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 Sunday morning, Alice Russell, a friend of both sisters, 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, The Case Against Lizzie Borden and 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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