40 whacks

Lizzie borden took an axe ... or did she?

Special to the Union Leader
May 23. 2013 12:28AM

WHO DID IT?: Lizzie Borden, whose name for more than 120 years has been synonymous with a grisly nursery rhyme, was tried for the murder of her parents in Fall River, Mass., but was ultimately acquitted. Still, the case remains shrouded in mystery. 

BETWEEN THE PAGES: Annette Holba explores a famous 1892 murder case in her book, “Lizzie Borden Took an Axe, or Did She? A Rhetorical Inquiry,” and associated lecture series in New Hampshire.

For more than 120 years, the ghoulish rhyming refrain has cast a pall over the spirit of New England: "Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41."

But is it truth or folk lore, or a bit of both?

Borden became the talk of Fall River, Mass., back in 1892, when the 32-year-old was charged with murdering her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Abby, in their home with an axe.

And nearly century and a quarter since her alleged crimes, people are still talking. The legend has grown to the point that the facts of what happened have been somewhat lost to history. But Plymouth State Associate Professor and former police officer Annette Holba, author of "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe, or Did She? A Rhetorical Inquiry," is on a mission to uncover the details surrounding that long along case.

Sharing Theories

Holba will present her finding at talks throughout the state this year, including Thursday, May 23, at the Harvey-Mitchell Memorial Library, 151 Main St., Epping; Thursday, July 18, at Seabrook Library, 25 Liberty Lane, Seabrook; Thursday, Aug. 15, at Gilmanton Year-Round Library, 1385 NH Route 140, Gilmanton Iron Works; Wednesday, Sept. 11, at Gorham Public Library, 35 Railroad St., Gorham; and Wednesday, Sept. 18, at Newton Town Hall, 2 Town Hall Rd., Newton.

"There's so much more here than what we read," Holba said. "And they focus on theories and trying to solve it instead of trying to understand it."

Borden lived with her parents and older sister, Emma, in a small house in Fall River. At the time of his murder, her father, Andrew Borden, had amassed a considerable amount of his death, owned a lot of commercial property and was president of the Union Savings Bank and a director of the Durfee Safe Deposit and Trust Co.

The day of the murders, Aug. 4, he had breakfast with his wife, ran some errands and came home around 10:45 a.m. Bridget Sullivan, a maid who also lived at the house, later testified that she was resting in her third-floor room when just before 11:10 a.m. she heard Lizzie call out that Andrew Borden was dead and that someone had killed him.

Andrew Borden was found slumped on a couch in the downstairs sitting room. He had been struck 10 or 11 times with a hatchet-like weapon. The scene was gruesome, the attack brutal. A short time later, after neighbors and a doctor were called in, Sullivan discovered Abby Borden in an upstairs bedroom with what turned out to be 19 wounds to her skull. Police found a hatchet with no handle— and no blood — in the basement of the house.

Lizzie Borden was arrested a week later. A grand jury convened in November and she was indicted on Dec. 2.

Though ultimately acquitted of the murder, Borden never escaped her infamy and police never considered other suspects.

"I think like most cases that haven't really been fully solved, that's the catch for everyone," said Tasha LeRoux, head librarian at the Gilmanton Year-Round Library, one of the stops on this summer's lecture tour. "We're never really going to know what happened ... kind of like Jack the Ripper or the (assassination of President) Kennedy, there's always this mystery and everybody has a theory, and everybody has their own ideas. It's a never-ending mystery."

Enduring Mystery

And it certainly grabbed Holba's attention. She first started looking at the Borden case when she was teaching a class on women and crime back in 1999.

"(Borden's) case just stood out for me from the other women we studied that semester," Holba said.

What struck her most what how armchair detectives put much blame on the police, something that often happens when people look at history with a contemporary perspective rather than take into account what life was like in an earlier era and what was available to police in terms of resources and technology.

Revisiting the Crime Scene

To get a feel for the case, Holba went back to the scene of the crime. She and a neighbor headed to the Borden home, which is now a bed and breakfast.

"I said, 'Let's go spend the night, let's go explore'," Holba said. "What was really interesting to me was how modest the house was, how small it was, how there were no hallways from room to room.

"And I thought, 'Well, if there's two people home at the time of the murders, how could no one have heard anything in the house?'," Holba said. "If it was an outside job, someone still had to come in. But this house, even though there were a lot a rooms, it's still so tiny. There's not a lot of privacy."

On the same trip, Holba visited the Fall River Historical Society, where they were granted access to documents not normally on display, including notes from the investigation and letters members of the community sent to police during the investigation, both against and in defense of Borden.

"I started to feel this historical nudge and I thought, 'Wow, there's so much we don't know about the case because information is scattered here and there and everywhere,'" she said.

She also took the extra step of buying the transcripts of the trial. She started reading pockets of the documents, which are thousands of pages long, and immediately found discrepancies. Among them, she said, is testimony as it related to John Morse, Andrew Borden's brother-in-law by a first marriage. Morse had come to stay with the Bordens the night before the murders. He said he heard a conversation between Bridget (the maid) and Abby (the stepmother). Bridget also testified having that conversation, however, she testified it took place after Morse already left the house.

"So either somebody's confused, which can happen, or he heard the conversation, but he wasn't supposed to be in the house, which is interesting to me."

Holba said there's still a lot more work to do, including tracking down the living relatives of the maid, whom some records have as moving to Montana after the trial. The same state that Morse was reported to have lived. She also wants to finish going through the court transcripts and get a better understanding of what became of Emma in the years after the trial.

Holba said her primary goal is to understand the details of the case and its alleged perpetrator.

"If you get too narrow a focus, you lose sight of what's in front of you," Holba said. "I think that's what the police did."

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