Revisiting the infamous Borden murders

By Sam Baltrusis

When it comes to untangling the myths and misconceptions surrounding the savage butchery of Andrew and Abby Borden that fateful August morning in 1892, the devil is in the details.

Pat Spain, host of the Travel Channel’s Legend Hunter, revisited the case that rocked Fall River in a comprehensive exploration of the infamous whodunit in a television episode called “Lizzie Borden, Innocent?” which premiered January 2019.

“It’s widely accepted that Lizzie Borden, Andrew’s youngest daughter, was the killer,” Spain reported from the Superior Court for the County of Bristol in New Bedford, Massachusetts. “She was tried at the time in this courtroom and found not guilty. Now, there’s brand new evidence, new studies, that says Lizzie did not do it. If she didn’t do it, then who did?”

Borden was brought in for an initial inquest hearing on August 8, 1892 which was four days after her father and stepmother were brutally slaughtered. Adding fuel to the fire, her trial started June 5, 1893 and another hatchet homicide happened in Fall River around the same time. The victim was Bertha Manchester and she was found murdered in her kitchen on June 1, 1893. 

The Borden trial lasted about two weeks and a verdict was reached after a quick deliberation. She was acquitted by a jury of her peers. However, the court of public opinion wasn’t convinced.   

Pat Spain from the Travel Channel’s Legend Hunter revisited the Lizzie Borden murder trial.

“Lizzie’s acquittal became a shock to the public,” Spain explained. “After her release, she was demonized and taunted by everyone in Fall River. In the century that has passed since, almost everyone has Lizzie as a woman who got away with murder.”

 Did Borden actually kill her parents? Dr. Stefani Koorey, publisher and editor at Peartree Press, isn’t convinced. “It was impossible for her to be the murderer,” Koorey told Spain. “There was no time for her to clean up. She would have been drenched in blood. Lizzie lived her life without a sense of guilt. Her probability of guilt was under twenty percent.”

Despite the acquittal, Borden never shook her “forty whacks” claim to fame. For the record, Borden’s stepmother was struck nineteen times with a hatchet, and her father suffered eleven blows on the couch. Yes, the schoolyard rhyme was off by ten whacks.

Based on the extreme overkill, one expert featured on the program believes that Borden’s older sister, Emma, had the most convincing motive. Both sisters were worried about losing their inheritance, but it was Emma who approached their father about the issue. “Andrew Borden’s Swansea estate was at the center of a family feud,” Spain explained on Legend Hunter. “It was rumored that Andrew was giving the Swansea farm to his wife Abby—Lizzie and Emma’s stepmother.”

When Spain questioned scholar Shelley Dziedzic about Lizzie’s older sister, she believes Emma had the rage needed to commit the horrific crime even though she had a solid alibi. “She was nine years older than Lizzie and had strong memories of her mother Sarah,” Dziedzic said. “It was Emma, not Lizzie, that went to the father.”

Emma was at the Brownell House in nearby Fairhaven on the day of the murders. However, the older sister’s personality based on Dziedzic’s interview seemed to fit the profile of someone capable of committing such a heinous attack.

Thomas Hodgson, the sheriff of Bristol County, told Spain that the Borden murders were unusually cruel. “The killer had to have had such rage and anger, but then to wait an hour and then to go and commit the second murder would suggest that there’s some sociopathic issues involved,” Hodgson said. “People who have those tendencies tend not to even see themselves as having committed that first murder. They immediately separate themselves into a different reality.”

Bill Pavao, a Borden historian who was curator at both the Second Street house and Maplecroft, weighed in on John Morse and his association with the murder. Pavao cleared up one myth that has been perpetuated by unsubstantiated rumors, specifically that Morse was implausibly specific about his whereabouts on the day of the murders. “There’s really no documentation,” Pavao told Spain. “I think it’s been embellished over time.”

One fact that has been lost is that Morse slept on the third floor which is a present-day bathroom when he lived at the Second Street home. On August 3, 1892, he slept in the now infamous second-floor guestroom where Abby was killed. “Maybe he was staying there to give Abby a reason to come up there the next day? It’s interesting that the night of the murders he went back up and slept in that room in that bed,” Pavao told Spain.

Yes, it’s extremely strange that Morse slept in the crime-scene room where Abby was hit eighteen times to her head and once between the shoulder blades.

It was after Pavao’s interview that Spain came up with the supposed bombshell that the murderer had to be a left-handed killer based on the blows to the stepmother’s head. The show suggested that all three of the suspects were right-handed, but Pavao told me after the premiere of the television program that he found a few inaccuracies in Spain’s research.

Photo by Frank C. Grace, Trig Photography

“I feel like people need to keep the case simple,” Pavao told me months after the premiere of the “Lizzie Borden, Innocent?” airing. “The left-handed theory assumes Abby was facing the killer. Also, Lizzie did have time to clean herself after Abby and would not have necessarily been bloodied by Andrew’s killing. Lizzie could have reached around from inside the dining room doorway when killing Andrew. This would have allowed the wall to shield most of her body from the blood spatter except perhaps her arm.”

Pavao said that there were several major inaccuracies highlighted on the show. “There’s no evidence that the Swansea farm was the center of a family feud,” he said, finding some huge holes presented as ground-breaking research. “Lizzie was not on morphine when she was first questioned. We also don’t know the strength of the morphine she was eventually given.”

Some of Spain’s “tests” during his televised investigation were flawed. For example, there was a train that connected Fairhaven and Fall River at the time, so horse and buggy wasn’t the only mode of transportation for Emma which Spain painstakingly recreated. 

Also, the show seriously wanted to prove Borden’s innocence. “The question was not whether Bridget Sullivan could hear Andrew’s murder, but could Lizzie hear Abby’s body hit the floor? They didn’t check this,” Pavao said, adding that he did test this possibility when he lived in the Second Street home. “A 200-pound person hitting the floor would’ve been heard downstairs,” he told me. “Of course, it depends on how she fell.”

At the end of the “Lizzie Borden, Innocent?” television show, Spain summed up his investigation at the spot where all of the Bordens who were involved in the murders are buried, Oak Grove Cemetery. “What I found is that I just don’t want to believe that it was her. Despite what the experts have said, I just find it really difficult to accept that somebody that is capable of this kind of brutality, this heinous crime, could have close friends that genuinely loved them and start the humane society of Fall River,” Spain concluded. “I guess it comes down to what you think of Lizzie Borden as a person.”

Pavao, who pointed out that Borden didn’t start Fall River’s humane society but did fund a local animal rescue group, believes that the team from Legend Hunter didn’t intentionally revisit the Borden case with a biased lens. “Pat Spain and the crew were nice and professional. I like that the show focused on the history,” Pavao said. “The problem is that people don’t want to believe that Lizzie could have done it, so they spin the case.”

While Pavao did find some inaccuracies with the “Lizzie Borden, Innocent?” television program, he said Spain did an overall excellent job exploring the complexities of the case. “I’m not being critical. I was glad to see and be a part of the show,” Pavao said. “In the future, my wish would be that people focus more on the case itself, the characters, the history, and of course, the mystery.”

Lizzie Borden B&B photo by Frank C. Grace, Trig Photography

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