Up until the 1890s, Lizzie was a rather popular name for little baby girls (the government keeps track of these things). Not Elizabeth -- too stuffy, too Puritan -- just "Lizzie," fun-loving, American. But then something very bad happened in Massachusetts.
If you asked a group of Americans who read a lot of true crime to name the first case that really caught their interest, led them to study the subject in depth, a good half of them would answer: the Lizzie Borden case.
Lizzie Andrew Borden was acquitted in 1893 of the murder of her father and stepmother in the trial of the century, at least in New England. During that trial, few of the witnesses talked. Those who were closest to the events that took place in the murder house simply had nothing to say on the witness stand or weren’t called to testify (i.e. Uncle John Morse, and the Bordens’ maid, Bridget Sullivan, curse her Irish soul).
Photo from Curious Chapbooks
The murky facts brought out at the Borden trial only imbued the case with questions that have given it immortal life in the annals of crime. A century later, there are shelves of books on the case, a bed and breakfast at the murder house, at least one subscription journal, an occasional academic conference, a cottage industry in Borden paraphernalia, an excellent online Borden encyclopedia, and a lively Yahoo group called "40 Whacks" for people who like to argue about the case via email.
Your correspondent has made occasional tepid posts to this Yahoo group, but the best essay I’ve recently seen came from Jeffrey Tesch, a member of the Yahoo group, who so kindly failed to object when I asked him for permission to cut and paste his most excellent summary of the Outstanding Questions in the Matter of the Murders of Mr. and Mrs. Borden of Fall River, Mass.
DISCLAIMER: This list comprises the subjective conjecture of Jeffrey K. Tesch, and does not reflect the opinions of 40 Whacks as a group nor endorse any theory on behalf of 40 Whacks members.
JT’S Top 10 Borden Case Mysteries:
1. What were John Morse and Andrew talking about Wednesday night? Morse just didn’t coincidently stumble into a double homicide – his presence and Emma’s absence set the stage for murder. Did the mysterious negotiation between Borden and his brother-in-law provide the motive?
2. How did Lizzie avoid leaving a blood trail after Abby’s murder? She didn’t have to go far, but blood drops are hard to staunch (ask OJ). The lack of blood trail from the guest room eliminates virtually anyone else from suspicion – Lizzie only had to walk 20 feet to the safety of her own room.
3. Was a note delivered to the Borden house on murder morning? There is nothing in the record about a messenger, yet the legend of the young man getting the front door slammed in his face persists. Was the intercepted note an irretrievable mistake that sparked the rage killing of Abby Borden?
4. What were the real contents of the note that Dr. Bowen burned? The good Doctor’s furtive reading/burning of the note about his “daughter” just doesn’t fly. Was this the note from #3? Too bad Fall River’s finest didn’t do a better job of protecting the crime scene so evidence couldn’t be destroyed.
5. Did Andrew have a will or was he having one made? Another persistent rumor that’s more than just a red herring – this is the most logical topic of discussion from #1. Why would John Morse not volunteer this information if he was assisting Andrew in dividing up his estate?
6. Was the handless hatchet the murder weapon? Robinson did a superb job of rendering this hatchet irrelevant at trial – when you consider the expert witnesses all agreed it fit the wounds, the wood break was new, and the coating of ash did not match the dust on the other items.
7. What did Alice Russell know about missing evidence? Her cryptic comments about the house search resonate – she told both Churchill and Kelly that police didn’t search thoroughly enough. She could have done her own search during the funeral – did she examine that “bundle” in Emma’s closet?
8. Did Lizzie act alone or did someone help her commit murder? A conspiracy is unlikely but can’t be ruled out – especially during Andrew’s murder. Bridget, Emma, Morse, Bowen etc all had either motive or opportunity. Lizzie certainly killed Abby – did someone else knock off the old man?
9. Why did Detective Shaw privately interview Lizzie in May? Conventional wisdom says he warned her about shoplifting – could this meeting have a more sinister undertone? The daylight robbery? Something Lizzie did or said that was a harbinger of murder?
10. Why did Lizzie stay in a boarding house just before the murders? Bizarre and scandalous. Instead of going to Marion she hung out in New Bedford flop house for several days. She eventually went to Marion but was restless enough to return to Fall River the same day.
Even when you know the killer, there’s plenty of mystery left in the Borden case. I can speculate about each item above – but the answers remain elusive.
Laura again: Here’s a curtsy to Mr. Tesch for his astute analysis.
For more Clews in the Borden case, see: