Dusting off a cold case with modern forensics: Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. And when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.
Subject: Criminal investigation (History)
Criminal investigation (Forecasts and trends)
Forensic sciences (Forecasts and trends)
Author: Augustine, Megan
Pub Date: 12/22/2005
Publication: Name: The Forensic Examiner Publisher: American College of Forensic Examiners Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Law; Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2005 American College of Forensic Examiners ISSN: 1084-5569
Issue: Date: Winter, 2005 Source Volume: 14 Source Issue: 4
Topic: Event Code: 980 Legal issues & crime; 010 Forecasts, trends, outlooks Advertising Code: 94 Legal/Government Regulation Computer Subject: Company legal issue; Market trend/market analysis
Persons: Named Person: Borden, Lizzie (American murderer); Borden, Lizzie (American murderer)
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Massachusetts Geographic Code: 1U1MA Massachusetts
Accession Number: 138997212
Full Text: We have all heard the story of Lizzie Borden. It is a case that has fascinated us for over 100 years; a case that, in the books, remains unsolved. But what we all haven't heard is the story of modern forensics--the story that could have potentially changed the outcome of this mysterious case.

Murder on Second Street

The date was August 4, 1892. The location, Fall River, Massachusetts; more specifically, No. 92 Second Street, the home of Andrew and Abby Borden.

At around 11:10 a.m., 32-year-old Lizzie Borden, Andrew's daughter and Abby's stepdaughter, discovered Andrew's dead body on a couch in the sitting room of the home. Soon after, Abby was found dead on the floor of the guestroom.

Confusion spread, through the house, and police were summoned. Bridget, the hired help in the household and a key player in the case, dashed across the street to get the help of Dr. Bowen, the family physician. He was out at the time but arrived at the Borden home shortly thereafter. He telegraphed Emma, Lizzie's older sister, to relay the terrible news. In the meantime, neighbors came and went, intrigued and horrified by the brutal murders.

Upon examination, Dr. Bowen found Andrew's wounds to be quite gruesome. One eye had been cut in half and protruded from its socket, his nose had been severed, and 11 gashes painted the left side of his face.

Abby's deceased body was in no better shape. Her body was found lying face down in a pool of blood, her head nearly separated from her shoulders. Dr. Bowen found that Abby had been struck in the back of the skull more than a dozen times, presumably with the same hatchet or axe that had been used to kill Andrew.

All Eyes on Lizzie

Lizzie fell under suspicion for the murders for several reasons. The day before the murder, Abby claimed to Dr. Bowen that she and Andrew were being poisoned. Both had been violently ill the previous night. Unfortunately for Lizzie, Eli Bence, a clerk at Smith's Drug Store, informed investigators that Lizzie had attempted to buy prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) on several occasions in the 2 weeks prior to the murders; Bence refused to sell it to her without a prescription. Lizzie later denied visiting the store or requesting the poison.

Lizzie also had a problem with alibi consistency. She was constantly changing her story, remembering and forgetting bits of information and contradicting herself.

Then, a couple of days after the murder took place, Miss Russell, a friend of the Borden sisters, witnessed Lizzie burning a dress in the kitchen stove. Lizzie said the dress was stained with paint and was of no use. Not likely. It was this testimony that prompted Judge Blaisdell to charge Lizzie with the crimes.

The trial lasted 14 days, from June 5 to June 19, 1893. The only time Lizzie spoke throughout the trial came after closing arguments. She merely stated, "I am innocent. I leave it to my counsel to speak for me." At 3:24 on June 19, the jury was sworn, given the case, and retired to carry out their deliberations. At 4:23, the jury returned with a verdict: not guilty. It is said it took them only 5 minutes to reach a verdict, but out of respect for the prosecution they waited an hour to deliver it.

Errors, Answers, and Questions of "What If" of the Investigation

An inconsistent alibi, a dress gone up in flames, and the stereotypical image of a young woman in the 1800s; all these and much more fuel the mystery of the Lizzie Borden case. Theories run rampant and Lizzie Borden books reside in every library. If only we'd had modern forensics at the time of the crime, maybe we could have stamped this case "solved."

In the minutes following the discovery of the bodies, little, if anything was done to secure the crime scene. A number of individuals waltzed around the crime scene, leaving fingerprints everywhere, including on the to dies of the deceased. Had the crime scene been secure, modern forensics would have dusted for fingerprints, and those found would raise suspicion. However, with an unsecured scene, fingerprints are meaningless!

Additionally, the bodies were moved prior to a complete investigation. Had the bodies not been moved, blood spatter analysis would allow investigators to correctly collect blood stain data at the scene, and a blood spatter expert could interpret the patterns to reveal critically important information such as the positions of the victims, assailant, and objects of the scene; the type of weapon used and number of blows, etc.; and the movement and direction of the victim and assailant after bloodshed began. The trajectory of blood spatter would prove useful in estimating the angle of the wounds and the height of the attacker. For example, it has been suggested that Andrew was standing at the time of the first strike and that the blood spatter at the scene would have resulted from a strike from someone much taller than Lizzie.

Additionally, modern forensics could utilize Luminol to find traces of blood at the crime scene. Luminol is a chemical that glows greenish blue when it comes into contact with blood, even traces that are years old. To be exact, it reacts to hemoglobin, an oxygen-carrying protein in red-blood cells. Luminol is so sensitive that it can detect blood at 1 part per million. If there is one drop of blood within a container of 999,999 drops of water, Luminol will glow. With Luminol highlighting any traces of blood, a bloody footprint, shoeprint, or fingerprint might help tell a new story. A bloody trail could have been left behind, invisible to the naked eye, displaying to investigators the escape route of the murderer. It might show which door he or she exited through, if in fact the killer left at all.

The issue of Lizzie's attire that fateful day has never been resolved. Some say it was a light blue dress, others say it was dark blue. If investigators had been able to identify, locate, and submit into evidence the dress she wore that day, further examination could have been per formed to analyze the blood (if there was any) that soiled the cloth. Additionally, the dress-burning incident would not have been of consequence. With the dress in question in the hands of authorities, the burning of another dress would not lead to an arrest as it did in Lizzie's case. Modern crime scene investigators would have captured the scene with photographs and/or videotape. We would know exactly what Lizzie was wearing and how she reacted to the tragedy; everything would be in recorded evidence.

The determinations of time of death in the Lizzie Borden case were merely guesswork. Experts at the time estimated that Abby died between 1-2 hours prior to Andrew. This conclusion was based on three factors: 1) Abby's blood was coagulated and Andrew's was not; 2) Abby's body felt cooler to the touch than Andrew's; 3) Abby's stomach had a great deal of undigested food, while the food in Andrew's stomach was well digested.

Today, with modern forensic technology, the evidence presented would not determine that Abby died 1-2 hours before Andrew. First, the fact that Andrews--blood was not coagulated is unusual, but not unheard of. When a person dies suddenly and violently, the blood becomes uncoagulable shortly after death. Secondly, pathologists today would not rely on the use of touch to determine body temperature. An internal thermometer would be used to take measurements over a period of time. Also, research has found that the body temperature of the deceased drops very little in the first few hours after death. Thus, the varied body temperatures, measured by touch, would have very little meaning. And finally, people digest food at different rates, so the amount of food found in the victims' stomachs does not shed light on the time of their deaths.

The Jury Is Still Out

Based upon modern forensic examination, would Lizzie Borden be found guilty of the crimes? In a mock trial presided over by Justices Rehnquist and O'Connor of the United States Supreme Court, a jury of Stanford Law School alumni, faculty, and students again found Lizzie not guilty. With the results of the many tests (blood samples, DNA testing, hair samples, etc.), perhaps we'd have a clear-cut answer. However, without that evidence from modern forensics, the jury, figuratively speaking, is still out.


Akin, L. L. (2005). Blood Spatter: Interpretation at Crime Scenes. The Forensic Examiner, 14(2), 6-10.

Auito, R. (2005). Lizzie Borden Took an Ax. Court TV [On-line]. Retrieved September 2005 from http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_ murders/famous/borden/index_1.html.

Clark, D. M. (2005). How Lizzie Borden Got Away with Murder. Crime Magazine, An Encyclopedia of Crime [On-line]. Retrieved September 2005 from http://crimemagazine.com/borden.htm.
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