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History's Blotter: Lizzie Borden

For a long time, if you entered any police or sheriff’s department in the country, you would be greeted at the front desk by a sergeant presiding over a large bound book. Everyone who came into the station, every call patrolmen answered—it was all documented in that book, called a blotter.

The National Law Enforcement Museum has acquired blotters from all across the United States. They are an important part of our collection—teeming with information about day-to-day law enforcement activities and touching on national events as they affected specific agencies. Find below our version of a national blotter: History’s Blotter draws from events in many places and times to present the collective experience of law enforcement in America. Take a look at the entry featured this month (below), and scroll down to explore the History's Blotter archive.

August 4, 1892 | Borden Murders, Fall River, Massachusetts

Photo caption: Lizzie Borden, c. 1890

“Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.”*

Or so the song goes, it’s difficult to rhyme and be accurate at the same time. While Lizzie Borden was arrested for the brutal murder of her father and stepmother, she was also acquitted. It only took the jury an hour to return a verdict of not guilty. There just wasn’t much evidence against her. 

While the Fall River (MA) Police Department followed crime scene procedures of the time, forensic science was still in its infancy.  No attempt was made to control the crime scene. While officers requested the dress Lizzie had been wearing when they arrived, they didn’t ask for her shoes and stockings until several days later and didn’t search her possessions to see if she might have changed clothing. 

A doctor was brought to the Borden home, where he performed a partial autopsy of the victims on their dining room table. Lizzie’s stepmother, Abby Borden, had been struck more than a dozen times on the back of her head and nearly decapitated. Her father, Andrew, was struck 11 times in the face with a sharp object. Their stomachs were removed and sent to Harvard for analysis. Based on the level of digestion of food in their stomachs and the fact that Abby’s blood was far more coagulated than her husband’s, it was determined that she had died about an hour before Andrew.  

The time difference in the two deaths was a crucial piece of evidence against Lizzie. Only she and the maid, Bridget Sullivan, had been in the house the entire morning. It seemed farfetched that an axe-wielding murderer could kill Abby then wait an hour in the small house for Andrew’s return from work without Lizzie or Bridget noticing. Forensic scientists looking at the evidence today might have come to very different conclusions. Rates of digestion and coagulation are quite variable and are no longer relied on to determine time since death.  Perhaps there was no delay between the two deaths?

Lizzie Borden remained in Fall River until her death in 1927. She was snubbed by most of society but lived well on the money she inherited from her parents. While modern forensics might have solved the mystery of the Borden’s murder that evidence has been erased by time. We’ll probably never know whether Lizzie was guilty or innocent. In the popular imagination though, she is still the 32-year old spinster who took up a hatchet and butchered her parents.

*For a detailed analysis (1,138 pages) of Lizzie Borden and the Fall River of her time, check out Parallel Lives: A Social History of Lizzie A. Borden and Her Fall River by Michael Martins and Dennis A. Binette.


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Posted in News from the National Law Enforcement Museum


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