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Testimony in Borden trial lacked murder weapon

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From page A1 | July 03, 2013 |

Editor’s note: This is the third 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.

On the morning of Aug. 4, 1892, someone hacked Andrew and Abby Borden to death in their Fall River, Mass., home. The police said it was their daughter, Lizzie Borden. But the killer left no weapon near the bodies.

On June 9, 1893, the fifth day of Lizzie’s trial, the police testified they discovered the likely murder weapon – a hatchet – in the cellar of the Borden house the day of the murders.

Assistant City Marshal John Fleet said he examined two axes and several hatchets that day. Bridget Sullivan, the Bordens’ live-in maid, showed the police the tools.

One of the hatchets had a broken handle, Fleet told the court. It was covered on both sides with a fine dust or ash. The handle had been recently broken. Another hatchet with a claw had a red spot on it.

For weeks, newspaper stories about hatchets and axes had appeared, but Fleet’s testimony marked the first time the police and prosecutors said the probable murder weapon was found the day of the murder.

In all, a half-dozen police officers testified during the 13-day trial in New Bedford Superior Court.

“The police of Fall River told their story today,” The Providence Journal reported June 10 on the previous day’s proceedings. One by one, the investigators – those closest to “this tale of crime and horror” – took the stand to offer enough evidence to send Lizzie Borden “to her grave,” the newspaper said.

“All the details of that awful morning of August last were rehearsed with a terrible exactness, all the scenes in the ill-fated household were drawn in clear and startling colors with the vivid pencils of memory . . .”

In fact, the day the Bordens were killed, most of the city’s police were away at Rocky Point, a Rhode Island amusement park on Narragansett Bay.

Fleet learned about the murders around 11:35 in the morning of Aug. 4. At home tending to his sick wife, the 12-year veteran of the police force grabbed his coat and hat and drove a police buggy to the Bordens’ home, where he questioned Lizzie.

“I asked her if she knew anything about the murders,” Fleet testified.

She said all she knew was that Mr. Borden “came home about half past ten or a quarter to eleven, went into the sitting room, sat down in the large chair, took out some papers and looked at them.”

(At an earlier inquest, Lizzie said her father was reading The Providence Journal the morning he was killed.)

Lizzie, ironing handkerchiefs in the dining room, realized her father “was feeble” and helped him rest on the sofa, she told Fleet. She then went into the barn, where she stayed for a half-hour, she said. When she entered the house again, she discovered her father’s bloody body.

Fleet suggested two possible suspects to Lizzie. The first – John V. Morse, Lizzie’s uncle – had spent the night before at the Bordens’ house. Was he connected with the murders? Fleet asked.

No, Lizzie said. He left early in the morning and did not return until after the murders, she said.

How about Bridget Sullivan, the maid? Could she have murdered her employers? Fleet asked.

No, Lizzie said. Sullivan had gone upstairs to nap and was still there when Lizzie returned from the barn.

“I then asked her if she had any idea who could have killed her father and mother,” Fleet told the jury. Lizzie quickly corrected him, he said. “She said, ‘She is not my mother, sir; she is my stepmother; my mother died when I was a child.’ ”

But Lizzie did have an idea of who might have wished to harm her father. A potential tenant had showed up at the house two weeks before the murders. The man and her father had argued. “The man seemed to be angry,” Lizzie told Fleet.

Later on the day of the murders, Fleet and two police officers went to search Lizzie’s room.

Dr. Seabury W. Bowen, the Bordens’ family doctor, who had been called to the house earlier, opened the door slightly. Bowen asked Fleet what he wanted.

Fleet said he wanted to search the room.

The doctor closed the door and conferred with Lizzie.

He opened it and said Lizzie “wanted to know if it was absolutely necessary for us to search that room,” Fleet told the court. Fleet told Bowen that murders had been committed and “it was our duty to do so, and we wanted to get in there.”

The doctor opened the door.

Fleet and the other officers looked through drawers, a closet and the bedroom.

He then searched the maid’s attic room and closet. He also went inside the barn that day. Other investigators were in the barn, too.

Investigators searched under a hay pile on the barn’s north end.

Fleet said he returned to search the house again two days later with several people, including City Marshal Rufus B. Hilliard and Andrew J. Jennings, one of Lizzie’s defense attorneys.

They examined Lizzie’s dresses, he said.

Did you find a dress with paint marks on it, attorney William Moody asked Fleet.

No, sir.

Did you find any blood upon any dress?

No, sir.

Fleet and the other witnesses were cross-examined by Lizzie’s lead attorney, George D. Robinson. The 59-year-old former Massachusetts governor was well-connected and had a way of tripping up the prosecution’s witnesses, including Fleet, The Journal said.

He stood with the tips of his fingers on the defense table, “as if he was to play on a piano, instead of upon the feelings of a witness.”

Very shortly, the witness discovers he has said something he wished he hadn’t, The Journal said.

In cross-examinations, Robinson sought to show that the police did not search the house as diligently as they should have.

Robinson got Fleet to admit that he initially dismissed the broken hatchet as a possible murder weapon, despite the fact that he perceived a fresh break in the handle.

Under reexamination by Moody, Fleet said he had focused on a different hatchet because it looked like it had been washed.

THURSDAY: Evidence to the jury leaves question about Lizzie Borden’s role.

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