The Unsolved Borden House Murders: Did Lizzie Borden Really Kill Her Parents?

Lizzie Borden ― the name may sound familiar to some but others probably don’t know anything about her. On Thursday, August 4, 1892, one of the most gruesome crimes ever committed in the United States occurred. Andrew Borden and his wife, Abby Borden were both slain. Abby was hit about 19 times in the back of the head with an axe. Her husband was hit at least 11 times. The main suspect in these gruesome murders was their 32-year-old daughter, Lizzie Borden.

Lizzie Borden
Lizzie Borden, 1889 © MRU

Why did Lizzie kill them? No one knows the answer to that question. No one even knows if she really did kill her father and stepmother that day. What makes this such an interesting case is the circumstances around it.

The Borden Family

The Borden household at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts 41.6989°N 71.1562°W
The Borden household at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts 41.6989°N 71.1562°W

Lizzie Andrew Borden was born July 19, 1860, in Fall River, Massachusetts, to Sarah Anthony and Andrew Jackson Borden. The Borden family was a rich and well-reputed family in the area. Andrew prospered in the manufacture and sale of furniture and caskets, then became a successful property developer. He directed several textile mills and owned considerable commercial property. He was also president of the Union Savings Bank and a director of the Durfee Safe Deposit and Trust Co.

Despite his wealth, Andrew was known for his frugality, this is why their house was in an affluent area, but the wealthiest residents of Fall River, including Andrew’s cousins, generally lived in the more fashionable neighbourhood, “The Hill”. Lizzie Borden and her older sister, Emma Lenora Borden had a relatively religious upbringing and attended Central Congregational Church. They were involved in various church activities, including teaching Sunday school to children of recent immigrants to the United States.

All was going on fine in the Borden family until the death of Lizzie Borden’s mother Sarah Borden, in March 1863. She died of uterine congestion and spinal disease. Three years after her death, Andrew married Abby Durfee Gray. Lizzie stated that she called her stepmother “Mrs. Borden” and demurred on whether they had a cordial relationship. She believed that Abby had married her father for his wealth. Bridget Sullivan, (whom they called “Maggie”) the Bordens’ 25-year-old live-in maid who had immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, testified that Lizzie and Emma rarely ate meals with their parents.

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In May 1892, Andrew killed multiple pigeons in his barn with a hatchet, believing they were attracting local children to hunt them. Lizzie had recently built a roost for the pigeons, and it has been commonly recounted that she was upset over his killing of them, though the veracity of this has been disputed. A family argument in July 1892 prompted both sisters to take extended “vacations” in New Bedford. After returning to Fall River, a week before the murders, Lizzie chose to stay in a local rooming house for four days before returning to the family residence.

Tension had been growing within the family in the months before the murders, especially over Andrew’s gifts of real estate to various branches of Abby’s family. After their stepmother’s sister received a house, the Borden sisters had demanded and received a rental property ― the home they had lived in until their mother died. The night before the murders, John Vinnicum Morse, the brother of Lizzie’s and Emma’s deceased mother, visited and was invited to stay for a few days to discuss business matters with Andrew.

The Borden House Murders

Body of Abby Borden, August 4, 1892
Body of Abby Borden, August 4, 1892
Body of Andrew Borden, August 4, 1892
Body of Andrew Borden, August 4, 1892

John Morse arrived in the evening of August 3 and slept in the guest room that night. After breakfast the next morning, at which Andrew, Abby, Lizzie, Morse and the Bordens’ maid Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan were present, Andrew and Morse went to the sitting room, where they chatted for nearly an hour. Morse left around 8:48 am to buy a pair of oxen and visit his niece in Fall River, planning to return to the Borden home for lunch at noon. Andrew left for his morning walk sometime after 9 am.

Although the cleaning of the guest room was one of Lizzie’s and Emma’s regular chores, Abby went upstairs some time between 9:00 am and 10:30 am to make the bed. According to the forensic investigation, Abby was facing her killer at the time of the attack. She was first struck on the side of the head with a hatchet which cut her just above the ear, causing her to turn and fall face down on the floor, creating contusions on her nose and forehead. Her killer then struck her multiple times, delivering 17 more direct hits to the back of her head, killing her.

When Andrew returned at around 10:30 am, his key failed to open the door, so he knocked for attention. Sullivan went to unlock the door, but finding it jammed, she uttered an expletive. She would later testify that she heard Lizzie laughing immediately after this. She did not see Lizzie, but stated that the laughter was coming from the top of the stairs. This was considered significant as Abby was already dead by this time, and her body would have been visible to anyone on the home’s second floor. Lizzie later denied being upstairs and testified that her father had asked her where Abby was, and she had replied that a messenger had delivered Abby a summons to visit a sick friend.

Lizzie stated that she had then removed Andrew’s boots and helped him into his slippers before he lay down on the sofa for a nap ― an anomaly contradicted by the crime scene photos, which show Andrew wearing boots. She then informed Sullivan of a department store sale and permitted her to go, but Sullivan felt unwell and went to take a nap in her bedroom instead.

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Sullivan testified that she was in her third-floor room, resting from cleaning windows, when just before 11:10 am she heard Lizzie call from downstairs, “Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.” Andrew was slumped on a couch in the downstairs sitting room, struck 10 or 11 times with a hatchet-like weapon. One of his eyeballs had been split cleanly in two, suggesting that he had been asleep when attacked. His still-bleeding wounds suggested a very recent attack. Dr. Bowen, the family’s physician, arrived from his home across the street to determine that both victims had died. Detectives estimated his death had occurred at approximately 11:00 am.

Lizzie Borden Was Tried And Acquitted

Lizzie Borden during the trial, by Benjamin West Clinedinst
Lizzie Borden during the trial, by Benjamin West Clinedinst

Lizzie Borden was a church-going, Sunday school teacher. No one could even think that she would be capable of murder. Though her contradicting statements and some actions that took place the day before the murder says otherwise. There were reports that Lizzie had gone to Smith’s Drug Store to purchase some prussic acid. Eli Bence claimed that Lizzie told him she wanted the acid to kill insects in her sealskin cape.

Lizzie had stated that she was out on that day but wasn’t at Smith’s Drug Store. Later, she changed her story and claimed she never left the house. Another thing is that her Uncle John Morse arrived that afternoon intending to stay overnight but didn’t have any luggage. Both he and Lizzie testified that they did not see each other until after the murders but Lizzie knew he was there.

Lizzie was questioned by the police as to her whereabouts and she gave them many different stories. It wasn’t until August 7, when a witness reported that Lizzie had burned a stained dress, that she was formally charged with the murders of her father and stepmother. During the grand jury’s last week of its session, November 7th through December 2nd, the case was heard. On December 2, Lizzie was charged with three counts of murder (the murder of her father, stepmother and the both of them). The trial was set for June 5, 1893. The trial lasted fourteen days and it only took an hour for the jury to come up with a verdict: Not Guilty on all three counts.

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Lizzie Became Lizbeth

Trial jury that acquitted Borden
The trial jury that acquitted Borden

Five weeks after the trial, Lizzie and her sister Emma purchased a 13-room house located on a fashionable residential area called “The Hill” and named it Maplecroft. The name was carved into the top stone step. At this time, Lizzie began referring to herself as “Lizbeth.”

When Lizzie Borden died in 1927, she left $30,000 to her local Animal Rescue League, which would be the equivalent of more than $400,000 today.

Lizzie died on June 1, 1927, from a long illness that followed complications from a gall bladder operation. Emma died 9 days later from a fall at her house in Newmarket, a house that she bought and moved to shortly after a dispute with Lizzie. They were both buried in the family plot along with their sister, mother, stepmother and father.

The Boden House, Today

the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast.
The Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast

The Borden House is now a bed and breakfast, as well as a museum. You can actually sleep in the room that Abby Borden was killed in or sit on the sofa where Andrew Borden died on. There are reports that the inn is extremely haunted. Some have heard a woman crying, footsteps on the stairs when no one else is in the house, doors shutting by themselves, and experiencing numerous haunting events. However, the real attraction of the house is the two century-old murders that remain unsolved to this day.

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