Lizzie Borden: Fascinating Murder is Never Forgotten

In this blog post, I present a well-known crime that has piqued public interest for over 130 years. The 1892 slaying of Andrew and Abby Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts, shocked Victorian sensibilities in that community. Even more shocking was the arrest and trial for parricide of Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie Borden. Although an all-male jury acquitted her, a cloud of suspicion hung over her for the rest of her life. The crime also inspired a popular, if inaccurate, schoolyard rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks,
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Lizzie Borden and Her Family

Lizzie Andrew Borden was born in Fall River on July 19, 1860. Her mother died when Lizzie was three years old. Three years later, Andrew married Abby Durfee Gray. There were indications that Lizzie and her stepmother were not close. She later said she called Abby “Mrs. Borden” and shied away from saying whether or not they had a cordial relationship. Bridget Sullivan, the Borden’s live-in maid, reported that Lizzie rarely took meals with her father and stepmother.

Lizzie Borden in 1889 (Public Domain)
Lizzie Borden in 1889 (Public Domain)

Andrew had grown up in modest circumstances and had little money as a young man, but by 1892, he had accumulated considerable wealth. He had interests in many local businesses and was president of one bank and a director of another. Despite his financial success, Andrew preferred a frugal lifestyle. For instance, the Borden house at 92 Second Street did not have electricity or indoor plumbing, despite this being common in homes of the well-to-do.

Andrew Jackson Borden and Abby Durfee Borden (Public Domain)
Andrew Jackson Borden and Abby Durfee Borden (Public Domain)

Lizzie and her older sister, Emma, had a religious upbringing. As a young woman, she devoted considerable time to church and charitable activities. She was 32 years old in 1892 and, given the standards and expectations of the time, would have been considered a spinster.

The Borden house at 92 Second Street, Fall River, MA, as it appeared in 1892 (Public Domain)
The Borden house at 92 Second Street, Fall River, MA, as it appeared in 1892 (Public Domain)

Tensions in the Borden Household

The summer of 1892 was not a pleasant time at the Borden residence. As mentioned, the Bordens lived well below their means. Lizzie, in particular, would have preferred a more elegant home on “The Hill,” the section where Fall River’s wealthiest citizens lived.

Another issue was the real estate Andrew gifted to several of Abby’s relatives. A visit from Emma and Lizzie’s maternal uncle, John Vinnicum Morse, raised suspicions that more property transfers were in the works.

Finally, for several days at the end of July and the beginning of August, members of the household had been violently ill. Some speculated that the cause was food poisoning. Abby feared someone might have been trying to poison Andrew, as he was not particularly popular in Fall River.

Bridget Sullivan, the Borden's live-in maid (Public Domain)
Bridget Sullivan, the Borden’s live-in maid (Public Domain)

Murder in the Borden House

August 4, 1892, was a hot Thursday in Fall River. John Morse, who had arrived the day before and spent the night, ate breakfast with Andrew, Abby, and Maggie (the family’s name for Bridget Sullivan). Afterward, he and Andrew retired to the sitting room, where they talked for over an hour before Morse left for some errands. He planned to return for lunch. Andrew also left after 9:00 for his morning walk.

Abby Borden's body as discovered (Fall River Historical Society)
Abby Borden’s body as discovered (Fall River Historical Society)

Sometime between 9:00 and 10:30, Abby went upstairs to the guest room to make the bed. She was facing someone who struck her on the side of the head with a hatchet. The blow caused Abby to turn and fall face down. The attacker then delivered multiple blows—nineteen in all—with the hatchet, killing her.

When Andrew Borden returned to the house, his key wouldn’t open the lock. He knocked, and Bridget went to unlock the door. Finding it jammed, she swore. She later testified that immediately after, she heard Lizzie laughing from the top of the stairs. If true, that meant that Lizzie would have seen her stepmother’s body since Abby was already dead by this time. However, Lizzie denied being upstairs.

Andrew Borden's body as discovered (Fall River Historical Society)
Andrew Borden’s body as discovered (Fall River Historical Society)

Bridget Sullivan was resting in her third-floor room after cleaning windows all morning. At 11:10, she heard Lizzie call from downstairs. Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.”

Andrew lay on a sofa in the sitting room where he had been napping. He had been struck, probably while asleep, ten times with a hatchet or hatchet-like weapon.

Lizzie Borden Suspected

Lizzie was naturally a suspect because she was the only person besides Bridget Sullivan in the house (Emma was in New Bedford visiting a friend). Her behavior following the discovery of the murders also invited suspicion. She changed her story several times, and some investigators found her unusually calm and poised. However, they did not check her for bloodstains, and the search of her room was cursory at best.

The following morning, a friend of both sisters, Alice Russell, went into the Borden kitchen and found Lizzie burning a dress in the kitchen stove. She said she had ruined it by brushing it against wet paint. No one ever determined if it was the dress she had worn the day before.

Lizzie Borden around the time of her trial (Fall River Historical Society)

The district attorney convened an inquest into the murders on August 8. Lizzie’s testimony was confused at some times and combative at others. Her family doctor prescribed regular doses of morphine to calm her nerves, and this likely affected her performance as a witness. In any event, the DA conducted the proceedings more like an interrogation than an impartial inquiry.

At the conclusion of the inquest on August 11, police served Lizzie with an arrest warrant.

Lizzie Borden on Trial

Lizzie’s trial began on Jun 5, 1893, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. In a victory for the defense, Justin Dewey, the presiding Justice, refused to allow Lizzie’s inquest testimony in evidence.

A prominent piece of evidence was a handleless hatched head found in the Borden basement. However, the prosecution failed in its attempt to prove it was the murder weapon. Whether Lizzie was even in the house at the time of the murders was also in dispute.

The handleless hatchet that the prosecution tried—unsuccessfully—to brand as the murder weapon (Fall River Historical Society)
The handleless hatchet that the prosecution tried—unsuccessfully—to brand as the murder weapon (Fall River Historical Society)

Observers viewed Justice Dewey’s summation to the jury as supportive of the defense. They deliberated for only 90 minutes before returning with a “not guilty” verdict.

Epilogue

Lizzie and Emma moved into a large, modern house on “The Hill,” complete with a staff of servants. Lizzie named it “Maplecroft.” Around this time, she began styling herself as Lizbeth A. Borden.

Maplecroft in 2008 (Author's Photo)
Maplecroft in 2008 (Author’s Photo)

Despite her acquittal, Fall River society ostracized Lizzie. She came into the public eye again in 1897 when she was accused of shoplifting in Providence, Rhode Island.

In 1905, the Borden sisters argued over a party Lizzie had given for actress Nance O’Neil, and Emma moved out. They never saw each other again.

Lizzie Borden died from pneumonia on June 1, 1927, in Fall River at age 66. Emma died from chronic nephritis nine days later. The sisters, neither of whom ever married, were reunited in death, buried side by side in the family plot in Fall River’s Oak Grove Cemetery.

The Borden house on Second Street in Fall River is now a museum and a Bed & Breakfast.

An immense number of books relate the story of the Borden murders and Lizzie’s trial. Some of the more recent are The Borden Murders by Sarah Miller, Lizzie Borden Uncut: A Casebook of Theories by William Spencer, One Hot Day in August by Victoria Strachan, and Forty Whacks: New Evidence in the Life and Legend of Lizzie Borden by David Kent.

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Balloon Boy Hoax Grabs Colossal Media Attention

Welcome to 2024, everyone. I want to start the new year on a lighter note, so instead of murder and mayhem, I’m bringing you the story of the Balloon Boy. In 2009, Richard Heene, a reality TV wannabe from Fort Collins, Colorado, launched a hoax that led the media to dub his son “Balloon Boy.”

Balloon Boy Takes Flight

On October 15, 2009, a silver, saucer-shaped object floated across the Fort Collins, Colorado, skies. Although one could easily have mistaken it for a UFO, it was, in fact, a homemade helium balloon. As the balloon drifted, Richard Heene made a frantic call to the Larimer County Sheriff to report that his six-year-old son, Falcon, was missing and believed to be on board the aircraft.

Richard Heene's contraption, built of plastic tarps and covered with aluminum foil, as it appeared during the "Balloon Boy" hoax (9NEWS)
Richard Heene’s contraption, built of plastic tarps and covered with aluminum foil, as it appeared during the “Balloon Boy” hoax (9NEWS)

The response was immediate. National Guard helicopters began tracking the balloon along its meandering flight path. Denver International Airport prepared to react if it intersected the busy travel hub’s airspace. Some flights were rerouted, but DIA did not pause operations. Press reaction was, as you might expect, immediate and intense. Before long, the media dubbed Falcon Heene “Balloon Boy.”

The craft cruised at an altitude of up to 7,000 feet, traveling approximately 60 miles over two hours. It finally returned to earth at 1:35 p.m. near Keenesburg, about 12 miles northeast of DIA. When Falcon was not in the basket, search and rescue teams fanned out across northeastern Colorado, fearing he may have fallen out during the flight.

Around 4:14 p.m., news outlets reported that the Heene family found Falcon hiding inside a cardboard box in the rafters above the garage. Public relief that the boy was safe was palpable.

Balloon Boy: Genuine Emergency or Hoax?

Relief soon turned to dismay and then to anger as several media outlets raised the possibility that the flight had been a hoax. An early clue emerged during an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Larry King Live. When Blitzer asked Falcon why he didn’t come out of the garage, and his parents repeated the question, the boy said, “You guys said that, um, we did this for the show.”

The "Balloon Boy," six-year-old Falcon Heene with his father, Richard (David Zalubowski/AP)
The “Balloon Boy,” six-year-old Falcon Heene with his father, Richard (David Zalubowski/AP)

There was also suspicion that the balloon could not have taken off with Falcon aboard. Brian Jones, a physics professor at Colorado State University, made an initial finding that the balloon could have lifted the 37-pound child. However, he based his conclusions on the balloon’s dimensions and weight Heene provided, which were larger and lighter than the actual balloon proved to be. The balloon, as built, could not have taken off with Falcon as a passenger.

Also of note, in addition to notifying the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, Heene called the Denver NBC affiliate, KUSA-TV, and requested they send up a helicopter to track the balloon.

Richard and Mayumi Heene await sentencing in court. Their attorney, David Lee, stands at left. (AP)
Richard and Mayumi Heene await sentencing in court. Their attorney, David Lee, stands at left. (AP)

On November 13, 2009, Richard Heene pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant. On December 23, a judge sentenced him to 90 days in jail and 100 hours of community service. He was also ordered to write an apology to the agencies involved in the search and pay $36,000 in restitution. Mayumi Heene received a 20-day jail term for false reporting to authorities.

Epilogue

In January 2010, Richard Heene began claiming in interviews that the incident was not a hoax and that he only pled guilty to avoid his wife’s deportation (she was a Japanese citizen). However, most people remain unconvinced.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis pardoned the Heenes in December 2020, saying they had already “paid the price in the eyes of the public” and that it was time for Colorado to move on from the case.

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Michael Sergio: Daring But Forbidden World Series Entrance

I’m back this week from an unplanned hiatus. Since it’s Christmas, it seemed appropriate to feature a crime without murder, mayhem, and gore. So, this week, I present the case of Michael Sergio. In 1986, Sergio parachuted onto the field at New York’s Shea Stadium during Game Six of the World Series. While that might not seem like such a crime, Major League Baseball takes incursions onto the playing field very seriously, as Sergio found out.

Michael Sergio and Baseball in 1986

In 1986, New Yorker Michael Sergio was an actor working on the daytime soap opera “Loving,” appearing in commercials, and trying to start a singing career. At the time, he was also a professional skydiver with 2,300 jumps to his credit.

The New York Mets' Shea Stadium. Citi Field replaced Shea in 2009 (ballparktours.blogspot.com)
The New York Mets’ Shea Stadium. Citi Field replaced Shea in 2009 (ballparktours.blogspot.com)

Also in 1986, the New York Mets faced the Boston Red Sox in baseball’s annual World Series. The Sox had appeared in the fall classic several times but had last won in 1918 when Babe Ruth pitched the team to two wins over the Chicago Cubs. The following year, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth’s contract to the New York Yankees, initiating a championship drought that Bostonians ruefully called the “Curse of the Bambino.”

The Mets had last won the Series in 1969—the “Miracle Mets”—and were looking to notch another championship.

Michael Sergio “Drops In” on the World Series

The World Series opened in New York, with the Red Sox taking both games. It then moved to Boston, where the Mets won Games 3 and 4 while the Red Sox took Game 5. By Saturday, October 25, the Series returned to New York’s Shea Stadium (since demolished) for Game 6, and the Red Sox led three games to two.

Michael Sergio parachuting into Shea Stadium on October 25, 1986 (Richard Drew/AP)
Michael Sergio parachuting into Shea Stadium on October 25, 1986 (Richard Drew/AP)

Sergio recalled the genesis of his stunt in a 2016 interview with Newsday. “They had released a bunch of balloons up in Boston, and the Boston media went crazy,’’ he said. “It just clicked. I said to myself, ‘Yeah? Watch this.’”

Sergio made his jump in the top of the first inning. He remembers that a roar came up from the crowd below as he descended. He landed between the pitcher’s mound and the first base line, trailing a gold “Go Mets” banner. Security personnel immediately took him into custody and marched him to the Mets’ dugout. “[Pitcher] Ron Darling gave me a high five,” Sergio recalled.

A NYPD officer removes Michael Sergio after he landed on the field at Shea Stadium (Amy Sancetta/AP)
A NYPD officer removes Michael Sergio after he landed on the field at Shea Stadium (Amy Sancetta/AP)

Sergio ended up at the 111th Precinct station in Queens, where he signed autographs for police officers.

Legal Ramifications for Michael Sergio

Prosecutors in Queens, home of Shea Stadium, claimed that Sergio’s actions could have injured fans and players and interrupted air traffic from nearby LaGuardia Airport. They charged him with reckless endangerment and criminal trespassing. He spent a night in jail and was released on his own recognizance the next day.

Several Mets players arranged for a lawyer to take Sergio’s case pro bono. He pled guilty to criminal trespassing, and the prosecution dropped the reckless endangerment charge. He was fined $500 and ordered to do 500 hours of community service at the children’s section of the Central Park Zoo.

A judge later held Sergio in contempt of court for refusing to name the pilot or aircraft that flew him over Shea. He was sentenced to six months in federal prison but was released after Senator Al D’Amato intervened on his behalf.

Epilogue

The Mets won Game 6 and, two days later, came from behind to win Game 7 and the 1986 World Series.

When the Mets held a party in 2016 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the World Series win, they did not invite Sergio.

Sergio maintained that neither he nor anyone on the ground was in danger. As an experienced skydiver, he never considered his act a stunt or himself a daredevil.

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Ruth Judd: Trunk Murder Makes Big Headlines

The public seems to have a morbid fascination with so-called “trunk murders.” I’ve blogged about earlier this year, Melanie McGuire’s 2004 murder of her husband. In this week’s blog, I’ll take you back to 1931, the year Ruth Judd murdered two former friends.

Ruth Judd

Winnie Ruth McKinnell was born on January 9, 1905, to a Methodist minister and his wife in Oxford, Indiana. In 1924, she married Dr. William C. Judd, a World War I veteran more than twenty years her senior, and moved to Mexico with him. According to some, Dr. Judd had an addiction to morphine as a result of unspecified war injuries. Consequently, he had difficulty keeping a job, which forced the couple to move frequently. Ruth, as Dr. Judd called her, had health problems and wasn’t able to have children, which further strained the marriage.

Winnie Ruth Judd. Note bandaged left hand. (Arizona Historical Foundation)
Winnie Ruth Judd. Note bandaged left hand. (Arizona Historical Foundation)

By 1930, Ruth and William lived separately, although they maintained almost constant contact. Ruth moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where she worked as a governess. She also met John J. “Happy Jack” Halloran. Halloran was a 44-year-old businessman and playboy. He and Ruth eventually had an affair, even though both of them were married at the time.

Dr. William Craig Judd in a photo taken a few years after his wife's murder conviction (murderpedia.org)
Dr. William Craig Judd in a photo taken a few years after his wife’s murder conviction (murderpedia.org)

Shortly after meeting Halloran, Ruth secured a job as a medical secretary at the Grunow Medical Clinic in Phoenix. There, she met X-ray technician Agnes Anne LeRoi and her roommate, Hedvig Samuelson. The women moved to Phoenix from Alaska after Samuelson contracted tuberculosis, and both, it turned out, knew Happy Jack Halloran.

John J. "Happy Jack" Halloran (murderpedia.org)
John J. “Happy Jack” Halloran (murderpedia.org)

The three women became friends, with Ruth moving in with them in 1931. However, differences between the three soon caused Judd to move into her own apartment.

Ruth Judd Kills Her Friends

On the night of October 16, 1931, Ruth shot and killed LeRoi and Samuelson with a .25 caliber pistol. At her subsequent trial, the prosecution would claim the women fought over Halloran’s affections and that jealousy was the motive for murder.

Agnes Ann "Annie" LeRoi and Hedvig "Sammy" Samuelson (Los Angeles Herald Examiner photo collection)
Agnes Ann “Annie” LeRoi and Hedvig “Sammy” Samuelson (Los Angeles Herald Examiner photo collection)

Regardless, Ruth and (probably) an accomplice next dismembered Samuelson’s body, stuffing the head, torso, and lower legs into a black shipping trunk. The upper legs went into a beige valise and a hatbox. She (or they) placed LeRoi’s body intact into a second black shipping trunk.

Two days later, on October 18, Ruth boarded the Golden State Limited to Los Angeles at Phoenix’s Union Station. Sporting a bandaged left hand, she checked the trunks, valise, and hatbox as baggage. En route to the Southern Pacific’s Central Station in Los Angeles, baggage handler H. J. Mapes observed the foul odor emanating from Judd’s luggage and the fluids leaking from it. Mapes notified Arthur V. Anderson, the district baggage agent in Los Angeles. He suspected the baggage contained contraband deer meat. (Apparently, shipping deer meat to the West Coast by rail was not uncommon in the 1930s.)

Ruth Judd’s Crimes Discovered

Anderson tagged the trunks to be held until they could be opened and inspected. He asked Ruth for the key, but she claimed she didn’t have it.

Ruth’s brother, Burton McKinnell, picked her up at the station. Leaving her baggage with its incriminating evidence behind, she had Burton drop her off in Los Angeles, where she promptly disappeared.

The trunks and luggage used to transport the bodies (Arizona Historical Foundation)
The trunks and luggage used to transport the bodies (Arizona Historical Foundation)

Meanwhile, at about 4:30 in the afternoon, Anderson called the police to report the suspicious luggage. After picking the locks, officers opened the trunks and discovered the bodies. By that time, Ruth was “in the wind.” She surrendered at a funeral home the following Friday, October 23.

A case that included dismemberment and interstate flight soon became front-page news. The press, prone to making up sensational names for murderers and murder cases, called Judd the “Tiger Woman” and the “Blonde Butcher.” Eventually, the case became known in the media as the “Trunk Murders” and Judd as the “Trunk Murderess.”

Ruth Judd on Trial

Ruth’s trial began on January 19, 1932. The dismemberment of Samuelson’s body notably didn’t appear in the case. The state of Arizona only charged Ruth with killing LeRoi, whose body was intact. (She was never charged in Samuelson’s death.)

The state contended that the slaying was premeditated and that Ruth shot herself in the left hand to bolster her claim of self-defense. The defense argued she was innocent because she was insane. The jury found her guilty of the first-degree murder of LeRoi on February 8. After an unsuccessful appeal, Judge Howard C. Speakman sentenced her to hang on February 17, 1933. She was sent to the Arizona State Prison in Florence, Arizona.

Ruth Judd, during her trial (Wikipedia)
Ruth Judd, during her trial (Wikipedia)

Four jurors presented Judge Speakman with affidavits claiming they only voted to recommend death after one of the jurors, former Mesa mayor Dan Kleinman, persuaded them that it was the best way to get Judd to give up any accomplices in the murder. They urged Speakman to commute the sentence to life imprisonment.

Judd’s attorneys also uncovered evidence that Kleinman had already made up his mind that he would vote to convict Judd and send her to the gallows if he got on the jury. They lodged two appeals on this basis, arguing that Kleinman’s behavior amounted to juror misconduct. However, neither appeal was successful.

In April 1933, the court overturned Ruth’s death sentence after a ten-day hearing found her mentally incompetent. She was then sent to Arizona State Asylum for the Insane on April 24, 1933.

Ruth Judd Later in Life

Ruth was committed to the Arizona State Asylum for the Insane (later renamed the Arizona State Hospital) in Phoenix, Arizona’s only mental institution. Judd escaped from the institution six times between 1933 and 1963. In one instance, she walked to Yuma, almost 200 miles, along the old Southern Pacific railroad tracks. She escaped for the last time on October 8, 1963, using a key to the hospital’s front door she somehow obtained from a friend. After six years, authorities discovered her California identity and sent her back to Arizona on August 18, 1969.

A nurse at the Arizona State Hospital holds the improvised rope Ruth Judd used in a 1952 escape (The Arizona Republic)
A nurse at the Arizona State Hospital holds the improvised rope Ruth Judd used in a 1952 escape (The Arizona Republic)

Ruth was paroled and released on December 22, 1971, after two years of legal wrangling. In 1983, the state of Arizona issued her an “absolute discharge,” meaning she was no longer a parolee. She returned to California to work for the family that had previously employed her. She later lived in Stockton, California, before moving back to Phoenix.

Epilogue

In the early 1990s, investigative journalist Jana Bommersbach re-examined Judd’s case for a series of articles in the Phoenix New Times. Her research included interviews with Ruth Judd herself. Bommersbach later published a book, The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd.

In her book, Bommersbach contends the dismemberment of Samuelson’s body showed surgical skills that Ruth didn’t possess. Furthermore, she believes Ruth couldn’t have physically lifted the bodies. The legal case also presented some difficulties, not the least of which was Kleinman’s interference.

Ruth Judd with reporter and author Jana Bommersbach (The Arizona Republic)
Ruth Judd with reporter and author Jana Bommersbach (The Arizona Republic)

However, others who have studied the case question Bommersbach’s conclusions and her objectivity, given the personal relationship she formed with Ruth,

Winnie Ruth Judd died on October 23, 1998, at the age of 93, sixty-seven years to the day after her surrender to police in Los Angeles in 1931.

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