In 1892, the small mill town of Fall River, Massachusetts, was shaken to its core by the hatchet murders of a prominent citizen, Andrew Borden, and his wife Abby. His daughter (Abby’s stepdaughter) Lizzie Borden was accused of the murders and stood trial a year later. She was acquitted, but the intervening century and a quarter have seen many people convinced of her guilt.
If she was guilty, one of the things that helped her mightily was the way the crime scene was treated. No yellow tape protected the integrity of the scene. A photographer confronted with the body of Mrs. Borden, half hidden by the bed she crawled under to escape the hatchet, simply pulled her out and rearranged her to get a full-body image. No images were taken of the exact position in which she lay.
Curious neighbors felt free to walk through the home and view the corpses. Lizzie, her sister, her uncle, and a friend spent the next few nights in the home where they could have easily tampered with evidence or hidden a weapon better. (The bodies rested in the dining room at least one night until taken away). Officers were posted outside, but no one kept a firm eye on Lizzie. Several days after the murders, she burned one of her dresses in the kitchen stove. Whether covered in blood or not, the dress was part of an active crime scene.
In the trial transcripts, we find proof of what a circus the crime scene was. Witness Thomas Barlow testified that he and a friend went to the Borden house as soon as they’d heard about the murders. They tried to get inside, but weren’t allowed in. So instead, they went to the backyard barn. Lizzie claimed the barn loft as part of her alibi, so this again was an active part of the scene that was not protected as it should have been.
“Went into the barn and right up to the hayloft. Looked out the west window, then looked in under the hay, and then came downstairs and went out (he and his friend were looking for the murderer!)…Went to the south side of the house; tried to look in window. There were several people looking in the windows.”
Barlow said he stayed at the house, milling around the yard, until dinnertime. He went home to eat and returned to the Borden house, where he stood in the street until midnight.
He and his friend were only boys, which perhaps explains why they couldn’t gain admittance to the house, unlike hundreds of others who gamely tromped through the house. The Borden home is very close to the street, so undoubtedly Lizzie and other family members were well aware of the hooting townspeople clustered on the street watching and waiting for anything worth seeing.
There are so many ways in which the police department didn’t effectively secure the crime scene. An officer admitted that the attic was not searched. Other than maid Bridget Sullivan’s bedroom and another chamber, the attic was basically a wide open space filled with boxes and trunks—the perfect place to hide a weapon. Nor was the kitchen searched, nor the cupboard from which Lizzie plucked the dress she burned. It seems the “female” or “servant” areas were not considered worthy of examination.
A spool of yellow tape could’ve gone a long way for this case.
If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, Erika has several Murderer’s Maid events taking place this weekend. In particular, you might enjoy the launch at the (haunted) Pardee Home Museum, 6-9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27, 672 11th Street. A rare chance to tour the home after sundown, plus a slideshow of the Borden house (where Erika spent the night last year) and wine, refreshments and book signing. Ticketed event: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3101152?date=1790973
Erika Mailman is the author of The Murderer’s Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel, as well as several other historical novels. Visit www.erikamailman.com.