Hey everyone! Ready for another mystery? Today’s post is one of an unresolved murder.
Just about everyone has heard of Lizzie Borden, the New England woman accused of the 1892 ax murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts.
Lizzie’s story has been the subject of movies, literary works, theater productions, even folk rhymes.
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Although they occurred well over a hundred years ago, speculation about Lizzie Borden remains in the twenty-first century.
The publicity surrounding Lizzie’s trial has been compared to those of Bruno Hauptmann, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and in more recent years, O. J. Simpson. Who was Lizzie Borden, and what would cause her to become a prime suspect for murder?
Lizzie was born on July 19, 1860, the second daughter of Andrew Borden and Sarah Morse. Andrew Borden was a wealthy businessman. At the time of his death, his estate was worth $300,000—the equivalent of 8.5 million in 2019.
Sarah Borden passed away in 1863. Three years later, Andrew married Abby Gray. Lizzie referred to her stepmother as “Mrs. Borden” and believed Abby had married Andrew for his money.
Despite his wealth, Andrew Borden was a frugal person. The Fall River home didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity, even though it was commonplace in the homes of wealthy people at that time.
In the months before the murders, tension had been brewing within the family due to Andrew’s gifts of real estate to members of Abby’s family. The Borden sisters demanded they receive the home they lived in until their mother’s death. They purchased the property from their father for $1.00. Just weeks before the murders, they sold the property back to him for $5,000.00—a tidy profit.
The night before the murders, John Morse, uncle to Lizzie and Emma and brother to their deceased mother, visited. He was invited to stay for a few days to discuss business matters with Andrew. Some have speculated their conversation may have escalated an already tense situation.
For several days prior, members of the Borden household had been violently ill. A friend suggested the illness was caused by mutton left on the stove. Abby Borden feared someone attempted to poison the family.
On the morning of August 4, John Morse, Andrew, Abby, Lizzie, and the maid, Bridget (Maggie) Sullivan were all present in the house. After breakfast, John and Andrew went into the sitting room to chat. Morse left around nine to take care of some business and planned to return for lunch at noon. Andrew left for his morning walk.
Abby went upstairs between 9:00 and 10:30 to make the bed in the guest room. 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 that cut her just above the ear, causing her to turn and fall face down on the floor. Her killer then delivered seventeen more blows to the back of her head.
When Andrew returned around 10:30 am, his key failed to open the door, so he knocked. Sullivan tried to unlock the door and found it jammed. She later testified she heard Lizzie laughing at the time. She stated she didn’t see Lizzie, but the laughter came from the top of the stairs.
By this time, Abby was already dead, and her body would have been visible to anyone on the second floor. Lizzie later denied being upstairs. She testified her father had asked where Abby was, and she replied a messenger had delivered Abby a summons to visit a sick friend. Lizzie also stated she helped remove her father’s boots and helped him into his slippers before he lay down on the sofa for a nap. (Crime scene photos show Andrew wearing boots.)
Sullivan felt unwell and went to take a nap in her bedroom. She later testified she heard Lizzie call from downstairs, “Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.” This was shortly after 11:00 a.m. His wounds were still bleeding, suggesting the attack was very recent. Detectives estimated his death had occurred at approximately 11:00.
Lizzie’s initial answers to the police officers’ questions were at times strange and contradictory. Most of the officers who interviewed Borden said they disliked her attitude. Some claimed she was too calm and poised. Despite her “attitude” and changing alibis, nobody bothered to check her for bloodstains. Police did a cursory inspection of her room. At the trial, they admitted to not doing a proper search.
In the basement, police found two hatchets, two axes, and a hatchet-head with a broken handle. They suspected the hatchet-head was the murder weapon as the break in the handle appeared fresh. The ash and dust on the head, unlike that on the other bladed tools, seemed to have been deliberately applied to make it look as if it had been in the basement for some time. However, they didn’t remove any of the tools from 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 and informed Lizzie she was a suspect in the murders.
The next morning, a family friend entered the kitchen and saw Borden tearing up a dress. Lizzie explained she was planning to burn it because it was covered with paint. It’s unclear if this was the dress she wore the day of the murders.
Borden appeared at an inquest hearing on August 8. On August 11, Lizzie arrested and jailed. A grand jury began hearing evidence on November 7, and she was indicted on December 2.
Her trial began on June 5, 1893, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The case went to the jury on June 20. After only 1.5 hours of deliberation, they acquitted her of all charges. Upon exiting the courthouse, Lizzie told reporters she was “the happiest woman in the world.” Although found not guilty, Borden remains the prime suspect. No one else was ever charged in the crimes.
Lizzie Borden remained in Fall River and moved into a larger house. She died of pneumonia on June 1, 1927. Nine days later, her sister Emma passed away. The sisters were buried side by side in the family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery.