Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one…
Your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth and your shirt is damp with sweat. Outside, the late forenoon sun is burning hot.
There is a group of people — officers, the doctor, members and friends of the family — buzzing around when you finally force yourself through the doorway and into the parlor.
The sight that greets you halts short your effort.
The body lays on the couch, looking to all the world from the neck down like a man in the middle of his midday nap. Above it, however, there is not nearly enough left to be recognized as Andrew Borden. The skull is cracked open; his eye is laying on his cheek, just above his white beard, severed cleanly in half. There is blood spattered everywhere — good Lord, even the walls — vivid scarlet against the wallpaper and the couch’s dark fabric.
Pressure reaches up and presses at the back of your throat and you turn away sharply.
Grabbing for your handkerchief, you press it against your nose and mouth. A moment later, a hand rests against your shoulder.
“Are you unwell, Patrick?” Dr. Bowen asks.
“No, I am quite well. Where is Mrs. Borden? Has she been notified?”
Folding and tucking your handkerchief away, you avoid looking at what remains of the man who was alive only an hour before. When you look up and meet the doctor’s eyes he is holding your stare so heavily it freezes you where you stand.
“She’s dead. The women went upstairs only a quarter of an hour ago and found her in the guest room.”
You swallow heavily. “Murdered?”
He nods. “In the same manner, from what I could tell. But to the back of the skull — Mrs. Borden is lying face down on the floor, beside the bed.”
A moment passes. “What did Miss Lizzie say?”
“Last I saw, she was in the kitchen,” he replies, and after a moment his eyebrows pull together, perplexed. “Not at all seeming distressed, either.”
The breath shakes out of you and, for a moment, the cold grip of fear holds you. Two of Fall River’s wealthiest residents, brutally murdered in their own home…
You can’t draw air. The floor seems to tip sideways beneath you.
Desperate for escape, you look into the kitchen. Your gaze flits around until it suddenly lands, your heart seizing with the terrible sensation of a stumble.
Lizzie Borden’s light blue eyes are piercing. There is calm in her face as she stares at you. It is out of place. Disjointed in the home where her parents were killed only minutes ago.
Something within you shifts, disturbed; the movement feels a permanent one.
… Andrew Borden now is dead, Lizzie hit him on the head.
Up in heaven he will sing, On the gallows she will swing.
The story of Lizzie Borden is an infamous one. Born in New England only a year before the start of the American Civil War into a wealthy family, she should have lived her life as what everyone assumed she was — the demure and polite daughter of a well-to-do business man in Fall River, Massachusetts. She should have married, should have had children to carry on the Borden name.
Instead, she’s remembered as one of United States’ most notorious double homicide suspects in a case that remains unsolved.
Lizzie Andrew Borden was born on July 19, 1860, in Fall River, Massachusetts, to Andrew and Sarah Borden. She was the youngest child of three, one of which — her middle sibling, Alice — passed away at only two years old.
And it seemed that tragedy started its pursuit of Lizzie Borden’s life from a young age, as her mother would also pass away when she was only a toddler. It didn’t take long, only three years, for her father to remarry Abby Durfee Gray.
Her father, Andrew Borden, was of English and Welsh descent, grew up in very modest surroundings and struggled financially as a young man, despite being the descendant of wealthy and influential local residents.
He eventually prospered in the manufacture and sale of furniture and caskets, then became a successful property developer. Andrew Borden was a director of several textile mills and owned considerable commercial property; he was also president of the Union Savings Bank and a director of the Durfee Safe Deposit and Trust Co. At his death, Andrew Borden’s estate was valued at $300,000 (equivalent to $9,000,000 in 2019).
In their birth mother’s absence, the oldest child of the family, Emma Lenora Borden — so as to fulfill her mother’s dying wish — took to raising her younger sister.
Nearly a decade older, the two were said to have been close; they spent a great deal of time together throughout their childhoods and well into adulthood, including through the tragedy that would befall their family.
As a young woman, Lizzie Borden was heavily involved in the community’s goings-on around her. The Borden sisters were raised in a relatively religious household, and so she mostly focused on things to do with the church — like teaching Sunday School and assisting Christian organizations — but she was also deeply invested in a number of the social movements that were taking place in the late 1800s, like the reform of women’s rights.
One such example was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which was, for the time, a modern feminist group that advocated for things like women’s suffrage and spoke about a number of social reform issues.
They functioned mostly on the idea that “temperance” was the best way to live — which basically meant avoiding “too much of a good thing” in excess, and avoiding “life’s temptations” altogether.
A particular favourite topic of debate and protest for the WCTU was alcohol, which they considered to be the root of all the problems present in United States society at the time: greed, lust, as well as the violence of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. In this way, they used the substance — often referred to as “the Devil’s elixir” — as an easy scapegoat for the misdeeds of mankind.
This presence within the community helps put into perspective that the Borden family was one of contradictions. Andrew Borden — who had not been born into wealth and had instead struggled his way into becoming one of the more affluent men in New England — was worth more than 6 million dollars in today’s money. Yet despite this, he was known to pinch a few pennies against the wishes of his daughters, even though he had more than enough to afford a lavish life.
For example, during Lizzie Borden’s childhood, electricity, for the first time ever, had become available for use inside the homes of those who could afford it. But instead of making use of such a luxury, Andrew Borden stubbornly refused to follow the trend, and on top of that also refused to install indoor plumbing.
So, kerosene oil lamps and chamber pots it was for the Borden family.
This might not have been so bad if it hadn’t been for the scornful eyes of their equally-well-to-do neighbors, whose homes, furnished with all the modern comforts money could buy, served as ivory towers from which they could look down upon Andrew Borden and his family.
To make matters worse, Andrew Borden also seemed to have a distaste for living on one of the nicer properties he owned. He chose to make his and his daughters’ home not on “The Hill” — the wealthy area of Fall River, Massachusetts where people of his status dwelled — but instead on the other side of town, closer to industrial sites.
All of this provided the town gossips with plenty of material, and they often got creative, even suggesting that Borden chopped the feet off the bodies he placed inside his coffins. It’s not like they needed their feet, anyway — they were dead. And, hey! It saved him a few bucks.
Regardless of how true these rumors actually were, the whispers about her father’s frugality made their way to Lizzie Borden’s ears, and she would spend the first thirty years of her life envious and resentful of those living the way she thought she deserved but was denied.
Lizzie Borden detested the modest upbringing that she was forced to endure, and was known to be envious of her cousins that lived on the wealthier side of Fall River, Massachusetts. Next to them, Lizzie Borden and and her sister Emma were given comparatively meager allowances, and they were restricted from participating in many of the social circles other wealthy people typically frequented — once again because Andrew Borden didn’t see the point in such pomp and finery.
Even though the Borden family’s means should have allowed her a much grander life, Lizzie Borden was forced to do things like save up money for cheap fabrics that she could use to sew her own dresses.
The way that she felt she was forced to live drove a wedge of tension through the center of the family, and it just so happened that Lizzie Borden wasn’t the only one who felt that way. There was another person residing inside the residence of 92 Second Street that was just as frustrated with the limited life they led.
Emma, Lizzie Borden’s older sister, also found herself at equal odds with her father. And although this issue came up many times during the four decades the sisters lived with him, he barely budged from his position of frugality and discipline.
The Family Rivalry Heats Up
The Borden sisters’ inability to influence their father may have been the result of the presence of their stepmother, Abby Borden. The sisters firmly believed that she was a gold digger and had married into their family only for Andrew’s wealth, and that she encouraged his penny-pinching ways to ensure there was more money left over for her.
The family’s live-in maid, Bridget Sullivan, later testified that the girls rarely sat down to eat meals with their parents, leaving little to the imagination regarding their familial relationship.
So, when the day came that Andrew Borden gifted a bunch of real estate property over to Abby Borden’s family, the girls were none too pleased — they had spent years, their entire lives, debating their father’s stingy unwillingness to spend money on things like plumbing that even middle-class homes could afford, and out of the blue he gifts his wife’s sister an entire house.
As compensation for what Emma and Lizzie Borden saw as a grave injustice, they demanded their father hand over the title to the property that they had lived on with their mother until her death. There are rumors abound regarding the supposed arguments that took place at the Borden family home — something that was definitely far from the norm, for the time — and surely if one took place over this whole real estate debacle, it only served to fuel the fires of the gossip.
Unfortunately, the details are not known, but one way or another, the girls got their wish — their father handed over the deed to the house.
They purchased it from him for nothing, only $1, and later — conveniently just a few weeks before Andrew’s and Abby Borden’s murder — sold it back to him for $5,000. Quite a profit they managed to swing, right before such a tragedy. How they pulled off such a deal with their normally cheeseparing father remains a mystery and a significant factor in the cloud surrounding the death of the Bordens.
Lizzie Borden’s sister, Emma later testified that her relationship with her stepmother was more strained than Lizzie Borden’s was after the incident with the house. But despite this supposed ease, Lizzie Borden became unwilling to call her their mother and instead, from there on, referred to her only as “Mrs. Borden.”
And only five years later, she would even go so far as to snap at a Fall River police officer when he wrongly assumed and referred to Abby as their mother — on the day that the woman lay murdered upstairs.
Days Up to the Murders
In late June of 1892, both Andrew and Abby decided to take a trip out of Fall River, Massachusetts — something that was rather out of character for Abby. When they returned a short time later, they came back to a broken into and ransacked desk, inside the house.
Valuable items were missing, such as money, horse-car tickets, a watch of sentimental value to Abby, and a pocket book. All in all, the value of the items stolen was about $2,000 in today’s money.
Though Lizzie, her sister Emma, and Bridget (the family’s Irish immigrant live-in maid) were all inside the house at the time that the theft must have taken place, no one heard anything. And none of their valuables had been taken — the burglar must have snuck in and snuck right back out.
The caveat, though, is that it’s heavily speculated by historians and enthusiasts alike that Lizzie Borden was the thief behind the robbery; there were rumors that had been circulating in previous years that she often pocketed stolen items from shops.
This is only hearsay and is without official record, but it’s a big reason as to why people speculate she was behind the burglary.
The crime was investigated, but no one was ever caught, and Andrew Borden, probably feeling the pinch of his lost wealth, forbade the girls from ever speaking of it. Something he did before commanding that all the doors in the house always be locked for the foreseeable future, so as to keep those pesky burglars who targeted specific sentimental items out.
Only a few weeks after this, sometime in mid to late July, during an intense heat that had blanketed Fall River, Massachusetts, Andrew Borden made the decision to take a hatchet to the heads of the pigeons the family owned — either because he had a craving for squab or because he wanted to send a message to the locals of the town who had supposedly been breaking into the barn behind the house where they were kept.
This didn’t go over well with Lizzie Borden, who was known to be a lover of animals, and it was coupled with the fact that Andrew Borden had sold the family’s horse only a short time before. Lizzie Borden had recently built a new roost for the pigeons, and her father killing them was a point of great upset, though how much is disputed.
And then an argument took place that same month — sometime around the date of July 21st — that drove the sisters out of the house for unprompted “vacations” to New Bedford, a town 15 miles (24 km) away. Their stay wasn’t longer than a week, and they returned on July 26th, not more than a handful of days before the murders took place.
But even still, after returning to Fall River, Massachusetts, Lizzie Borden was said to have stayed at a local rooming house within the city instead of returning immediately to her own home.
The temperature was near boiling by the final days of July. Ninety people died from the “extreme heat” in the city, most of them young children.
This made the bout of food poisoning — likely the result of a leftover meal of mutton that was either stored poorly or not at all — that much worse, and Lizzie Borden soon found her family in tremendous discomfort when she did finally return home.
August 3rd, 1892
As both Abby and Andrew had spent the previous night worshipping at the latrine pit altar, the first thing that Abby did on the morning of August 3rd was travel across the street to speak with Dr. Bowen, the closest physician.
Her knee-jerk explanation for the mysterious sickness was that somebody was trying to poison them — or more specifically, Andrew Borden, as he apparently wasn’t only unpopular with his children.
With the doctor coming to check on them, it’s said that Lizzie Borden “dashed up the stairs” upon his arrival and that Andrew wasn’t exactly welcoming of his unsolicited visit, claiming that he was in fine health and that “[his] money shan’t pay for it.”
Only a few hours later, during that same day, it’s known that Lizzie Borden traveled into town and stopped at the pharmacy. There, she unsuccessfully attempted to purchase prussic acid — a chemical better known as hydrogen cyanide, and one that happens to be extremely poisonous. The reason for this, she insisted, was to clean a sealskin cape.
The family was also expecting the arrival of the girls’ uncle that day, a man by the name of John Morse — the sibling of their deceased mother. Invited to stay for a few days to discuss business matters with Andrew, he arrived in the early afternoon.
In the previous years, Morse, who had once been close friends with Andrew, rarely stayed with the family — though he had done so at the Borden house only a month prior to August 3rd, in the early days of July — and it’s possible that the already tense situation within the family at that time was made worse by his presence.
Being the brother of his late first wife didn’t help, but while Morse was there, discussions of business propositions and money took place; topics sure to rile Andrew up.
Sometime during that evening, Lizzie Borden traveled out to visit her neighbor and friend, Alice Russell. There, she discussed things that would come up, nearly a year later, as testimony during the trial for the Borden murders.
As was known among family and friends, Lizzie Borden was often morose and sullen; withdrawn from conversations and responding only when prompted. According to the testimony that Alice gave, on the night of August 3rd — the day before the murders — Lizzie Borden confided in her, “Well, I don’t know; I feel depressed. I feel as if something was hanging over me that I cannot throw off, and it comes over me at times, no matter where I am.”
Along with this, the women were recorded to have discussed matters relating to Lizzie Borden’s relationship and perception of her father, including the fears that she carried regarding his business practices.
Andrew was said to have often forced men out of the house during meetings and discussions regarding business, driving Lizzie Borden to fear that something would happen to her family; “I feel as if I wanted to sleep with my eyes half open — with one eye open half the time — for fear they will burn the house down over us.”
The two women visited for nearly two hours, before Lizzie Borden returned home around 9:00pm. Upon stepping into the house, she immediately went upstairs to her room; completely ignoring both her uncle and her father who were in the sitting room, likely talking about that very subject.
August 4th, 1892
The morning of August 4th, 1892, dawned like any other for the city of Fall River, Massachusetts. As it had been for the previous weeks, the sun rose boiling and only got hotter throughout the day.
After the morning’s breakfast that Lizzie Borden did not join the family for, John Morse left the house to visit some family across town — shown out the door by Andrew who invited him back for dinner.
Beginning to feel a bit better as the sun rose higher in the following hour, Abby found Bridget, their Irish live-in maid who was often referred to as “Maggie” by the family, and asked her to clean the house’s windows, both inside and out (despite the fact that it was nearly hot enough for anyone UK-born to burst into flames).
Bridget Sullivan— who also happened to still be experiencing the throes of the food-poisoning that had plagued the household — did as she was told, but went outside to be sick soon after being asked (probably nauseated at the thought of having to face the sun. Or it still could have been the food poisoning, who knows).
She gathered herself and returned inside not more than fifteen minutes later to continue her work without seeing Andrew, as per usual; he’d left to go on his typical morning walk to attend to some errands throughout the town.
First spending some time cleaning up the breakfast dishes in the dining room, Bridget soon grabbed a brush and a pale of water from the cellar and trekked out into the heat. Some time passed, and then around 9:30am, as she was traveling towards the barn, Maid Bridget Sullivan spotted Lizzie Borden lingering in the back doorway. There, she told her that she needn’t lock the doors as long as she was outside and cleaning the windows.
Abby, too, had spent the morning of August 4th puttering around the house, cleaning and putting things right.
As it happened, at some point between the hours of 9:00am and 10:00am, her morning chores were rudely interrupted and she was murdered while inside the guest room on the second floor.
It’s known from a forensic standpoint — due to the placement and direction of the blows she took — that she must have first been facing her attacker before collapsing to the floor, where every strike thereafter was directed to the back of her head.
It’s known from a psychological standpoint that things got a bit excessive and likely “emotionally cathartic” for the killer after that — seventeen blows seems a bit much for the simple purpose of murdering her. So, whoever thought it would be a good idea to off Abby Borden probably had more motivation than just quickly disposing of her.
The Murder of Andrew Borden
Not long after that, Andrew Borden returned from his walk which had been slightly shorter in length than normal — likely due to him still feeling unwell. He was observed by a neighbor to have walked up to his front door, and there, unusually, he was unable to get in.
Whether he had been weakened from illness or was stopped by a key that suddenly no longer worked is unknown, but he stood banging on the door for a few moments before it was opened for him by Bridget.
She had heard him from where she was washing windows, by then inside the house. Totally weirdly, maid Bridget recalled having heard Lizzie Borden — sitting somewhere atop the stairs or just above them — laughing as she struggled to get the door open.
This is kind of significant, since — from where Lizzie Borden must have been located — Abby Borden’s body should have been visible to her. But who knows, she could have just been distracted and simply missed the body laying bludgeoned and bleeding on the guest room carpet.
After finally being able to make his way into the house, Andrew Borden spent a few minutes moving from the dining room — where he spoke with Lizzie Borden in “low tones” — up to his bedroom, and then back down and into the sitting room to take a nap.
Lizzie Borden spent some time ironing in the kitchen, as well sewing and reading a magazine, as Bridget finished the last of the windows. The woman remembered Lizzie Borden speaking to her normally — idle chit-chat, informing her about a sale going on in a shop in town and permitting her to go should she be up for it, as well as mentioning a note that Abby Borden had apparently received asking her to travel out of the house to visit a sick friend.
As the maid Bridget was still feeling unwell from both the illness and likely the heat, she chose to forgo the trip into town, and instead went to lie down in her attic bedroom to rest.
It was not more than fifteen minutes later, around 11:00am, during which no suspicious sounds could be heard, that Lizzie Borden called frantically up the stairs, “Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.”
The sight inside the parlor was a terrible one, and Lizzie warned the maid Bridget against going inside — Andrew Borden, slumped and lying as he had been during his nap, still bleeding (suggesting he had very recently been killed), had been struck ten or eleven times in the head with a small bladed weapon (with his eyeball cut clean in half, suggesting that he had been asleep while attacked).
Panicked, Bridget was sent out of the house to fetch a doctor but found that Dr. Bowen — the physician from across the street who had visited the house only a day previous — was not in, and returned right away to tell Lizzie. She was then sent to notify and grab Alice Russell, as Lizzie Borden told her that she couldn’t bear to remain in the house alone.
A local woman named Mrs. Adelaide Churchill noticed Bridget’s obvious distress and, either driven by neighborly care or curiosity, came to check what was going on.
She spoke to Lizzie Borden for only a few minutes before also jumping into action and traveling to search for a doctor. It didn’t take long for word of what had happened to reach the ears of others, and, before more than five minutes passed, someone used a phone to notify the police.
The Moments After the Murder
The Fall River police force arrived at the house shortly thereafter, and with it came a crowd of concerned and nosy city residents.
Dr. Bowen — who had been found and notified — the police, Bridget, Mrs. Churchill, Alice Russell, and Lizzie Borden all buzzed through the house. Someone called for a sheet to cover Mr. Borden, to which Bridget was said to have strangely and forebodingly added, “Better grab two.” It was of everyone’s testimony that Lizzie Borden was said to have been acting strangely.
First, she wasn’t at all distraught or showing any overt emotion. Second, Lizzie Borden’s story contradicted itself in the responses she provided to the initial questions she was asked.
At first, she claimed she was in the barn during the time of the murders, looking for iron of some sort to fix her screen door; but later, she changed her story and said she had been in the barn looking for lead sinkers for an upcoming fishing trip.
She spoke of being in the backyard and hearing a strange noise coming from inside the house before she walked in and discovered her father; that changed to having heard nothing amiss and being surprised to find his body.
Her story was all over the place, and one of the weirdest parts of it was that she told police that, when Andrew had gotten home, she had helped to change him out of his boots and into his slippers. A claim easily disputed by photographic evidence — Andrew is seen in the crime scene images to have still been wearing his boots, meaning he had to have been wearing them when he met his end.
Finding Abby Borden
Strangest of all, though, was Lizzie’s story about where Mrs. Borden was. Initially, she referred to the note Abby Borden had apparently received, saying that the woman was out of the house, but this turned into her claiming that she thought she’d heard Abby return at some point and that she was perhaps upstairs.
Her demeanor was one of calm, almost detached emotion — an attitude that understandably disturbed most of those present in the house. But, though this sparked suspicion, police had to first address the matter of figuring out where Abby Borden was so they could make sure she was notified of what had happened to her husband.
Bridget and the neighbour, Mrs. Churchill, were tasked with going upstairs to see if Lizzie’s story of her step-mother returning home at some point during the morning (and somehow missing the yell about her husband being murdered) was true.
When they got there, they found that Abby Borden was upstairs. But not in the state they had been expecting.
Bridget and Mrs. Churchill were halfway up the steps, their eyes just level with the floor, when they turned their heads and looked into the guest bedroom through the railing. And there lay Mrs. Borden on the floor. Bludgeoned. Bleeding. Dead.
Andrew and Abby Borden had both been murdered inside their own home, in broad daylight, and the only immediate red flag was Lizzie’s extremely disconcerting behavior.
One other person whose demeanor after the murders was seen as suspicious was John Morse. He arrived at the Borden home unaware of the events that had happened and spent some time in the backyard picking and eating a pear from the tree before going inside.
When he finally did enter the home, he was informed of the murders and is said to have remained in the backyard for most of the day after viewing the bodies. Some saw this behavior as strange, but it just as easily could have been a normal reaction of shock to such a scene.
Lizzie’s sister Emma, on the other hand, was completely unaware that the murders had taken place, as she was off visiting friends in Fairhaven. She was soon sent a telegraph to return home, but it’s noted that she didn’t take any of the first three trains available.
The Fall River police present at the Borden home on the morning of the murders were later criticized for their lack of diligence regarding the search of both the house and the people in it.
Lizzie’s behavior was decidedly not normal, but, despite this, investigators still didn’t bother to thoroughly check her for bloodstains.
Though they did look around, it was a cursory examination, and not one officer was said to have made sure that either of the women present in the house during that morning didn’t have anything physically out of place on their person.
Looking through a woman’s belongings was, at the time, taboo — evidently even still if she was the primary suspect of double parricide. Plus, it’s also noted that Lizzie was menstruating on the day of August 4th, so it’s very possible that any bloody items of clothing that may have resided in her room were simply overlooked by the 19th-century men investigating.
Instead, it’s only the words of both Alice Russell and Bridget Sullivan during their testimonies nearly a year later that can be relied upon regarding the state of Lizzie.
As the two remained close to her during the hours after the murder, when asked, both vehemently denied seeing anything out of place with either her hair or what she was wearing.
Later, during the search through the house, Fall River came across a number of hatchets in the cellar, with one in particular arousing suspicion. Its handle had been broken off, and though it didn’t have any blood on it, the surrounding dirt and ash it had been placed in was disturbed.
The hatchet appeared to have been covered in a layer of dirt meant to disguise it as having been there for some time. Yet though these were found, they were not removed from the house right away, and instead remained for a few days before being taken in as evidence.
The note that was said to have been delivered for Abby Borden was also never found. The police asked Lizzie of its whereabouts; if she had thrown it in a wastebasket, or if Mrs. Borden’s pockets had been checked. Lizzie was unable to recall where it was, and her friend, Alice — who was keeping her company in the kitchen by placing a damp cloth on her forehead — suggested that she had thrown it in the fire to dispose of it, to which Lizzie replied, “Yes… must have put it in the fire.”
As the hours passed, Andrew and Abby Borden were photographed and then placed on the dining room table for examination. Their stomachs were removed to test for poison (with a negative result), and that’s where their bodies, covered in white sheets, would sit for the following few days.
On the evening of August 4th, after the police had concluded their immediate investigation, Emma, Lizzie, John, and Alice remained in the house. Blood still lingered on the wallpaper and in the carpet, and the bodies were beginning to smell; the atmosphere between them must have been thick.
Officers from the Fall River police were stationed outside, both for keeping people out as well as for keeping the residents of the house in. Enough suspicion was on those who were inside to warrant this — John Morse and his potential financial or familial motivations; Bridget with her Irish heritage and her potential resentment of Abby; Lizzie’s massively unusual behavior and contradictory alibi. The list goes on.
During the evening, an officer said that he observed Lizzie and Alice make their way into the house’s cellar — its door being located outside — carrying with them a kerosene lamp and a slop pail (used as chamber-pots as well as for when men shaved) that likely belonged to either Andrew or Abby.
Both women were said to have exited together, but Lizzie soon returned alone, and though the officer was unable to see what she was doing, she was said to have spent some time bent over the sink.
After that, a few days passed without any other notable events. And then Alice Russell watched something that made her anxious enough to hide the truth.
Lizzie and her sister Emma were in the kitchen. Alice had spent the few days with the sisters as the proceedings with the police took place and investigative measures were put forward — a reward for the capture of the murderer, and a small section in the paper by Emma inquiring about the sender of Mrs. Borden’s note.
Standing in front of the kitchen stove, Lizzie held a blue dress. Alice asked her what she meant to do with it, and Lizzie replied that she intended to burn it — it was soiled, faded, and was covered in paint stains.
This is a questionable truth (to say the least), provided by both Emma and Lizzie during their later testimonies.
A dress made at this time would have taken at least two days to sew, and it being ruined by running into wet paint, only a few weeks after finishing it, would have been a deeply disappointing event. Lizzie said she wore it around the house when no visitors were over, but if that were the case, it couldn’t have been as ruined as they claimed.
Plus, it just so happened that the destruction of the dress came conveniently only a day after the loose-lipped Mayor of Fall River, John W. Coughlin, spoke to Lizzie, letting her know that the investigation had developed, and that she was a prime suspect would be taken into custody the next day.
Alice was sure that the burning of that dress was a terrible idea — one that would only direct even more suspicion onto Lizzie. She testified to saying this after the dress had been burned, that morning in the Borden kitchen, to which Lizzie’s reply was a horrified, “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you let me do it?”
Immediately afterwards, Alice was reluctant to speak the truth about it, and even lied to an investigator. But during her third testimony, nearly a year later — and after two previous formal opportunities to mention it — she finally fessed up to what she saw. A confession that must have been a big betrayal to Lizzie, as the two friends from then on stopped speaking.
The Inquest, the Trial, and the Verdict
On August 11th, after Andrew’s and Abby’s funerals, and after investigation by the Fall River police into the suspects — including John Morse, Bridget, Emma, and even an innocent Portugese immigrant who was initially arrested but quickly released — Lizzie Borden was charged with double homicide and escorted to jail.
There, she would spend the next ten months awaiting trial in a case that quickly became a national sensation.
The first hearing of Lizzie Borden, on August 9th, two days before being arrested, was one of conflicting statements and potentially medicated confusion. She had been prescribed frequent doses of morphine for her nerves — newly found, after being totally calm on the day of the murders — and this may have affected her testimony.
Her behavior was recorded as being erratic and difficult, and she would often refuse to answer questions even if they were for her own benefit. She contradicted her own statements, and provided varying accounts of the day’s events.
She was in the kitchen when her father arrived home. And then she was in the dining room, ironing out some handkerchiefs. And then she was coming down the stairs.
The drug-induced disorientation coupled with the aggressive Fall River district attorney questioning her may have had something to do with her behavior, but it didn’t stop her from being further perceived by many as guilty.
And though she was noted to have possessed a “stolid demeanor” during the inquest by the newspapers circulating at the time, it was also reported that the reality of the way she was acting changed a grand majority of the opinions regarding her innocence amongst her friends — who had previously been convinced of it.
These events weren’t only to remain private ones.
From day one, the case of the Borden murders was one of publicized excitement. The minute that word of what happened got out on the day of the murders, dozens of people swarmed around the Borden house, trying to get a peek inside.
In fact, only a day after the crime, John Morse attempted to travel out but was immediately mobbed so intensely that he had to be escorted back inside by the police.
It didn’t take long for the entire country — and even places overseas — to become invested in the story. Paper after paper and article after article was published, sensationalizing Lizzie Borden and how she heartlessly hacked both of her loving parents to death.
And after the events of the first testimonies, that celebrity fascination only grew — there was a three page story about the case in The Boston Globe, a prominent newspaper, that covered all of the gossip and dirty details.
The public’s morbid fascination with death and near-celebrity phenomena has obviously not changed much since 1892.
The Trial of Lizzie Borden
The trial of Lizzie Borden took place nearly a full year after the day of murders, on June 5, 1893.
Just to add the the growing excitement, her trial came right after another axe murder took place in Fall River — one that had striking similarities to the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden. Unfortunately for Lizzie Borden, and though it was remarked by the grand jury of the trial, the two incidents were determined to not be linked. The man responsible for the recent murder was nowhere in the vicinity of Fall River on August 4, 1892. Still, though, two axe murderers in one city. Yikes.
With that out of the way, the trial of Lizzie Borden began.
The most prominent things mentioned (by both the court and the newspapers) were the potential murder weapon and Lizzie Borden’s presence within or around the Borden house during the murders.
As Lizzie Borden’s story had been for the entirety of the investigation, things once again didn’t add up. Times testified to and recorded didn’t make sense, and her claim that she had spent roughly half an hour in the barn before returning to find her father’s body was never verified.
The hatchet that had been removed from the basement was the instrument brought out on the floor during the proceedings. Fall River police had discovered it without its handle — which would have likely been soaked in blood and disposed of — but forensic tests disproved the presence of any blood even on the blade.
At one point, investigators even brought out the skulls of Andrew and Abby — which had been taken and cleaned during a cemetery autopsy days after the funeral — and put them on display to show the gruesome severity of their deaths as well as to try and prove the hatchet as the murder weapon. They placed its blade into the gaping breaks, trying to match up its size to the potential strikes.
This was a sensational development for the public, especially around Fall River — along with the fact that Lizzie Borden fainted at the sight.
The contradictory testimonies and conflicting facts didn’t end as the trial continued. Officers at the scene who had first located the hatchet in the cellar reported conflicting sightings of seeing a wooden handle next to it, and though there was some potential evidence that could have maybe pointed to it being the murder weapon, it was never convincingly demonstrated to be so.
The grand jury was sent to deliberate on June 20, 1893.
After only an hour, the grand jury acquitted Lizzie Borden of the murders.
The evidence presented against her was deemed to be circumstantial and far from enough to prove her as the murderer that the press and the investigators had made her out to be. And without that certain evidence, she was, simply, free to go.
Upon exiting the courthouse after the declaration of her freedom, Borden told reporters that she was the “happiest woman in the world.”
An Enduring Mystery
So much speculation and hearsay surrounds the story of Lizzie Borden; many different, ever-evolving, swirling theories. The story itself — an unsolved pair of brutal murders — is still one that fascinates people even into the 21st century, so it’s no surprise that new ideas and thinking are constantly being discussed and shared.
Rumors immediately following the murders whispered of Bridget, motivated to butchery by the anger she felt at Abby ordering her to clean the windows on such a scorching-hot day. Others involved John Morse and his business deals with Andrew, along with his strangely detailed alibi — a fact that the Fall River police were suspicious of enough to make him a primary suspect for a time.
A potential illegitimate son of Andrew’s was even presented as a possibility, though this relation was proven to be a falsehood. Some even theorized the involvement of Emma — she had an alibi in nearby Fairhaven, but it’s possible that she traveled home for a time so as to commit the murders before once again leaving the city.
For most, however, these theories — while technically plausible — are nowhere near as likely as the theory that Lizzie Borden was in fact the murderer. Almost all the evidence points to her; she only escaped the consequences because the prosecution lacked a clinching piece of physical evidence, the smoking gun, to convict her in a court of law.
Yet if she was indeed the murderer, that only poses more questions, such as why did she do it?
What could have driven her to murder her father and stepmother so brutally?
The Leading Theories
Speculation as to Lizzie Borden’s motive was made by writer Ed McBain in his 1984 novel, Lizzie. It described the possibility of there being a forbidden love affair between her and Bridget, and it claimed that the murders were driven by the two of them getting caught mid-tryst by either Andrew or Abby.
As the family was religious, and lived during a time when rampant homophobia was the norm, it’s not an altogether impossible theory. Even during her later years, Lizzie Borden was rumored to be a lesbian, though no such gossip sprung up regarding Bridget.
Years earlier, in 1967, writer Victoria Lincoln proposed that Lizzie Borden was perhaps influenced by and committed the murders while in a “fugue state” — a type of dissociative disorder characterized by amnesia and potential shifts in personality.
Such states are usually caused by years of trauma, and in the case of Lizzie Borden, an argument can be made that “years of trauma” was something she had in fact experienced.
The biggest theory relating to this, for many who follow the Borden case, is that Lizzie Borden— and potentially even Emma — had spent the majority of their lives under the sexual abuse of their father.
As the entire crime lacks evidence, there is no definitive proof of this accusation. But the Bordens do fit staunchly within a common framework of a family living with the threat of child molestation.
One such point of evidence was Lizzie’s move to nail closed the door that existed between her bedroom and that of Andrew and Abby’s room. She even went so far as to push her bed up against it to keep it from opening.
It’s an incredibly dark line of thinking, but if it’s true, it would serve as a very viable motive for murder.
At the time of the attacks, the sexual abuse of children was something sternly avoided in both discussion and research. The officers that investigated the house on the day of the murders had a hard time even going through the women’s belongings — there was no way that Lizzie Borden would have been asked such questions pertaining to what kind of relationship she had with her father.
Incest was extremely taboo, and arguments can be made as to why (mainly that of many men not wanting to rock the boat and risk changing the status-quo). Even respected doctors such as Sigmund Freud, who is known for his work in psychiatry surrounding the effects of childhood traumas, was severely reprimanded for attempting to bring it into discussion.
Knowing this, it’s no wonder that Lizzie’s life at Fall River — and what kind of paternal relationship she had grown up with — was never brought into deeper questioning until nearly a century later.
Life After Being Accused of Being a Murderer
After the year-long ordeal of living as the main suspect of the murders of both her parents, Lizzie Borden remained in Fall River, Massachusetts ,though she started going by Lizbeth A. Borden. Neither she nor her sister would ever marry.
As Abby was ruled to have been killed first, everything belonging to her first went to Andrew, and then — because, you know, he had also been murdered — everything that was his went to the girls. This was a huge amount of property and wealth being transferred to them, though a lot went to Abby’s family in a settlement.
Lizzie Borden moved out of the Borden house with Emma and into a much larger and more modern estate on The Hill — the wealthy neighborhood in the city where she had wanted to be her entire life.
Naming the house “Maplecroft,” she and Emma had a full staff that consisted of live-in maids, a house-keeper, and a coachman. She was even known to possess multiple dogs that symbolized affluence — Boston Terriers, which, after her death, were commanded to be cared for and buried in the closest pet cemetery.
Even after being dragged through the public eye as the woman who had brutally murdered both of her parents, Lizzie Borden ended up with the life that she had always wanted.
But, though she did spend the rest of her days trying to live as a wealthy, influential member of Fall River’s high society, she would never quite manage to do so — at least not without the everyday challenges of being ostracized by the Fall River community. Despite being acquitted, rumors and accusations would follow her around for her entire life.
And this would only get worse with things like the shoplifting accusations she faced in 1897, a few years after the deaths of her parents, from Providence, Rhode Island.
Lizzie Borden’s Death
Lizzie and Emma lived together in Maplecroft until 1905, when Emma suddenly picked up her belongings and moved out, settling in Newmarket, New Hampshire. The reasons for this are unexplained.
Lizzie Andrew Borden would spend her remaining days alone with the staff of the house, before dying of pneumonia on June 1, 1927. Only nine days later, Emma would follow her to the grave.
The two were buried next to each other in Oak Grove Cemetery in Fall River, Massachusetts in the Borden family plot not far from Andrew and Abby. Lizzie Borden’s funeral in particular wasn’t publicized and few people attended.
One more thing worth noting, though…
Bridget spent the rest of her life — after leaving Fall River, Massachusetts, soon after the trials — living modestly with a husband in the state of Montana. Lizzie Borden had never once attempted to accuse or push suspicion onto her, something that likely would have been easy to do to the Irish immigrant living in an America that hated Irish immigrants.
There are conflicting reports, but, on her deathbed in 1948, it’s widely understood that she confessed to having changed her testimonies; omitting truths to protect Lizzie Borden.
The Modern-Day Impact of a 19th Century Murder
Nearly one hundred and thirty years after the murders, the story of Lizzie Andrew Borden remains popular. TV shows, documentaries, theater productions, countless books, articles, news stories… the list goes on. There’s even the folk rhyme that lingers within peoples’ collective consciousness, “Lizzie Borden Took an Axe” — supposedly created by some mysterious figure so as to sell newspapers.
Speculation still circulates as to who committed the crime, with countless writers and investigators looking into the details of the murders to take their shot at coming up with possible ideas and explanations.
Even within the past few years, the real artifacts that were in the house at the time of the murders were put on display for a brief time in Fall River, Massachusetts. One such item being the bed spread that was in the guest bedroom at the time of Abby’s murder, in completely original condition — blood splatters and all.
The best part, though, is the fact that the house has been turned into the “Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum” — a popular tourist spot for murder and ghost enthusiastics alike to visit. Opened to the public in 1992, the interior has been decorated purposefully to closely resemble the way it looked during the day of the murders, though all of the original furniture was removed after Lizzie and Emma moved out.
Every surface is covered with crime scene photos, and specific rooms — such as the one that Abby was murdered in — are available to sleep in, if you’re not scared out of your wits by the ghosts that supposedly haunt the house.
A rather fitting American business for such a notorious American murder.