Posted on: May 9, 2015

Any True Crime aficionado will know about the legend of Lizzie Borden, the Massachusetts spinster who (I suppose I should say allegedly) butchered her father and stepmother with an axe one hot summer’s day in 1892.  All summed up  in the gruesome children’s nursery rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an axe / gave her mother 40 whacks / when she saw what she had done / she gave her father 41″.   

The tale is legendary because of the grim fate of the victims, plus the fact that the chief culprit was a respectable 32-year-old woman, a pillar of the local community, and also because a question mark still hangs over whether she did or didn’t do it.  To this day people argue about whether Lizzie was guilty or not, and if she was how did she do it.  How did she manage to butcher two people without getting any blood on herself?  Was she a victim of incest?  Did she commit the murders whilst in a “fugue state”, a rare psychiatric disorder whereby someone can act out of character for a short while, and suffer from amnesia?  Or was she wholly innocent, were her parents the victims of a psychotic intruder?

What we are all pretty certain about is that the Borden household, in Fall River, was not a happy one.  Lizzie’s father, Andrew Jackson Borden, was a self-made man.  A successful businessman, property developer, manufacturer and mill-owner.  At the time of his death he would have been worth several million dollars in modern money.  And yet he was also a penny-pincher, a fact which rankled badly with his daughter.  One of her grievances was that Andrew flatly refused to have a indoor plumbing and a bathroom – those great status symbols of the late 19th century  – installed in the family home.

Lizzie’s mother had died when she was young, and Andrew had married again, to Abby Durfee Gray.  Lizzie wasn’t happy with her stepmother.  She seemed to be obsessed that Andrew was favouring Abby’s family financially over herself and her sister Emma.  The house was divided.  Literally.  Lizzie and Emma kept their portion of it locked and barred, and it could only be accessed by the back stairs.  The communicating door which connected the two halves of the house was kept bolted permanently.   Some have speculated that this was to stop Andrew spying on them, or sneaking into their room.

Much was made at her trial of what a respectable young woman Lizzie was.  Of how she was a devout church-goer, a Sunday School teacher,  and a tireless worker for good causes.  The truth wasn’t that simple.  Lizzie was a disturbed woman, who felt caged by her repressed home-life.  Her jealousy over her step-mother, and her chafing over her father’s stingy habits were part of it.  She was also said to suffer from severe hormonal problems, and at times behaved bizarrely.  She was a known kleptomaniac, and was notorious in the neighbourhood for shoplifting.  Sexual frustration may also have well been in the mix.  Many have speculated that Lizzie was a repressed lesbian, which would have been intensely difficult in small-town 19th century America, particularly in a strict church-going household.  She would also have been answerable to her father for everything.  She had no job of her own, and would have been entirely reliant on him for money.


The morning of Thursday 4 August 1892 dawned blisteringly hot.  In some ways perhaps it was inevitable that things in this pressure-cooker household would finally blow in these sweltering conditions.  The Borden family breakfast has become notorious in the realms of True Crime.  The family sat down, on this sweltering day, to breakfast off mutton broth (which was going over), sugar cakes, bananas and coffee.   (See the fly-infested scene in the Elizabeth Montgomery film ‘The Legend Of Lizzie Borden‘ for the real horror).

After eating this nightmare of a meal, Andrew went out on business, Abby went upstairs to change the beds, (Emma was away from home visiting friends), and their Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan, was sent outside by Abby to clean the windows.  Some have speculated that Bridget was the real villain, killing the Bordens for making her work like this on a piping hot day.

Then, between 9:30 AM and 11:00 AM both Andrew and Abby were brutally slain.  Abby by the side of her bed, where she she had been working, and Andrew on the sofa in the living-room, where he had sat down on returning to the house late morning.  It is thought that Abby was slain by a hatchet wound just above her ear.  When she had fallen to the floor, the killer had sat on her back and delivered another 19 blows.  Andrew was also slain with a hatchet, attacked 10 or 11 times whilst he took a nap on the sofa.  The sheer number of blows rained down on both suggests someone caught up in a frenzy of hate.

The 90 minutes between Abby’s death and Andrew’s is what makes me feel (just in my opinion) that it can’t have been “the mysterious intruder” who was responsible.  The Borden house was kept locked and bolted like Fort Knox at all times, and the unknown killer would have had to secrete themselves somewhere about the house, wholly undetected after killing Abby, and waiting for Andrew to come home.  And then got clean away undetected as well.

The previous day Lizzie had attempted to buy a poison, prussic acid, in town, with the excuse that she wanted to clean a sealskin cape.  The chemist refused to sell her such a dangerous substance.  After this fruitless shopping expedition, Lizzie had called on a neighbour, Alice Russell, and gone on about the Borden’s barn being burgled the year before, and of how the family had been taken ill, and how she felt that someone had deliberately tried to poison them.  It would seem that Lizzie was trying to concoct a scenario that the Bordens had an unseen enemy (and it is true that Andrew wasn’t popular) who was out to get them.  “I feel something hanging over me”, she confided ominously “And I can’t throw it off”.

Attempting to buy poison was one indicator of guilt, as was Lizzie trying to get Bridget out of the house just as Andrew came home  by telling her about a sale on in town (Bridget wasn’t having it, she was worn out from working in the heat, and went upstairs to her room to lie down), and of how Lizzie had burnt a dress in the kitchen stove 3 days after the murders.  Emma claimed it had been stained with paint, but the police said they had never seen a paint-stained dress in the house. On top of that Bridget claimed she had returned to the house at 10:30, and had heard Lizzie giving a strange laugh upstairs.

Lizzie tried to claim she had been in the barn during most of the time the murders were committed, sorting out fishing-tackle, but the sweltering heat would have made this nigh-on impossible.  She also claimed that first she had calmly walked in and discovered her father’s body, and in another story said she had heard a noise and run in to find him in that terrible state.  What we do know is that at 11:10 she had called up the stairs to Bridget to “come quick! Father’s dead, somebody came in and killed him”.

The police were convinced of Lizzie’s guilt.  She was arrested and her trial began in June 1893.  It was to be a 13-day sensation.  Lizzie was very much the celebrity, arriving in court in a new fashionable black dress with leg-o-mutton sleeves, and a black lace hat.  Public opinion was firmly on her side.  No one could conceive that this respectable spinster, this tireless do-er of good works, could possibly have slaughtered her father and step-mother in some mad frenzy.  Early feminists also took Lizzie to their hearts as a symbol of repressed American womanhood.  The whole thing was summed up by Lizzie’s defence lawyer, who said in his closing speech: “to find her guilty, you must believe she is a fiend.  Gentlemen, does she look it?”

With such a plea to the Victorian love of sentimentality, and idealising of Womanhood (which to be honest still goes on now), perhaps it was inevitable that Lizzie would be found Not Guilty, and released on 20 June 1893.


Lizzie’s life after the trial ended fascinates me, and was my main reason for wanting to write this blog.   Public opinion, which had been on Lizzie’s side throughout the trial, dramatically swung against her.  It was as if people had been swept along on an orgy of sentimentality, and had suddenly come to their senses.  Fall River was turning it’s collective back on her.

Lizzie changed her name to Lizabeth, and together with her sister Emma, (who had stood by her throughout the trial), she left the family home and moved to a house on French Street, a leafy road lined with larger, more elegant houses, in a more fashionable part of the town.  Her new neighbours weren’t at all happy about having their most notorious resident in their midst, and it’s probably safe to say she wasn’t invited to many tea-parties.  It has to be pointed out though that not everyone hated and distrusted Lizzie.  Tradesmen described her as a generous tipper, and employees said she was kind and gracious.  (Although there is a tale of one workman downing tools and running off, after Lizzie offered to fetch a hatchet for him!).

Emma and Lizzie’s new house was called ‘Maplecroft’.  It had 14 rooms, 4 bathrooms (Lizzie had got her indoor plumbing at last), and a staff of housekeeper, cook, maid and coachman.  The late Andrew Borden might well have complained about such wanton extravagance, but in some respects Maplecroft wasn’t that much different to the old house.  The sisters still did the place up like Fort Knox, keeping the doors locked at all times, putting bars on the windows, and never opening them, even on the hottest of days.  Perhaps this paranoia was justified, as Lizzie and Emma were often the targets of voyeurs coming out for the day to stare at the home of the notorious Lizzie Borden.

The sisters lived together for a few years.  Lizzie must have sensed the hostility in town, because she preferred going out to the theatre (which she adored) in Washington and Boston.  She was rarely seen shopping in Falls Rivers, and was said to only be glimpsed sometimes in her carriage, and later on, her car.    The only other real fly in the ointment being when Lizzie was found going back to her old kleptomaniac ways, and was caught shoplifting on Rhode Island in 1897.

Things changed dramatically in 1905, when Lizzie conceived something of a schoolgirl crush on an actress called Nance O’Neil, whom she had seen on stage in Boston.   Nance had caused a minor sensation on the stage, and one critic had reported “the town is said to be Nance O’Neil mad”.  Lizzie was no exception, she threw a big party for her, rented a house at Tynsboro with her for a week, and also offered her a home at Maplecroft.  Nance, who was hard up for money, eagerly moved in.  It was all too much for staid and respectable Emma, who packed her bags and left, and on 3 July 1905 the ‘Boston Sunday Herald’  solemnly reported that ‘Lizzie A Borden and her sister Emma Borden, have parted company”.

Nance stayed with Lizzie for a while, but moved out eventually, marrying another actor, Alfred Hickman, in 1916.  Lizzie stayed on at Maplecroft alone, living a fairly reclusive, if nonetheless very comfortable, lifestyle.  The one photograph I’ve seen of her from her later years shows a fat and placidly contented woman, cuddling her pet dog.  At this point I can’t help thinking of John Mortimer (barrister and author), who once remarked that some of the happiest people he had met had been murderers … because they had got rid of the person that had annoyed them the most!  Certainly once she was free of her dubious father and hated stepmother, Lizzie seems to have blossomed into contentment.

Lizzie fell ill in 1927 and had her gall bladder removed.  She died soon afterwards on 1 June, of pneumonia.  Her estranged sister Emma died only 9 days later, of chronic nephritis, at a nursing-home in New Hampshire.

The sisters, who for so long had been alienated in life, were buried side-by-side in the family plot at Oak Grove Cemetery.  Lizzie left the bulk of her fortune to an animal rescue charity.

Short of dramatic new evidence coming to light, the arguments about Lizzie’s innocence or guilt will continue to rage. I’ve seen Internet messages which passionately support her innocence.  My opinion (and it is only my opinion) is that something seized her that hot day – an overwhelming sensation of pent-up hatred and bitterness – and tipped her over the edge.  Perhaps by the time of her later years at Maplecroft she had worked it out of her system.  There doesn’t seem to be any sign that, if innocent, Lizzie was traumatised by the brutal deaths of her father and stepmother, or, if guilty, that she was ever haunted by it all.  A very strange case indeed, and one that will continue to fascinate True Crime buffs for a long time to come.



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