Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Didn't Do It!

"There is not one particle of direct evidence in this case, from beginning to end, against Lizzie Borden. There is not a spot of blood, there is not a weapon they have connected to her in any way, shape, or fashion. They have not had her hand touch it or her eyne see it or her ear hear of it. There is not, I say, a particle of direct testimony in the case connecting her with the crime."

Andrew Jennings, Lizzie's lawyer

And you thought that there was no way that anyone could add anything new to the 1892 Lizzie Borden case. Well, like Jack the Ripper, Lizzie has become a cottage industry. Every few years will produce new books and, sometimes, new insight.

Book cover: Lizzie Didn't Do It
Book cover: Lizzie Didn't Do It

I have selected William L. Masterton's Lizzie Didn't Do It. as a comparatively recent (2000) book that is, from my viewpoint, worthy of reading. After reading Robert Sullivan's Goodbye Lizzie Borden, I had decided that Lizzie had to be guilty, so when I saw Masterton's book, which uses some modern forensics and extensive research to come to his conclusion about Lizzie's innocence, I felt that I needed to open up my mind.

Masterton's book is refreshingly easy to understand and he addresses evidence and testimony by topic, such as the prussic acid issue, the note that Lizzie said Abby Borden received the morning of her murder, and every other controversial area that caused Lizzie to be arrested, handed over to trial and eventually found "not guilty."

Let me address one of the many controversial issues from this classic murder case that Masterton handles so well: Abby Borden's time of death. Why is this important? Because, police and forensic experts at that time believed that Abby Borden was murdered well over an hour, maybe even 2 hours, before her husband Andrew Borden was killed.

Were that really the case, it is very difficult to conjure up a vision of Lizzie, or anyone else for that matter, brutally rampaging against the mild-mannered Abby Borden, then cooling his or her heels for a couple of hours, after which another similar rampage of brutality is generated toward Andrew Borden.

Lizzie was out in the barn around 11 A.M. when her father, Andrew, was murdered, but was in the house between 9 and 10 A.M when contemporary experts testified that Abby died. Furthermore, Abby weighed some 200 pounds and it is hard to imagine that Lizzie would not have heard the stricken Abby crash to the floor.

A number of contemporary experts based their belief that Abby had died between an hour and two hours earlier than Andrew on several factors: 1) Abby's blood seemed to be coagulated and Andrew's was not, 2) Abby's body felt cooler to the touch than Andrew's, and 3) there was a great deal of undigested food in Abby's stomach, but the food in Andrew's stomach was pretty well digested.

At the time of the trial, Dr. Frank Draper testified on the very limited value of blood coagulation as an indicator of time of death. He said that "after fifteen minutes [from death], it would be unsafe to form an opinion." Regarding the degree of warmth of the body as determined by the touch of the medical examiner, even then in 1892, the defense ridiculed the use of touch rather than a thermometer to determine the body temperature. With the difference in the degree of digestion between Abby and Andrew Borden, Dr. Draper pointed out that different people digest food at different frequencies and that there could easily be an hour's variation among two individuals who ate the same food at the same time. Masterton points out that there is no record of what and when Abby might have eaten that morning. In fact, there were items in her stomach that were not served at breakfast.

Masterton devotes an entire chapter to utilizing modern forensic analysis to determine the time of death for Abby Borden. From Masterton's research, it appears as though over 100 years later, Dr. Draper was essentially correct about the time it took for blood to coagulate between 5 and 15 minutes after death. Interestingly, according to reliable testimony, for a number of hours after his death, Andrew's blood behaved in an unusual, but not unknown way. It did not coagulate. Masterton states, "Often, when a person dies suddenly and violently, as Andrew did, the blood becomes uncoagulable shortly after death."

Today, pathologists, when estimating time of death, take internal temperature measurements over a period of time rather than just taking it once. Masterton's research revealed that the temperature of a dead body "drops very little if at all during the first few hoursMoreover, the decomposition reactions that take place immediately after death give off heat"

On the subject of the rate of digestion as a determinant as to time of death, Masterton found that "large deviations from the 'average' behavior is the rule rather than the exception."

Masterton demonstrates in some detail that if Lizzie's trial were held today with the benefits of modern forensic technology that the evidence presented would not determine that Abby Borden died 1-2 hours before Andrew died.

And so, Masterton addresses every piece of evidence and assumption that was used in the case and finds it quite reasonable that Lizzie was acquitted in the deaths of her father and step-mother. "The prosecution did not or could not make out a strong case against hera century later (September 1997), a jury of Stanford Law School alumni, faculty and students, in a mock Borden trial presided over by Justices Rehnquist and O'Connor of the United States Supreme Court, again found Lizzie not guilty for the same reason."

I recommend the book to serious students of the Borden case.

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