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Lizzie Borden Trial: 1893

Lizzie Charged With Murder

The police began an investigation and questioned Lizzie on the events of the morning of the murder. Whether out of shock or deliberate evasiveness, her answers were rambling and inconsistent. The police asked her where she had been at the time of the murders, and she answered at different times with different versions. Lizzie at various times told the police that she had been getting a piece of fishing gear from the family barn, or that she had been in the yard, or that she had been picking pears.

Turn-of-the-century-police questioning tactics, particularly those used on a murder suspect, were often less than sensitive to the effect of trauma upon a suspect's answers. It is difficult to determine, therefore, whether Fall River Mayor John Coughlin was justified in ordering the police to arrest Lizzie on the basis of their investigation and her inconsistent answers. The local coroner conducted a formal inquest, and Lizzie's answers were just as confused.

The police charged Lizzie with the murder of her father and stepmother. They suspected that Lizzie's motive was either a deep-rooted resentment related to her natural mother's death, or a desire to collect her father's sizable fortune. The police did not, however, attempt to implicate Lizzie's older sister Emma in the murders. Logically, Emma could have had the same motives as Lizzie and have committed the murders herself. With this question hanging in the air, the state of Massachusetts opened Lizzie Borden's trial on June 5, 1893.

Judges Caleb Blodget, Justin Dewey, and Albert Mason presided over the trial. The prosecutors were Hosea Knowlton and William H. Moody. Knowlton was the more experienced attorney, but because he was feeling ill he had brought Moody along as co-counsel. Lizzie's defense lawyers were Andrew Jennings and George D. Robinson. Robinson was a particularly distinguished lawyer, having once been the governor of Massachusetts.

Moody opened the prosecution's case by describing the facts to the jury and preparing them to accept the idea that a woman could have committed such horrible crimes:

Upon the fourth day of August of the last year an old man and woman, husband and wife, each without a known enemy in the world, in their own home, upon a frequented street in the most populous city in this County under the light of day and in the midst of its activities, were, first one, then, after an interval of an hour, another, severally killed by unlawful human agency. Today a woman of good social position, of hitherto unquestioned character, a member of a Christian church and active in good works, the own daughter of one of the victims, is at the bar of this Court, accused by the Grand Jury of this County of these crimes.

The prosecution's case rested in large part on circumstantial evidence. For example, Moody made a point of emphasizing that Emma Borden had seen Lizzie burning a dress after the murders. Implying that Lizzie had burnt the bloodstained dress she wore while murdering her parents, Moody said to the jury:

Now, gentlemen, it will appear that about the two rooms in which the homicides were committed there was blood spattering in various directions, so that it would make it probable that one or more spatters of blood would be upon the person or upon the clothing of the assailant.

The prosecution went on to present four axes and hatchets found in the Borden house. None of these implements had any bloodstains on them, however.

Andrew Jennings, who had been the Borden family's attorney for many years, opened Lizzie's defense with a direct attack on the prosecutors' reliance on circumstantial evidence:

They have either got to produce the weapon which did the deed … or else they have got to account in some reasonable way for its disappearance.… There are two kinds of evidence: direct evidence and circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence is the testimony of persons who have seen, heard or felt the thing or things about which they are testifying.… [T]here is not one particle of direct evidence in this case, from beginning to end, against Lizzie Andrew Borden. There is not a spot of blood: there is not a weapon connected with her.

Jennings and Robinson went on to challenge the prosecution's assertion that Lizzie's dress-burning was an implication of guilt. They brought Emma Borden to the witness stand and were able to elicit testimony, favorable to Lizzie, that the dress had in fact been very old, faded and stained and thus was legitimately destroyed. After nearly two days, the defense concluded its case.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Lizzie Borden Trial: 1893 - Lizzie Charged With Murder, Attorneys Wrap Up, Judges' Instructions Favor Lizzie, Suggestions For Further Reading