If you grew up in the United States, or at least in Massachusetts, you’ve probably heard the old rhyme. Even if you don’t know the story of Lizzie Borden, at some point in time, probably on the school yard or in a classroom, you’ve most likely joined in.
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one
The rhyme may change a bit, depending on who you’ve heard it from, but the overall theme is still there, though the facts aren’t quite right.
The murders occurred on August 4, 1892, in Fall River, MA. Andrew and Abby Borden, the wealthy parents of the now infamous Lizzie Borden, were found separately in their home. Andrew had been attacked so viciously that his face appeared to have nearly been split in half. Abby was found upstairs, dead from a similar attack, and later determined to have been murdered first (History.com Editors 2010). Lizzie raised the alarm, calling for the family maid, Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, whom had just finished washing the outside windows and laid down. Lizzie had found her father, beaten nearly beyond recognition, on their living room couch. Authorities were quickly alerted, and approximately a half an hour after they arrived and began to investigate, Abby Borden was found. Abby, Lizzie’s step-mother, was found upstairs by a neighbor who had come to comfort Lizzie. Her body was cold, which lead to the belief that she had been killed first, since Andrew was still warm (Linder). We know now, more than a century later, that the rooms in the house had different microclimates that could have explained this. The room Abby was in was several degrees different in temperature from the room Andrew was murdered in, and could have caused Abby’s blood to coagulate faster. The initial estimate of the time window was made based more on the blood coagulation than anything else, and we now know that instead of one-to-two hours, the time window could have been as small as 15-20 minutes (Lizzie Borden: The Curious Life And Death Of…).
It was reported at the time that, while the murder was gruesome, there was no signs of a struggle in the room where Andrew was found. Supposedly a man who worked for Andrew Borden, referred to as a “Portuguese laborer” at the time, was seen visiting the residence the morning of the murder to get his pay. It was believed that Andrew had told the man he couldn’t pay him at the time and to return another time, leading to the murder. Newspapers reported that medical evidence suggested a tall man had attacked Abby Borden from behind, placing suspicion in the man who visited that morning (Linder).
It didn’t take long for suspicion to fall on Lizzie Borden, who was 33-years old at the time. Only two days after the murders, a clerk at the local drug store S.R. Smith’s, Eli Bence, came forward with information: Lizzie had been at the shop the day before the killings looking to buy prussic acid, also known as cyanide. Lizzie claimed to have little knowledge of her step-mother’s whereabouts after 9 AM, at which time she claimed Abby went upstairs to fix the pillows. She also gave the investigators a story about looking for lead sinkers for a fishing trip in the barn in the backyard during the short period of time Andrew Borden was murdered in. This was considered unlikely, however, as the barn was dusty inside and there were no signs that anyone had been inside recently. It didn’t take long for the intruder theory to be brought into question and for a “leading physician” to speak out. He claimed that the hacking action the Borden’s were subjected to was a sign of a woman who was acting without consciousness (Linder).
At the same time, the Boston Herald began to report on the murder. While the family insisted that Lizzie had a good relationship with Abby, the Herald reported that they frequently fought and hadn’t been speaking for some time. Strangely, while the Herald seemed to be pointing suspicion her way, the writers there seemed to also feel that she was above reproach as she had no history of being unkind in a deliberate manner. Despite this, Lizzie seemed the most likely suspect. Bridget Sullivan was outside washing the windows and her sister, Emma Borden, was not even at the home at the time of the murder. On August 9th, Lizzie, Bridget, and a house guest, John Morse, were questioned in front of the local magistrate Josiah Blaisdell by District Attorney Hosea Knowlton (Linder). Morse had a seemingly strong alibi – he was visiting relatives fairly far from the Borden residence and left early that morning, traveling on a horse car with six priests. The driver of the car was questioned, but couldn’t remember Morse despite remembering the priests. Morse’s relatives confirmed, however, that he was visiting them at the time (Lizzie Borden: The Curious Life And Death Of…). Lizzie did so poorly on examination that, two days later after the inquest ended, she was arrested by Police Chief Hilliard. She was taken from Fall River to Taunton, approximately eight miles north of her home town. While she plead “not guilty,” after her preliminary hearing on August 22nd Judge Blaisdell found it likely that she was guilty and she was ordered to appear in front of a grand jury. (Linder). It is worth noting that Lizzie was under the influence of a double dose of morphine during the inquest, which could explain why she had conflicting answers during her four-hour examination (Lizzie Borden: The Curious Life And Death Of…).
The trial was a spectacle. It convened in November and initially the jury was reluctant to bring an indictment, but were reconvened when new testimony was to be given. Family friend Alice Russel, who had stayed with the Borden sisters in the days following the murders, testified that she had seen Lizzie burning a blue dress, which Lizzie claimed was due to the dress being covered in paint. Bridget had testified earlier that Lizzie had worn a blue dress the morning the deaths occurred, and these testimonies combined resulted in an indictment being brought down upon Lizzie Borden. The trial began on June 5, 1893, Lizzie represented by a team of lawyers including Andrew Jennings and George Robinson, who was once the governor of Massachusetts. Representing the state was District Attorney Knowlton and Thomas Moody, who undoubtedly had a case ahead of them proving a woman was capable of such a crime in the Victorian Era (Linder).
The trial began with a show: Moody exposed the skulls of Andrew and Abby Borden accidentally while giving his opening speech, which reportedly caused Lizzie to go “into a feint” which is illustrated in one of the most famous images from the trial (Linder). A hatchet found in the basement, with the handle broken off, was presented as the possible murder weapon by the prosecution. The defense argued that without a handle, the hatchet could not be used as a weapon, and the handle was never found. The hatcher was also sent to Harvard University for analysis, along with a hair on it, but nothing came of it. The hair was from a cow, and when the remaining wood on the hatchet was soaked for blood evidence none was found. One of the judges, as it was a three-judge affair, found Lizzie’s testimony from her inquest was inadmissible, as her attorney wasn’t present at the time she was questioned. Despite this set back, the prosecution was sure they could still win with the testimony from Alice Russel on seeing Lizzie burn the dress. That is, until the defense put Emma Borden on the stand, where she testified that she had told Lizzie to burn an old raggedy dress (Lizzie Borden: The Curious Life And Death Of…).
In total, the trial lasted three weeks. The famous rhyme came to life during those three weeks, and largely framed the case for the public despite the falsities in it. The morning of the final day, Lizzie wept, along with some men in the crowd and possibly even the judges, as she was found not guilty. While the upper class of Fall River seemed relieved that she was acquitted, the working class felt that she had gotten away with murder. Indeed, over a century later most people still believe she got away with the crime (Lizzie Borden: The Curious Life And Death Of…). The question remains: what really happened to Abby and Andrew Borden?
Andrew was known to be a shrewd businessman and was not over well-liked. One speculation is that one of his business contacts could be responsible. Others who feel that Lizzie truly is the murderer have theories of her motives: money, freedom, and hatred. Andrew was a traditional Victorian man and had a great amount of control over Lizzie and Emma, who were both unmarried. He had no known will, meaning Abby would get his fortune should he die before her, and it was known that Lizzie and Emma both wanted to live a more lavish life that they did have the money for. They likely feared Abby getting all of his money if he were to die. After the trial was over, the sisters moved to a house in an area they had desired for some time and lived the lavish life they had wanted (Lizzie Borden: The Curious Life And Death Of…).
There have been other speculations as well, over the years. In recent years people became aware of an unusual thing: on the morning of the murders, the front door was locked from the inside. The door had three locks on it, and usually two of the three locks were left unlocked for Andrew to come home for his morning nap, but on the day of the murders the door was locked. Bridget testified that she remembered hearing Lizzie laughing at her from the stairs as she struggled with the locks, and she was seen leaving the house that night with an unidentified bundle. She was never questioned on this and what the bundle was is unknown. Some believe Bridget may have been involved in the murder, but this is not provable (Lizzie Borden: The Curious Life And Death Of…).
Over a hundred years later, we likely will never know if Lizzie really did commit the murders, or if it was an intruder. What remains is the rhyme we’ve all come to know, and the spectacle left behind still revisited on a regular basis.
History.com Editors. “Lizzie Borden’s Parents Found Dead”. HISTORY, 2010, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/borden-parents-found-dead.
Linder, Douglas. “Lizzie Borden”. Famous-Trials.Com, https://famous-trials.com/lizzieborden.
“Lizzie Borden: The Curious Life And Death Of…”. Smithsonian Channel, 2020.