Biography of Lizzie Borden

Was she a murderer?

Lizzie Borden
Lizzie Borden.  Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Lizzie Borden (July 19, 1860–June 1, 1927), also known as Lisbeth Borden or Lizzie Andrew Borden, is famous—or infamous—for allegedly murdering her father and stepmother in 1892 (she was acquitted), and memorialized in the children's rhyme:

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

Early Years

Lizzie Borden was born in and lived her life in Fall River, Massachusetts.

Her father was Andrew Jackson Borden, and her mother, Sarah Anthony Morse Borden, died when Lizzie was less than three years old. Lizzie had another sister, Emma, who was nine years older. Another daughter, between Emma and Lizzie, died in infancy.

Andrew Borden remarried in 1865. His second wife, Abby Durfree Gray, and the two sisters, Lizzie and Emma, lived mostly quietly and uneventfully, until 1892. Lizzie was active at church, including teaching Sunday school and membership in the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In 1890, she traveled abroad briefly with some friends.

Family Conflict

Lizzie Borden's father had become comfortably wealthy and was known for being tight with his money. The house, while not small, had no modern plumbing. In 1884, when Andrew gave his wife's half-sister a house, his daughters objected and fought with their stepmother, refusing thereafter to call her "mother" and calling her simply "Mrs. Borden" instead.

Andrew tried to make peace with his daughters. In 1887, he gave them some funds and allowed them to rent out his old family home.

In 1891, tensions in the family were strong enough that, after some apparent thefts from the master bedroom, each of the Bordens bought locks for their bedrooms.

In July 1892, Lizzie and her sister, Emma, went to visit some friends; Lizzie returned and Emma remained away.

In early August, Andrew and Abby Borden were struck with an attack of vomiting, and Mrs. Borden told someone that she suspected poison. The brother of Lizzie's mother came to stay at the house, and on August 4, this brother and Andrew Borden went into town together. Andrew returned alone and lay down in the sitting room.

Killings

The maid, who had earlier been ironing and washing windows, was taking a nap when Lizzie called to her to come downstairs. Lizzie said that her father had been killed while she, Lizzie, had gone to the barn. He had been hacked in the face and head with an axe or hatchet. After a doctor was called, Abby was found, also dead, in a bedroom, and also hacked many times (the later investigation said 20 times, not 40 as in the children's rhyme) with an axe or hatchet.

Later tests showed that Abby had died one to two hours before Andrew. Because Andrew died without a will, this meant that his estate, worth about $300,000 to $500,000, would go to his daughters, and not to Abby's heirs.

Lizzie Borden was arrested.

The Trial

Evidence included a report that she'd tried to burn a dress a week after the murder (a friend testified it had been stained with paint) and reports that she had tried to buy poison just before the murders.

The murder weapon was never found for certain—a hatchet head that may have been washed and deliberately made to look dirty was found in the cellar—nor any blood-stained clothes.

Lizzie Borden's trial began June 3, 1893. It was widely covered by the press, locally and nationally. Some Massachusetts feminists wrote in Borden's favor. Townspeople split into two camps. Borden did not testify, having told the inquest that she had been searching the barn for fishing equipment and then eating pears outside during the time of the murders. She said, "I am innocent. I leave it to my counsel to speak for me."

Without direct evidence of Lizzie Borden's part in the murder, the jury was not convinced of her guilt. Lizzie Borden was acquitted on June 20, 1893.

After the Trial

Lizzie remained in Fall River, buying a new and bigger home she called "Maplecroft," and calling herself Lizbeth instead of Lizzie.

She lived with her sister, Emma, until they had a falling out in 1904 or 1905, possibly over Emma's displeasure at Lizzie's friends from the New York theater crowd. Both Lizzie and Emma also took in many pets and left part of their estates to the Animal Rescue League.

Death

Lizzie Borden died at Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1927, her legend as a murderess still strong. She was buried next to her father and stepmother. The home in which the murders took place opened as a bed-and-breakfast in 1992.

Impact

Two books revived public interest in the case:

  • Edmund Pearson, "The Trial of Lizzie Borden," 1937: finds Lizzie Borden guilty of the murders.
  • Edward D. Radin, "Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story,: 1961: finds Lizzie Borden innocent of the murders