Lizzie Borden will always be notorious as the main suspect in the August 4, 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts. She was tried and acquitted but her infamy was established and has never diminished.
The case was a cause célèbre throughout the country. Following her release from jail, where she was held during her trial, she stayed in Fall River despite facing ostracism from the other residents. No-one else was ever charged with the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden. Speculation about the crimes continues to this day. Lizzie spent the rest of her life in Fall River before dying of pneumonia when she was 66, just days before the death of her sister, Emma.
Borden and her connection with the murders remains a topic in popular culture into the 21st century, and she has been dramatized in various films, theatrical productions, literary works, and folk rhymes.
She was born July 19, 1860, in Fall River, Massachusetts to Sarah Anthony (née Morse; September 19, 1823 – March 26, 1863) and Andrew Jackson Borden (September 22, 1822 – August 4, 1892). Her father grew up in very modest circumstances and struggled financially when he was young, despite being the descendant of a wealthy and influential family. He eventually prospered in the manufacture and sale of furniture and caskets, and went on to become a successful property developer. He directed several textile mills, and also owned commercial property and was both president of the Union Savings Bank and a director of the Durfee Safe Deposit and Trust Co. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at $300,000.
Despite his wealth, Andrew was very frugal. The Borden home had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity, although both were common for wealthy people at the time. The house at 92 Second Street was in an upscale area, but the wealthiest residents of Fall River, including Andrew's cousins, generally lived in a more fashionable neighborhood known as "The Hill".
Borden and her older sister, Emma Lenora Borden (March 1, 1851 – June 10, 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. 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 – August 4, 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, 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 truth about this anecdote is in dispute. A family argument in July 1892 led to both sisters taking 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 branches of Abby's family. After their stepmother's sister received a house, the Lizzie and Emma had demanded and received a rental property (the home they'd lived in until their mother died) which they bought from their father for $1; a few weeks before the murders, they sold the property back to him for $5,000. 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 talk over business matters with Andrew. Some writers have speculated that their conversation, particularly about property transfer, may have aggravated an already tense situation.
For several days before the murders, the entire household had been violently ill. A family friend later speculated that mutton left on the stove for use in meals over several days was the cause, but Abby feared poisoning, as Andrew was unpopular.
August 4, 1892 — The Day of the Murders
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 talked for almost an hour. Morse left around 8:48 am to buy a pair of oxen and visit his niece in Fall River, intending to return to the Borden home for lunch at noon. Andrew left for his morning walk sometime after 9 am.
Although cleaning of the guest room was one of Lizzie's and Emma's assigned chores, Abby went upstairs to it some time between 9:00 am and 10:30 am to make the bed. According to the forensic investigation, she 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, which left contusions on her nose and forehead. Her killer then struck her 17 times in the back of her head, killing her.
When Andrew returned at around 10:30 am, he couldn't open the door with his key, so he knocked for attention. Sullivan went to unlock the door; finding it jammed, she cursed. Later she testified that she heard Lizzie laughing; she didn't see her, but she said the laughter came from the top of the stairs. This was thought significant as Abby was by this time already dead — her body would have been visible to anyone on the second floor. Lizzie later denied being upstairs and testified that her father had asked her where Abby was, and she'd answered 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 (her account is contradicted by the crime scene photos, which show Andrew wearing boots). She then told Bridget about a department store sale and permitted her to go, but Bridget didn't feel well 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 indicated a very recent attack. Detectives estimated his death to have occurred around 11:00 am.