Just five days before the start of Lizzie Borden’s trial for the murder of her father and step-mother in Fall River, Massachusetts, the town was shocked by another brutal axe murder. The mutilated body of Bertha Manchester was found in the kitchen of her home. The “startling parallelism” between this case and the Borden murders—the excessive number of wounds in each case, the fact that both incidents occurred in broad daylight, the lack of any apparent motive—threatened to open a new line of defense in Lizzie’s trial. It would, at very least, challenge many of the prosecution’s stated assumptions.
Date: May 31, 1893
Location: Fall River, Massachusetts
Victim: Bertha M. Manchester
Cause of Death: Blows from an axe
Accused: Jose Correa deMello
An autopsy revealed “twenty-three distinct and separate axe wounds on the back of the skull and its base.” Defensive wounds and ripped clothing indicated that she had put up a fierce struggle with her assailant before being overpowered.
He preferred to hire French and Portuguese immigrants, and paid them as little as possible. He told reporters:
"I can’t remember the names of these Frenchmen and Portuguese I have had. Half of the time I don’t know them. I have had Antoines and Joes and Georges. The police have been pestering me all day to remember some of the names, but I can not break my jaw over their names.Suspicion soon fell on a man named Jose Correa deMello who had recently left the farm on bad terms with his employer. deMello was Portuguese, an immigrant from the Azores, and as such, would have been on the lowest rung of Fall River society. The police feared that if they began investigating, the Portuguese community would rally to deMellos defense and they would get no information. Instead they used subterfuge to get deMello to turn himself in.
“I always pay a man what I think he is worth, and if he don’t like it, it don’t make any difference. He won’t get any more.”
The police contacted Jose deMello’s uncle, Jacintho Muniz Machado, and Frank Machado Silva, a leader in the Portuguese-American community and persuaded them to tell deMello that they needed him as a witness to a horse theft, and would pay a hefty witness fee. deMello went to the police station with no idea that he was a murder suspect. He was strenuously interrogated for four hours.
The main piece of evidence against Jose deMello came from the owner of a shoe store who claimed that deMello bought a new pair of shoes from him after the murder and tried to
deMello could not afford a lawyer and an attorney was appointed by the court in September 1893. He first pled not guilty, but on September 18, he changed his plea to guilty of second degree murder. On January 8, 1894 he was convicted and sentenced to life in state prison:
“solitary one day, Hard Labor, For his natural life, Less one day.”
Verdict: Guilty of second degree murder
Jose Correa deMello served nearly twenty years of his life sentence, then through the persistence of John C. Santos, a prominent Portuguese resident of Taunton, Massachusetts, he was pardoned on December 31, 1913, with the following stipulation:
… on condition that if before the expiration of said sentence he commit any crime punishable by imprisonment, and he convicted thereof, either before or after the expiration of said sentence, he shall serve the remainder thereof.He was also required to return to his native Azores and never come back to the United States.
deMello’s uncle, Jacintho Muniz Machado, became an outcast in the Portuguese community where it was believed that he had sold out his nephew for $500. Jose deMello refused to see his uncle when he came to visit. Less than eight weeks after deMello’s arrest Jacintho Muniz Machado died in his home. The official cause of death was pneumonia, but friends said he “died of a broken heart.”
When reporters asked Lizzie Borden’s attorney, Andrew J. Jennings about Bertha Manchester’s murder he said,
“Well, are they going to say that Lizzie Borden did this also?”Lizzie, of course, was in jail at the time, awaiting the start of her trial. But this shocking murder, so similar to the Borden murders, did change attitudes in the opposite direction—increasing the possibility that Lizzie didn’t do it. The arrest of Jose deMello occurred on the day Lizzie Borden’s trial opened. deMello had not arrived in the United States until April 1893, so could not have murdered the Bordens in August 1892, but this was not learned until after the jury was selected in Lizzie’s trial.
The facts surrounding the murder of Bertha Manchester cast doubts on a number of assertions made by the prosecution in the Borden case. The Bordens each died of multiple blows from an axe—Abbey nineteen, Andrew twenty—this, said the prosecution, indicated a woman murder; a man would use only one blow. Yet Bertha Manchester was murdered by a man using twenty-three blows. The fact that the Borden’s were killed in broad daylight indicated that a member of the household did the murders, yet Bertha Manchester was killed around the same time of day, with neighbors at home, just across the road, and no member of the Manchester household was involved.
While the murder of Bertha Manchester did not play a direct role in Lizzie’s trial, the two cases were playing out side-by-side in the daily newspapers. It was not lost on anyone, in or out of court, how easy it was for a man to enter the Manchester house, commit a brutal axe murder in broad daylight, and leave without being noticed.