Lizzie Borden Took an Axe…Well, We’re Pretty Sure She Did

April 1, 2017

Written by Capt McNeely

Georgia Division ZADF Twitter: @ZADF_ORG

Lizzie Borden took an axe

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

Although inaccurate, this modern-ish nursery rhyme tells the story of a woman who was found innocent of murdering her father and step-mother, but is heavily and strongly beloved to be guilty.  Her life was never the same after the trials (aside from the obvious omission of parents) and she was ostracized by everyone around her.  The story honestly reminds me a bit of O.J. Simpson…a vicious, violent double murderer found innocent, but clearly guilty in the eyes of the public.
Lizzie Andrew Borden was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, U.S.A. August 4, 1860.  She was close to her older sister, Emma.  Her mother died when Lizzy was three years old, and she resented Abby Durfee Gray whom her father married after her mother’s death.  In fact, she would only refer to this her step-mother as Ms. Borden during her trial.
Andrew Borden worked extremely hard to build a fortune based on furniture and coffin manufacturing.  Lizzy believed that her step mother was only after her father’s fortune.  At the time of his death, Andrew Borden was worth approximately $300,000 (around $8,000,000 in 2016).  This feeling was exacerbated by Andrew Borden gifting houses and land to Abby’s family.
With a religious upbringing, Lizzie taught Sunday school in the Central Congregational Church and was involved in working with American immigrants and children.  She was known throughout the community and perceived as slightly aloof, but cordial.
For days prior to the murders, the whole Borden household had been violently ill and there is some evidence of attempted poisoning.  Andrew Borden was a difficult man and had many enemies so it is not out of the question that some enemy or business rival may had murderous intent, but any evidence to this is merely speculatory.
Around 9:00 in the morning of Thursday, August 4, 1892, Abby Borden was in her upstairs bedroom when she was attacked by an unknown assailant with an axe.  Forensic evidence suggests that Abby was facing her attacker when the first blow was struck.  This blow knocked her to the ground and there she received another 19 blows to the back of the head nearly obliterating her skull.  She was 65 years old.


Abby Borden

When Abby was slaughtered, Andrew was out of the house.  He returned home around 10:30am and went to the couch to have a nap which was a common practice.  Just after 11:00am the maid, Bridgette Sullivan, heard Lizzy scream “”Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.” (Lizzie always called Bridget Sullivan “Maggie”, the name of an earlier maid).  Andrew was splayed out on the couch with 11 axe wounds to his face – one wound cleaving his eyeball in half. Andrew was 70 years old.

Andrew Borden

The murderer, if not Lizzie, would have had to hide in the house with the mutilated body of Abby for over an hour before killing Andrew without being noticed.  Not only does it seem unlikely for an uninvited guest in the house, but this methodical patience does not match the brutal aggression and violent emotion shown in the murders themselves.
Police were called and Lizzie answered many questions (although her answers and explanations were often contradictory).  The officers found two hatches, two axes, and a hatchet head with a broken handle in the basement of the Borden home.  Later that evening, the Mayor visited Lizzie and Emma to inform Lizzie that she was a suspect in the murder of her parents.  After his departure Bridgette witnessed Lizzie burning a dress in a barrel behind the house.  When asked about this, Lizzie replied that she had planned on burning the dress anyway as it was old and covered in paint.  It could not be proven for sure if it was the dress that she was wearing on the day of the murder or not.

Police report picture of the assumed murder weapon. Although this was never proven.

The questioning of Lizzie did not go well for her.  She was frantic and erratic.  She often refused to answer questions and even when she did answer, her answers were odd and contradictory.  She was visibly flustered and would spout of in rage.  Little contradictions such as saying that she was in different places at different times and mentioning that she had put her father’s slippers on him despite the fact that he is obviously still wearing boots in photographs.
On August 11, 1892 Lizzie was officially arrested for the murder of her father and step-mother.  Her trial began on June 5, 1893.  This trial was very public not only because of the prominence of the murders or the viciousness, but because of the fact that the accused was a woman.
Prominent points of the trial include:

  • The hatchet-head found in the basement was not convincingly shown to be the murder weapon. Prosecutors argued that the killer had removed the handle because it was bloody. One officer testified that a hatchet handle was found near the hatchet-head, but another officer contradicted this.
  • Though no bloody clothing was found, a few days after the murder Lizzie burned a dress in the stove, saying that it had been ruined when she brushed against fresh paint.
  • According to testimony, the maid, Bridget, went upstairs at around 10:58 a.m. and left Lizzie and her father downstairs.Lizzie told many people that at this time, she went into the barn and was not in the house for “20 minutes or possibly a half an hour”.  Hyman Lubinsky testified for the defense that he saw Lizzie leaving the barn at 11:03 a.m. and Charles Gardner confirmed the time. At 11:10 a.m., Lizzie called the maid downstairs, told her Mr. Borden had been murdered, and told her not to go into the room where he died. Instead, Lizzie sent the maid to fetch a doctor.
  • There was a similar axe-murder nearby shortly before the trial, though its perpetrator was shown to have been out of the country when the Bordens were killed.
  • Evidence was excluded that Lizzie had sought to purchase prussic acid (for cleaning a sealskin cloak, she said) from a local druggist on the day before the murders when the judge ruled that the incident was too remote in time to have any connection.
  • Because of the mysterious illness that had struck the household before the murders, the family’s milk and Andrew’s and Abby’s stomachs (removed during autopsies performed in the Borden dining room) were tested for poison; none was found.
  • The victims’ heads were removed during autopsy. The skulls were used as evidence during the trial – and Lizzie fainted upon seeing them– the heads were later buried at the foot of each grave.
  • The presiding Associate Justice, Justin Dewey (who had been appointed by Robinson when he was governor), delivered a lengthy summary that supported the defense as his charge to the jury before it was sent to deliberate.

Following the closing remarks, the jury deliberated for 90 minutes.  On June 20, they found Lizzie Borden innocent of all charges.  All evidence points to Lizzie.  Her story contradicted itself continually.  And she remains the prime suspect in the unsolved double murder.


Emma Borden

Obviously the other two women in the house were investigated.  Bridgette Sullivan was not ever considered as a serious suspect.  She did, however, allegedly offer a deathbed confession that she had changed her testimony on the witness stand to protect Lizzie.  Lizzie’s sister, Emma had an iron clad alibi 15 miles from the home where the murders had taken place.
After the trial, the two sisters moved to a new neighborhood in Fall River and Lizzie started going by the name Lizabeth Borden.  In 1897, she was accused of shoplifting, but no official charges were made.  Finally, in 1905, after a tear-filled argument with her sister over an unknown topic, Emma Borden ran from the house and the sisters never saw each other again.
The two sisters

The two sisters

On June 1, 1927, Lizzie Borden died due to complications from the removal of her gallbladder and pneumonia.  No details of her funeral were printed in the paper and only a small few attended the service.


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