Lizzie Andrew Borden was an American woman who was tried and acquitted in the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts.
Lizzie Andrew Borden was born on July 19, 1860. Despite being the descendant of wealthy, influential area residents, Lizzie Borden’s father, Andrew Jackson Borden, grew up in very modest surroundings and struggled financially as a young man. He eventually prospered through the manufacture and sales of furniture and caskets, and went on to become a successful property developer who directed several textile mills including the Globe Yarn Mill Company, Troy Cotton, and Woolen Manufacturing Company. He also owned considerable commercial property and was both president of the Union Savings Bank and a director of the Durfee Safe Deposit and Trust Co. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at $300,000 ($7,794,444 as at 2014).
Despite his wealth, Andrew was known for his frugality. For instance, the Borden home lacked indoor plumbing on its ground and first floor, and was located near Andrew’s businesses; although the residence was located in an affluent area, the wealthiest residents of Fall River, Massachusetts, which included Andrew Borden’s cousins, generally lived in a more fashionable neighbourhood (“The Hill”) that was farther away from the industrial areas of the city and much more homogeneous racially, ethnically, and socio-economically.
Lizzie and her older sister Emma had a relatively religious upbringing and attended Central Congregational Church. As a young woman, Lizzie was very involved in activities related to her church, including teaching Sunday school to children of recent immigrants to America. She also was involved in Christian organizations such as the Christian Endeavor Society, where she served as its secretary-treasurer; and contemporary social movements such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She was also a member of the Ladies’ Fruit and Flower Mission.
During the inquest, the Bordens’ live-in maid Bridget Sullivan testified that Lizzie and Emma rarely ate meals with their parents. During further police questioning, and during the inquest, Lizzie stated that she called her stepmother “Mrs. Borden” and demurred on whether they had a cordial relationship. In May 1892 Andrew, believing that pigeons in the barn were attracting local children to hunt them, killed them with a hatchet. Lizzie had recently built a roost for the pigeons and was upset at their deaths. A family argument in July 1892 prompted both sisters to take extended “vacations” in New Bedford. Returning to Fall River the week before the murders, Lizzie chose to stay in a Fall River rooming house for four days before returning to the family residence.
Tension had been growing in the family in the months before the murders, especially over Andrew’s gifts of real estate to various branches of Abby’s family. After their step-mother’s sister received a house, the sisters demanded and received a rental property (the home they had lived in until their mother died) which they purchased from their father for $1, they then sold the property back to their father for $5,000 ($129,907 as at 2014). The night before the murders, John Vinnicum Morse, the brother of Lizzie’s and Emma’s deceased mother, visited and was invited to stay at the home for a few days to discuss business matters with Andrew.
Some writers have speculated that their conversation, particularly about property transfer, may have aggravated an already tense situation. For several days before the murders, the entire household had been violently ill. The family doctor later speculated that mutton left on the stove for use in meals over several days was the cause, but Abby had feared poisoning, as Andrew Borden had not been a popular man. It should be noted that the Bordens did have an icebox and some historians feel that the hot weather at the time makes it unlikely it was not used.
Although cleaning the guest room was one of Lizzie and Emma’s regular chores, John Morse had slept in the room the previous night and Abby had gone up to the room to make the bed. According to the forensic investigation, Abby was facing her killer at the time of the attack. She was struck on the side of the head with a hatchet, cutting her just above the ear, which caused her to turn and fall face down on the floor causing contusions to her nose and forehead. Her killer is then assumed to have sat on her back, and delivered nineteen direct hits to the back of the head.
One year before the murders, the family home was broken into and some items and cash were stolen from Andrew’s bedroom. Andrew became paranoid and insisted on locking all doors, including those inside the house, even when at home. On August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden had breakfast with his wife and John Morse. After breakfast Andrew and Morse went to the sitting room where they chatted for an hour. Morse left to visit a relative at 8:45am while Andrew left home for his morning walk sometime after 9am. Returning home at around 10:30am, he found his key did not open the front door and knocked to gain attention. Bridget went to unlock the door and, finding it jammed, voiced an expletive. She would later testify that immediately after voicing the expletive, she heard Lizzie begin laughing.
Although she did not see Lizzie she stated that the laughter came from the top of the stairs. This was later considered significant as Abby’s body could be seen through the gap between the bed and floor when climbing the stairs, only becoming hidden by the bed upon reaching the top. Lizzie later denied being upstairs. Lizzie testified that her father asked her where Abby was to which she replied that a messenger had delivered a note asking her to visit a sick friend. She then removed Andrew’s boots and put on his slippers before he lay down on the sofa for a nap.
She spoke to Bridget, informing her of a department store sale and giving permission for her to attend. Bridget, feeling unwell, instead went to take a nap in her bedroom. Lizzie gave two different accounts for what happened next. Originally she stated that she went to the barn to look for iron or tin to fix a door and remained in the loft for around 20 to 30 minutes eating pears. Police were sceptical at this, finding it unlikely that anyone could stay in the loft for so long due to the stifling heat. They also reported finding no footprints in the dust. At trial Lizzie changed the story, she had gone to the barn to find sinkers to use for a fishing trip her father had planned for the following week and had only stayed for 10 minutes. Lizzie then returned to the house to find her father dead.
The Bordens’ maid, Bridget Sullivan, testified that she was in her third-floor room, resting from cleaning windows, when just before 11:10 a.m. she heard Lizzie call out to her from downstairs, “Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.” (Lizzie always called Bridget Sullivan “Maggie”, the name of an earlier maid.) Andrew was slumped on a couch in the downstairs sitting room, struck 10 or 11 times with a hatchet-like weapon. One of his eyeballs had been split cleanly in two, suggesting he had been asleep when attacked. His wounds were still bleeding suggesting he had been attacked very recently. Police officers asked Lizzie questions, and her answers were at times strange and contradictory. She initially reported hearing a groan, or a scraping noise, or a distress call, before entering the house but two hours later said she heard nothing and had entered the house without realizing that anything was wrong.
When asked where her step-mother was she recounted Abby receiving a note asking her to visit a sick friend. She also stated that she thought she had heard Abby return and asked if someone could go upstairs and look for her. Bridget and a neighbour, Mrs Churchill were halfway up the stairs when, with their eyes level with the floor, they looked into the guest room and saw Abby lying face down on the floor. Most of the officers who interviewed Lizzie reported that they did not like her attitude with some saying she was too calm and collected. Despite Lizzie’s “attitude” and changing alibis no one bothered to check her for bloodstains. Police did search her room, although it was only a cursory inspection. At trial they admitted not doing a proper search as Lizzie was not feeling well. The police were subsequently criticized for their lack of diligence.
In the basement police found two hatchets, two axes and a hatchet head with a broken handle. The hatchet head was suspected of being the murder weapon as the handle looked like a fresh break and the ash and dust on the head, unlike that on the other bladed tools, appeared to have been deliberately applied to make it look as if it had been in the basement for some time, however, none of these tools were removed from the house. Alice Russell, a friend decided to stay with the Borden sisters while John Morse spent the night in the attic guest room, contrary to later accounts that he slept in the murder guest room. Police were stationed around the house and later that night an officer saw Lizzie enter the basement and bend over the pails containing her parents’ bloody clothing, an action never explained.
The following night Morse left the house to find himself surrounded by hundreds of people and had to be escorted back to the house by police. On 6 August, police conducted a more thorough search of the house. As well as inspecting the sister’s clothing, the hatchet head with broken handle was now taken. That evening a police officer and the Mayor visited the Bordens and Lizzie was informed that she was a suspect in the murders. The following morning, Alice Russell entered the kitchen to find Lizzie Borden burning a dress on the fire. Lizzie explained that she was burning it because it was covered in paint. Whether it was the dress she was wearing on the day of the murder or another was never determined and it may have been an innocent reaction to the anxiety of being suspected.
Lizzie appeared at the inquest hearing on 8 August. Lizzie’s request to have her family attorney present was refused under a state statute providing that an inquest may be held in a private. She had been prescribed regular doses of morphine to calm her nerves and it is possible her testimony was affected by this. Lizzie’s behaviour was erratic and often she refused to answer a question even if the answer would be beneficial to her. She often contradicted herself, such as claiming to have been in the kitchen reading a magazine when her father arrived home, then claiming to have been in the dining room doing some ironing, and then claiming to have been coming down the stairs.
She had also claimed to have removed her fathers boots and put slippers on him despite police photographs clearly showing Andrew wearing his boots. The District Attorney was very aggressive and confrontational. On 11 August Lizzie was served with a warrant of arrest and jailed. The inquest testimony, the basis for the modern debate regarding her guilt or innocence, was later ruled inadmissible at her trial in June of 1893. A grand jury began hearing evidence on 7 November and Lizzie was indicted on 2 December.
Lizzie’s trial took place in New Bedford the following June. Prosecuting attorneys included future Supreme Court Justice William H. Moody; defending were Andrew V. Jennings, Melvin O. Adams, and former Massachusetts governor George D. Robinson. Prominent points in the trial (or press coverage of it) included:
- The hatchet head found in the basement was not convincingly shown to be the murder weapon. Prosecutors argued that the killer had removed the handle because it was bloody, but while one officer testified that a hatchet handle was found near the hatchet head, another officer contradicted this.
- Though no bloody clothing was found, a few days after the murder Lizzie burned a dress in the stove, saying it had been ruined when she brushed against fresh paint.
- There was a similar axe murder nearby shortly before the trial, though its perpetrator was shown to have been out of the country when the Borden’s were killed.
- Evidence was excluded that Lizzie had sought to purchase prussic acid (for cleaning a sealskin cloak, she said) from a local druggist on the day before the murders when the judge ruled that the incident was too remote in time to have any connection.
- Because of the mysterious illness that had struck the household before the murders, the family’s milk and Andrew and Abby’s stomachs (removed during autopsies performed in the Borden dining room), were tested for poison; no poison was found.
- The victims’ heads were removed during autopsy. After the skulls were used as evidence during the trial – Borden fainted upon seeing them – the heads were later buried at the foot of each grave.
On June 20, after deliberating an hour and a half, the jury acquitted. The trial has been compared to the later trials of Bruno Hauptmann, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and O.J. Simpson as a landmark in publicity and public interest in the history of American legal proceedings. No one else was charged in the murders, and they continue to be the subject of research and speculation. Among those suggested to be the killers by various authors are:
- Lizzie herself, despite her acquittal one writer proposing that she killed while in a fugue state.
- Bridget Sullivan, perhaps in rage at being ordered to clean windows on a hot day, the day of the murders was unusually hot and while still recovering from the mystery illness that had struck the household.
- A “William Borden” (who was Andrew Borden’s illegitimate son) after failing to extort money from his father.
- Emma Borden, having established an alibi at Fairhaven, Massachusetts (about 15 miles away from Fall River, Massachusetts) comes secretly to Fall River to commit the murders and returns to Fairhaven to receive the telegram informing her of the murders.
After the trial, the sisters moved into a large, modern house in the neighbourhood called “The Hill” in Fall River. Around this time, Lizzie began using the name Lizbeth A. Borden. At their new house, which Lizbeth named “Maplecroft,” the sisters had a staff that included live-in maids, a housekeeper, and a coachman. Because Abby was ruled to have died before Andrew, her estate went first to Andrew and then, at his death, passed to his daughters as part of his estate; a considerable settlement, however, was paid to settle claims by Abby’s family (especially Abby’s two sisters). Despite the acquittal, Lizbeth was ostracized by Fall River society. Lizbeth Borden’s name was again brought into the public eye when she was accused of shoplifting in 1897 in Providence, Rhode Island.
In 1905, shortly after an argument over a party that Lizbeth had given for actress Nance O’Neil, Emma moved out of the house. She never saw Lizzie again. Lizbeth was ill in her last year following the removal of her gallbladder; she died of pneumonia on June 1, 1927 in Fall River at the age of 66. Funeral details were not published and few attended. Nine days later, Emma died from chronic nephritis at the age of 76 in a nursing home in Newmarket, New Hampshire, having moved to this location in 1923 both for health reasons, and to get away from the public eye, which had renewed interest in the sisters at the publication of another book about the murders. The sisters, who never married, were buried side by side in the family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery. Lizbeth left $30,000 to the Fall River Animal Rescue League and $500 in trust for perpetual care of her father’s grave; her closest friend and a cousin each received $6,000 – substantial sums at the estate’s distribution in 1933, during the Great Depression. Books from Maplecroft’s library, stamped and signed by the sisters, are valuable collectors’ items.
The case was memorialized in a popular skipping-rope rhyme:
“Lizzie Borden took an axeAnd gave her mother forty whacks.When she saw what she had done,She gave her father forty-one.”
Folklore says that the rhyme was made up by an anonymous writer as a tune to sell newspapers. Others attribute it to the ubiquitous, but anonymous, “Mother Goose”. In reality, Lizzie’s stepmother suffered 18 or 19 blows; her father suffered 11 blows.
“I don’t know what I have said. I have answered so many questions and I am so confused I don’t know one thing from another. I am telling you just as nearly as I know.” – Lizzie Borden
If you want to watch a documentary on “Lizzie Borden” then just check out the video below: