The Strange Story of Bridget Sullivan, by Sally Campbell – The Hatchet: A Journal of Lizzie Borden & Victorian America
The Hatchet: A Journal of Lizzie Borden & Victorian America

The Strange Story of Bridget Sullivan, by Sally Campbell

Anaconda Leader, 12 September 1975, by Sally Campbell.

Anaconda Leader, 12 September 1975

Reprinted with permission.

First published in November/December, 2008, Volume 5, Issue 4, The Hatchet: Journal of Lizzie Borden Studies.

Lizzie Borden took an axe,
Gave her mother 40 whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave father 41.

Did Lizzie on that sweltering August morning chop her father and stepmother to death? The answer lies forever buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Anaconda.

The Irish maid who was destined to be the chief witness at Lizzie’s trial resided in Anaconda 45 years and she probably took the secret to her grave. Her name was Bridget Sullivan.

Perhaps no crime in the past century has so captured the curiosity of thousands as the brutal axe murders at Fall River, Mass., on that August 4, 1892.

There were only two people besides the victims at the Borden house that day. The daughter Lizzie was there, and the 25-year-old Irish maid, Bridget.

Bridget is believed to have moved to Anaconda in 1897, and she married John Sullivan in 1905. They lived at 701 Alder Street.

In the 83 years since that infamous crime, books have been written about it, articles published, dramas enacted, TV programs filmed, and endless theories argued.

Well kept secret

It’s intriguing that Bridget lived in Anaconda nearly half a century and kept her secret so well. Even the few who knew she had worked for “someone in the east who was tried for murder” failed to realize her close affinity to the crime of the century.

How did the Irish maid come to settle in a remote smelting town in Montana? Why did she never talk about the murders? Why did Lizzie reportedly have her lawyer give Bridget money and have him instruct Bridget to go home to Ireland and never return?

These are questions still to be answered. 

Bridget lived 81 years and about six years before her death she went to live with a niece, Mary Sullivan. The niece, one of three who lived in Butte, was the mother of Anaconda’s Deputy Sheriff Tim Sullivan.

Bridget died at the county hospital in Butte in March of 1948, and her money was distributed among the nieces for the most part, Deputy Sullivan says. He believes his great aunt left about $15,000—not an untidy sum for those days considering Bridget’s walk in life. However, the deputy’s sister, Agnes Holm of Butte, doesn’t think Bridget left that much.

“My mother got the largest share,” she recalls, “and it seems like it was about $3,000.”

Mrs. Holm describes her great aunt as having been “tall, bent, and she used a cane.” She remembers Bridget talking about a woman for whom she worked by the name of Lizzie Borden.

“That didn’t mean anything to me then because I was just a high school girl when she lived with us,” Mrs. Holm says. “Besides, she never mentioned any murder.”

Those who knew her during the many years she lived on Alder Street remember her as a kind and sweet woman, and they refuse to believe she knew anything of the brutal crimes.

Bridget’s Role

Some investigators contend that Bridget “had to have helped.” However, few believe that the timid 25-year-old woman could have been enticed to wield an axe again and again until two victims were bloody masses.

But many do think that Bridget was less than forthright at the trial, that she wasn’t paid of sum of money just because tightfisted Lizzie liked her. It is argued that Bridget stood outside on a ladder washing windows that awful morning and that she was looking straight into the house. They further argue it would have been almost impossible for her not to have heard or seen something suspicious.

Certainly Bridget failed to give a true picture of the tense feelings that existed between Lizzie and her stepmother, Abby Borden. The stepmother was recently portrayed on TV as a mean and spiteful woman, but some who knew her have written that Mrs. Borden was quiet, shy, and afraid of the haughty Lizzie.

The Unburdening

Bridget had a girlhood friend who had migrated from Ireland to Butte and whose name was Minnie Green. Toward the latter part of Bridget’s life, while still living in Anaconda, she became seriously ill. She sent word to Miss Green that she wanted to see her because she had something to tell her.

The story of that meeting is related in several publications, but perhaps most clearly is a book written by Victoria Lincoln who lived next door to the Bordens.

In “A Private Disgrace” Miss Lincoln claims that the visit between Minnie Green and Bridget was described to a Butte librarian by Minnie.

On the occasion of the visit Bridget told Minnie she had worked for the Bordens at the time of the murders—a crime about which Minnie knew nothing. Bridget said she liked Lizzie and often took her part during troubles occurring in the Borden household. She said she “helped Lizzie out at the trial,” and that she had been less than candid.

Bridget was too ill for Minnie to press for further details and when she visited again Bridget was feeling better and refused to discuss the matter. She exacted a promise from Minnie that she would never reveal what she had been told.

Minnie Green kept that promise until after Bridget died. It was then, when an old lady, that Miss Green stopped at the Butte library to obtain books about a “real murder.” And it was on that day, Miss Lincoln claims, that Minnie Green told the librarian about her visit with Bridget.

Many doubt that a stranger, perhaps a business enemy of Lizzie’s father Andrew Borden, could enter the gate, get through the locked front door, or walk around and enter the kitchen door without being seen by Bridget as she washed windows, or by Lizzie.

But if this happened, was the slayer so cool that he slashed to death Abby Borden, hid in a closet for a half hour, and then calmly continued by shopping Andrew Borden to death?

And even if there was a business associate so angry as to kill Borden (as Lizzie suggested) why would he tromp upstairs and kill innocent Abby first?

Could two vicious murders be accomplished, all the evidence destroyed, without a single sound or act noted by Bridget?

Why did both Bridget and Lizzie change their testimony between the time of the inquest and the trial?

Inquest and Trial

Victoria Lincoln describes the inquest in her book:  “All were questioned briefly except Lizzie and Bridget. Bridget got the works. She was called as first witness and was questioned from early morning until four in the afternoon, almost twice as long as any other witness was questioned at the stretch.”

Miss Lincoln continues, “On the final day she (Bridget) was recalled for the better part of the morning and until three, an hour and a half longer than Lizzie’s longest questioning, Knowlton (attorney) was never satisfied that she was not involved.”

Then Miss Lincoln writes about the trial and refers to the money which Lizzie is purported to have given her maid, Bridget.

“Alas,” Miss Lincoln writes, “I like her (Bridget) far less (at the time of the trial) in those fine new clothes than I did when, shabby and shy, (at the inquest) she kept quiet for no other reason than her fondness for Lizzie and a firm south-of-Ireland distaste for telling the authorities one word more than they needed to know. . .  A Silence worth selling raises doubts, and a silence sold rots the heart. I’m sorry, Bridget.”

In later years

Through [sic] Bridget spoke only once of the axe murders, didn’t she oftimes think about the tragedy? Say, at night when she went to be in her little house on Alder Street? Did she turn the events of that hot August morning over in her mind? Or did she, in her heart of hearts, know?

Bridget told Minnie Green, according to researchers that she never told a single untruth at the trial. That was probably so, but what about the things she did not tell?

Bridget went back to Ireland as Lizzie’s lawyer advised, but not for long. After a time she wrote to Minnie at Butte saying she was not happy on the farm she had brought in the old country, and there were no  young men as prospective husbands.

When Bridget came back she took a different steam ship line than the first time she journeyed to America. She disembarked at New York and traveled straight to Montana.

It may be true that Bridget never saw, heard, or suspected anyone. If so, then she found the deserved escape from notoriety. If, instead, she omitted or skirted valuable testimony she wronged the butchered Andrew and Abby Borden, and flaunted justice.

Whichever, Bridget did live a wholesome life when she settled in Anaconda, and her neighbors respected and liked her. 

There is proof that Bridget could lie in a pinch. A check at the courthouse in Anaconda reveals that on June 20, 1905, when John Sullivan and Bridget Sullivan applied for a marriage license, Bridget lied about her age.

When Bridget testified under oath in court at Fall River she said she was 26. That trial was in 1893. This meant she was born in 1867. She also said she had come to America seven years previous, which would have been in 1886 and she would have been 19 when she arrived in this country.

She wrote her birth date that June 20th in Anaconda as Feb. 3, 1871, and even if that had been so she would have been 34, not 35 years old as she recorded. This one year difference could have been a simple subtraction error, but it’s doubtful that anyone that young would have been mistaken about their birth date by four years. In truth she was 38 when she married.

John Sullivan on the day they applied for a marriage license was 37. Perhaps Bridget didn’t want her future husband to know was older than he was.

Bridget is recorded in the 1925 city directory as being “domestic” help for the late Judge George Winston who lived at 510 Main Street.

Her parents were Eugene and Margaret (Leary) Sullivan, and she was born in Cork County Ireland.

She married June 21, 1905, at St. Paul Church with Father J. M. O’Brien officiating. Standing up for the newlyweds were P. J. Sullivan and a Bridget Sullivan.


It’s well and good to say that the past should remain the past, but one might argue that when Bridget accepted Lizzie’s monetary gift and agreed to go back to Ireland forever after having been “helpful” at the double axe murder rial, she forfeited her right to anonymity.

A visit to Bridget’s grave on Mount Olivet where one sees a gentle breeze ruffling the grasses about her headstone, provokes long thoughts.

Strange that on a hillside so far from Fall River probably lies buried the answer which so many have sought for more than 80 years.

Sleep well, Bridget.

Campbell, Sally, “The Strange Story of Bridget Sullivan,” The Anaconda Leader, 12 September 1975. 

Winner of First in Feature Writing, National, by the National Press Woman’s Association, 1976. 

Reprinted by permission of The Anaconda Leader and Sally Campbell.

Several relatives in Anaconda and Butte remember Bridget, including Tim “Sox” Sullivan of Anaconda and his sister, Agnes Sullivan Holm of Butte.

As a small girl, Mrs. Holm went to visit her Great Aunt Bridget in Anaconda and found her none too friendly.

In the early 1940s when Bridget came to live with Tim and Agnes and their parents at 112 E. Woolman in Butte, Mrs. Holm was 15 and didn’t pay much attention to her elderly aunt.

She clearly remembers Bridget speaking of Lizzie Borden but it was not until years later she discovered the significance of that. She never, however, heard Bridget speak of any murders.

“Aunt Bridget was very quiet, she was old and bent,” Mrs. Holm said. But she was also “strong-willed” and “liked her wine,” sometimes a bit too much.

Bridget spend her last few years in the Butte county hospital where she died in 1948.

“She was always saying her prayers,” Holm said.

Excerpted from: John McNay, “Bordens’ Maid lived in Anaconda, Butte,” New Bedford Evening Standard, 1984.

Stefani Koorey

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