The Borden Murders
By Steve Goldman
NCSA Member #9
1992 was the one-hundredth anniversary of the event known to contemporary readers as the "Fall River Tragedy." To this day there is no apparent agreement as to who committed the crimes or why. It remains a total mystery even after numerous books and articles, written over the last century, have carefully dissected the events that took place that day. The crime, of course, was the double murder in Fall River, Massachusetts of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Borden popularized in verse as:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.
Was she guilty? Well, here are the facts as known: On the morning of August 4, 1892 in the second floor bedroom of her house in Fall River, Massachusetts, Mrs. Andrew Borden was hacked to death with an axe. Later that morning, Mr. Borden was similarly dispatched while resting on a living room sofa. He was killed in a most grizzly manner in that his head was struck repeatedly with an axe-like instrument until his face was unrecognizable. Mr. Andrew Borden was a rather well-to-do Fall River businessman and the prevailing thought in this Victorian-era working man's town was that if this horrible fate could occur to a man of means, then no one was safe.
Police suspicions fell on four different people as suspects in the case. They were Brigitte Sullivan, the Borden's maid, Lizzie Borden, the daughter of Andrew Borden and step-daughter of Abby Borden, John Morse, Andrew Borden's brother-in-law by his previous marriage, and an unknown vagrant who may or may not have been seen in the vicinity of the Borden house on the morning of the murders. After a one-week investigation, the local authorities arrested Lizzie Borden and indicted her for the murder of her parents.
The local Massachusetts and Rhode Island newspapers that were near Fall River were the ones that covered the events to the greatest extent. To them it was a local story of great importance. In the 1890's it was unheard of for an upper class New England ingenue to brutally murder her parents! The newspapers with the best and most complete coverage of the events surrounding the murders at Fall River included the "Fall River Herald," "Fall River Globe,"Fall River News," Providence (Rhode Island) Dispatch," "Providence Journal and News," "Boston Globe," and the "New Bedford Journal." The "Illustrated Police News" (New York) had wood cut engravings of the murders illustrating its August 13, 1892 issue.
The Rhode Island-Massachusetts area newspapers each had their own opinions as to who committed the murders and why. Some papers were quite supportive of Lizzie Borden while others believed her to be guilty. The much anticipated trial took place in New Bedford, Massachusetts and began on June 5, 1893. The coverage of this trial by the aforementioned newspapers was very thorough with many papers devoting 5 or 6 complete pages to the word-for-word testimony. Public opinion swayed back and forth as the trial proceeded depending upon the evidence presented on that particular day. The public's appetite for news seemed insatiable and the local newspapers exploited this with the liberal use of wood cut engravings by courtroom artists engaged for that purpose. Most newspapers were morning editions and so reported the text of the trial in the next day's edition. The trial and analysis of it built to a climax over two weeks and on June 19 at 3:23 PM the jury retired to deliberate it's verdict. After a short time of one hour the jury returned at 4:33 PM it gave the verdict "Not Guilty."
This was momentous news of great importance to the local populace that had followed the trial with such intensity. The newspaper to report it first had a great advantage over its rivals. Providence, Rhode Island is located some 15 miles west of Fall River and its local papers covered the case with great enthusiasm. This was particularly true of the "Providence News" (morning edition) and the "Providence Evening Journal". The "Evening Journal" had already set the type for the text of the trial's final day covering 3 pages, and had ended with a paragraph stating that the charge was given to the jury at 3:23 PM. As the paper was going to press for the evening edition the momentous news of the verdict came in. The paper's editor quickly changed the final paragraph of the story on page 9 with new large type heads "NOT GUILTY". On page one the main headline was immediately changed to a two column heading of "NOT GUILTY" with 6 lines of related news under it. These two changes were all that were possible on such short notice in order to get the paper out with the big news. No other reporting of the verdict was possible until the morning edition of the next day, June 20. The editions printed on June 20 had more expanded coverage of the verdict and the reaction to it. Many people believe that "timing is everything" and in the case of the "Providence Evening Journal" this proved to be true.
Finally, did Lizzie Borden really do it? A number of books and articles have been written on this very question and the two most recurring theories center on two persons who had both motive and opportunity to kill the Borden's. One is Lizzie herself and the other is Brigitte Sullivan, the maid. A recent article suggested that Lizzie was a victim of incest and the murders grew out of suppressed rage by a Victorian-era woman who was wronged and who had little power in and of herself. Other theories hinged on the subsequent disappearance of Brigitte Sullivan, probably back to Ireland, suggesting that this indicated her guilt. There was even an autograph dealer who tried to sell a letter of confession signed, reportedly, by Lizzie Borden and written at a time when she thought she was dying. This letter, alas, proved to be a forgery.
In the end Lizzie Borden was legally acquitted but still lived out her life in Fall River with public opinion convicted of her guilt. What do you think?