“Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.”
We’ve all heard the rhyme, but what of the story behind it? Everyone thinks they know something about Lizzie Borden, but the events of that hot day in August will never truly be known.
Lizzie Andrew Borden was born July 19, 1860 in Fall River, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of a wealthy textile mill owner. Her mother died when she was three leaving Lizzie and her older sister, Emma, alone with their father. He married Abby Durfee Gray in 1865, and Lizzie was convinced the new wife was a gold digger. They had a cool relationship. Lizzie was known to have referred to her as “a mean old thing.” Andrew was a wealthy man, but known for his extreme frugality. The house on Second Street was far from the fashionable area of town, The Hill. People from that area looked down on Andrew and his family, and as such both sisters were spinsters. Lizzie and Emma lived in the home with Andrew and Abby and their Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan. No one could remember the maid’s name, and called her Maggie, the name of her predecessor. Emma seemed to not mind her lot in life and the family’s modest circumstances, but Lizzie did. She spoke out quite often that the family should spend enough to reflect their place in Fall River society. Lizzie was described as “not unattractive in face, figure, or personality”, but any suitors she had had been chased away by Andrew as fortune hunters.
The normally cool atmosphere in the house on Second Street got significantly more tense in the summer of 1892 as Andrew had been giving bequests of land to Abby’s family. Emma and Lizzie were not happy about this. In July 1892, both girls took extended “vacations” to New Bedford after a heated argument. Emma stayed with friends, but Lizzie was back in August of 1892. Both Abby and Andrew were sick with a bout of food poisoning. They were in the dog days of summer and although the family had an icebox, because of the heat, it is doubtful it was being used. They had been eating the same pot of mutton for a week. However, Abby was convinced something more sinister was afoot. She went to Dr. Seabury W. Bowen’s office and confided she was convinced the entire family had been poisoned. He agreed she looked sick and sent her home. What came out at the trial was Lizzie had tried to buy prussic acid that same morning from Eli Bence at the drugstore. She claimed was for the cleaning and storing of a sealskin cape. Prussic acid is also a poison. Bence refused to sell it to her as she needed a doctor’s prescription. It was certainly suggestive.
The night of August 2, Lizzie’s uncle John Morse stayed the night. Lizzie and John were not on good terms, so she stayed in her room. He left that morning. Andrew went on his rounds to the bank and the post office after breakfast, and Bridget began washing the windows as instructed by Abby. By 10:45, Andrew was back. Bridget was in her room resting after washing the windows, when she heard Lizzie exclaim “Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.” They found Andrew lying on the couch dead, and then found Abby in an upstairs bedroom. The house was soon crawling with police, reporters, doctors. The crime scene was hopelessly muddled. One reporter described the scene, “A HERALD reporter entered the house, and a terrible sight met his view. On the lounge in the cozy sitting room on the first floor of the building lay Andrew J. Borden, dead. His face presented a sickening sight. Over the left temple a wound six by four had been made as if the head had been pounded with the dull edge of an axe. The left eye had been dug out and a cut extended the length of the nose. The face was hacked to pieces and the blood had covered the man’s shirt and soaked into his clothing. Everything about the room was in order, and there were no signs of a scuffle of any kind. Upstairs in a neat chamber in the northwest corner of the house, another terrible sight met the view. On the floor between the bed and the dressing case lay Mrs. Borden, stretched full length, one arm extended and her face resting upon it. Over the left temple the skull was fractured and no less than seven wounds were found about the head. She had died, evidently where she had been struck, for her life blood formed a ghastly clot on the carpet.” They found a hatchet in the basement with a freshly broken handle.
Where was Lizzie during all this? She testified at the inquest she was in the barn loft looking for “sinkers for fishing” and “eating pears”. As crazy as this sounds, this was the story she stuck with even though the police found no footprints in the loft and it was stiflingly hot that no one could believe anyone could spend any time there. The nail in coffin was when Alice Russell caught Lizzie burning a dress after breakfast on the day of the funeral. She claimed it was an old dress with paint on it, but again it was suspicious. Lizzie was charged and a grand jury returned an indictment. The trial began on June 5, 1893 in New Bedford. Lizzie fainted upon seeing the skulls of the victims and immediately won over the jury. Victorian sensibilities could not wrap their head around a woman performing a such a violent crime. They acquitted her on June 20, 1893.
However, she was never acquitted in the court of public opinion. Lizzie changed her name to the much more stylish name of Lizbeth and built a beautiful home on The Hill she called Maplecroft, but the ladies of society shunned her. Her own sister moved out of Maplecroft after a fight over a party she had for actress Nance O’Neil. There were rumors that Lizbeth and Nance were having an affair. However, there is no concrete proof of this. Shunned by society, Lizbeth often gave cookies and milk to the neighborhood children who found her gentle and kind. She died alone of pneumonia in 1927, and Emma died nine days later.
The question still remains. Did she do it? There are many theories. Lizzie was having an affair with Bridget the maid and they were caught by Abby and she had to go. Bridget snapped because she had to do the hardest chore of washing the windows on the hottest day of the year after a terrible illness. Uncle John came back and took out Abby to keep her from getting Andrew’s land. There is even talk that the real culprit was Andrew’s illegitimate son, William. Apparently, Andrew had an affair with his sister-in-law, Phebe Hathaway Borden, while he was still married. Awkward. William’s paternity was kept secret, but Arnold R. Brown speculates in his book that William was demanding money. John Morse was the go between the two and was at the house the night before. William spent some time in an insane asylum after the murders, so a violent attack was not out of character.
What we do know is Bridget Sullivan made a deathbed confession to her sister that she changed her testimony on the stand to protect Lizzie. Whether this was out of pity, bribery or love, we will never know. However, I do think all of these things point to Lizzie’s guilt. The only ones who do know are Andrew and Abby Borden, and they aren’t talking.
Sources available on request