Borden, Lizzie (1860–1927)

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Borden, Lizzie (1860–1927)

Accused murderer of her father and stepmother in a gruesome case that riveted late 19th-century America; legal scholars and amateur criminologists have been arguing the case and the identity of the "real" murderer ever since. Name variations: Lizzie. Pronunciation: BOR-den. Born Lizbeth Andrew Borden on July 19, 1860, in Fall River, Massachusetts; died on June 1, 1927, in Fall River; daughter of Andrew and Sarah (Morse) Borden; sister ofEmma Lenora Borden (b. 1849); attended Fall River public schools; never married; no children.

On the last morning of their lives, Andrew and Abigail Borden rose early to avoid the worst of an uncomfortably hot New England summer. Temperatures had remained in the 90s for weeks, and, now that August had arrived, humidity had settled over Fall River, Massachusetts, like a damp blanket. Indeed, most of the Borden household had been ill the previous day from, it was said, consuming spoiled meat that had been left too long in the stifling heat. But this morning—August 4, 1892—Andrew and Abigail seemed to have recovered as they sat down to a breakfast of mutton broth, johnny-cakes, fruit, and coffee, shared with Andrew's brother-in-law from his first marriage, John Vinnicum Morse, a frequent houseguest. The Bordens' two daughters, Lizbeth and Emma, were absent from table. Lizbeth, or Lizzie, remained upstairs in her bedroom, while Emma was away visiting relatives in a nearby town.

The Bordens were well-known—economically, if not socially—in this prosperous mill town in southeastern Massachusetts. There were, in fact, no less than 126 Bordens listed in the city directory of that year, all descended from one John Borden, who had arrived from England in 1638. Andrew had begun his professional life as an undertaker, but in a series of shrewd investments and partnerships, had steadily built his fortune until, by 1892, he was president or on the boards of several Fall River banks, as well as owner of a yarn mill and a cotton and wool factory. He had married well, taking as his first wife Sarah Morse , the daughter of an equally prosperous Fall River family. Sarah gave birth to two daughters, Emma, born in 1849, and Lizzie, born in 1860. Sarah died two years after Lizzie's birth, and in 1864 Andrew had married Abigail Durfee .

Abby was known as a genial, easy-going woman, though Fall River gossip maintained that relations between Abby and the two Borden daughters, especially Lizzie, were cool and distant. Lizzie, it had been long noted, always referred to Abby as "Mrs. Borden," and everyone knew about the argument that had broken out in the household when Andrew had loaned Abby's sister and brother-in-law a considerable sum, allowing them to take advantage of a lucrative real-estate deal. The rumor was that Lizzie had complained so loudly at this favoritism that Andrew had been forced to spend an equal sum to purchase land for his two daughters. Lizzie was also said to resent the fact that her father insisted on living "in town"—that is, close to the commercial center of Fall River—rather than on "The Hill," where all the best families had their elegant homes. But Andrew preferred being near his business interests, purchasing a stolid, two-family woodframe house on Second Street, near City Hall, and converting it into a one-family dwelling. By 1892, however, all this was old news and to all outward appearances, Andrew Borden and family lived a quiet, respectable existence. Both Lizzie and Emma were active in several religious and women's charitable organizations, and Lizzie had even, in 1890, taken the traditional grand tour of Europe, although it was the last time she was to venture so far from home.

Despite the outward tranquility of that summer of 1892, Lizzie confessed to a family friend, Alice Russell , of being depressed; "as if," Miss Russell was later to paraphrase Lizzie's words, "something is hanging over me that I cannot throw off." Lizzie confided her feelings on the night before the murders of Andrew and Abby, saying she believed the family's sickness the day before had been due to someone trying to poison their milk. When Russell tried to talk her out of this idea, Lizzie said her father had enemies and told of a man who had come to the house just a day or two before and had angrily left after an argument with her father, some of which Lizzie had overheard; it had something to do, she said, with property.

But Andrew knew nothing of Lizzie's feelings that morning of August 4. Having finished breakfast, he embarked on his usual morning business rounds, leaving the house shortly after 8:00. John Vinnicum Morse left soon afterward to visit relatives across town. This left Abby, Lizzie, and the Bordens' maid, Bridget Sullivan , alone in the house. Abby went upstairs to make up the guest room in which John Morse was staying, while Bridget—whom Lizzie insisted on calling "Maggie," the name of Sullivan's predecessor—set herself the task of washing the windows, inside and out, affording her the opportunity to observe every room in the house. She would later swear that she saw no one, especially strangers, enter the house. Lizzie came down from her room soon after Sullivan finished the windows. The two women chatted for a few minutes in the kitchen, Lizzie mentioning that Abby had received a note asking her to visit the sickbed of a friend and had left the house—news Lizzie later passed on to her father when she let him into the house around 10:30, the lock on the front door somehow being stuck.

By now, the heat had begun to build. Andrew retired to the parlor on the first floor to lay down, while Bridget Sullivan—still suffering the effects of yesterday's illness—went up to her room on the second floor for a rest. The house was quiet, until shortly after 11:00, when Lizzie's shrill voice called out to her. "Maggie, come quick! Father's dead! Somebody's come in and killed him!"

Andrew's body was found sprawled on the sofa in the parlor, his face and skull horribly slashed, ripped and battered by some sharp instrument, the blood still fresh and glistening on the ghastly wounds. Lizzie was left alone in the house while Sullivan ran for a doctor and to summon Alice Russell. A next door neighbor, Miss Churchill , noticed a distraught Lizzie standing on the front porch of the Borden home, and hurried over to see what was the matter. Later, while the little group stood in horror before Andrew's body as the doctor conducted his examination, Lizzie mentioned to Churchill that she thought she had just heard Abby coming in and going up to her room. Before Churchill and Sullivan even reached the top of the stairs, they could see Abby's body lying on the floor of the guestroom just off the landing. Abby, too, had been savagely attacked on the face and head.

All these points would be meticulously reconstructed in the coming days, as the Borden murder case took on a bizarre, sometimes macabre, dimension. The medical examiner who came for the bodies inexplicably performed an autopsy on the dining room table before removing the corpses to the morgue. No less than six Fall River policemen swarmed over the house on the day of the killings, each interviewing Lizzie in turn until, when one of them asked about relations with her mother, Lizzie snapped out, "She is not my mother, sir! She is my stepmother! My mother died when I was a child." Lizzie told another policeman that while Andrew was taking his rest in the parlor, she had gone out to the barn to look, oddly, for sinkers she intended to take with her on a fishing trip. But on examining the barn, as the policeman would later tell the court, not only were there no disturbances in the fine layer of dust covering the floor, but it was so unbearably hot in the barn that he doubted anyone could have remained inside it for more than a minute or two. Doctor Bowen, the doctor summoned by Sullivan, mentioned that he had the impression that Lizzie had changed her dress at some point during the time he was in the house. In the days following the murders, Borden was seen burning a dress on which she claimed to have spilled paint and, it being pointed out to her that this might seem suspicious, became extremely upset and asked why no one had warned her. No trace of the note Lizzie claimed Abby had received could be found, nor anyone in town to whom Abby paid a visit that morning. In the cellar of the Borden home, the police discovered a carton containing several axes and one axe-head, broken off from its shank as if by a violent blow; and two Fall River pharmacists reported that Lizzie had dropped by several days before her parents' deaths wanting to buy prussic acid, a deadly poison, claiming she needed it to clean a sealskin coat of hers (neither would sell her any, it being a prescription item only).

Seven days after the gruesome discovery of Andrew's and Abby's bodies, on August 11, 1892, Lizzie was formally charged—although at first only with Andrew's murder. It was not until four months later, when the Grand Jury returned its findings, that Borden was charged with three counts of murder—one each for Abby and Andrew, and one for both of them together. She was bound over for trial, set for June 5, 1893, in nearby New Bedford.

The events leading up to the trial, and the trial itself, were also not without their oddities. At her inquest, before Judge Josiah C. Blaisdell, Borden was allowed to testify in secret and her testimony sealed. It would remain so, not even being made available to the jury at the June trial, at which Lizzie herself did not take the stand, thus depriving the jury of key evidence in their deliberations. Further, Judge Blaisdell refused to excuse himself from sitting on the bench for the ensuing probable cause hearing—even though such recusals were, and still are, customary. At the hearing, Blaisdell allowed the defense the unusual liberty of forcing the prosecution to produce all of its witnesses for cross-examination, thus allowing the defense to gain a clear picture of the prosecution's case long before normal pre-trial discovery. Blaisdell then found probable cause and bound Lizzie over to the Grand Jury.

The legal peculiarities continued. Normally, only the prosecution is allowed to present its evidence to a Grand Jury, since that body's responsibility is merely to determine if enough evidence exists to warrant a trial. The guilt or innocence of the accused is not part of a Grand Jury's deliberations. Nonetheless, the prosecution offered no objection to allowing the defense to present its evidence as well—the first and only time such an occurrence has been recorded in all of Massachusetts' legal history. In effect, the entire case was argued, as if in rehearsal, before a body which had no business hearing it. The Grand Jury returned no indictments against Lizzie. But some weeks later, the prosecution asked it to reconvene to rehear testimony from Alice Russell, to whom Lizzie had confessed her apprehensions the night before the murders. Russell had apparently forgotten or omitted something from her earlier testimony, although exactly what that was has been lost from the records. The next day, December 1, 1892, Borden was formally indicted and bound over for trial the following June. Even so, the lead prosecutor for the state, Hosea M. Knowlton, the district attorney for the Southern District, expressed a curious lack of enthusiasm, not to say reluctance, toward the trial. "Personally, I would like very much to get rid of the trial of the case," he wrote to his superior, State Attorney General Arthur Pillsbury, "and I feel that my feelings in that direction may have influenced my better judgment." He did not mention that it was the attorney general's prerogative to try all murder cases in the state, but that Pillsbury had declined to take the Borden case on and handed it off to Knowlton.

In the months leading up to the trial, public opinion was guided by some of the worst excesses of the age of yellow journalism. Reporters from every major newspaper and syndicate in the nation swarmed over Fall River, churning out florid prose declaiming Lizzie's innocence, the evil intentions of the police and prosecutors, the weakness of their case and the nobility with which Borden bore her suffering. Massachusetts society rallied around Lizzie, too, exhorting public officials to reopen the investigation of the murders and discover the real perpetrator who, they no doubt expected, would be from the lower classes. Charitable organizations to which Lizzie had contributed her time, most notably the Women's Christian Temperance Union, staged public meetings and raised money for Borden's defense. By the time June 5 arrived, New Bedford had become a media circus not unlike that surrounding famous trials of the 20th century. It was during these months that the famous rhyme was first heard in the streets and public houses:

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

The trial got off to a sensational start when Hosea Knowlton, making his opening argument to the all-male jury, accidentally bumped against the table containing the exhibits in the case. From a large cloth bag on the table rolled two skulls, those of Abby and Andrew, clearly bearing the signs of the assault upon them. Borden promptly fainted, and the trial had to be halted while she recovered. Court was once again adjourned some days later when one of the jurors fainted as the medical examiner described in some detail how the murderer delivered the fatal blows, first to Abby, who had died up to an hour and a half before Andrew. He went on to describe the autopsies he'd performed in the Borden dining room, carefully delineating how he had removed Abby's and Andrew's stomachs, tied the ends of each, and placed them in sealed jars; and how he had later decapitated both corpses at the morgue after first obtaining Lizzie's consent to having her parents buried headless.

Even the most ardent of Lizzie's supporters must have been dismayed as the prosecution built its case—admittedly circumstantial but damning when considered as a whole. In modern detective parlance, Borden seemed the only one to have had the means (the axes found in the cellar) and the opportunity (no one except Lizzie and Andrew were known to have been on the first floor of the house at the time of Andrew's death as fixed by the medical examiner), although a motive for such a desperate act remained unclear. There was the police testimony about Lizzie's angry response that Abby wasn't her mother; and in the sealed testimony withheld from the jury, Borden hinted at her cool relations with Abby, declining to characterize them as "cordial" but refusing to say anything further. There was Russell's testimony about the dress-burning (it was she who had warned Lizzie about it); the policeman's testimony about the pristine state of the barn, with no evidence anyone had been inside it recently; the pharmacists' statements about the prussic acid; and Bridget Sullivan's testimony that she saw no one enter or leave the house while she was washing the windows, less than an hour before Andrew was slain. Although both Russell and Churchill, the next door neighbor, testified they saw no evidence of blood on Lizzie's clothes that morning, there was Dr. Bowen's statement to the Court that he thought Lizzie had changed her dress at some point during the time in question. The prosecutors also produced Hannah Reagan , the matron of the Fall River jail, in whose private quarters Borden had been confined for her inquest, there being no suitable accommodations for a woman elsewhere in the building. Reagan testified that Emma Borden came to visit her sister, and that while Reagan politely stepped into an antechamber during the visit, she said she distinctly heard Lizzie exclaim to her older sister, "You have given me away!"

The defense stressed to the jury Russell's recounting of Lizzie's story of the angry man who had accosted her father; the fact that two burglaries had occurred at the Borden home over the past two years, indicating there must have been others who knew the habits of the family and the inside of the house; and Bridget Sullivan's statement that the kitchen door may have been off the hook at least once during the morning. Two clothes cleaners were produced to testify that prussic acid was, indeed, used to clean sealskin. A number of character witnesses took the stand to testify to Lizzie's position as a sober, useful member of the community. The defense then rested its case. Neither side called Borden to the stand.

After the summations and the bench's instructions, the jury filed out to begin their deliberations. They returned 90 minutes later to pronounce Lizbeth Andrew Borden not guilty of the charges against her.

From that moment to the present, researchers and legal scholars have been arguing about whether or not justice was served that June day in 1893, and amateur sleuths have been pointing a finger at virtually everyone involved in the case as the real murderer. One of the more recent claims, outlined by Arnold Brown in his book Lizzie Borden: The Legend, The Truth, The Final Chapter (1991), is that Andrew Borden had an illegitimate son, William, who had been making increasingly strident demands for a property settlement. It was William, Brown claims, who was the man Lizzie heard arguing with her father. Brown asserts that John Vinnicum Morse was the mediator between the two men, and that the real reason for his visit to Andrew that summer was to arrange a meeting between father and son to settle the matter once and for all. Brown speculates that William was let into the house by Morse the night before the murders (accounting for the jammed lock on the front door that frustrated Andrew the next morning); that Lizzie's activities that morning were just as she described; that William confronted Abby in the guest room upstairs and that Abby taunted him for thinking that Andrew would ever settle a cent on him, leading to her murder and, later, Andrew's, since Andrew would have guessed the identity of the killer. Brown even claims that Lizzie discovered William in the house while Sullivan was out getting help, and agreed to take the blame for the killings if William would disappear and never bother the family again—a remarkable act of courage, not to mention faith in the legal system. Brown claims he got his information from a friend of his father-in-law, who was a descendent of William.

And what of Lizzie? She remained in Fall River for the rest of her life, eventually moving from Second Street to a fine house on "The Hill," where she had always wanted to live. Fall River society would have little to do with her, in stark contrast to its support during her ordeal, and Lizzie became somewhat of a recluse, seen only occasionally around Fall River in her handsome carriage driven by a devoted chauffeur. Emma left Lizzie in 1904, for reasons which remain unexplained. The two sisters never saw each other again. Lizzie Borden died in 1927, at the age of 67. She was buried in the family plot, next to Andrew and Abby.


Brown, Arnold R. Lizzie Borden: The Legend, the Truth, the Final Chapter. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1991.

Kent, David. Forty Whacks—New Evidence in the Life and Legend of Lizzie Borden. Emmaus, PA: Yankee Books, 1992.

Sullivan, Robert. Goodbye Lizzie Borden. Brattleboro, VT: Stephen Green Press, 1974.

Norman Powers , writer/producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York