Biography of Lizzie Borden, Accused Murderer

Lizzie Borden

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Lizzie Borden (July 19, 1860–June 1, 1927), also known as Lizbeth Borden or Lizzie Andrew Borden, is famous—or infamous—for allegedly murdering her father and stepmother in 1892. She was acquitted, but the murders are memorialized in a 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.

Fast Facts: Lizzie Borden

  • Known For: Accused of killing her father and stepmother with an ax 
  • Born: July 19, 1860 in Fall River, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Andrew Jackson Borden, Sarah Anthony, Abby Durfee Gray (stepmother)
  • Died: June 1, 1927 in Fall River, Massachusetts
  • Education: Morgan Street School, high school
  • Notable Quote: "Maggie, come quick! Father's dead. Somebody came in and killed him."

Early Life

Lizzie Borden was born on July 19, 1860, in Fall River, Massachusetts, the third of three children born to Andrew Jackson Borden (1822–1892) and Sarah Anthony Morse Borden (1823–1863). The eldest was Emma Lenora Borden (1851–1927). A middle child, a daughter, died in infancy.

In 1865, Andrew Borden remarried to Abby Durfree Gray (1828–1892), and the couple and their daughters lived mostly quietly and uneventfully until 1892. Lizzie attended the Morgan Street School, which was not far from her home, and the local high school. After graduating, she was active at church by way of teaching Sunday school and serving as secretary of the local Christian Endeavor Society. She was also a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and dabbled in the Ladies Fruit and Flower mission. In 1890, Lizzie briefly traveled abroad with some friends.

Family Conflict

Andrew Borden started out his business career as an undertaker but bought rental properties and went into banking and textile mills as well. At the time of his death, he was a bank president and a director of several textile mills, and estimates said he was worth about $300,000 (about $8.5 million in 2019), not counting his real estate. He was, however, known for being miserly with his money.

In contrast to the father's wealth, the house they lived in was small and shabby, not in the part of town where the rest of Fall River elite society lived, and had neither electricity or indoor 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: at the time of the murders, Lizzie had a small weekly income and $2,500 in a bank account (what would be $70,000 today).

Lizzie's Difficulties

According to various accounts, Lizzie was mentally disturbed. She was known to be a kleptomaniac—local shopkeepers would check for missing objects after she had been in and send a bill to her father, who paid them. And in 1891, Abby's jewelry box was rifled, after which her father bought locks for his bedroom door.

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. John Morse, the brother of Lizzie's mother, came to stay at the house. Morse and Andrew Borden went into town together on the morning of August 4. Andrew came home alone.

Killings

The reconstruction of the crime found that around 9:30 a.m. on August 4, 1892, Abby was hacked to death with an ax, interrupted while she was in the guest bedroom. Andrew arrived about an hour later, met Lizzie and the maid at the door, and went to sleep on the sofa in the sitting room. He was killed, also hacked to death, at roughly 10:45 a.m.

The maid, who had earlier been ironing and washing windows, was taking a nap when Lizzie called her to come downstairs. Lizzie said she had been in the barn and returned to find her father dead. After the doctor across the street was called, Abby's body was found.

Because Andrew died without a will, his estate went to his daughters, not to Abby's heirs. Lizzie Borden was arrested in the killings.

The Trial

Lizzie Borden's trial began on June 3, 1893. It was widely covered by the local and national press. 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."

Evidence included a report that she'd tried to burn a dress a week after the murders (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 discovered in the cellar. No blood-stained clothes were found.

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

After the Trial

Although the town's social elite supported Lizzie during the trial, they cooled to her after the acquittal. Lizzie remained in Fall River, but she and Emma bought a new and bigger home in the elite part of town that she called "Maplecroft," and she began calling herself Lizbeth instead of Lizzie. She dropped her club and charity work and began attending theater performances in Boston. She and Emma had a falling out in 1904 or 1905, possibly over Emma's displeasure at Lizzie's friends from the theater crowd.

Both Lizzie and Emma also took in many pets and left part of their estates to the Animal Rescue League. At the time of her death, Lizzie was a very wealthy woman; her estate was worth approximately $250,000, the equivalent of about $7 million in 2019 dollars.

Death

At the age of 66, Lizzie Borden died of pneumonia in Fall River, Massachusetts, on June 1, 1927, her legend as an accused murderer is still strong. Her sister Emma died a few days later, at her home in Newmarket, New Hampshire. They were both buried next to their father and stepmother. The home in which the murders took place opened as a bed-and-breakfast in 1992.

Legacy

The World Catalog lists 1,200 entries dedicated to Lizzie Borden, including 580 books, 225 articles, 120 videos, and 90 theatrical pieces, the latter including ballets, operas, plays, television and movie scripts, and musical scores. Google Scholar lists over 4,500 entries, including 150 in 2018 alone. There are other accused and convicted murderers who attract more attention, of course, but there is a seemingly unending fascination with this particular story, primarily speculation about why this Victorian middle-class woman may have killed her family.

Among all the literature, books, movies and other forms of art, postulated possible and impossible hypotheses about why or whether Lizzie Borden did hack her parents to death include: 

  1. She was criminally insane, with a "dual personality" like Jekyll and Hyde.
  2. She was irresponsible and ill, and "hysteric" in the Victorian sense.
  3. She was a free spirit who was oppressed by Victorian values.
  4. She adored her father who infantilized her, and one day she snapped.
  5. She was physically abused by her father and stepmother.
  6. She was a victim of incest.
  7. She was angry because she missed exercising the social standing she felt she deserved.
  8. Her father killed her stepmother and then Lizzie killed him because of it.
  9. Somebody else did it (a stranger; a rejected suitor; her uncle; the maid).
  10. Her stepmother broke up Lizzie's relationship with a lover.
  11. She was involved in a lesbian affair with the maid and the parents found out.
  12. She was in love with her sister's suitor.
  13. For the money.

Sources