day before the murders. Later a clerk at the D.R.Smith drug store told how Lizzie had been in asking for a certain poison. She was unable to purchase the poison, however.
"Uncle John" Morse was the brother of Andrew's first wife. Although born and raised in Fall River, John moved west as a young man, first to Illinois and then Iowa where he spent 25 years as a horse breeder. He was virtually out of the life of Andrew and Emma and Lizzie until two years before the murders. Then he began showing up at the Borden house for "visits" of his nieces. In addition, he had business plans and many an overnight visit turned into a heated debate over business investments. On one of his earlier visits the Borden household had been burgled, a difficult task for a house so secure due to the demands of Andrew. John was visiting and stayed the night before the murders but claimed to have been off on business early in the morning.
William Borden, an apple farmer and horse renderer who lived several miles north of Fall River, had been rumored for years as being the illegitimate son of Andrew. The Borden family, however, adamantly denied such talk. William was more than slightly "touched." He was always gong around talking about rich men and rich sisters and of wealth that some day would be his. When he was drunk on "ice cider," a type of homemade applejack liquor, such claims became louder and more frequent. There was some evidence that he spent a short time in the insane asylum. William was married but his first love and constant companion was his hatchet. He even talked to it as if it were a close friend. There was another thing about William. His main occupations left him marked in strange ways. For example, since he made cider he needed to clean his casks frequently with a mixture lye soap and axle grease. As a horse renderer he would have to come and cart off dead horses, many of whom had died of Blister Beetle Poison, a disease that attacked the bladder and urine of the animal. Both activities left him so smelly that his wife frequently forced him to sleep in the barn. In 1901 his body was found hanging from a tree--with his trusty hatchet friend lying nearby--in the woods not far from where Bertha Manchester's body had been found eight years earlier. Interestingly enough an autopsy showed that he had also taken a large dose of poison. Indeed, hanging himself seemed a bit redundant.
Questions to Ponder
1. Who killed the Bordens?
2. Use the DOPE concept, such as
3. Who has popular culture determined to be the killer?
Suggested Further Readings
Arnold Brown. Lizzie Borden: The Legend, The Truth, The Final Chapter (1991)