Borden case featured skull, medical testimony

By From page A1 | July 04, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the fourth of six parts of “Lizzie Borden: Enduring Mystery,” which draws on a number of sources, including some material kept by one of Borden’s attorneys, Andrew Jennings. This marks the 120th anniversary of the homicide.

During the second week of the Lizzie Borden murder trial, in June 1893, surgeon William A. Dolan presented a grisly item to the jurors – a plaster cast of the battered skull of Andrew Borden, Lizzie’s father.

The plaster skull had gaping holes representing those made by the killer’s weapon, a hatchet. For days, prosecutors had carefully built a case against the Sunday school teacher. Lizzie, they said, murdered her father and her stepmother, Abby, on Aug. 4, 1892.

The jurors gazed at the replica of the skull. Spectators in New Bedford Superior Court “craned their necks . . . to view ‘the grinning object,’ ” The Providence Journal reported.

But not Lizzie.

With the permission of the court, she was allowed to leave the room before Dolan, holding the plaster skull, testified that the killer struck Andrew Borden in the head 10 times.

The hatchet blows crushed his skull. One strike split his left eye in half and cut through his cheek bone, leaving a 4½-inch wound.

Lizzie listened to the testimony from a side room.

With all she “has endured, it was an act of mercy to allow her retirement from the courtroom while this ghastly relic of her parent was handed about, while experts were fitting hatchet blades into its parts,” The Journal said.

Dolan testified on two days – June 12 and 13. Other medical experts took the stand after him.

Unlike earlier witnesses – including the police who sought to pin the murders on Lizzie – the medical experts presented evidence based “purely on scientific knowledge,” The Providence Journal reported. Dolan, a Fall River, Mass., doctor and medical examiner for Bristol County, explained to jurors how and when the Bordens died. He said he looked at the bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden several times on the day of the murders.

Andrew lay on a sofa in the sitting room near the front door. According to Dolan, his wounds were still fresh. His hand was warm, and his blood, still oozing from the wounds in his head, was bright red, Dolan said. Blood dripped onto the carpet.

The murdered man – wearing a woolen jacket, black vest, black trousers and a pair of Congress shoes – had a gold ring on his left hand, a pocket watch in his vest and a pocketbook holding $81.65 in bills and change.

Upstairs, in the guest room, Dolan examined Abby Borden’s body, slumped between the dresser and the bed, her back exposed. The upper part of her dress was bloody, he said. But her body was much colder than Andrew’s, and her blood was dark and had coagulated, he said.

After the victims were photographed, Dolan undressed the bodies and placed them on an undertaker’s board. He then removed their stomachs and sealed them in jars. He also took samples of the milk delivered to the Bordens’ house.

(The night before the murders, Lizzie told a friend she thought the family may have been poisoned.)

Dolan sent the milk and stomachs to Prof. Edward S. Wood at the Harvard Medical School.

Using a magnifying glass, Dolan also examined several hatchets and axes found in the cellar of the home. The possible murder weapons had been moved to the city marshal’s office. Dolan said he found two hairs on the blade and wood of one of the hatchets. There were also spots on the tools that looked like blood or rust. The evidence was delivered to Wood at Harvard.

But Dolan wasn’t finished with the bodies.

Two days after the crime, mourners attended a funeral service for the Bordens in their home and at Oak Grove Cemetery. But the Bordens weren’t buried afterward. They were moved, instead, to a nearby holding tomb.

On Aug. 11 – five days after the funeral – Dolan and several other doctors conducted a second, more thorough, autopsy on the bodies inside the Ladies Comfort Station near the cemetery entrance.

Their organs were healthy, he said. It was clear the victims died from multiple blows to their heads. The force crushed the skulls of both Bordens, he said.

Based on the contents of the organs of the victims, and the differences in their body temperatures and blood, Dolan told the jury that Abby was killed first and her husband was killed an hour or more later.

At one point, prosecutor Hosea M. Knowlton asked Dolan if he thought a woman of ordinary strength could have inflicted the wounds that killed Andrew Borden.

“Yes, sir,” Dolan said.

Dolan’s testimony helped solidify the state’s case against Lizzie.

But Wood, the Harvard professor, did not help the state’s case.

The Harvard Medical School graduate said he tested several possible murder weapons – a claw hammer hatchet and two axes – but found no blood on any of them.

Wood said he found only one hair in the evidence envelope sent by the police. The hair came from an animal, possibly a cow, he said.

He also said he found no blood on Lizzie’s clothing, other than a small spot – about the size of the head of a pin – on her white skirt.

Lizzie, who returned to the courtroom after Dolan’s testimony, left the room again when Frank W. Draper took the stand.

Draper, a Boston doctor and medical examiner, helped Dolan with the Borden autopsies at Oak Grove Cemetery.

According to Draper, Abby Borden’s assailant stood over her. Andrew Borden’s killer, he said, stood behind him while he lay on the sofa.

The killer, he said, would have gotten blood on his or her face, hair, hands and body.

The failure to identify a specific murder weapon wasn’t the only setback for the prosecution.

At the beginning of the second week, the three judges overseeing the trial excluded Lizzie’s 1892 inquest testimony on the grounds that her statements were involuntary. Prosecutors hoped to use the record to reveal Lizzie’s earlier contradictory accounts of where she was the morning of the murders.

But defense attorney George D. Robinson successfully argued that for several days Lizzie had been placed under house arrest and denied a lawyer. “If that is freedom, God save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!” Robinson said.

The judges also ruled the prosecution could not introduce the testimony of Fall River druggist Eli Bence.

Bence, who worked at a South Main Street store, took the witness stand but was asked to step down.

Bence was prepared to testify that on Aug. 3, the day before her parents were murdered, Lizzie tried to buy prussic acid, a deadly poison. Lizzie said she needed the acid to clean a seal-skin cape. Bence said he could not sell the acid to her without a doctor’s note.

Robinson argued that the testimony was not pertinent to the crimes for which Lizzie was charged. The actions to be described by Bence were “not sufficiently near” in time to the murders and so were not relevant, he said. Even if allowed, the evidence would not prove that Lizzie had killed her father and stepmother with a hatchet, he argued.

FRIDAY: Closing arguments, then the verdict.

Paul Davis


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