A Mystery and its Solution in Two and a Half Parts
Here are the first two important questions about the Lizzie Borden murder case:
• Did she do it? Did Lizzie murder her wealthy father and despised stepmother with an axe that sweltering morning in August 1892?
My answer to this question, beyond a reasonable doubt, is Yes — she did do it. There are dozens of pieces of evidence to back up this this opinion — family strife, Lizzie’s lies about Mrs. Borden’s whereabouts, a cloud of suspicious circumstances. The likelihood is overwhelming.
• But—if she did it, what did she do with the axe?
The axe used to kill Abby and Andrew Borden has never been found.
Lizzie’s own sister Emma, who was out of town at the time of the murders, said years later: “Here is the strongest thing that has impressed me of Lizzie’s innocence. The authorities never found the ax or the implement or whatever it was that figured in the killing. If Lizzie had done that deed, she could never have hidden the instrument of death so the police could never find it.” The disappearance of the axe is the strongest piece of evidence in defense of Lizzie Borden’s innocence. If Lizzie killed them, where could she have hidden the axe?
Today I’m going to tell you what she did with the axe.
Let’s recapitulate. Lizzie was the thirty-two-year-old unmarried daughter of a wealthy but painfully frugal banker in Fall River, Massachusetts. In the early afternoon of a scorching Thursday — August 4, 1892 — her father and stepmother were found savagely hacked to death at their home with an axe.
The case became the most famous American murder of the nineteenth century. After a sensational trial Lizzie was acquitted, most likely because the court couldn’t face putting a respectable upper-middle-class woman to death.
How did the murder unfold? Unlike most houses of the day, the house Lizzie shared with her father, stepmother, sister, and servant was usually kept locked up tighter than Fort Knox. The morning of the murder there were three people home. Abby, Lizzie’s stepmother, was tidying the guest room upstairs. Bridget, the servant, was washing the ground-floor windows on the outside, and then went up to her attic room to rest, feeling poorly. (The whole family, with the possible exception of Lizzie, had been nauseated and vomiting, and there was a suspicion that someone had poisoned their food, but that’s another story.) Lizzie was somewhere in the house.
So there are two possible scenarios.
1) a murderer carrying an axe made his way either through the triple-locked front door or the unlatched screen side door in the handy few minutes that Bridget, washing the outside windows, didn’t have it within view, then found Abby upstairs in the guest room and murdered her, lingered 60-90 minutes until Mr. Borden came home, evaded detection by Lizzie as Lizzie fetched something from her bedroom next door to the guest room, waited patiently until Lizzie got Mr. Borden settled on the living room sofa and heard her go out to the barn, crept downstairs and murdered Mr. Borden, did not take anything from the house or the eighty dollars Mr. Borden had in his pockets, and escaped through the side door without Lizzie noticing, taking his axe with him,
2) Lizzie killed them both.
We know from witnesses with careful timekeeping that Lizzie had roughly fifteen minutes to murder her father, change her dress, and get rid of the axe, before calling up to Bridget that something had happened to her father. She could not have made it farther than the house or yard in that space of time.
So in that brief space of time, where did she stash the axe?
The police were at a loss for a murder weapon. They seized an axe from the cellar which appeared to have bloodstains and hair on it, but analysis by Dr. Dolan, the medical examiner, revealed that the bloodstains were rust and the hair was cow hair. There were two further hatchets in the cellar, one of them clearly unused, the other a mere axe head, dusty with ashes, with a broken-off handle which may or may not have lain beside the hatchet head. This was confiscated, and debate has raged about it ever since. Most experts have reluctantly concluded that it’s unlikely that Lizzie murdered two people with that hatchet, somehow wrenched off the two-inch-thick thick handle, burnt the presumably blood-stained handle in the stove, and returned the hatchet head to its proper place, in the fifteen-minute period she had to murder her father, change her dress, and dispose of the weapon.
I’ll add one additional possibility — that the family servant Bridget Sullivan committed the murders. The likelihood of this has been debated hotly. But the same problem remains. If Bridget did it, where did she hide the axe?
The answer comes in Part Two.