On August 4, 1892, the father and step-mother of Lizzie Borden were axed to death in Fall River, Massachusetts. Borden was the main suspect in the murders, but was acquitted during her trial.
The case garnered widespread media coverage, and, of note, is still talked about widely to this day among the true crime enthused. When she was released from jail, her town ostracized her, but she remained. No one else was ever charged in the murder. She lived in Fall River for the rest of her life, and died at age 66 of pneumonia.
The murders, which are widely attributed to Lizzie, have remained a topic in pop culture, film, theater, and folk rhymes throughout the years since the murders happened.
THE LIFE OF LIZZIE BORDEN
Lizzie was born on July 19, 1860 to Sarah Anthony and Andrew Borden. Her father grew up struggling financially, even though his parents were wealthy and influential in the surrounding area. But, he prospered in the manufacture and sale of furniture and caskets, making a name for himself and building up his wealth.
But when though he was rich, he was known for being frugal. And not like, not purchasing extravagant things frugal. Like, their home didn't have indoor plumbing and electricity. (Yes, it is the 1800s, but for the wealthy, this was pretty normal at the time). He lived in an affluent area, but not a flashy, fashionable area like his cousins, which was more "homogeneous racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically".
Lizzie and her older sister, Emma, were brought up religiously and attended church together. She was involved with the church, including teaching Sunday school and joining other Christian organizations, even serving on their executive boards. She was a member of the Christian Endeavor Society, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the Ladies' Fruit and Flower Mission.
When Lizzie's mom died, Andrew waited 3 years before marrying again, this time to Abby Durfee Gray. She called her stepmother "Mrs. Borden", and believed she had married her father for his wealth. They did not have a cordial relationship, and Lizzie and Emma rarely ate meals with their father and new step mother. Her relationship with her father was rocky, as well, as Lizzie had built a roost for local pigeons, which her father killed with a hatchet in their barn. It is unclear if this was the argument, but some argument in July of 1892 promoted the sisters to take extended vacations away from the home. When they returned, a week before the murders, Lizzie stayed in a local rooming house for a few days before going to her home.
The tension in the family had been growing for a few months before the murders. This was partially because Andrew kept gifting real estate to Abby's family, such as houses and rental properties. The night before the murders, Sarah's brother came over to the house to discuss "business matters" with Andrew.
In the days leading up to the killings, when Lizzie was back in the home, the entire family had became extremely ill. A family friend believed it was because they had left meat on the stove for days, but Abby thought they had been poisoned.
On the evening of August 3, John Morse, Sarah's brother, had slept in the guest room after discussing business matters with the family. At the next morning's breakfast, Andrew, Abby, Lizzie, Morse and the Bordens' maid, Maggie, were present. Morse and Andrew went to go talk for about an hour, and then Morse left to go buy a pair of oxen, because 1892, and planned to return to the home for lunch.
Though Emma and Lizzie were typically responsible for cleaning the guest rooms, Abby went upstairs between 9 and 10 to make the bed. When she did this, she was struck on the side of the head with a hatchet, and fell face down on the floor. Then, she was struck multiple times... 17 more hits to the back of her head. One has to imagine one of the first blows killed her.
Andrew had gone on a walk and returned at 10:30. When his key didn't work to open the door, he knocked. Maggie said that she went to go open it, but cursed when the door was jammed. She testified that she heard Lizzie laughing after this. Once he got inside, Lizzie stated she removed his boots and helped him to the couch to lie down for a nap, but in the crime scene photos, he is wearing his boots. Maggie went upstairs for a nap.
Maggie testified that at 11:10, she heard Lizzie yelling for her to come quick, as someone had murdered her father. He had been struck 10 or 11 times with a hatchet, and some evidence suggested he was asleep when he was attacked. Detectives believed he died at around 11:00 AM.
Lizzie's responses to police were "strange and contradictory" when she was questioned. At first, she said she entered her house upon hearing a noise and a distress call, later saying she entered the house not realizing anything was wrong. Officers said she was too calm and poised. However, she was not checked for bloodstains.
Though the detectives found hatchets and axes in the basement that they believed to be the murder weapon, they were not removed from the house. They were tested for poison because of the sickness they had endured, but none was found in their system.
Lizzie and Emma's friend, Alice, stayed with the sisters following the night of the murders. Morse stayed in the attic, though later account say he slept in the guest room Abby had been murdered in. When the police who were surrounding the house came in the next morning, Lizzie was found tearing up a dress. She claimed she planned to set it on fire because it was covered in paint.
Her behavior during her inquest was erratic, and she refused to answer even questions that would be beneficial to her. She contradicted herself often, and when she didn't contradict herself, photographs and evidence contradicted her.
Her trial began on June 5, 1893. 5 days before the trial, another person was axed to death in Fall River in a very similar manner. Though this was noted by the jury, the killer was found and was determined not to have been in Fall River at the time the Bordens were killed.
The hatchet head found in the basement was one of the major talking points at the trial. The testimony was contradictory. Lizzie's presence at home was also a point of dispute, as her own testimony contradicted herself, and Maggie, who testified, contradicted much of what Lizzie said.
The trial lasted for about 15 days. The jury deliberated for only an hour and a half before acquitting Lizzie of the murders. She said, while leaving a free woman, that she was "the happiest woman in the world".
Though she was acquitted, much like OJ and Casey Anthony, she is still the prime suspect in the murders. Some believe she may have been in a fugue state when it happened, while others think she may have been abused by her father. However, there is little evidence to support either of these claims.
One author believes Lizzie had been caught in a lesbian relationship with Maggie. He speculates that Abby caught them and she killed her, and when she told her father what happened, she killed him in a rage when he reacted as Abby had. Allegedly, on Maggie's deathbed in 1948, she admitted she lied on the stand to protect Lizzie.
Another suspect is John Morse, who didn't visit the house often but happened to be there the night before. His "absurdly perfect and overdetailed alibi" was suspicious to them. Some believe Maggie could have done it as retaliation for poor working conditions, as well.
LIFE AFTER ACQUITTAL
Lizzie and Emma moved into a large house in The Hill, the fashionable neighborhood some of her wealthy family lived in while Andrew chose to live in a more modest area. She hired live-in maids, a housekeeper, and a coachman. Though a considerable settlement was paid to Abby's family, Emma and Lizzie got a large portion of Borden's estate.
Though she was found not guilty, she was ostracized by the Fall River community. She was accused of shoplifting in 1897, bringing her into the public eye again. In 1905, Emma and Lizzie got into a big argument and Emma moved out of the house, never seeing her sister again.
On June 1, 1927, after a year of illness, Lizzie Borden died of pneumonia, alone. Few people attended her funeral. Emma Borden died 9 days later at the age of 76 in Newmarket, New Hampshire, where she moved to avoid publicity when yet another book about the murders was written. The sisters, with no other family, were buried next to one another.
Lizzie was worth over $250,000 (nearly 5 million in 2019 money) at the time of her death. She owned a home, several office buildings, 2 cars, and a lot of jewelry. She left a considerable amount of her wealth to the Fall River Animal Rescue League, and some to a trust for perpetual care of her father's grave site. She left a lot of money to her friends, cousins, and other family members.
Though it has been 128 years since the murders occurred, they still exist in various pop culture references. The Borden House is now a museum and operates as a bed and breakfast.
One of the most popular references to the murder is a folkrhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother 40 whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father 41
This isn't even accurate, but it goes to show how famous the murder is: a jump rope song was written about it.
The story has been featured in nearly uncountable depictions, from TV to movies to documentaries to books to songs and more. True crime enthusiasts remain completely fascinated by the 1892 case of a "good girl" axing her family to death.
Did she do it? I mean, who's to say, right? But I would argue yes. Perhaps it is because I've heard the folksongs and seen the shows and almost everyone attributes it to her. When you think "Lizzie Borden" you think axe murderer, even though John Morse actually had more of a motive to do it. But I still think she did it. I don't know why, but her odd behavior and contradictory statements seem like someone who was lying.
If she didn't do it, though, I applaud her for staying in her town and living her life despite being ostracized and hated by all of the residents. I guess even if she did do it, what a power move. (I understand I shouldn't call a killer staying in the city where they murdered their parents a "power move" but I, perhaps wrongfully, treat 1800s murders a lot different. Apologies.)
Anyway, whether she did it or not, Lizzie Borden will always be known as the girl who whacked her family and got away with it. But who knows what happened? It has been 128 years and all anyone can come up with is speculation upon more speculation.
I normally don't like writing about old-timey crime, but because this is still so widely known, it doesn't feel as much like it. Lizzie Borden is a household name for me like Bundy and Dahmer. I wonder if those ones will live in infamy 128 years after their crimes, too.