Lizzie Borden And The Fall River Axe Murders

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

This dainty little skipping tune is familiar in playgrounds across the English peaking world. It was even heard echoing through my little Welsh schoolyard, back in the day. But what do we really know about the infamous Ms Borden? Was she really responsible for the crimes of which she was accused, or did she get away with murder? Does her ghost still haunt her former home? Let’s find out why Lizzie’s bloody tale still survives in the modern public consciousness. 

Lizzie Borden in 1890 via Wikimedia Commons

Life and Family

Before she, allegedly, took up the axe, Lizzie was born and raised in Fall River, Massachusetts, on July 19th, 1860. She had one elder sister, Emma, born in 1851. Her father, Andrew Jackson Borden grew up as a man of modest means, but all that changed in his adulthood, as he went on to become a very successful businessman and property developer who’s estate at the time of his death was valued at $300,00 – a whopping $9,000,000 in today’s money.

Perhaps Mr Borden maintained this insanely fortune due to his renowned frugality – despite indoor plumbing being  common among the upper echelons of society at the time, the Borden house lacked such assets. Further still, Mr Borden refused to set up his home in the wealthy district of Fall River known as ‘The Hill’, instead residing in an area closer to the city’s industrial centre. Still, the Borden house was large and stands to this day.

Unfortunately, all was not well in the Borden home. In 1863, Lizzie’s mother passed away and her father remarried three years later. Relationships between Abby, the new Mrs Borden, and her step daughters were tense, with the children believing she had married their father for his extortionate wealth. Indeed, Mr Borden was said to have made gifts of property and wealth to his wife’s family, a bone of contention between him and his children.

They referred to their stepmother as ‘Mrs. Borden’, and refused to dine with there parents. Tensions grew so great that in 1892, with sisters traveled to New Bedford, where they stayed until a week before the tragic events that were about to ensue. 

Thus were the dynamics of the household until August 4th, 1982, when death would come to Fall River.

The Lizzie Borden House – via Wikimedia Commons

The Murders

On the morning of August 4th the house contained, Abby and Andrew Borden, Lizzie, her uncle, John Morse – the brother of the first Mrs Borden – and the family maid, known as Maggie. Between 9 and 10.30 am, Mr Borden and Morse had left to attend their various duties, leaving Abby alone with Lizzie and the maid. 

During this time, while making one of the upstairs beds, Abby was accosted by an axe wielding maniac, who struck her approximately 17 times. Andrew Borden returned around 10.30am, coincidently having trouble to unlock the door with his usual key. Maggie unlocked the door, but noticed it was jammed and difficult to open. She later claimed that she heard laughter coming from the upstairs bedrooms at this time. Following this, Maggie retired to her third storey bedroom to rest, and Andrew, also feeling rather fatigued, lay down on the sitting room couch. 

By 11.10 am, Maggie was awoken by Lizzie calling from downstairs, “Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him!” Rushing to  the ground floor, Andrew Borden was found with his head split open by at least 10 hatchet blows. His wounds were still bleeding when he was found, and so it was thought that the murder was committed no earlier than 11am.

The Trial of Lizzie Borden

Investigation and Trial

Obviously, all fingers pointed directly to Lizzie, and her accounts to the police were initially contradictory, reporting of hearing groans or cries of distress, then speaking of hearing nothing. Her demeanour was said to be poised, which the police found strange, however, they did not check her clothing for bloodstains or confiscate the pair of hatchets found in the cellar.

The night following the murders, a family friend, Alice Russell stayed with the remaining Borden’s overnight. A Policeman tasked with guarding the house, reported seeing Lizzie and Alice enter the cellar caring a lamp and bucket. After they both left, Lizzie returned alone, where the officer thought he saw her bent over a sink. 

It took until the 6th August for the police to confiscate the hatchets and inspect the sister’s clothing, informing Lizzie that she was a suspect later that evening. Interestingly, the next morning, Alice Russell found Lizzie tearing up a dress she intended to bur because it was “stained with paint”.

Fast forward to June 1893, and Lizzie was on trial for the murder of her father and stepmother – and the press were loving every minute of it. Police gave contradicting statements when testifying and very little physical evidence was presented, with the notable exception of the skulls of Mr and Mrs Borden. When these were presented, Lizzie fainted. 

Despite her conviction in the court of public opinion, Lizzie Borden was found not guilty of the gruesome murders. The jury, consisting with old white men, thought it impossible for a woman of such high social standing to commit such a gruesome crime.

The skull of Abby Borden – Fall River Historical Society

Aftermath

Lizzie Borden, now acquitted of the murder of her father and stepmother, moved into a grand house in the affluent area of ‘The Hill’ with her sister. Here, having inherited their father’s fortune, they lived the life of luxury they thought they always deserved. This included live in maids, housekeepers and private coachmen, although they found themselves having paying a settlement to Abby Borden’s family.

Lizzie, now using the name Lizbeth A Borden, was said to host lavish parties in the home she named ‘Maplecroft’ however, she found herself ostracised by the social circles she always dreamed of moving in. Her party guests often included actors and actresses, which at the time, was a profession of ill-repute – considered by many as a step above common prostitution. This likely isolated her even further from the respectable families on The Hill.

During this time, the sister’s relationship became tense, and after a blazing argument in 1905, Emma Borden moved out of the house and never saw her sister again. The cause of this row was said to be a party Lizzie had hosted for the actress Nance O’Neil, who had become a close confidant of Lizzie’s. In fact, the two were said to be incredibly close. Best friends even. Gal-pals, you could say. 

Lizzie died, unmarried, in 1927, and Emma, also unmarried, passed away nine days later. 

The skull of Andrew Borden – Fall River Historical Society

Motive and Speculation

Almost one hundred years after her death, Lizzie Borden still remains the prime suspect in the double murder of her father and step mother, and her motive is still a topic of intense speculation. 

Theories include:

  • A Fugue State: In 1967, writer Victoria Lincoln suggested that Lizzie committed the murders whilst in a dissociative state. There’s no evidence for this.

  • Allegations of abuse: Some have suggested that Lizzie (and perhaps Emma), were subjected to a litany of abuse by their father, which culminated in his murder. Newspapers at the time of the murder and trial alleged this to be true, however nothing has been presented as proof of this.  

  • Lizzie was pregnant: Newspapers at the time speculated that Mr Borden had discovered that Lizzie was pregnant, and threatened to turn her out of the house. There is no proof to support this claim, and it was common practice to pass rumours off as truth in journalistic circles of the time. 

  • Lizzie was a lesbian: In this version of events, it is sometimes suggested that she and the maid, Maggie, were caught together by Abby Borden, who they promptly dispatched, along with Andrew Borden. Allegedly, Maggie was said to have given a deathbed confession to her sister, declaring that she changed her testimony at the trial to protect Lizzie.

  • It was John Morse all along: Morse was allegedly considered a suspect for a time, given the fact that he rarely visited the Borden household. His alibi was said to be “absurdly perfect” and his motive was said to be financial gain.

  • The maid did it: Some suspect the maid, Maggie, killed the Borden’s in retaliation for “making her clean windows on a hot day”. This is despite the fact that Andrew Borden apparently offered her the afternoon off to attend a department store sale. She declined, as she “wanted to rest”.  
Photo by Ludvig Hedenborg on Pexels.com

Paranormal Activity

If you thought you’d escape this piece without the mention of ghosts, I’m afraid you’re sadly mistaken.  

The Borden house still stands today in more or less the same state it was at the time of the murders. The furniture remains the same – with many of the original pieces still in place – but the house hasn’t been left to rot over time. It operates as a historic Bed & Breakfast, offering guests the chance to sleep in the very room where Abby Borden met her gristly end.

As we discussed in Vol. 2 of Dr Hawthorn’s Ghost Guide, residual energy is believed to remain in locations of emotive events, and this is said to be true for the Lizzie Borden House. Guests have reported hearing strange voices in the attic and the sound of giggling children. Some have reported the touch of unseen hands.

With the modern day vibe of the house curated to reflect the day the Borden’s were murdered, it’s really no surprise that ghost hunters flock to the house and it’s tours. 

Despite her acquittal, and seemingly, the lack of any definite physical evidence, it’s commonly believed Lizzie was in fact guilty.

So, although Lizzie Borden didn’t really dish out a total of 81 whacks as the rhyme claims – it was more like 27 – she still stands as one of American folklore’s most treasured villainess’s. But what do you think? Innocent or guilty? What was her motive? 

The only thing I know for sure was that she threw one hell of a great party.

– Dr LJ Hawthorn


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