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On August 4, 1892, police in Fall River, Massachusetts were called to the home of Andrew and Abby Borden by neighbors who heard screaming coming from inside the house. What inspectors found inside the house was a grisly scene – they first discovered the body of Andrew lying in a pool of his own blood, his nose had been severed from his face and one of his eyes had been cut in half by repeated axe blows; later, the Sullvians’ housekeeper discovered the body of Abby, lying upstairs in a pool of her own blood. The police were confounded: the Sullivans were an elderly and well respected couple in the community – who possibly could have killed them?

The Day of the Murder

Most of the Borden household awoke early on the morning of August 4th. Abby and Andrew came downstairs, where they were served breakfast by the household maid, Bridget Sullivan, who was an Irish immigrant. The Bordens’ daughter Lizzie, a 32 year old, unmarried Sunday school teacher, slept in upstairs. Lizzie’s older sister Emma was away visiting friends. Lizzie came downstairs only after her uncle John Morse, who had been visiting since the day before, left the house.

A portrait of the Borden family when Lizzie was a child.

After breakfast, Andrew left to go to downtown Fall River to run some errands. While her husband was out, Abby went upstairs to make the bed in which Morse had slept. Abby left the room only one time, in order to get fresh pillowcases.

When Mr. Borden came home, Lizzie came downstairs to tell him that “Mrs. Borden” had left after she received a note saying that her friend was sick. Lizzie and Emma always referred to Abby, who was their stepmother, as “Mrs. Borden.” The two sisters had an icy relationship with their stepmother.

Andrew believed his daughter’s story and retreated to his room. He only stayed there for a few minutes though, before coming back downstairs to rest on the sofa. Sullivan (the maid) who was not feeling well, went to her room to rest. She awoke to hear Lizzie screaming in the living room, saying that her father was dead. Sullivan came out to find Andrew lying on the couch in his own blood. His face had been hit with a hatchet so many times that it was unrecognizable. Sullivan ran to fetch the doctor but by this time, the neighbors had summoned the local police.

The interior of the Bordens’ home, re-created to the time of the murders.

Sullivan returned to the house with a local doctor. She and the doctor checked for Abby upstairs, only to find the stepmother lying dead in a pool of her own blood. Abby had been struck 19 times with a hatchet (a small axe); Andrew had been hit 11 times with the same weapon. Abby’s blood was dark and dry, leading police to believe that the stepmother had been murdered first.

Lizzie claimed that her parents had been ill for the past few days and suggested that their milk had been poisoned. The medical examiner, however, did not find any poison in the Bordens’s stomachs.

The Investigation

Police did not suspect Lizzie at first. She was, after all, a spinster from a well-respected family. Lizzie also swore to police that at the time of the murders, she was in the barn looking for a piece of iron. Police looked into other suspects but each time reached a dead end: there was no evidence that Sullivan had murdered the Bordens; a man who had been seen wandering the Bordens’ property a few days before was interviewed but had an airtight alibi. When investigators discovered that Lizzie had tried to purchase Cyanide from a local druggist a few days before the murders, they began to suspect the younger daughter might not be so innocent after all.

A few days after the murders, Lizzie’s friend and neighbor Alice Russell stopped by the house to find Lizzie burning one of her dresses. When Russell asked Lizzie why she was burning the dress, Lizzie said that it was stained and could no longer be worn. Alice later revealed this fact to investigators and it was then that the judge decided to charge Lizzie Borden with the murder of her parents.

Lizzie Borden’s Trial

The trial of Lizzie Borden was a media sensation that lasted 14 days. Newspaper reporters crowded the small courtroom each day, and they referred to the event as “the great trial.” Newspaper headlines screamed “LIZZIE BORDEN DEFENSE OPENS.”

The trial was not without its drama either. At one point, a tissue that was covering Andrew’s skull came off, exposing the skull for all to see; this sight caused Lizzie to faint. The father’s skull was just one of the pieces of evidence that worked in Lizzie’s favor. Her lawyer reasoned that whoever could cause such damage must have been covered in blood afterwards, but Lizzie’s dress was clean.

The defense was also able to find witnesses who claimed to see Lizzie leaving the barn at the time of the murders; others said that they saw “suspicious characters” lurking around the Bordens’ property before the murders.

On June 19th, Lizzie Borden was found not guilty of the murder of Abby and Andrew Borden.

Lizzie’s life after the trial

Lizzie and her sister Emma had inherited a wealthy sum from their father, so they decided to purchase a home in the fashionable part of Fall River. They lived there together until 1906, when Emma moved out. Lizzie, who now called herself “Lizbeth” had met an actress named Nance O’Neill and had formed a strong bond with her (it was rumored that Borden and O’Neill were lovers); Emma did not approve of her sister’s friendship, so she decided to move out. Lizzie lived at the house in Fall River until her death in 1927.

Even during Lizzie’s life, many suspected that she was in fact guilty of the murders. There was even a child’s rhyme based on the incident:

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

Lizzie Borden Fun Facts

  • Lizzie loved Animals While there were some claims that she cut the heads off of small animals as a child, Lizzie in fact loved animals. In her will, Lizzie left $30,000 to the Animal Rescue League of Fall River. 
  • The Borden slayings were not the first on that block. In 1848, the wife of Andrew’s brother killed two of her three children before committing suicide.
  • Lizzie often traveled to Washington D.C. In order to escape the pressure of Fall River, Lizzie would go to D.C. She loved theater, traveling, and shopping.
  • Police never ran fingerprints on the hatchet. At the time of the murders, police in Europe had just started to use fingerprinting as a way to identify murders. Police in Fall River however did not trust this method to be reliable.