Did you know that this year marks the 125th anniversary of the slayings of Abby and Andrew Borden, killed in their Fall River, Massachusetts home? Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murders of her father and stepmother, but some people question her innocence all these years later, and have their own theories on what happened. Since I recently visited the scene of the crime (now a bed and breakfast), I thought I would write this edition of True Crime Corner (at least part of it anyway) from there. And if you’ve never been there, go visit, I recommend it!
Perhaps you are familiar with the Lizzie Borden rhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
But did she? According to the jury in her 1893 trial, she did not.
Lizzie Andrew Borden was the daughter of Andrew and Sarah Borden, born in Fall River, Massachusetts on July 19, 1860. Emma was her older sister by almost 10 years. The girls had a middle sister, Alice, who died before Lizzie was born. The girls lost their birth mother Sarah when Lizzie was approximately two years old. Their father married Abby Durfee Gray a couple years after his first wife’s death. This union produced no children.
Lizzie described her relationship with her stepmother as cordial. She referred to her simply as Mrs. Borden, while Emma addressed her by her first name. Lizzie regarded Emma as a mother figure, as she cared for her after their mother’s death. Lizzie was concerned that Abby and her family had their sights set on Andrew Borden’s fortune, which might impact her future financial situation. Mr. Borden purchased a property for his wife’s sister to live in, but Lizzie was not pleased with this transaction when she found out about it, and felt that he should have done something for his children in return. Mr. Borden gave the girls their grandfather’s house.
While Mr. Borden had success and wealth, he was frugal. His home in Fall River did not have electricity or running water, though it’s thought that he could likely afford it. However, he did employ a live-in maid from Ireland, Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan to assist with the household.
Tragedy struck the Bordens on August 4, 1892, when both Andrew and Abby were slain. Mr. Borden was found on a couch on the first floor, while his wife was found on the floor of an upstairs bedroom, between the bed and dresser. Neither Borden received nearly the amount of blows mentioned in the Lizzie Borden rhyme.
Lizzie was home at the time, and was suspected almost immediately. Her sister Emma was away in Fairhaven visiting some friends The Brownells when the crimes took place. Bridget claimed to be washing windows at the time of the murders.
Lizzie maintained that her father must have had enemies, and she believed that the milk was poisoned, as the family had not been feeling well. It’s also alleged that she attempted to buy prussic acid (a poison) prior to the murders. Her friend Alice Russell said that she had seen Lizzie burning a dress that Lizzie claimed had paint on it. Her story of where she was and what she was doing when her parents were killed also varied.
Lizzie Borden went to trial for the deaths of her father and stepmother, and did not take the stand in her own defense. She was acquitted in the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden on June 20, 1893. Some people theorize that the all-male jury couldn’t believe, and therefore move to convict, a woman of such a heinous crime. Apparently females didn’t commit murder often in those days, and if they did, they would most likely use poison on their victims. (No poison was detected in either Andrew or Abby). After the trial, she and Emma purchased and moved into a home Lizzie called Maplecroft, a place more extravagant than their other home. The sisters lived together for a while, until one day Emma Borden moved out of the residence. It’s unknown what caused their estrangement. Lizzie began going by Lizbeth A. Borden. In fact, her headstone bears only “Lizbeth” (she died on June 1, 1927 in Fall River, Massachusetts, followed by Emma who died just days later on June 10 in New Hampshire).
There’s many pieces to this mystery, so it’s no wonder why there are those who believe she did it and those who believe she did not. Several books have been written on this case which still fascinates to this day. For more information, check out The Lizzie Borden Sourcebook by David Kent with Robert A. Flynn and Lizzie Borden: A Case Book of Family and Crime in the 1890s edited by Joyce G. Williams, J. Eric Smithburn, and M. Jeanne Peterson.
If you want to check out a film, see The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975) with Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden. (Fun fact: In nearby Salem, Massachusetts, there is a statue of Montgomery’s beloved Samantha from the Bewitched television show). It’s rumored that Chloë Sevigny will take a turn as Lizzie in an upcoming movie.