June 20, 1893: Lizzie Borden Acquitted of Murder

On June 20, 1893, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murders of her father and stepmother.

A summary of the case in Frank Leslie’s Weekly’s June 29, 1893 issue was read by Americans coast-to-coast and helped shape American views of the event and ensuing trial. Miss Borden, in court, was featured on the cover of that issue.


THIS cause célèbre will pass down into the annals of criminal jurisprudence as one of the most remarkable on record—in fact, taken in all its details and aspects it has no equal in the world’s history of crime; and that is saying a great deal. Here were two old people, living the final chapter of their lives in peace and plenty, apparently without a known enemy, who are found in their own home literally hacked to pieces, and without a visible clew to the murderer or murderers. All this took place in Fall River, Massachusetts, noted for its thrift, its steady going, quietly industrious, and frugal people. After a few days’ search the police authorities, bound, of course, to arrest somebody for the crime, bring the focus of their detecting faculties to centre upon the daughter of the murdered man and the step-daughter of the murdered woman, and place her under arrest, charged with the awful crime of killing first her step-mother and then her own father. And they kept her in jail for eight long, weary months before the slow-moving wheels of criminal procedure in the old Bay State could revolve and bring the accused to the bar of justice, to be tried for her life.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published from 1855 to 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.
In this case, as well as all others of like character, there are primarily four considerations of importance, of almost equal weight: Motive, weapon, exclusive opportunity, and the demeanor, conduct, and general character of the accused. One of the so-called strongholds of the prosecution throughout this extraordinary and mysterious case has been the allegation that Lizzie Borden, in consequence of some money troubles in the family, had conceived for her step-mother a violent and demoniacal hatred.

The Lizzie Bordern Murder Trial Ends

The Lizzie Bordern Murder Trial Ends

This was the direct cause which led to her arrest, and because also she and the servant girl were the only two people in the Borden residence at the time of the murders. This alleged hatred was supposed to furnish the motive which led to the double crime. In other words, hatred of her step-mother was to be sufficient incentive to lead a daughter to inflict ten terrible wounds upon her own father, and fairly slaughter this defenseless parent in cold blood, with whom she had all her life been upon the most affectionate terms. As the prosecution unfolded its case it became apparent that motive, springing from the family relations existing in the Borden household, was absolutely wanting in strength. In fact, each witness upon this point for the prosecution was a triumph for the defense, so that before the trial was half over motive for the crime had vanished into thin air.

Next must be considered the weapon. Apparently the murders were done with an axe or hatchet. The most minute search has failed to bring to light the guilty instrument. Several old axes, etc., were found in the Borden cellar, upon one a single hair and what appeared to be blood, which expert examination proved to be rust and a cow’s hair. So much for the weapon. Where is it? The State absolutely failed to produce it.

As to the exclusive opportunity, if Lizzie Borden murdered her step-mother she had ample opportunity for this crime, and had the matter stopped with her death it is more than likely that there would be but one opinion as to the identity of the murderer. Bridget Sullivan testified that she went up-stairs, not feeling well, leaving Miss Lizzie Borden ironing in the kitchen, and returned again to the kitchen after an absence of not over a quarter of an hour. Prior to this Mr. Borden had returned home from a visit down town; Mrs. Borden at that moment was lying murdered up-stairs, and yet, according to Bridget’s testimony, Lizzie chatted gayly with her father upon his entrance, and some fifteen minutes afterward murdered him fiendishly, recovered her normal self-possession after having taken her own father’s life, removed all traces of the crime from her person, and effectively disposed of the instrument which inflicted death. And all this within fifteen minutes. It was not possible. And this feeling fastened itself upon public and jury as the trial progressed.

As to the character of the accused, there was not the slightest inference from any quarter that her life had been anything but upright, modest, and charitable. Her demeanor after her arrest and throughout the trial was brave, modest, and self-contained. There was not a single shred of evidence as to the accused’s character or conduct that could in any manner be construed as preparatory to such a crime. Here, again, the State failed to raise a single incriminating point against the prisoner.

The police of Fall River cut an ignominious figure throughout the trial. There was not a single point which they made against their prisoner which was not credibly contradicted; in fact, so authoritatively that little else than downright perjury and conspiracy against Lizzie Borden, to shield their own absolute incompetency, can be charged against them. And yet these very officers have been promoted in rank and had their salaries increased as well, as a reward for their zeal in collecting evidence on which to try Lizzie Borden. Public opinion and the opinion of the press were with the prisoner almost unanimously from the opening of the trial. There were a number of facts brought forward which at first seemed to bear heavily against the accused—notably the burning of the paint-smeared dress, the asking the first comers to the house to search for “Mrs. Borden,” and some other alleged sayings, all of which were in part or whole entirely refuted or explained away. As the trial approached its close the public interest increased to an abnormal extent. It is safe to say that the verdict of acquittal had been anticipated by close students of the evidence, and that it gave general satisfaction.

via Frank Leslie’s Weekly for June 29, 1893

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