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. The case was a cause célèbre throughout the United States. Following her release from the prison in which she had been held during the trial, Borden chose to remain a resident of Fall River, Massachusetts, for the rest of her life, despite facing significant ostracism. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts elected to charge no one else with the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden; speculation about the crimes still continues more than 100 years later.
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 ($7,874,444 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 neighborhood ("The Hill") that was farther away from the industrial areas of the city and much more homogenous racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically.
Lizzie and her older sister, Emma Lenora Borden (1851–1927), 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 ($131,241 as at 2014). The night before the murders, John Vinnicum Morse, the brother of Lizzie's and Emma's deceased mother, Sarah Anthony (Morse) Borden (1823–1863), visited and was invited to stay 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 friend 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 which cut her just above the ear, causing her to turn and fall facedown on the floor, which created contusions on her nose and forehead. Her killer is then assumed to have sat on her back and delivered 19 direct hits to the back of her head.
One year before the murders the family home had been invaded and items and cash were stolen from Andrew's bedroom; from then on Andrew had become paranoid and insisted on locking all doors (including those inside the house) even when someone was at home.
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 and Andrew left for his morning walk sometime after 9am. When he returned at around 10:30am, his key failed to open the door, so he knocked for attention. Bridget went to unlock the door; finding it jammed, she uttered an expletive. She would later testify that she heard Lizzie laughing immediately after this; she didn't see Lizzie but she stated that the laughter was coming from the top of the stairs. This was later considered significant because Abby's body was visible through the gap between bed and floor when climbing the stairs, only becoming hidden by the bed upon reaching the top. Lizzie later denied being upstairs and testified that her father had asked her where Abby was and she had replied that a messenger had delivered a summons to visit a sick friend. Lizzie then removed Andrew's boots and helped him into his slippers before he lay down on the sofa for a nap. Next she informed Bridget of a department-store sale and permitted her to go, but Bridget felt unwell and went to take a nap in her bedroom.
Lizzie gave two different accounts of 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 20 to 30 minutes eating pears. Police were skeptical, finding it unlikely that anyone could stand the stifling heat of the loft for that long; they also reported finding no footprints in the dust. At the trial Lizzie changed the story, saying that she had spent only 10 minutes in the barn hunting sinkers for a fishing trip her father was planning for the following week, then returned to the house to find her father dead.
Bridget Sullivan testified that she was in her third-floor room, resting from cleaning windows, when just before 11:10am she heard Lizzie call 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 that he had been asleep when attacked. His still-bleeding wounds suggested a quite recent attack.
Lizzie's answers to the police officers' questions were at times strange and contradictory. Initially she reported hearing a groan, or a scraping noise, or a distress call, before entering the house, but 2 hours later she said she had heard nothing and entered the house not realizing that anything was wrong. When asked where her stepmother was she recounted Abby receiving a note asking her to visit a sick friend. She also stated that she thought Abby had returned and asked if someone could go upstairs and look for her. Bridget and a neighbor, Mrs. Churchill, were halfway up the stairs, their eyes level with the floor, when they looked into the guest room and saw Abby lying facedown on the floor. Most of the officers who interviewed Lizzie reported that they disliked her attitude; some said she was too calm and poised. Despite Lizzie's "attitude" and changing alibis, nobody bothered to check her for bloodstains. Police did search her room, but it was merely a cursory inspection; at the trial they admitted to not doing a proper search because Lizzie wasn't feeling well. They 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.
The sisters' friend, Alice Russell, decided to stay with them while John Morse spent the night in the attic guest room, contrary to later accounts that he slept in the murder-site 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 and was swarmed by hundreds of people; police had to escort him back to the house. On 6 August, police conducted a more-thorough search of the house, inspecting the sisters' clothing and confiscating the broken-handled hatchet-head. That evening a police officer and the Mayor visited the Bordens and Lizzie was informed that she was a suspect in the murders. The next 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. This may have been an innocent reaction to the anxiety of being suspected; it was never determined whether it was the actual dress she had been wearing on the day of the murder.
1. Many people might have wanted to see Andrew Borden dead.
The gruesome murders shocked the community, but many in Fall River were perhaps not entirely surprised that Andrew Borden had met an untimely end. With a net worth of almost $10 million in today’s money, Borden was one of the wealthiest—and most unpopular—men in town. Frugal to a fault, he was a self-made man who had become the head of one of the town’s largest banks and a substantial property owner. The dour businessman had also made many enemies on his rise to the top, and rumors swirled that Andrew and Abby had perhaps been killed as revenge for Andrew’s shady business dealings.
2. The case revealed some skeletons in the Borden family closet.
The initial investigation focused outside of the immediate family and included local businessmen, neighbors and even the family maid, an Irish immigrant named Bridget Sullivan. Police soon realized that Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie, had as much to gain as anyone by the death of her father. Andrew’s tightfistedness extended to his own family—despite his wealth, the Borden home lacked even the most basic of conveniences, including indoor plumbing. Andrew’s remarriage to Abby Gray after the death of his first wife had soured his relationship with Lizzie and her older sister, Emma. The women, already in their 30s and considered spinsters by society, grew increasingly frustrated and resentful, with Lizzie in particular often exhibiting signs of mental instability. Lizzie’s actions in the days after the murders also raised eyebrows: She gave contradictory answers to questions and burned a dress that she claimed had been stained while doing housework, which police considered the destruction of evidence. On August 11, Lizzie was arrested for the murders.
3. The lack of forensic evidence played a key role in the case.
Despite their belief in Lizzie’s guilt, investigators faced an uphill battle in convicting her. There was no physical evidence linking her to the murders. A hatchet had been discovered in the basement of the Borden home, but its blade was clean and the handle had been broken off—by Lizzie, according to police. The police’s reluctance to use any sort of forensic testing also hampered the investigation. Fingerprint testing was then in its infancy and was never conducted as part of their inquiry. They did, however, establish that Lizzie had unsuccessfully attempted to purchase prussic acid, a highly poisonous liquid, in the days before the murders. Though investigators regarded this as evidence of an earlier failed attempt to kill her parents, they were unable to present it at trial.
4. Andrew and Abby Borden made an appearance at the trial—sort of.
The gruesome nature of the crimes, combined with the wealth of the Borden family, proved irresistible to newspaper publishers. Miles of ink were spilled as papers around the world printed hundreds of stories describing the deaths in lurid detail, speculating on possible motives and even alternative perpetrators. By the time the trial began in June 1893, Lizzie Borden had become a media sensation, and the proceedings themselves took on a circus-like air. The prosecution, faced with a lack of forensic evidence tying Lizzie to the murders, surmised that she had perhaps committed the crime while naked to avoid leaving behind physical clues. The presence of the hatchet-riddled skulls of Andrew and Abby Borden shocked those in the courtroom, leading to a dramatic—and perhaps well-timed—swoon by Lizzie. In what turned out to be a key moment, Lizzie’s defense team successfully pushed to have her contradictory testimony at the original inquest ruled inadmissible. Lizzie herself never took the stand, and the jury of 12 men deliberated for just 90 minutes before returning a verdict of not guilty.
5. The famous rope jumping rhyme got it wrong.
Children who learn the chant may believe that it took 40 blows to kill Abby Borden, and another 41 to kill Andrew. Well, that’s not quite true. The coroner did confirm that Abby was killed first, but by 19 blows—not the 40 popularized in the rhyme. Andrew Borden received even fewer wounds, but the 10 or 11 blows that finished him off were quite gruesome, focused mainly on the head and completely destroying much of his face. So it turns out the nursery rhyme overstates by half the total “whacks” it took to complete the job. In another inaccuracy, no “ax” was ever found. It seems more likely that the hatchet presented by the prosecution at trial was the true murder weapon, but “hatchet” and “whacks” simply don’t rhyme.
6. Lizzie Borden struggled in her later life.
Despite her newfound notoriety—and her neighbors’ whispers about her likely guilt—Lizzie remained in Fall River for the rest of her life. She and Emma inherited their father’s estate, gaining the financial freedom they had long craved. Lizzie bought a large house in one of the city’s most fashionable neighborhoods and spent her time traveling to Boston and New York to indulge in her love of theater. Just five years after the murder, Lizzie was briefly in the headlines again, when she was accused of—but not tried for—shoplifting. In 1905 the sisters became estranged over Lizzie’s relationship with actress Nance O’Neill, which Emma allegedly disapproved of. They rarely spoke in their later years but died within days of each other in June 1927. Both sisters were buried besides their murdered parents in the family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery.
7. Lizzie Borden made an appearance on “The Simpsons.”
A media sensation in its own day, the Borden murders continue to fascinate the public more than a century after they occurred. Lizzie and her family have been the focus of dozens of books, plays and films. In 1975 actress Elizabeth Montgomery, star of television’s “Bewitched” and also a distant relative of Lizzie, portrayed her in a television movie. Famed choreographer Agnes de Mille created a ballet about the trial, a new opera has been in the works and Lizzie even made a cameo on “The Simpsons,” in which she—along with other notorious figures such as Benedict Arnold, Richard Nixon and John Wilkes Booth—served in the jury during a trial over Homer Simpson’s soul.
8. New information may still come to light.
In March 2012, the Borden case was back in the headlines when researchers at the Fall River Historical Society announced the discovery of the handwritten journals of Andrew Jennings, Lizzie’s defense attorney. The journals, which contain newspaper clippings as well as interview notes Jennings made during his pre-trial preparation, may yield new insight into the crimes. The extremely fragile material is currently being preserved by the museum before its contents are made available to the public.
9. You can stay at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast.
More than a century after the murders, Fall River, Massachusetts, continues to be a hot spot for those fascinated by the case. For the most daring aficionados, a night at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast provides the ultimate Borden experience. Guests can tour the property at 92 Second Street, watch an annual dramatization of the events, stay overnight in the bedrooms originally occupied by Lizzie, Emma and their parents, and even enjoy the same breakfast the family shared on the morning of August 4, 1892.