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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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