What Made Lizzie Borden Kill?


One story that surfaced would reverberate later. According to accounts in several newspapers, Mr. and Mrs. Borden and Bridget had suffered upset stomachs earlier in the week. Mrs. Borden had consulted Dr. Bowen, the family physician, wondering if someone might be trying to poison them. After questioning both Mr. and Mrs. Borden, Dr. Bowen attributed their symptoms to leftover food they had eaten for dinner the night before. Lizzie must have emerged early as a possible suspect, because in the same interview in which Dr. Bowen dismissed the allegations of poisoning, he denied the possibility that she could have been involved in the murder. “I do not believe a hardened man of the world,” he said, “much less a gentle and refined woman, in her sober senses, devoid of sudden passion, could strike such a blow with such a weapon as was used on Mr. Borden and linger to survey the bloody deed.” The police and many Fall River residents were beginning to think otherwise.

At the inquest early the following week, Lizzie was unable to maintain a consistent story about her activities on the morning of the murders. Pressed on her whereabouts at the time of her father’s death, Lizzie first claimed she was in the barn loft seeking iron to make sinkers for a fishing expedition, then that she was up in the loft eating pears. Since the temperature that day stood in the nineties, it seemed unlikely that anyone would choose to spend time in the loft for any reason. Lizzie also testified that her stepmother had been called away by a messenger on the morning of the murders, but no corroboration of that story ever came to light. Even more damaging was testimony of a clerk in a local drugstore. The day before the murders, he said, Lizzie had come in shopping for prussic acid—a deadly poison. This, along with the illness in the family the week before, seemed to suggest Lizzie had attempted the murders more than once. Finally, the police produced what they said was the murder weapon—a hatchet they had found hidden in the basement, its wooden handle, which might have borne traces of blood, broken off.

All this evidence seemed to point to Lizzie, but the only motive anyone could come up with was simple greed: upon the deaths of her father and stepmother, Lizzie and Emma would come into a sizable inheritance. At the end of the inquest, Lizzie was arrested and charged with the crimes.

The following June Lizzie was tried in New Bedford’s Superior Court. If convicted as charged, she would be the first woman to be executed in Massachusetts since 1778. Although many people in the eastern part of the state believed her guilty, some newspapers outside Massachusetts and fledgling feminist organizations across the country portrayed her as the innocent victim of incompetent police work. Much was made of her church activities and her Christian character.

The prosecution’s case, which rested almost entirely on Lizzie’s inquest testimony, was dealt a serious blow when the judge ruled it inadmissible as evidence because he felt she had not received adequate legal counsel at the time she gave it. He also declared the druggist’s testimony inadmissible, since the purchase of poison did not prove that it was to be used to commit murder. Both these rulings were disputed at the time and continue to be questioned by legal scholars.

Lizzie’s own lawyers poked holes in the prosecution’s case, but they made no sustained attempt to incriminate anyone else; nor did they put Lizzie on the stand to defend herself. Emma testified, but she seemed oddly passive. She stood by her sister but didn’t go out of her way to proclaim her innocence, saying simply that the prosecutor’s case had not been proved. In short order Lizzie was acquitted.


In the century since the trial, a number of authors have reopened the case, finding new motives and new interpretations of the evidence. A kind of historiography of the Lizzie Borden murders has emerged, depending on who was writing and when. Lizzie has been recast as a woman who killed for love, as a woman who killed in an epileptic fit, and as a loyal sister who covered for Emma, the real killer. Others have turned suspicion on Bridget Sullivan, the maid, and John Morse, the visiting uncle, as well as on mysterious strangers in the neighborhood. Perhaps the most systematic and credible attempt to retry Lizzie was made in 1974 by Robert Sullivan, a Massachusetts judge. In Goodbye Lizzie Borden he argued convincingly that Lizzie was guilty and that she was acquitted by the actions of the judge partial to her case. Historians writing in the context of the burgeoning women’s movement have accepted Lizzie’s guilt but sought other explanations for her acquittal. Both Kathryn Jacobs, writing in American Heritage in 1978, and Ann Jones in Women Who Kill , published in 1980, argued that Lizzie was acquitted because she was a “lady” who, to a classbound age, simply couldn’t have done such a thing. But for all the contention about whether Lizzie Borden did it, there has been little discussion of why she would have done it.