Lizzie Borden: Guilty or Innocent?

“Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one!”

We all know the story of Lizzie Borden: a big house in Massachusetts, a lonely spinster woman, and two hacked up parents. Lizzie Borden took an axe… well, you know the rest. On August 4th, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found murdered in their home on 2nd Street. Andrew was napping in the sitting room and Abby was in an upstairs bedroom, presumably cleaning. What really happened on that fateful summer day? And why did it happen? Did Lizzie really do it?

She was acquitted, so legally she didn’t. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

TRIGGER WARNING: CRIME SCENE PHOTOS (NO BLOOD)

The Bordens

Andrew Borden was a native to Fall River, Massachusetts. He had a huge net worth – almost $10 million in today’s money (a whopping $333,000 back in the day). He came from humble beginnings but became successful later on in life. He owned a considerable number of income properties and worked on the board of several large banks. He was frugal despite his fortune; the Borden house on 2nd Street didn’t even have indoor plumbing, despite it being available to the wealthy, and it still used kerosene lamps instead of electricity. His first wife (Lizzie’s mother), tragically passed away. Two years later, he married a woman named Abby Gray.

They lived in a wealthy area of Fall River, though not the wealthiest. Much of Andrew’s family lived in a neighborhood called The Hill, where all things high and society took place. It is said that Lizzie very much longed to live there, to be a part of high society, but her father refused. Their house on 2nd Street was close to town and shops and much of Andrew’s business dealings. The area was also home to a population of Irish immigrants, which was certainly considered undesirable.

Lizzie Borden

Lizzie was born on July 19, 1860 (she’s a Cancer, of course) and she had a sister Emma, nine years her senior. When their mother was on her death bed, she made Emma promise to always take care of Lizzie, as if she was her own. This contributed to Emma’s ‘spinsterhood’, as she did not have time to marry and move away because she was raising Lizzie. She even dropped out of college after only a year to return home. Lizzie was described as a “moody” and “average” student in school. She was a sensitive child with problems meeting new people. She dropped out in her junior year of high school and spent the majority of her time involved in the local church. The Borden sisters were in their 30’s at the time of the murders, and were both considered ‘spinsters’; unmarried, childless, living in their father’s home.

This is neither here nor there, but Lizzie was also apparently a known shoplifter at the local stores in town. She would simply take things from the shelves and racks and walk out of the store without paying. The shop owner would then charge the cost of the items to Andrew Borden’s account, so technically it wasn’t “stealing”… but it still feels a lot like stealing.

The Borden sisters’ feelings toward their stepmother are recorded as being… not good. They resented Abby and never called her “Mother” or even “Mrs. Borden”, which was incredibly disrespectful at that time. Several months before the murder, Andrew Borden purchased a house for Abby’s sister, and Lizzie and Emma were reportedly irate. They hardly ate meals with their parents, which was essentially unheard of back then. Both Borden sisters would ignore Abby’s family when they greeted them in public, another act of Victorian disrespect. The Borden family maid, 26 year old Irish immigrant Bridget Sullivan (whom the Borden sisters called “Maggie” for no apparent reason), stated during the trial that there was palpable tension in the Borden household. She had even attempted to resign from her position because of it, but Abby paid her a hefty bonus to stay.

Lizzie is reported to have loved animals, often taking in stray cats and going horseback riding. A flock of pigeons had come to roost in the barn on their property, and Lizzie had taken to calling them her pets and feeding them. One day in early 1892, Mr. Borden killed all of the pigeons and made Bridget pluck them and put them in a stew. He claimed he did this to keep the neighborhood children from throwing stones at the birds, thus breaking several barn windows. Nonetheless, this fueled Lizzie’s mounting rage. (I have to put a note here that some Lizzie Borden scholars believe this situation to be more of a legend than reality, though I’ve come across it as part of the narrative in nearly every source I used for this research.)

The Murders

The night before the murders, Lizzie went to visit her friend Alice. She told Alice that the whole family had recently fallen violently ill… except for her. It was later revealed that Lizzie had attempted to purchase prussic acid (poison!) from the local pharmacy several days prior, but the pharmacist refused to sell it to her. Did she poison her parents (and poor Bridget) in an attempt to kill them? Or perhaps just make them ill and weak? Lizzie also mentioned to Alice that she was worried someone might want to hurt her father. The home had been broken into several days prior to August 4th, and the only things stolen were sentimental items of Abby’s (and, according to some sources, Andrew believed someone within the home stole the items). Lizzie claimed to be worried that the intruder might return.

Also, Lizzie and Emma’s uncle John Morse was visiting the day prior to the murders. He slept in the guest room on the second floor. The reason for his visit is still unknown, but he was allegedly not involved in any part of the crime.

Let’s go over the timeline for the morning of the murders:

6:00 AM : Andrew and Abby Borden and John Morse wake up, go downstairs and have breakfast.

6:30 AM : Bridget wakes up, still feeling ill, and begins her work in the kitchen

8:45 AM : John Morse and Andrew Borden leave the home to go into town for business

8:50 AM : Lizzie appears for breakfast and coffee

9:00 AM : Abby Borden tells Bridget to clean all windows in the home, outside and inside *1

9:30 AM : (this time is approximate) Abby Borden is killed

10:45 AM : Andrew Borden returns from town early, feeling ill. Lizzie tells Andrew that Abby has been called away to tend to a sick friend, and has left the home. *2

11:00 AM : Bridget is in her room, resting but not asleep

11:15 AM : (this time is approximate) Andrew Borden is killed

11:30 AM : Lizzie Borden calls for Bridget to get a doctor upon “discovering” Andrew Borden’s body

(*1 it should be noted that, at this time, Lizzie asked Bridget if she had any plans to leave the home that day. Bridget said no, because she was not feeling well. Lizzie then informed her of a big sale taking place at a local shop, and suggested Bridget leave the home later that morning to go check it out)

(*2 it should be noted that, in court testimony, Bridget reported that Andrew could not get into the home when he returned, as there were multiple latches locked from the inside that were not typically locked. Bridget had difficulty getting them all unlocked to allow Andrew inside, and during this time she reported hearing Lizzie Borden giggling at the top of the stairs)

Lizzie screamed for Bridget to go across the street to their neighbor, who was a doctor. Bridget ran across the busy street only to find the doctor was not home. Lizzie then told her to go fetch her friend Alice (the same Alice she had met with the night before) because she did not want to be alone in the home, as the intruder could still be present. Eventually a nosy neighbor noticed Lizzie standing on the porch, distraught, and asked what was wrong. Lizzie told the neighbor about her father’s demise and the neighbor hurried over to check it out. When the neighbor asked Lizzie where she was at the time of the attack, Lizzie stated she was in the barn. Then, she told her neighbor that she might have heard Abby come home, but she wasn’t sure. Abby might be inside the house!

Alice arrives to the Borden home shortly after Bridget sends for her. Lizzie immediately insists someone search the second and third floors for Abby. Bridget and the nosy neighbor ascend the stairs to the second floor. From the landing they can see Abby Borden’s feet, outstretched behind the bed in the guest room. The neighbor flees in tears to tell Lizzie that they found Abby’s body. Bridget enters the guest room to confirm, and what she finds is absolutely horrifying.

The brutality of the crime was unmatched in Fall River history. Andrew Borden’s face was essentially chopped off; he was unrecognizable. Abby was attacked from behind, wounds gathered on her upper back. And, for the record, the nursery rhyme has the count wrong: Andrew was hit ten times with a hatchet (not an axe), after Abby was struck nineteen times.

Two police officers arrived at the scene. A large portion of the Fall River police force was actually out of town, at Rocky Point in Rhode Island, for some kind of event – not really relevant, but kind of funny that they were all at the beach when this happened. They immediately questioned Lizzie, who had trouble accounting for her whereabouts during the attack. She claimed that she had been sitting in the loft of the barn on the property, where she ate three pears, then spent twenty to thirty minutes looking in the barn for sinkers and fishing lures. She then insisted to have heard a scream or groan (she couldn’t remember which) from inside and ran into the sitting room to discover her father. This point is particularly interesting because Bridget, who was inside the house, reported having heard no sound whatsoever.

Lizzie had lots of stories for the police. She said she had once come home at night to find a shadowy figure slinking around the house… but she couldn’t elaborate further than that. She was quick to correct them when they referred to Abby as her mother, too. She was Lizzie’s STEP-mother. Big difference, especially to Lizzie. When the doctor finally arrived, he took Lizzie to her room to relax with the aid of morphine (which they were just handing out back then, apparently).

The police searched the entire home and barn. They recovered two hatchets and two axes, though none were believed to be the murder weapon, as they had no blood on them. In the barn, they noticed there were no footprints in the thick sawdust in the loft where Lizzie reported to have sat during the time of the murders… interesting. That night, Lizzie, Alice, and John Morse (the uncle, remember?) stayed IN THE HOUSE where two people were just MURDERED, while their DEAD BODIES were on slabs in the sitting room. (Were all the hotels full??) A cop was watching over the house and, in the middle of the night, he saw Lizzie go into the basement and kneel beside the sink for one to two minutes, though he could not see exactly what she was doing. A few days later, Alice saw Lizzie burning scraps of a dress in the fireplace. She said, “I wouldn’t let anyone see me doing that if I were you”. Suspicious.

The funeral was held on August 8th. Emma came back to town (she was away, visiting a friend, at the time of the murders) and stayed in the house on 2nd Street with her sister and uncle. On August 10th, the police informed Lizzie that she was a suspect in the murders. She was reported to have said, “I am ready to go at any time”. (Read: “I dare you to arrest me.”) Then, on August 11th, Lizzie Borden was arrested on two counts of murder. There’s a shocker.

The Trial

Lizzie had her daddy’s money, and she bought the best attorneys it could buy. They were quick to deny Lizzie’s guilt on the basis of two main points, the first being lack of forensic evidence. They called in a Harvard chemist who claimed to have found no blood on any of the axes or hatchets that were recovered from the Borden house. There was a teeny tiny drop of blood on the hem of the dress Lizzie was ALLEGEDLY wearing on the day of the murders (was the dress she actually wore burned in the fireplace?) Further, fingerprint testing was in its infancy in the late 1800’s, and the police did not perform any kind of print collection at the scene or on any of the potential murder weapons.

Lizzie Borden during the trial, by Benjamin West Clinedinst

The second point of denial was on the basis of Lizzie’s gender and social class. Yeah, that was a legitimate defense. She was well-bred, virtuous, and in the words of the national president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union at the time, a “Protestant Nun”. In other words, she was a tiny little Victorian spinster who totally couldn’t kill her old and sick (hell, one of them was asleep!!) parents. Women’s suffrage groups turned out in droves to support Lizzie in her innocence. And Lizzie played the part of their heroine- dressed tightly corseted and in all black, a fan in one hand and a bouquet of flowers (seriously) in the other. She would sigh or act faint from time to time throughout the proceedings, just as any distraught Protestant Nun would.

The trial was a circus. The first true media frenzy surrounding a high profile trial (the Lizzie Borden case walked so the OJ Simpson case could run). Testimony was given before a packed courtroom. Bridget’s story never changed, from the initial inquest to the formal trial to follow. Lizzie’s story wouldn’t stop changing. Let’s review:

It was confirmed by the coroner that Abby was killed between 9 and 10 AM. Lizzie claimed to be setting up an ironing board at that time, but couldn’t remember how long it took. Bridget was seen by neighbors cleaning the outside windows during this time frame.

At 10:45 AM, Andrew Borden came home. Lizzie claimed she was in the kitchen at this time, reading a magazine. However, this directly contradicts Bridget’s testimony that Lizzie laughed at her from the top of the stairs! When questioned further about this inconsistency, Lizzie said she couldn’t remember if she was upstairs or not. Convenient.

Lizzie told Andrew and Bridget that Abby received a note, calling her away to tend to a sick friend. When police asked who the note was from, or for the note itself, Lizzie didn’t know and couldn’t find it. Also convenient. Even if the note was real, why didn’t Abby leave to tend to her sick friend?

The prosecution argued that it would be nearly impossible for an intruder to sneak into the Borden home, kill Abby, stay in the home for an additional sixty to ninety minutes, then kill Andrew. No neighbors saw anyone come in or out (remember the nosy neighbor from before? Yeah, they didn’t see anyone). And the pure rage used in the attacks suggested someone close to the victims had perpetrated the crime.

Lizzie’s attorney gave a five hour closing argument to a jury of twelve men – farmers, tradesmen, factory owners (and a single Irishman – not sure how he passed through the selection process). They quickly acquitted Lizzie of all charges, then waited an hour to come out of the jury chambers so it looked like they really thought long and hard about it. Women’s groups cheered! The presses of the high society were thrilled – justice was served, justice for the innocent Lizzie! Working class papers and immigrant-run papers, however, were dubious.

Either way, Lizzie was innocent. Well, she was acquitted, at least.

The Aftermath

Lack of forensic evidence and her Victorian femininity led to Lizzie’s release as a free woman. I’m paraphrasing, of course, because there are a myriad of cultural and legal reasons for her to walk free when all signs point to her guilt, and I just don’t have the time to dissect them all. I’m not even convinced there are many people reading to this point.

Lizzie and her sister Emma inherited their father’s millions and moved into a large house on The Hill. Lizzie was infamous, “Fall River’s curio”, gawked at in public and shunned by many in the town. Though she did manage a nice life of travel up and down the East Coast, dotted with fine dining and trips to the theater. She and Emma had a falling out in 1904, and reportedly never saw each other again. They died within days of each other in 1927.

Turns out, there might be more information than we once thought (by the way, all court transcripts and testimonies can be read in full online). In March 2012, researchers at the Fall River Historical Society discovered the handwritten journals of Andrew Jennings, Lizzie’s defense attorney. I haven’t been able to find the contents anywhere public online, but I have been in touch with the Fall River Historical Society to see what’s up with them. They’re only an hour away from me, and I’d be happy to make a trip out there if it means taking a look at these secret notes.

The Borden house at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts

And because Fall River is only about an hour away, I could easily stay at the Lizzie Borden House Bed and Breakfast! That’s right! It’s the original house where Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered by Lizzie Borden an unknown assailant. Under new ownership as of May 2021, they’ve apparently been going through some pretty sweet upgrades. And, of course, the house is haunted. Guests have claimed to hear voices, experience strange odors, objects moving on their own, footsteps, even full-body apparitions! You can just book a tour if you don’t want to spend the night. Rooms are around $300 a night with your choice of the Lizzie & Emma Suite, the Andrew & Abby Suite, or the John V. Morse Suite (where Abby as murdered!). You can also book out the whole house for weddings, so… that’s cool. September and October are almost fully booked, so you better hurry and make a reservation!

If you’re looking for more Lizzie Borden related media, there’s a true treasure-trove of options for you. Lizzie Borden Took an Axe (2014) is the only good Lifetime film ever made, starring Christina Ricci as Borden. It was followed up by a Netflix series The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (2015). This retelling of the murders is super fictionalized, but still fun to watch. Lizzie (2018) is a feature film starring Chloe Sevigny as Borden and Kristen Stewart as Bridget Sullivan. Another retelling steeped in fiction, this one portrays Lizzie and Bridget in a lesbian affair that eventually leads to the murders.

All jokes aside, the Lizzie Borden case is a fascinating piece of American legal history. Do you think she killed her father and step-mother? If you’re looking for motive, most people claim resentment of Abby and a longing to use her father’s money to enter high society, specifically The Hill. If you’re looking for forensic evidence, it’s long gone. Though I’d love to know if Lizzie did burn the dress she wore at the time of the crimes in the fireplace. And I’d love to know what she was doing in the basement sink in the middle of the night.

I guess you could always call her up on the Ouija board on your next visit to the B&B.

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

“Lizzie Borden took an axe

and gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done

she gave her father forty-one.

Andrew Borden now is dead

Lizzie hit him on the head.

Up in heaven he will sing

on the gallows she will swing”

SOURCES:

“The History: The Lizzie Borden House is Full of History.” The Historic Lizzie Borden House, https://lizzie-borden.com/history/.

Conforti, Joseph. “Why 19th-Century Axe Murderer Lizzie Borden was Found Not Guilty.” Smithsonian Magazine, 13 July 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-19th-century-axe-murderer-lizzie-borden-was-found-not-guilty-180972707/

Maranzani, Barbara. “Lizzie Borden: Murderess or Media Sensation?” History, 22 Aug. 2018, https://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-lizzie-borden

“Mystery Monday Lizzie Borden: Guilty or Innocent? Part One.” Youtube, uploaded by Stephanie Harlowe, 4 Mar. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9E9tIfPFVbU

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code ยง 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

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