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Lizzie Borden:
An Axe to Grind

Infamous

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.

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Lizzie Borden
Emma-Borden
Emma Borden

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.

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Andrew Borden had a reputation as a singularly unpleasant person.
Home-Dank-Home
Historical photograph
of the Borden house.

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".

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Emma and Lizzie Borden

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.

Abby-Borden
Abby Durfee Gray

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.

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Tension had been building within the Borden family in the months before the murders.

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
John Morse

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.

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Abby Borden, dead in
the upstairs bedroom.
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Hair found near Abby Borden's body.

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.

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Andrew Borden, hacked to death
on the settee. Note his boots.

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.

Police Investigation

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Fall River Police Marshal
Rufus B. Hilliard.

Lizzie Borden's initial answers to the police officers' questions were sometimes strange and contradictory. At first she reported hearing a groan, or a scraping noise, or a distress call, before entering the house, but two hours later she told police she'd heard nothing and came into the house unaware that anything was wrong. When asked where her stepmother was, she recalled Abby getting a note asking her to visit a sick friend. She also said 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 saw Abby face down on the floor in the guest room. 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 varying alibis, nobody checked her for bloodstains. Police did search her room, but the inspection was only cursory; at the trial they admitted not doing a proper search because Borden was supposedly not feeling well.

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 taken from the house. Because of the mysterious illness that had recently stricken the household, 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.

Alice-Russell
Alice Russell

Lizzie and Emma's friend, Alice Russell, decided to stay with them the night after the murders while Morse spent the night in the attic guest room. Police were stationed around the house on the night of August 4, during which an officer claimed to have 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 besieged by hundreds of people; police had to escort him back to the house. On August 6, police conducted a more thorough search, 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 established whether it was the dress she worn on the day of the murders.

The Inquest

Borden appeared at the inquest hearing on August 8. She had been prescribed regular doses of morphine to calm her nerves, and it's possible her testimony was affected by this. Her behavior was erratic, and she often refused to answer a question even if the answer would have worked in her favor. She often contradicted herself and gave alternating accounts of the morning in question, such as claiming to have been in the kitchen reading a magazine when her father arrived home, then claiming to have been in the dining room doing some ironing, and then claiming to have been coming down the stairs. She also claimed to have removed her father's boots and put slippers on him despite police photographs clearly showing Andrew wearing boots.

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Lizzie's signature when she was
taken into police custody.

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. Newspaper articles at the time 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 got significant press attention nationwide. A grand jury began hearing evidence on November 7, and Borden was indicted on December 2.

Trial and Acquittal

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Prosecutors Hosea M. Knowlton (top) and William H. Moody (bottom).
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The courtroom.
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The jury.
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A contemporaneous drawing
of the trial.
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Voluminous press clippings from the Borden trial have been preserved in Fall River.

Borden's trial took place in New Bedford starting on June 5, 1893. Prosecuting attorneys were Hosea M. Knowlton and future 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 beginning of the trial, 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 noticed by jurors. However, Jose Correa deMello, a Portuguese immigrant, was later convicted of Manchester's murder in 1894, and was determined not to have been at or near Fall River at the time of the Borden murders.

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The murder weapon?

A prominent point of discussion in the trial was the hatchet-head found in the basement, which was not convincingly shown by the prosecution to be the murder weapon. Prosecutors argued that the killer 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 said otherwise. 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, claiming it had been ruined when she brushed against wet paint. During the course of the trial, defense never challenged this claim.

Lizzie'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 11:03am and Charles Gardner confirmed the time. At 11:10am, 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.

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The skulls of Andrew (top)
and Abby Borden (bottom).

Both victims' heads were removed during the autopsy and their skulls were admitted into evidence and presented at trial on June 5, 1893. Borden fainted when she saw them. Evidence was excluded that Borden had sought to purchase prussic acid, supposedly to clean 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, 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."

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A drawing of Lizzie at
the moment of the verdict.
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Newspaper headline
announcing the verdict.

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 American legal history.

Theories and Speculation

Although acquitted at trial, Borden was and is the prime suspect in her father and stepmother's murders. Writer Victoria Lincoln proposed in 1967 that she might have committed the murders while in a fugue state. Another prominent theory suggests that she was physically and sexually abused by her father, which drove her to commit parricide. 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 theory was disclosed in local papers at the time of the murders, and 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 theory 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 is said to have given a deathbed confession to her sister, stating that she had changed her testimony on the stand in order to protect Borden.

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Bridget Sullivan

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 was able to prove he was not Andrew Borden's son. 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.

Another prominent 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 excessively detailed alibi for the death of Abby Borden. For awhile he was considered a suspect by police.

In Later Life

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Historical drawing of
the Maplecroft Mansion.

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 christened "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 sizable settlement, however, was paid to Abby's family.

Despite the acquittal, Borden was ostracized by Fall River society. Her name again came into public view 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.

Death

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Lizzie Borden at Maplecroft.
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Emma and Lizzie, though estranged in later life, died within days of each other and rest side by side in death in the family plot.

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 there in 1923 for health reasons and to avoid a fresh wave of publicity after the publication of another book on 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. 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 to the Fall River Animal Rescue League and $500 in trust for perpetual care of her father's grave. Her closest friend and a cousin each received $6,000 — substantial sums at the time — and numerous friends and family members each received between $1,000 and $5,000.

The Borden House Bed & Breakfast

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Interior photos from the
Borden House B&B today.
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The Abby Borden bedroom today.
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Morbid entertainment
at the Borden B&B.
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Crime scene photos on mugs for sale.
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Murder cabinet card photo.

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.

The Folk Rhyme

The case was memorialized in a popular skipping-rope rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Folklore says that the rhyme was made up by an anonymous writer as a tune to sell newspapers. In reality, Borden's stepmother suffered eighteen or nineteen blows; her father suffered eleven.

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Lizzie Borden's name and face will
always be synonymous with
morbidity and death.

Depictions in Culture

Borden has been depicted in literature, music, film, theater, and television. Among the earlier portrayals was in New Faces of 1952, a 1952 Broadway musical with a number titled "Lizzie Borden" that depicts the crimes, as well as 1948's ballet Fall River Legend and 1965's opera Lizzie Borden, both works being based on Borden and the murders of her father and stepmother. Other plays based on her include Blood Relations, a 1980 Canadian production centered around the events leading up to the murders, and Lizzie Borden, another musical adaptation starring Tony nominee Alison Fraser. The Chad Mitchell Trio released their single "Lizzie Borden" in 1961.

In 1975, ABC released The Legend of Lizzie Borden, 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's death that she and Borden were in fact sixth cousins once removed, both descended 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."

In 2014, Lifetime produced Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, a speculative television film with Christina Ricci portraying Borden, which was followed by The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, a limited series and sequel which presented a fictional account of Borden's life after the trial.

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The 2018 feature film "Lizzie" is only the latest retelling of Lizzie Borden's story.

A 2018 feature film, Lizzie, depicts a lesbian tryst between Borden and Bridget Sullivan which leads to a murder plot, and stars Chloë Sevigny as Borden and Kristen Stewart as Sullivan.

In literature, Borden has been depicted in several works, such as "The Fall River Axe Murders," a short story by Angela Carter, published in her 1985 collection Black Venus. 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 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.

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"Lizbeth of Maplecroft"
by Michael Wilkerson.
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Maplecroft today.