Today is the 125th Anniversary of Lizzie Borden’s (Possible) Act of Murder

Lizzie Borden

One of the more fascinating murder stories in the U.S. occurred 125 years ago today.

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.

Shortly before noon on August 4, 1892, the body of Andrew Borden, a prosperous businessman, was found in the parlor of his Fall River, Massachusetts, home at 92 Second St. The police were called and they started investigating the rest of the house. They soon found the body of Andrew Borden’s wife, Abby Borden, discovered in an upstairs bedroom. Both had been hacked to death with a hatchet.

While all the neighbors were shocked by the gruesome deaths, many in Fall River were perhaps not entirely surprised that Andrew Borden had met an untimely end. Frugal to a fault, he was a self-made man who had become the head of one of the town’s largest banks and was a substantial property owner. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at $300,000 (equivalent to roughly $8,000,000 today). The dour businessman had also made many enemies on his rise to the top. In fact, it appears he had no friends outside the family.

Early rumors in the days following the murders speculated that Andrew and Abby had perhaps been killed as revenge for Andrew’s shady business dealings.

The police initially had no obvious murder suspect. However, the police soon focused on Lizzie Borden, one of two daughters of Andrew Borden and the stepdaughter of Andrew’s second wife, Abby. Both Lizzie and her older sister, Emma, had much to gain from their father’s and stepmother’s deaths. The two 30+ year-old spinsters inherited the Borden estate and thereby became the wealthiest citizens in Fall River.

Emma always seemed to keep a low profile. However, Lizzie attracted the attention of the police. Even before the murders, Lizzie often exhibited signs of mental instability. Her actions became even more questionable after the murders. She gave contradictory answers to police questions and burned a dress that she claimed had been stained while doing housework, which police considered the destruction of evidence.

On August 11 Lizzie was arrested for the murders.

The prosecution in the murder case had one overwhelming problem: there was no physical evidence linking her to the murders. Fingerprint testing was then in its infancy and was never conducted as part of their inquiry. Lizzie had unsuccessfully attempted to purchase prussic acid, a highly poisonous liquid, in the days before the murders. Though investigators regarded this as evidence of an earlier failed attempt to kill her parents, they were unable to present it at trial.

Lizzie Borden had previously been prescribed regular doses of morphine to calm her nerves. When she was questioned by police at an inquest without her attorney present, she obviously was under the influence of the drug. She gave erratic, confusing, and often contradictory testimony. She also claimed to have removed her father’s boots and put slippers on him earlier in the evening in question despite the fact that police photographs clearly showed the body of Andrew wearing his boots. The inquest testimony, the basis for the modern debate regarding her guilt or innocence, was later ruled inadmissible at her trial in June 1893. The judge apparently believed the testimony of a woman obviously under the influence of morphine was not reliable.

Another issue was the strange coincidence that another axe murder was committed in Fall River ten months after the Borden slayings, while Lizzie was still in jail awaiting trial. Obviously, she was not the murderer in this almost identical slaying. The victim was a twenty-two-year-old woman named Bertha Manchester who worked on her father’s dairy farm.

On June 5th, the same day that Lizzie Borden’s trial began, José Correira, a Portuguese immigrant and farm laborer who had worked for the victim’s father, was apprehended and charged with the second murder. He was later tried and convicted of the crime.

Lizzie’s trial took place in New Bedford starting on June 5, 1893. She was represented by a team of high-powered lawyers, including former Massachusetts governor George D. Robinson. The hatchet-riddled skulls of Andrew and Abby Borden were introduced as evidence at the trial. Upon seeing the skulls, Lizzie fainted.

On June 20, after deliberating an hour and a half, the jury of 12 men acquitted Lizzie.

Lizzie and her sister Emma grew reclusive. The two seemed to be close for a while but soon drifted apart. They rarely spoke in their later years. Lizzie bought a large house in one of the city’s most fashionable neighborhoods but had few friends, if any.

Lizzie and Emma Borden died within days of each other in June 1927. Both sisters were buried beside their murdered parents in the family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery in Fall River.

Numerous fallacies about the murders and about Lizzie Borden still circulate today, including the famous children’s rhyme:

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.

In fact, the victims were not murdered with an ax. The weapon used was apparently a hatchet. Several axes and hatchets were found in the Borden house following the murder, but the primitive analysis techniques used at the time could not identify any of them as the murder weapon. Unfortunately, “hatchet” and “whacks” simply don’t rhyme.

Abby Bordon was not killed by 40 blows, and another 41 was not used to kill Andrew. The coroner did confirm that Abby was killed first, but by 19 blows, not the 40 popularized in the rhyme. Andrew Borden received even fewer wounds, but the 10 or 11 blows that finished him off were quite gruesome, focused mainly on the head and completely destroying much of his face.

You can read a lot more about Lizzie Borden in Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lizzie_Borden.

A quick Google search will produce many, many more articles about Lizzie Borden and her famous trial. However, many of those articles are of questionable accuracy.

6 Comments

My recollection of the details is vague now but some years ago, I read a rather convincing follow-up book on the murders. It made the case that the real killer was Andrew’s illegitimate son, who had experience with killing and butchering animals. Lizzie was willing to go to jail and be charged with the crimes because she had made a deal to get a large share of the family’s money after the trial was over. She knew she would never be convicted–because all she had to do was to give up the real killer if it ever came to that. Well we might ask why she didn’t just give him up to begin with? Apparently–at least in part–because the family wanted to avoid the shame of the community discovering Andrew had a bastard son. Frankly, I can’t imagine that would have been worse than the stain of two gruesome murders on the family legacy but… Possibly a specious account but quite convincing because it explained all of the odd bits of evidence.

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There is much more damning evidence against Lizzie Borden than included in this brief account. No one who has read non-fiction and non-sensational accounts of all the details in this case can fail to conclude that Lizzie was indeed guilty.

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The verse I recall was shorter, but apparently more accurate.
“Close the door. Bolt and latch it.
Here comes Lizzie with a brand-new hatchet.”

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The Chad Mitchell Trio summed it up very well at:

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Sorry folks, I used the wrong URL. The intended song will follow “Four Strong Winds” and I hope you’ll enjoy other selections by this old group.

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My grandmother was born in Fall River (1900) and lived there most of her childhood. When we grandchildren learned about Lizzie Borden and connected it with her birth place (and could recite the popular ditty in it’s entirety!), my very proper New England relative became very defensive about discussing the subject. Unfortunately, I never asked her later what she had grown up hearing about the case and never found out how it affected her family and the town. Now that I’m into genealogy and looking for family history, I regret it.

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