Lizzie Borden herself raised the alarm after discovering the dead body of her father, Andrew Jackson Borden, on the morning of August 4th, 1892 at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew lay on the sofa in the sitting room of his house, with his head and face smashed in with a hatchet. He had received ten blows that ended his life, and which sparked one of the most perplexing unsolved murders in American history. His daughter, Lizzie, claimed that she had been in the barn behind the house at the time of the killing, looking for either some iron or pieces of lead, and had come back into the house to find her father dead where he lay. Her step-mother, Abby Borden, also lay dead in an upstairs bedroom, possibly for a period as long as ninety minutes. If Lizzie were guilty of these crimes, she no doubt would have taken the few moments between the final blows and her act of calling up the stairs for Bridget Sullivan, the maid of the house, to eliminate any crucial physical evidence that would have linked her to the crime: a bloody dress or the murder weapon itself. We don't know if Lizzie Borden committed the two murders, but we do know that she was the first to respond to the crime.
"Maggie, come quick! Father's dead. Somebody came in and killed him!" With those words, Lizzie Borden called the attention of the entire world, as well as the weight of history, down onto herself and her home. Bridget, who had gone upstairs to lie down after some exhausting work cleaning the first floor windows, was not feeling well, and had spent some time that morning vomiting in the backyard. Indeed, the entire family had been suffering from mysterious stomach pains and nausea; the day before, Abby Borden, Lizzie's step-mother, had gone to see the doctor, complaining of such an ailment. Lizzie herself had confided in a close friend, Alice Russell, that someone was trying to hurt her family, and she feared that their milk or their baker's bread was being poisoned. Andrew had lain down on the sofa because he was not feeling well, and had exhausted himself with a one-hour walk in the downtown area, running various errands and checking up on the construction work on one of his properties. Illness and paranoia had been in the air, and one can only wonder if Lizzie Borden had been a victim who sensed her family's impending doom, or she had just spent several days laying the groundwork for a premeditated slaughter.
Bridget heard Lizzie's cry of alarm, and ran immediately downstairs to be by her side. Lizzie asked her to go across the street to fetch Dr. Bowen, the family physician, and Bridget ran off immediately. Doctor Bowen was not at home, so Bridget left a message with the doctor's wife. She then returned to Lizzie, who seemed to be grappling with what was to be done next. She sent Bridget off around the corner to fetch Alice Russell, and the maid took off a second time, leaving Lizzie alone on the side steps of the house, just inside the screen door.
Many have commented that if Lizzie thought her father had been murdered by an intruder, she would hardly have stayed in the house alone; but she did stick very close to the open doorway, waiting for Bridget to return. Her position at the door drew the attention of her next-door neighbor to the north, Mrs. Adelaide Churchill, as she unpacked some groceries in her kitchen. Asking Lizzie through the window what the matter was, Lizzie replied, "Oh, Mrs. Churchill, do come over. Someone has killed father."
At this point, a rapid-fire succession of events unfolded, and it is hard to piece them together into a coherent timeline. Such a chronological perspective becomes possible only through careful study of the inquest, the preliminary hearing, the grand jury proceedings, and the trial testimony. We may look, as well, at the police statements, the witness' reports, the newspaper accounts and other sources that rely upon participants' memory. When averaged out, all accounts align, and there are few, if any, contradictions to be found in what various people reported. A clock here or there may have been running slow, or someone's sense of timing a little distorted, but the witnesses' stories in fact match up in all critical respects.
Mrs. Churchill raised the alarm on the street, and before long, someone had called the police station. Marshal Hilliard claimed to have gotten the call at 11:15 a.m., which may have been within ten minutes of the actual murder. The fixing of the time at the police station is the most reliable indicator since the police were trained to accurately note such details in their reports. Office George Allen was dispatched to the Borden home to investigate what was initially described to the police as a "row". The Borden home and the police station were only 500 feet away from each other, so the walk was very short. Officer Allen arrived just as Dr. Bowen was pulling up with his team, and Alice Russell was scurrying around the corner after having been alerted by Bridget. Upon witnessing the dead body of Andrew Borden, Allen ran back to the police station to report to Hilliard that the crime was far more serious than they had initially thought; a response team consisting of more officers was clearly in order. Since August 4th happened to be the day of the police department's annual leisure trip to Rocky Point, a nearby amusement park similar to New York's Coney Island, this presented Hilliard with a bit of a challenge, but he managed to muster several of his officers, a deputy sheriff and the Assistant Marshal.
The various police officers who now descended on the house began to ask Lizzie questions, and Lizzie's answers were sometimes strange and contradictory. She described how she went out to the barn to look for lead sinkers, or was it a piece of tin to fix a screen? She was there for thirty minutes, or was it twenty? She came back towards the house and heard a groan, or a scraping noise, or a distress call, before entering the house and finding Andrew dead. Eventually, after repeating her story for an hour or two, Lizzie settled on something less dramatic: she came back to the barn without realizing that anything was wrong. After placing her hat on the dining room table and checking the fire on the kitchen stove, she went into the sitting room to find her father dead.
Lizzie had the presence of mind to think of her sister Emma, and asked Dr. Bowen to go send her a telegram. It was after Dr. Bowen came back from dispatching the telegram that someone asked Lizzie about her stepmother. Lizzie repeated the story that she had told her father and Bridget earlier: her stepmother had been called away to tend to a sick friend. She said that she thought she heard Abby return, and she encouraged someone to go upstairs to look for her. Bridget, who had already ventured up to the master bedroom to get a sheet to cover Andrew's body, refused to go back up alone, and, along with Mrs. Churchill, ascended the front stairs. Halfway up the stairs, they turned and looked into the guest room, their eyes level with the floor, and by gazing under the bed they caught a clear view of Abby Borden lying face-down on the guest room floor, her head shattered savagely by hatchet blows. Going back to Lizzie, Mrs. Churchill gave her the grim news: "Yes, she's up there."
After this shocking revelation, Lizzie spent some time in the kitchen, being tended to by her female friends. They were rubbing her hands and giving her assurances. Several of the officers interviewed Lizzie personally, and most of them reported that they did not like her attitude. Some of them said she was too calm, too collected; and when Assistant Marshal Fleet asked her if she knew who could have killed her mother and father, she snapped back coldly, "Mrs. Borden was not my mother; she was my step-mother. My mother died when I was a little girl." Notwithstanding Lizzie's peculiar attitudes and subtly-shifting alibi, no one failed to notice that she was not splattered in blood. There were not even hunts of bloodstains on her hair or clothing.
Before long, they had moved Lizzie into the dining room, where she lay upon a sofa lounge. After a time, she was moved again up to her bedroom, where Dr. Bowen administered some bromo caffeine to calm her nerves. At this time, an attempt was made by the police to search the room. Admittedly, the police did not do a thorough job; it was more of a cursory inspection, rather than a full-blown search. A detail that came out at the trial was that the police limited their time in her room because Lizzie wasn't feeling well. They did little more with her dresses than to take a casual look at them. Predictably, this generated subsequent criticism of the police that they did not do everything they could to find the murder weapon or any evidence of bloody clothing. Even their search of the barn was held in suspicion after Officer Medley reported that he had seen no footprints in the dust of the barn, an observation that tended to disprove Lizzie's alibi. Even this, however, was called into question after it was demonstrated that other police officers may have been up in the barn before Medley's inspection and certainly their footprints must have been evident.
The police did discover, in the basement, two hatchets and two axes. One of the hatchets was set aside by Assistant Marshal Fleet as the possible murder weapon. But a third hatchet was found, one that came to be known as the Handless Hatchet because the handle seemed to have been snapped off. The hatchet was found inside a tool box in the coal cellar. It was singled out because the break to the handle looked fresh to several officers. Moreover, the ashy substance on the blade was not only spread on both sides but seemed very different, much coarser, from the ashy residue that had dusted other items in the cellar. To the officers, it appeared as if the handle had been snapped off, and the blade then covered with dust to make it look as if it had been lying there for quite some time. This Handless Hatchet was later presented at Lizzie Borden's trial as the possible murder weapon.
Soon, the Medical Examiner of Fall River had been called in, and police photographs were taken of the bodies as they lay in their crime scene positions. After the photography sessions, the bodies were brought into the dining room, where they were slit open and their stomachs removed for shipment to the Harvard Medical School. If poison had been an explanation for the mysterious family illness, then the stomachs would need to be thoroughly examined for any aftereffects. A subsequent examination of the stomach contents revealed that no poison had entered their system.
Emma Borden, alerted by telegraph in Fair Haven where she was staying with friends, arrived back at the house by 5:30 p.m. By nightfall, several officers had been assigned to guard the house. Alice Russell decided to stay over with the Borden sisters, and John V. Morse spent the night in the attic guest room, contrary to the urban legend that he continued sleeping in the room in which Abby Borden had met her fate. The only curious incident that evening was reported by Officer Hyde, who was stationed outside the house at the south-east corner. He reported seeing Alice Russell and Lizzie Borden descend into the basement for what seemed to be a late-night run to the privy. After they went back to bed, and following a fifteen-minute interval, Lizzie Borden descended back down to the basement by herself. She was seen in the wash room, bending over the area where her father and step-mother's bloody clothes lay in a pail. Her visit to the cellar was never fully explained.
By the next day, Emma and Lizzie Borden had posted a $5,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of any person guilty of the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden. However, at the same time, the sisters were essentially under house arrest, surrounded by policemen who watched their every move, and looked upon with growing suspicion by the authorities. That evening, John Morse attempted to leave the house and visit the post office. He was quickly surrounded by several hundred people on the street, and the police had to provide him a safe escort back to the house.
To make matters far worse, a pharmacist, Eli Bence, who worked in a drug store on South Main Street, had come forward with testimony that Lizzie Borden had been in his shop the day before the murders. He claimed that she had been asking to buy some prussic acid, a highly-dangerous substance that was capable of killing a person with one drop. Bence, who refused to make the sale, identified Lizzie Borden as the woman who had attempted it.
On the morning of Saturday, August 6th, the double funeral of Andrew and Abby Borden was conducted in the family sitting room. A funeral procession was then made to Oak Grove Cemetery, where it was revealed that there was to be no internment of the bodies; they were instead deposited in holding vaults. Starting at 3 p.m., Marshal Hilliard led a team of officers, lawyers and medical men to the Borden home for a top-to-bottom search, one that was much more thorough than that made on August 4th, but still two days too late.
During this search, the Handless Hatchet was found once again. This time, its presence was given more weight by the Marshall who took it back to the station. The Borden sisters' dresses were carefully examined. Acting Captain Desmond, who conducted the search, summarized that the police were "looking for anything which might have a tendency to solve what we were after." In the end, they had to admit that, besides the Handless Hatchet, they had come up with nothing.
On Saturday evening, Marshal Hilliard and Mayor Coughlin paid a visit to the Bordens. They sat with the sisters in the parlor and discussed how the family needed to be careful, alluding to John Morse's perilous escapade the evening before. However, their presence and attitude raised an alarm in Lizzie, who asked very bluntly if anyone in the house was under suspicion. Yes, the Mayor said honestly, and proceeded to tell Lizzie that it was she who was suspected. What he didn't tell Lizzie was that a warrant for her arrest had already been drafted. Lizzie was scheduled to testify at an inquest on August 9th, and it was alleged that the warrant was being held in suspension pending her testimony,. This was a tactical move that was considered by the defense at her trial to be a dirty trick, designed to force her into self-incrimination.
The shock of finding out that she was suspected may have driven Lizzie Borden to a desperate act the following morning. At approximately 11:00 a.m. on August 7th, Alice Russell entered the kitchen to find Lizzie Borden tearing up a dress that she was planning to burn on the fire. Lizzie explained that the dress was covered in paint and she had been meaning to get rid of it. This act was being done in plain sight of the police and in broad daylight. Whether this was the dress that Lizzie wore when she slew her step-mother and father, or whether the burning of the dress was prompted by the Marshal and Mayor's visit and proclamation the evening before, will never be known. However, the burning may have been perfectly innocent yet prompted by her anxiety over being arrested.
Either way, on the morning of Monday, August 8th, Alice Russell was interrogated by a private detective hired by the Borden sisters. When asked about Lizzie's dresses, she was very upset when she realized that Lizzie had drawn too much suspicion on herself and that she had to lie for her. She stormed into the kitchen where she told Lizzie that burning the dress was possibly the worst thing she could have done. Lizzie, who was visibly shaken by Alice's pronouncement, replied, "Oh, what made you let me do it? Why didn't you tell me?" Alice only told this story at the trial, failing to raise it at the inquest or at the preliminary hearing before the Grand Jury. It was one of the more sensational testimonies at the trial, and Lizzie, whether she was guilty or innocent, must have seen it as a great betrayal.
Lizzie appeared at the inquest hearing on Monday, August 8th. She had been taking doses of morphine to calm her nerves, a regimen prescribed by Dr. Bowen and accordingly, by the time she appeared before the inquest, she may have been suffering from foggy memory, if not downright hallucinations. The proceedings were presided over by criminal magistrate Josiah Blaisdell, and the interrogation performed by District Attorney Hosea Knowleton. The D.A. was a red-haired bull of a man whose aggressive attitude towards Lizzie made her ordeal on the witness stand more of a pummeling for a confession than a gathering of the facts. This circumstance, when coupled with the facts that a warrant for her arrest had already been drafted; that she was a virtual prisoner in her own home; and that she had been informed the evening before by the Marshall and Mayor that she was a prime suspect, all made the inquest testimony of Lizzie Borden inadmissible at her trial in June of 1893.
This exclusion of the testimony from the criminal trial may have been what saved her life. Her performance was not very stable. She contradicted herself, acted in a manner that could best be described at times as spaced-out, and reacted badly to Knowlton's confrontational and aggressive style of questioning. In some instances, she outright refused to answer a question clearly or even beneficial to her own defense, as when Knowlton asked her to describe her relationship with her stepmother. Asking if it was a cordial one, Lizzie replied, "It depends upon one's idea of cordiality perhaps."
After appearing on the witness stand at the inquest for three days in a row, and after a careful examination of other people, including John Morse and Bridget Sullivan, Lizzie Borden was, on August 11th, 1892, served with a warrant of arrest and taken into custody.