Note: See comment by “Fiz” below.
“Did Lizzie Borden Dispose of the Murder Weapon By Dropping it in the Privy of the Borden Barn?”
“I am not at all satisfied that any such search has been made for the weapon as absolutely to exclude the presence of it somewhere on the premises. But to make an absolutely thorough search for it might involve the total destruction of the buildings; and this, doubtless, is not worthwhile, especially as the weapon when found cannot absolutely settle the identify (sic) of the murderer.”
-Knowlton Papers, pgs. 61-62. Final paragraph of a letter written by Attorney General Pillsbury to District Attorney Hosea Knowlton, dated 9/3/1892
The most puzzling and compelling case in the annals of American murder mysteries is the Lizzie Borden case of 1892, Fall River, Massachusetts. Less challenging to the vox populi mind of “Did She or Didn’t She?” is the challenge of figuring out what happened to the murder weapon. No weapon was ever found, though it is documented the house was searched “from top to bottom”, as was the barn.
Lizzie stated to investigating police officers that she was in the barn. She testified at the Coroner’s Inquest that she was in the barn.
She was allegedly seen coming from the barn walking towards the side door by 19 year old (and, amazingly, a future renter of 92 Second Street) ice cream peddler, Hyman Lubinsky. (Trial testimony)
The murder weapon has never been found. The “handlless hatchet” found in the cellar in a box on a high shelf covered in ash was presented at Trial as a possible weapon. Governor Robinson, Lizzie’s primary defense attorney, quotes prosecuting attorney William Moody’s opening remarks: “The government does not insist that these homicides were committed by this handleless hatchet: it may have been the weapon.” (Trial Transcript, Vol II).
So if we presume the handless hatchet is NOT the murder weapon – then what happened to it? And, presuming Lizzie’s guilt, what did she do with it?
Primary source document testimony that the barn privy was searched reveals no conclusive, let alone convincing, evidence that the privy was searched thoroughly, i.e., the “muck and guck”, so to speak.
The barn contained an old fashioned privy – an indoor outhouse if you will. Unlike the two privies in the Borden house basement which had a flushing capacity, the barn privy did not. It had a sink hole. It was used as we have testimony that Mrs. Borden used it occasionally, so we know it was not sealed up.
In this view we see the barn door and a little further east (darker shape) the privy door.
In the late 1920’s the Borden barn was dismantled and the local papers covered the event. While an old carpenters hammer, something like a hatchet, was found between beams on the inside wall, it clearly was not the murder weapon. For one thing, the length of the blade was too long, and the City of Fall River paid $200 to have it tested for blood. The results were negative. The writer has been unable to find any newspaper record stating the privy itself was drained or searched. The “muck and guck” would have been dissolved and absorbed into the earth, and most likely the wooden hatchet handle itself, but the metal hatchet head would not have disintegrated. It would still be there. However, it does not appear the “sink hole” was searched.
When the Leary Press was constructed, the area of the privy was cemented over with the new structure. Now, after decades, the Leary Press is to be demolished. This affords a prime opportunity – perhaps the last opportunity – to resolve the question once and for all: “Did Lizzie Borden drop the murder weapon in the barn privy?” If a hatchet head is found and it dates to the period of 1892 (and we know it was a NEW hatchet from The Knowlton Papers), then one can safely assume Lizzie did, indeed, murder her father and stepmother and dropped the hatchet into that muck and guck at the bottom of the sink hole of the barn privy, knowing no one would ever dig into it. If this is the case, no wonder our enigmatic Miss Lizzie expressed little anxiety about the searches throughout the house and “inside” the barn.
If Lizzie disposed of the murder weapon in such a manner, why would she place herself out in the yard and in the barn? Why not simply say she was “down cellar” looking for something or in the privy there? She could not possibly say that. She had been seen coming back from the barn moments before giving the alarm: “Bridget come down! Someone’s killed father!” She had been seen by Hyman Lubinsky and she knew she had been seen. She could not lie. That was too easy a lie to get caught in. Better to admit she was outside, not just in the barn, but up in the loft – up in the loft for 20 minutes – eating pears – adjusting a curtain. Anything but in the privy, which would have had an innocent use unless already visited with a guilty purpose.
The first words out of a guilty person’s mouth immediately after completing a crime are often telling towards their guilt. Lizzie’s first response to the question: “Miss Lizzie, where was you?” (Bridget) was: “I was out in the yard and heard a distressing noise and rushed in and the screen door was wide open.” She had to be out in the yard. She had been seen. And what about the “distressing noise?” Did the dropping of the hatchet make a clanging noise as it bumped against the splash board? Distressing indeed. But Lizzie doesn’t place herself inside the barn until she realizes if she had been in the yard for more than a few minutes she surely would have seen the fleeing assailant. And so she begins weaving that tangled web of being IN the barn, UP in the loft of the barn. (Fish hooks, and sinkers and pears! Oh my!)
If Lizzie did drop the murder weapon down the privy, why didn’t the police find it? Let us address just what is on record regarding the search for the missing weapon as it pertains to the possibility of being in the privy.
I performed “word searches” on each of the primary documents and several books on the Borden case, as follows:
“privy”, “privvy”, “privie”, “privvie”, “barn”, and “vault”
The word “privy” or any variation of the word, appears only rarely in these documents, and only in the context that it “was searched”, period. No details as to how thoroughly it was searched, only “searched”. Over the years, the phrase “the privy was searched” has come to be accepted on face value that it was searched and no weapon was found because no weapon was there because it was searched.
Let us consider for a moment that several police officers searched the dress closet on the second floor of the Borden house and examined all her dresses “one by one” per testimony. Yet, they found no “paint stained dress” – a dress which was burned the Sunday following the murders. Yet, that “closet was searched.” Yes, “the privy was searched” – and no weapon was found.
Amazingly, there is virtually little to no use of the word “privy” in any of these sources. References to searches in the barn most always dealt with “up in the loft” and only skirted reference to the privy itself. There was extensive testimony about searching the barn loft for footprints (Medley’s “cake walk”), turning over the hay, and people in and out of the barn before and after the police entered, Lizzie coming from the barn, the location of woodpiles and boxes and workbenches. In fact, in hunting for statements specific to searches of the privy itself, the privy seemed almost an invisible component of the barn. Dismissive. Of lesser importance. And yet, and yet WHAT BETTER PLACE TO DITCH A HATCHET?!
The following references are in sequence as to proceedings or publication:
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENTS
August 8, 1892 – Officer D. Desmond
“Mr. Jennings was there at, the time. Emma spoke about a “lumber pile in the yard”, and thought it would be a good place to search. Mr. Bryant, and myself went into the cellar; and it was thoroughly searched by Edson, Conners, Quigley and Desmond. From there, we went and searched be barn, lumber pile, yard, privy vault and well, also John Crowe’s yard which is on south side of Borden house. The search I am satisfied was a good one; but we failed to find anything.”
LIZZIE’S INQUEST TESTIMONY
Lizzie’s inquest testimony: “privy” or any variation not used.
– “privy” or any variation is not mentioned in any testimony.
“barn” = Churchill – in context of what Lizzie told her she was doing in the barn.
Pg 33 Bridget testimony
“Q. That privy out behind the barn, was that used by any member of the family, was that in use?
A. Mr. Borden used it.
Q. Did anybody else besides him?
A. Mrs. Borden sometimes.
Q. Did you ever know the girls to use it?
A. No Sir.”
Pg 247 Morse testimony:
Q. Is there a privy vault here at the east end of the barn?
A. Yes sir.
Q. At the south east end of the barn?
A. Yes sir.
Pg 350 Officer Michael Mullaly testimony
A. No. I believe I went from there, and went out and searched the barn and the yard.
Q. The whole barn?
A. That is, I searched downstairs and up.
Q. In the barn?
Q. With the same object in view, for the man or the weapon?
A. The same object in view.
Q. Did you disturb the pile of boards, or did anybody?
A. I do not know as I disturbed anything.
Pg 360 – Mullaly:
Q. You searched the cellar again, and the barn?
A. I did not.
Q. It was searched, was not it?
A. Not at that time.
Q. Did you search the vault, and everything else?
A. I searched it on the first day.
Q. You went through such things as band boxes and barrels and all those things on this Saturday search, and bundles, undid bundles?
A. We went through everything.
Q. Things done up in bundles, you went through those, and untied them?
A. Yes sir, furs and capes &c.
Pg 416 Marshall Hilliard
A. Well, I presume part of it; the other part is Dr. Kelley’s I presume. From there we went, or I went to the well, or what was the well, but it has been filled up. From there I went to the rear end of the barn, and looked into a vault that was there. From that I went into the barn, up where they were overhauling the hay. I looked around there, and came down stairs, and helped in the search of the carriage house and the carriages and barrels.
Q. That is in the lower part of the barn?
A. Yes Sir, on the west end.
(Mr. Knowlton) Not a separate building?
(Mr. Jennings) No.
A. It is that part of the barn where the carriages are, and it is on the west end of the barn, down stairs. We searched in the stalls that are on the north of the barn, and also under the stairway that is there; in fact, all that was down stairs.
Q. You made a thorough search of the whole premises?
A. Yes Sir. When we got through there, I came up and told the officers that—- Well, I sent them to search the other yards around.
SUPERIOR COURT TRIAL TRANSCRIPT
Contains more testimony concerning those being “up in the barn” (the barn loft) rather than the yard level of the barn where the privies were.
Pg21 (Vol I) Bridget’s testimony:
“Q. You do not mean the front door, the carriage door?
A. No, sir.
Q. But the door which is just this side of the privy door?
A. Yes, sir. (Photograph shown witness). Yes, sir, the door where the water is,—the water inside the door.
SUPERIOR COURT TRIAL TRANSCRIPT
Pg1391 (Vol. II) Walter Stevens testimony:
“A. I stepped down from the fence and walked up to the barn.
Q. Didn’t go into the barn?
A. Not at that time.
Q. What were you doing there?
A. Well, we looked into the filled-in well. We looked there.
Q. That is in front of the barn?
A. In front of the barn.
Q. Did you also look in the vault behind the barn?
A. Looked into it.
Q. Before you came to the barn?
BOOKS – IN ORDER OF PUBLICATION
FALL RIVER TRAGEDY – EDWIN PORTER (1893)
(search “barn”) “privy” or any variation not used in entire book.
“All through that eventful day the police searched the house, cellar, yard and barn but found nothing to confirm any suspicions which they might have entertained as to who was guilty of the crimes.”
“From cellar to attic the police and physicians delved into every nook and corner; every particle of hay in the barn loft and every blade of grass in the yard was turned over; and when the day was done the harvest had been nothing, except the discovery of the double murder of a peaceful old man and his harmless wife, struck down in their home like an ox in the stall.”
TRIAL OF LIZZIE BORDEN – EDMUND PEARSON (1937)
The word “privy” or any derivation thereof is not used throughout the entire book. The word “vault” is used only in reference to the bodies of Andrew and Abby being placed in a receiving “vault” at Oak Grove Cemetery.
THE UNTOLD STORY – EDWARD RADIN (1961)
Same as above.
LIZZIE BORDEN – A PRIVATE DISGRACE – VICTORIA LINCOLN (1967)
“But the house had a back lot deep enough to accommodate to the left a small stable—
“the barn,” as the Bordens called it—and a disused privy tucked behind it and the back fence, and to the right a woodpile, a grape arbor, and two or three pear trees. “
(Word “vault” used in context with Oak Grove Cemetery).
GOODBYE LIZZIE BORDEN – JUDGE ROBERT SULLIVAN (1974)
“Pearson was a friend of Knowlton’s son and thus became privy (pun intended) to some of the District Attorney’s correspondence years after the trial had ended.”
(No other mention of “privy” or variations thereof; reference to vault w/Oak Grove).
January 26, 2005
Update: May. 2005
The current owners/operators of the Lizzie Borden B&B did not engage any professional assistance to determine if there was a metal hatchet head (or any metal) in the “vault” area when demolition of the abutting structure (formerly the” barn”) was bulldozed down. Some pottery, china, bottles, a porcelain doll, etc. were found by the manager through cursory digging. It is quite possible any evidence of a hatchet having been discarded in the privy vault was obliterated or scooped up by the bulldozer. Thus, speculation as to Lizzie disposing of the murder weapon in this manner will forever remain an unsolved mystery.
Note: March 10, 2008
Three years later I am still not 100% convinced the hatchet was dropped in the privy. Neither am I 100% convinced the actual murder weapon was that which was found on Crowe’s barn roof just prior to the start of the Trial in 1893. In addition, I continue to ponder the possibility the hatchet is still INSIDE THE HOUSE – MOST LIKELY HIDDEN INSIDE THE CELLAR OR CELLAR WALLS. The cellar would seem an obvious place for Lizzie to say she was when the murder of her father took place and yet it is the one place she removes herself furthest from. But it is still her calm demeanor in her replies regarding searches that lead me to think she had no worry of them finding the murder weapon in that muck and guck WHICH WAS NEVER THOROUGHLY SEARCHED OR DRAINED!!!