Borden in 1889
Lizzie Andrew Borden
July 19, 1860
|Died||June 1, 1927 (aged 66)|
Fall River, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Resting place||Oak Grove Cemetery|
|Other names||Lizbeth Borden|
|Known for||Suspected Homicide|
No one else was charged in the murders, and despite ostracism from other residents Borden spent the remainder of her life in Fall River. She died of pneumonia at age 66, just days before the death of her sister, Emma.
The murders and trial received widespread publicity throughout the United States and, along with Borden herself, they remain a topic in American popular culture to the present day. They have been depicted in numerous films, theatrical productions, literary works, and folk rhymes, and are still very well known in the Fall River area.
Lizzie Andrew Borden[a] was born July 19, 1860, in Fall River, Massachusetts, to Sarah Anthony (née Morse; 1823–1863) and Andrew Jackson Borden (1822–1892). Her father, who 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. He 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 his estate was valued at $300,000 (equivalent to $9,000,000 in 2019).
Despite his wealth, Andrew was known for his frugality. For instance, the Borden home lacked indoor plumbing although that was a common accommodation for wealthy people at the time. It was in an affluent area, but the wealthiest residents of Fall River, including Andrew's cousins, generally lived in the more fashionable neighborhood, "The Hill", which was farther from the industrial areas of the city and much more homogeneous racially, ethnically and socioeconomically.
Borden and her older sister, Emma Lenora Borden (1851–1927) had a relatively religious upbringing and attended Central Congregational Church. As a young woman she was very involved in church activities, including teaching Sunday school to children of recent immigrants to the United States. She was involved in Christian organizations such as the Christian Endeavor Society, for which she served as secretary-treasurer, and contemporary social movements such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). She was also a member of the Ladies' Fruit and Flower Mission.
Three years after the death of Lizzie Borden's mother Sarah, Andrew married Abby Durfee Gray (1828–1892). Lizzie stated that she called her stepmother "Mrs. Borden" and demurred on whether they had a cordial relationship; she believed that Abby had married her father for his wealth. Bridget Sullivan, (whom they called Maggie) the Bordens' 25-year-old live-in maid who had immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, testified that Lizzie and Emma rarely ate meals with their parents. In May 1892, Andrew killed multiple pigeons in his barn with a hatchet, believing they were attracting local children to hunt them. Lizzie had recently built a roost for the pigeons, and it has been commonly recounted that she was upset over his killing of them, though the veracity of this has been disputed.[b] A family argument in July 1892 prompted both sisters to take extended "vacations" in New Bedford. After returning to Fall River, a week before the murders, Lizzie chose to stay in a local rooming house for four days before returning to the family residence.
Tension had been growing within 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 stepmother's sister received a house, the sisters had demanded and received a rental property (the home they had lived in until their mother died) which they purchased from their father for $1; a few weeks before the murders, they sold the property back to their father for $5,000 (equivalent to $142,000 in 2019). The night before the murders, John Vinnicum Morse, the brother of Lizzie's and Emma's deceased mother, visited and was invited to stay for a few days to discuss business matters with Andrew. Some writers[who?] 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. A family friend later speculated that mutton left on the stove to use in meals over several days was the cause, but Abby had feared poisoning, as Andrew had not been a popular man.
August 4, 1892
John Morse arrived in the evening of August 3 and slept in the guest room that night. After breakfast the next morning, at which Andrew, Abby, Lizzie, Morse and the Bordens' maid Bridget "Maggie" Sullivan were present, Andrew and Morse went to the sitting room, where they chatted for nearly an hour. Morse left around 8:48 am to buy a pair of oxen and visit his niece in Fall River, planning to return to the Borden home for lunch at noon. Andrew left for his morning walk sometime after 9 am.
Although the cleaning of the guest room was one of Lizzie's and Emma's regular chores, Abby went upstairs some time between 9:00 am and 10:30 am to make the bed. According to the forensic investigation, Abby was facing her killer at the time of the attack. She was first struck on the side of the head with a hatchet which cut her just above the ear, causing her to turn and fall face down on the floor, creating contusions on her nose and forehead. Her killer then struck her multiple times, delivering 17 more direct hits to the back of her head, killing her.
When Andrew returned at around 10:30 am, his key failed to open the door, so he knocked for attention. Sullivan 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 did not see Lizzie, but stated that the laughter was coming from the top of the stairs. This was considered significant as Abby was already dead by this time, and her body would have been visible to anyone on the home's second floor. 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 Abby a summons to visit a sick friend.
Lizzie stated that she had then removed Andrew's boots and helped him into his slippers before he lay down on the sofa for a nap (an anomaly contradicted by the crime scene photos, which show Andrew wearing boots). She then informed Sullivan of a department store sale and permitted her to go, but Sullivan felt unwell and went to take a nap in her bedroom instead.
Sullivan testified that she was in her third-floor room, resting from cleaning windows, when just before 11:10 am she heard Lizzie call from downstairs, "Maggie, come quick! Father's dead. Somebody came in and killed him." 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 very recent attack. Dr. Bowen, the family's physician, arrived from his home across the street to determine that both victims had died. Detectives estimated his death had occurred at approximately 11:00 am.
Lizzie Borden's initial 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. Two hours later she told police 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. Sullivan 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 face down on the floor. Most of the officers who interviewed Borden reported that they disliked her attitude; some said she was too calm and poised. Despite her "attitude" and changing alibis, nobody bothered to check her for bloodstains. Police did search her room, but it was a cursory inspection; at the trial they admitted to not doing a proper search because Borden was not 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 break in the handle appeared fresh 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. Because of the mysterious illness that had stricken the household before the murders, the family's milk and Andrew's and Abby's stomachs (removed during autopsies performed in the Borden dining room) were tested for poison; none was found. Residents suspected Lizzie of purchasing 'hydrocyanic acid in a diluted form' from the local drugstore. She defended that she inquired about the acid, so she could clean her furs (despite the local medical examiner's testimony that it did not have antiseptic properties).
Lizzie and Emma's friend, Alice Russell, decided to stay with them the night following the murders while 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 on the night of August 4, during which an officer said he had seen Borden enter the cellar with Russell, carrying a kerosene lamp and a slop pail. He stated he saw both women exit the cellar, after which Borden returned alone; though he was unable to see what she was doing, he stated it appeared she was bent over the sink.
On August 5, Morse left the house and was mobbed by hundreds of people; police had to escort him back to the house. On August 6, 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, Russell entered the kitchen to find Borden tearing up a dress. She explained that she was planning to put it on the fire because it was covered in paint. It was never determined whether it was the dress she had been wearing on the day of the murders.
Borden appeared at the inquest hearing on August 8. Her request to have her family attorney present was refused under a state statute providing that an inquest must be held in private. She had been prescribed regular doses of morphine to calm her nerves, and it is possible that her testimony was affected by this. Her behavior was erratic, and she often refused to answer a question even if the answer would be beneficial to her. She often contradicted herself and provided alternating accounts of the morning in question, such as saying she was in the kitchen reading a magazine when her father arrived home, then saying she was in the dining room doing some ironing, and then saying she was coming down the stairs. She also said she removed her father's boots and put slippers on him, while police photographs clearly showed him wearing his boots.
The district attorney was very aggressive and confrontational. On August 11, Borden 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 1893. Contemporaneous newspaper articles noted that Borden possessed a "stolid demeanor" and "bit her lips, flushed, and bent toward Attorney Adams;" it was also reported that the testimony provided in the inquest had "caused a change of opinion among her friends who have heretofore strongly maintained her innocence." The inquest received significant press attention nationwide, including an extensive three-page write-up in The Boston Globe. A grand jury began hearing evidence on November 7, and Borden was indicted on December 2.
Trial and acquittal
Borden's trial took place in New Bedford starting on June 5, 1893. Prosecuting attorneys were Hosea M. Knowlton and future United States Supreme Court Justice William H. Moody; defending were Andrew V. Jennings, Melvin O. Adams, and former Massachusetts governor George D. Robinson. Five days before the trial's commencement, on June 1, another axe murder occurred in Fall River. This time the victim was Bertha Manchester, who was found hacked to death in her kitchen. The similarities between the Manchester and Bordens' murders were striking and noted by jurors. However, Jose Correa de Mello, a Portuguese immigrant, was later convicted of Manchester's murder in 1894, and was determined not to have been in the vicinity of Fall River at the time of the Borden murders.
A prominent point of discussion in the trial (or press coverage of it) was the hatchet-head found in the basement, which was not convincingly demonstrated by the prosecution to be the murder weapon. Prosecutors argued that the killer had removed the handle because it would have been covered in blood. One officer testified that a hatchet handle was found near the hatchet-head, but another officer contradicted this. Though no bloody clothing was found at the scene, Russell testified that on August 8, 1892, she had witnessed Borden burn a dress in the kitchen stove, saying it had been ruined when she brushed against wet paint. During the course of the trial, defense never attempted to challenge this statement.
Lizzie Borden's presence at the home was also a point of dispute during the trial; according to testimony, Sullivan entered the second floor of the home at around 10:58 am and left Lizzie and her father downstairs. Lizzie told several people that at this time, she went into the barn and was not in the house for "20 minutes or possibly a half an hour". Hyman Lubinsky testified for the defense that he saw Lizzie Borden leaving the barn at 11:03 am and Charles Gardner confirmed the time. At 11:10 am, Lizzie called Sullivan downstairs, told her Andrew had been murdered, and ordered her not to enter the room; instead, Borden sent her to get a doctor.
Both victims' heads had been removed during autopsy and the skulls were admitted as evidence during the trial and presented on June 5, 1893. Upon seeing them in the courtroom, Borden fainted. Evidence was excluded that Borden had sought to purchase prussic acid, purportedly for cleaning a sealskin cloak, from a local druggist on the day before the murders. The judge ruled that the incident was too remote in time to have any connection.
The presiding Associate Justice, Justin Dewey (who had been appointed by Robinson when he was governor), delivered a lengthy summary that supported the defense as his charge to the jury before it was sent to deliberate on June 20, 1893. After an hour and a half of deliberation, the jury acquitted Borden of the murders. Upon exiting the courthouse, she told reporters she was "the happiest woman in the world."
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.
Although acquitted at trial, Borden remains the prime suspect in her father's and stepmother's murders. Writer Victoria Lincoln proposed in 1967 that Borden might have committed the murders while in a fugue state. Another prominent suggestion was that she was physically and sexually abused by her father, which drove her to kill him. There is little evidence to support this, but incest is not a topic that would have been discussed at the time, and the methods for collecting physical evidence would have been quite different in 1892. This belief was intimated in local papers at the time of the murders, and was revisited by scholar Marcia Carlisle in a 1992 essay.
Mystery author Ed McBain, in his 1984 novel Lizzie, suggested that Borden committed the murders after being caught in a lesbian tryst with Sullivan. McBain elaborated on his speculation in a 1999 interview, speculating that Abby had caught Lizzie and Sullivan together and had reacted with horror and disgust, and that Lizzie had killed Abby with a candlestick. When Andrew returned she had confessed to him, but killed him in a rage with a hatchet when he reacted exactly as Abby had. McBain further speculates that Sullivan disposed of the hatchet somewhere afterwards. In her later years, Borden was rumored to be a lesbian, but there was no such speculation about Sullivan, who found other employment after the murders and later married a man she met while working as a maid in Butte, Montana. She died in Butte in 1948, where she allegedly gave a deathbed confession to her sister, stating that she had changed her testimony on the stand in order to protect Borden.
Another significant suspect is John Morse, Lizzie's maternal uncle, who rarely met with the family after his sister died, but had slept in the house the night before the murders; according to law enforcement, Morse had provided an "absurdly perfect and overdetailed alibi for the death of Abby Borden". He was considered a suspect by police for a period.
Others noted as potential suspects in the crimes include Sullivan, possibly in retaliation for being ordered to clean the windows on a hot day; the day of the murders was unusually hot—and at the time she was still recovering from the mystery illness that had struck the household. A "William Borden", suspected to be Andrew's illegitimate son, was noted as a possible suspect by writer Arnold Brown, who surmised in his book Lizzie Borden: The Legend, the Truth, the Final Chapter that William had tried and failed to extort money from his father. However, author Leonard Rebello did extensive research on the William Borden in Brown's book and he was able to prove he was not Andrew Borden's son. Although Emma had an alibi at Fairhaven, (about 15 miles (24 km) from Fall River), crime writer Frank Spiering proposed in his 1984 book Lizzie that she might have secretly visited the residence to kill her parents before returning to Fairhaven to receive the telegram informing her of the murders.
After the trial, the Borden sisters moved into a large, modern house in The Hill neighborhood in Fall River. Around this time, Lizzie began using the name Lizbeth A. Borden. At their new house, which Lizbeth dubbed "Maplecroft", they 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.
Despite the acquittal, Borden was ostracized by Fall River society. Her 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 her sister again.
Borden was ill in her last year following the removal of her gallbladder; she died of pneumonia on June 1, 1927, in Fall River. 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 avoid renewed publicity following the publication of another book about the murders. The sisters, neither of whom had ever married, were buried side by side in the family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery.
At the time of her death, Borden was worth over $250,000 (equivalent to $4,938,000 in 2019). She owned a house on the corner of French Street and Belmont Street, several office buildings, shares in several utilities, two cars and a large amount of jewelry. She left $30,000 (equivalent to $593,000 in 2019) to the Fall River Animal Rescue League and $500 ($10,000 in 2019) in trust for perpetual care of her father's grave. Her closest friend and a cousin each received $6,000 ($119,000 today)—substantial sums at the time of the estate's distribution in 1927—and numerous friends and family members each received between $1,000 ($20,000 in 2019) and $5,000 ($99,000 in 2019).
Scholar Ann Schofield notes that "Borden's story has tended to take one or the other of two fictional forms: the tragic romance and the feminist quest ... As the story of Lizzie Borden has been created and re-created through rhyme and fiction it has taken on the qualities of a popular American myth or legend that effectively links the present to the past."
The Borden house is now a museum, and operates a bed and breakfast with 1890s styling. Pieces of evidence used in the trial, including the axehead, are preserved at the Fall River Historical Society.
Various podcasts have covered the history of Lizzie Borden, including Pardon My Enthusiasm: A Horror Podcast episode titled, "Borden, Murderer or Icon?"
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
The rhyme has a less well-known second verse:
Andrew Borden now is dead,
Lizzie hit him on the head.
Up in heaven he will sing,
On the gallows she will swing.
Borden has been depicted in music, radio, film, theater, and television, often in association with the murders of which she was acquitted.
Among the earlier portrayals on stage was in New Faces of 1952, a 1952 Broadway musical with a number titled "Lizzie Borden" depicting the crimes, as well as Agnes De Mille's ballet Fall River Legend (1948) and the Jack Beeson opera Lizzie Borden (1965), both works being based on Borden and the murders of her father and stepmother. Other plays based on Borden include Blood Relations (1980), a Canadian production written by Sharon Pollock centered around the events leading up to the murders, which was made into a television movie in Calgary. Lizzie Borden, another musical adaptation, was also made starring Tony nominee Alison Fraser.
Carmen Matthews played Lizzie Borden in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents Season 1 episode "The Older Sister", with Joan Lorring as Emma and Hitchcock's daughter Pat as the servant Margaret. The episode aired on January 22, 1956, and takes place in 1893, with a determined woman reporter trying to interview the sisters one year after the murders.
A March 24, 1957, episode of Omnibus presented two different adaptations of the Lizzie Borden story: the first a play, "The Trial of Lizzie Borden" with Katharine Bard as Lizzie; the second a production of the Fall River Legend ballet with Nora Kaye as "The Accused".
ABC commissioned The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), a television film starring Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden, Katherine Helmond as Emma Borden, and Fionnula Flanagan as Bridget Sullivan; it was later discovered after Montgomery died that she and Borden were in fact sixth cousins once removed, both descending from 17th-century Massachusetts resident John Luther. Rhonda McClure, the genealogist who documented the Montgomery-Borden connection, said: "I wonder how Elizabeth would have felt if she knew she was playing her own cousin."
Borden is the main subject of the song "She Took an Axe" by Flotsam and Jetsam on their 1986 album Doomsday for the Deceiver. Borden is referenced in Amanda Palmer's 2012 song "Ukulele Anthem" whose lyrics include "Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her father thirty whacks/then gave her mother thirty-one, and left a tragic puzzle/If only they had given her an instrument/those Puritans/had lost the plot completely/See what happens when you muzzle/a person's creativity/and do not let them sing or scream/and nowadays it's worse 'cause kids have automatic handguns/It takes about an hour to learn how to play the ukulele, about the same to teach someone to build a standard pipe bomb/You do the math."
In 1993, Borden appeared in the Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror IV", where she is among the members of the Jury of the Damned, alongside other infamous historical villains such as Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Booth, and Edward Teach, among others.
In 2013, Saint James Films produced Lizzie Borden's Revenge, a horror film in which a group of girls jokingly attempt to resurrect Borden, played by Veronica Ricci
Lifetime produced Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (2014), a speculative television film with Christina Ricci portraying Borden, which was followed by The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (2015), a limited series and sequel to the television film which presents a fictional account of Borden's life after the trial. A feature film, Lizzie (2018), with Chloë Sevigny as Borden and Kristen Stewart as Bridget Sullivan, depicts a lesbian tryst between Borden and Sullivan which leads to the murders.
In 2015, Supernatural aired an episode entitled "Thin Lizzie". In the episode, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) investigate the "Lizzie Borden House" after several people are murdered with an ax. They originally suspect that the ghost of Lizzie Borden is the one responsible for the murders, but then discover that the murderer isn't her.
The events of the murders and the trial, with actors portraying the people involved, have been re-created for a number of documentary programs. In 1936, the radio program Unsolved Mysteries broadcast a 15-minute dramatization of "The Lizzie Borden Case", with a possible solution presented that the murders were committed during a botched robbery attempt by a tramp, who then escaped. Television recreations have included Biography, Second Verdict, History's Mysteries, Case Reopened (1999) and Mysteries Decoded (2019).
Borden has been depicted in several works, such as "The Fall River Axe Murders," a short story by Angela Carter, published in her collection Black Venus (1985). Another Borden-inspired story by Carter was "Lizzie's Tiger", in which Borden, imagined as a four-year-old, has an extraordinary encounter at the circus. The story was published in 1993 (posthumously) in the collection American Ghosts and Old World Wonders. Miss Lizzie, a 1989 novel by Walter Satterthwait, takes place thirty years after the murders and recounts an unlikely friendship between Borden and a child, and the suspicions that arise from a murder. Sarah Schmidt's 2017 novel See What I Have Done tells the story of the murders and their aftermath from the points of view of Lizzie and Emma Borden, Bridget Sullivan, and an imagined stranger.
Lizzie Borden is mentioned in the posthumously published Agatha Christie novel Sleeping Murder (published in 1976, written in 1940). In it, the main character Miss Marple discusses a potential murder with another character, Dr Haydock, who talks about people who have committed murder and got away with it, saying "It was not proven in the case of Madeleine Smith and Lizzie was acquitted—but many people believe both of those women were guilty. I could name you others. They never repeated their crimes—one crime gave them what they wanted and they were content."
In C.A. Verstraete's novel Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter, Lizzie's parents are depicted as having become zombies and this is the reason Lizzie attacked them.
- During the 1892 inquest over her father and stepmother's death, Lizzie stated that she had been christened as Lizzie, not Elizabeth.
- Author Sarah Miller states in her 2016 book The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century that the account of Lizzie being profoundly upset over the deaths of the pigeons is unfounded and has become part of the myth surrounding her.
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- de Mille, Agnes. Lizzie Borden: A Dance of Death. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1968.
- Martins, Michael and Dennis Binette. Parallel Lives: A Social History of Lizzie A. Borden and Her Fall River. Fall River: Fall River Historical Society, 2011. 1,138 pages with much previously unavailable information including letters written by Lizzie Borden while in jail and photographs of her in later life. ISBN 978-0-9641248-1-3 Parallel Lives Official Website
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lizzie Borden.|
- Works by or about Lizzie Borden at Internet Archive
- The Lizzie Andrew Borden Virtual Museum & Library
- Tattered Fabric: Fall River's Lizzie Borden
- The Fall River Tragedy: A History of the Borden Murders (1893), full text detailing crimes
- Lizzie Borden Moot Court, with tribunal made up of U.S. Supreme Court justices and Stanford University Law School professors. September 16, 1997