Her name is as infamous as the crime she allegedly committed. For some, the name Lizzie Borden brings to mind a gruesome children’s nursery rhyme:
“Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.”
For others, the name brings to mind images one of two black and white photographs: one of a young woman in her early 30s with a round face, short hair, and a black lace top. The other, a man laying slumped on a couch, his face beyond recognition due to the number of those whacks he took to the head… which was not forty-one as the nursery rhyme claims, but only eleven—still more than enough to bring his life to a horrifying end.
On August 4, 1892, Abby and Andrew Borden were found hacked to death in their Falls River, Massachusetts home. Abby suffered eighteen or nineteen blows, not the legendary forty. Lizzie was immediately suspected of the crime. She was arrested, tried, and eventually acquitted for their murders. Of course, speculation about her possible (or probable) guilt continues now, well over a hundred years later. For the most part, this is where common knowledge about the mysterious woman ends, and legend begins.
But, of course, there’s more to the story.
“I had to get out. I was suffocating. I couldn’t breathe in that house! I felt the walls closing in on me. I needed air; I needed to think, to clear my head. Hazy red stars danced maddeningly before my eyes and I felt so hot I thought surely I was going to die if I didn’t get out.
As I rushed through the kitchen I shoved my shameful bundle into the fire. Let it burn! Devil take the damning evidence against me straight to Hell! I didn’t want to see it, touch it, or think about it! I just wanted it to disappear! Abby could tell Father whatever she liked, but at least now he couldn’t see the evidence with his own eyes. I ran outside, gasping frantically for air, gulping it in hungrily by the mouthful, but I couldn’t stand the open space of the backyard either.
Suddenly I felt so exposed and vulnerable, like a woman about to face a firing squad. I darted desperately into the barn, seeking some sort of haven there, though I knew it would be hotter than an oven inside, and dreadfully dusty, and I hated it now for all the memories it held of David. As I slumped light-headed against the wall, willing myself not to faint, to stay alert and think—Think, Lizzie, think! Find a way to save yourself!—a silver gilt glimmer caught the corner of my eye.
The hatchet! It was practically new. It had been used only once as far as I knew, when Father had killed my pigeons. I took it up. I felt its weight in my hands. In a peculiar, perplexing way I can’t truly explain, it was almost comforting. It gave the illusion of power back to me; it made me feel that I was in control of my own destiny, that it was my own sense of powerlessness that was truly the illusion. The power was in my hands, not theirs; no one else had mastery over me unless I was meek and allowed it!
Gripping the handle tight, holding on for dear life, I walked slowly back to the house, with the hatchet’s glistening blade hidden in the folds of my skirt. When I glanced down and saw it nestled against the part that was stained with paint it occurred to me then that the reddish-brown color looked just like dried blood. I went upstairs to my room. I laid the hatchet down reverently upon my bed. I stood and stared at it with heavy, drowsy suddenly very sleepy eyes, swaying like a woman mesmerized.
As the sunlight pouring in through the open window played over the silver gilt like sunshine reflecting upon a river, I thought of water and baptism, of being cleansed of my sins, renewed, reborn. I began to take off my clothes. I just wanted to lie down and go to sleep and never wake up, and if God was truly merciful, I thought, that was what would happen. He would gather me to His bosom instead of foisting me into David Anthony’s arms.
Through the thin wall, I heard Abby singing in the guest room. David’s visit had interrupted her before she had finished tidying it up for Uncle John. That was Abby’s way; I knew she was trying to distract herself and put all the unpleasantness out of her mind until Father came home.”
Lizzie’s biological mother, Sarah Borden—also mother to Lizzie’s older sister, Emma—died in 1863. In 1866, Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, married Abby Durfee Gray. Lizzie and Abby were, to put it mildly, not close: Lizzie believed Abby was a gold-digger only after her father’s money. According to the Borden’s live-in maid, Lizzie and Emma very rarely dined with their father and new stepmother; and in the months shortly before the murders, Andrew had been giving away pieces of his real estate to Abby’s family, his new in-laws, which would certainly get tempers flaring—whether your name is Lizzie Borden or not.
Andrew Borden was not a well-liked man—not just by Lizzie, but by just about everyone. He was notorious for being a penny-pinching miser; never mind the fact that he was wealthy. He wouldn’t even spend money on his own family, forcing the Bordens to live in a small home with no indoor plumbing. Despite the comparable squaller they lived in, somehow Andrew did find the generosity to hire a maid.
Andrew’s tight-fistedness with finances also found its way into his business relationships. Actually, relationships might be too kind of a word; he had enemies. So many, in fact, that Lizzie once voiced her concern about her father’s safety because of how, as she put it, “discourteous” he was to others.
In the various TV shows and films dedicated to her and murders of her parents, Lizzie was not the 1860s equivalent of a spinster goth or emo. She may have been single, but she had a very active social calendar, volunteering constantly for organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Christian Endeavor Society. It’s just too bad she wasn’t out volunteering at one of these social movements on the evening of August 3rd, 1892 or the morning of August 4th. It would’ve made a nice alibi, rather than her finding the bodies and reporting the crime to authorities. In case you’re wondering, her sister Emma did have an alibi—she was out of town at the time.
The next day, August 4th, the bodies of Andrew Borden and wife Abby were discovered in their Fall River, Massachusetts home.
Lizzie Borden almost immediately became the prime suspect in the murders, mainly after it was found that she had burned one of her dresses a few days after the murders. Law enforcement didn’t believe her claims about the dress being stained from housework—and they were unnerved by Lizzie’s almost apathetic demeanor. This led to Lizzie’s arrest.
While Lizzie was somehow able to be acquitted of the murders, that verdict is believed by many to have been a huge miscarriage of justice. So, assuming Lizzie truly did do the crime (if not the time), what was it that made her snap?
We will likely never know exactly what happened on that fateful day in August of 1892, but that hasn’t stopped people from theorizing. For most crime cognoscenti, the most obvious motive is, of course, finances. Murderer or not, Lizzie was probably very annoyed at her penny-pinching father’s forcing the family to live in what was essentially, in her opinion, poverty. But some true-crime connoisseurs have theorized that Lizzie fought with her parents not over money, but forbidden love. Lizzie was rumored to be seeing a man named David Anthony who had gotten her pregnant; a scandalous circumstance for a young woman in nineteenth century New England.
One theorist is author Brandy Purdy, who has taken the story a step further… literally. Purdy’s book, “The Secrets of Lizzie Borden” blends fact, theory, and historical fiction – written in first person as if she were Lizzie Borden herself. It’s a fascinating and disturbing read.
Secrets of Lizzie Bord
In the book, Purdy writes that Lizzie flirted with the idea of a relationship with David Anthony, but her stepmother, Abby, was convinced he only wanted the Borden fortune, and even told Lizzie that no man would ever want to marry her even if she did have wealth. But Abby was wrong, and David pursued a relationship with Lizzie, and pushed for it to get physical. After giving in, Lizzie’s conscience haunted her. Eventually, stepmother Abby discovered the illicit affair, and in order to keep her silent, Lizzie had to act… and did so brutally.
“Anything’s possible,” Purdy says. “I think there’s a tendency to look for a single major event as the catalyst for the Borden murders, but my personal opinion is that it was just one more frustrating, upsetting thing layered on top of so many others that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and made Lizzie snap that day.”
When police arrived on the scene, blood was everywhere. Investigators later agreed that whoever killed the Bordens would undoubtedly have been covered in blood. Yet Lizzie had no blood spatter on herself or her clothing. If Lizzie indeed was the killer, she would have had to do the following in this order:
- Kill Abby
- Change and hide her blood-soaked clothes
- Go downstairs, talk with the maid for 30 minutes
- Kill her father
- Hide her clothes and the murder weapon (which was never conclusively identified)
- Bathe to remove all evidence (blood) of her deeds
- Get dressed once again
- Sound the alarm about the attack
The quick-change artists of today would find this timeline difficult accomplish. Remember—there was no plumbing in this house, so taking a bath would’ve been quite inconvenient, especially if we’re talking about a crime of passion that happened suddenly, at the spur of the moment, rather than being methodically planned out.
And in all likelihood, the jury concluded this at Lizzie’s trial. The trial began on June 5, 1893, and ended on June 20. The jury acquitted Lizzie after deliberating for only an hour and a half. And it was probably the right decision, as there is, in fact, no actual evidence linking Lizzie to the murders. Fingerprinting, while it did exist at the time, was too new to be trusted at the time—so it wasn’t used. Of course, Lizzie’s prints would’ve been all over the house anyway, and easily explained away, seeing as it was her home as well.
But just like those defendants today who are tried, acquitted, and ostracized by society, Lizzie was also shunned—even by those she knew well, people she considered friends. Lizzie’s reputation would never recover—and in 1897 she was once again in the spotlight, this time for shoplifting in Rhode Island.
Lizzie and her sister Emma chose to stay in Fall River even after the trial, and despite the judgmental attitudes and looks of neighbors and townsfolk. With the family fortune now theirs, the sisters purchased Maplecroft Mansion in “The Hill” neighborhood—an upmarket section of town. This particular neighborhood may have been chosen by Lizzie and Emma specifically because it was desired by them while their father Andrew Borden was alive, and the family could’ve afforded it despite Andrew’s cheese-parer way of life.
In 2018, Maplecroft Mansion was listed for sale at approximately $850,000—but it was slashed forty whacks down to $600,000. In 2020, Maplecroft Mansion sold for $890,000. It is now a (supposedly haunted) bed and breakfast where you can stay in the room where Abby Borden received nineteen whacks to the skull.
Sounds delightfully charming, doesn’t it? Ready to spend a night there? You might first want to read the account of columnist Kelly McClure who tried, unsuccessfully, to stay the night:
“There are only two rooms in the Lizzie Borden B&B where actual murders took place, the front parlor room, where Lizzie’s dad Andrew Borden was hacked to death while he slept on the couch, and the room now called the John V. Morse room, where Lizzie’s stepmom was killed. In the early Spring of 2012, I made a reservation to stay in this room with little idea as to what I was actually getting myself into. It’s one thing to hear stories of a murder taking place, and of that place being intensely haunted, and quite a different story to try sleeping in a bed right next to where a woman was killed and died on the floor. To drive this matter home for their guests, the owners of the B&B hung a crime scene photo on the wall over where Mrs. Borden’s dead body was discovered. Which, again, is next to the bed where you may (or, in my case, not) be sleeping.
When I arrived at the B&B, after putting my suitcase in the John V. Morse room and taking a quick look around, I was given a tour of the home along with the handful of people who would also be attempting to stay there that night. The tour guide, a retired paramedic and fireman with a heavy Boston accent, told us that almost everyone who stays there experiences ghost activity, and that although he’s seen a lot of horrific things in his past career, he’d rather sleep in a burning building than sleep in that house.
Of the many ghost stories he told the most memorable included the fact that Mrs. Borden likes to rip the covers off of people while they sleep, that objects in the home get moved from room to room by unseen forces, and that prior to the family moving into the home the previous tenant, a distant relative named Eliza Darling Borden, killed two of her three children by dropping them down a well at the back of the property, and then took her own life. Visitors of the B&B often claim to hear the ghosts of these children playing and laughing on the top floor of the house. The many ghost hunters who have visited over the years go to great lengths to capture these ghost children on video, and some have claimed to, like in the following clip.
Once settled into the John V. Morse room at around 11:00 P.M. I almost immediately began to feel a sense of gloomy unease wash over me. The whole house, especially that room, is dank with an air of foreboding that makes it feel like you’re walking through a thick, dark fog. There’s no TV in the room so I occupied myself by looking around at all of the antique furniture (some original), and texting friends about how scared I was.
After awhile I had no choice but to attempt to go to sleep, but my fear kept waking me up. The longer I stayed the more I felt like the night was ramping up to something. My fear was that if I remained any longer I would definitely experience heavy paranormal activity, and ultimately concluded that I wasn’t mentally or physically prepared for that to happen, so I fled in the middle of the night to stay at a friend’s house—returning to the B&B in the morning for their complimentary breakfast because, hey, I paid good money for this.
I’ll definitely be going back at some point as I’d really like to force myself to make it through the night. What do you think? Could you do it? If so, tell Mrs. Borden I said hi and that even though she didn’t get me in 2012, I’ll be back to give her another chance soon.”
Listen to the full episode on Lizzy Borden on Weird Darkness podcast
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