Lizzie Borden took an axe,
Gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
If that’s everything you know about Lizzie Borden, nearly everything you know is wrong. In reality, much of what popular culture regards as “fact” in the Borden case doesn’t hold up well against the evidence.
Lizzie attempted to buy poison the day before the murders.
A local drugstore clerk did report that a woman tried to buy prussic acid—aka hydrogen cyanide—without a prescription on Wednesday, August 3. However, according to his own testimony, “I knew her as a Miss Borden; I have known her for sometime as a Miss Borden, but not as Andrew J. Borden’s daughter until that morning.” In fact, it was a customer in the shop who remarked, “That is Andrew J. Borden’s daughter” as the woman left. (For context: there were over 125 Borden families in Fall River in 1892.)
1. Thursday, August 4, 1892, was the hottest day of the year in Fall River—over 100 degrees.
Records of the United States Signal Service show that the highest temperature recorded in Fall River, Massachusetts, on August 4, 1892, was 83 degrees. (The prosecution exaggerated the temperature to throw doubt on Lizzie’s alibi; she claimed to have been in the loft of the barn during her father’s murder.)
2. Mr. Borden was so cheap, his family had to eat week-old mutton for breakfast on the day of the murders.
According to the Bordens’ maid, the infamous mutton made its debut at noon on Wednesday, August 3—less than twenty-four hours before the crime.
3. Mrs. Borden was a disagreeable, friendless recluse.
Abby Borden doted on her half sister’s family, visiting them nearly every day. Another neighbor called Mrs. Borden “the best and most intimate neighbor she had ever met.”
4. Lizzie hid evidence in a pail of menstrual rags.
Police did indeed find a small pail of bloodied towels in the cellar, but apparently did not investigate its contents. Lizzie’s physician assured them it was “all right,” and Lizzie herself told Officer William Medley that it had been there “three or four days.” However, the Borden’s maid, who had done laundry Monday and Tuesday, told the very same officer that she had not seen the pail there earlier in the week or she would have added its contents to the wash.
5. Lizzie burned a stained dress after the murders.
Though neither of them actually watched her feed the garment to the flames, Lizzie’s sister and their close friend, Alice Russell, confirmed in court that Lizzie had burned a dress that she described as “covered in paint” on Sunday, August 7—the morning after the police had spent several hours searching the house. Alice was adamant that she had seen no blood on the dress. (Q. Did you see any blood on that dress? A. No, sir. Q. Not a drop? A. No, sir.) Nevertheless, she advised Lizzie, “I wouldn’t let anybody see me do that.”
6. Mr. Borden murdered Lizzie’s pet pigeons—with a hatchet.
Myths persist to this day that Mr. Borden beheaded Lizzie’s pet pigeons as punishment, and so a vengeful Lizzie hacked him to pieces with the very same hatchet.
In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that the pigeons residing in the barn were anything more than livestock occasionally served at the Borden dinner table, and while Mr. Borden did slaughter them, Lizzie herself testified that he’d wrung their necks.
7. Lizzie was a lifelong kleptomaniac.
Although a Rhode Island newspaper published a story accusing her of shoplifting in 1897, the store in question retains no record of the incident. The story cast enough suspicion that Lizzie was carefully watched whenever she entered Gifford’s jewelry store in Fall River, yet no evidence of theft from Gifford’s—or anywhere else—has ever come to light.
8. An 1893 book on the case was so incriminating, Lizzie Borden bought and burned as many copies as she could.
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“[L]ike most of Fall River, I had always wanted to read Edwin H. Porter’s The Fall River Tragedy,” Victoria Lincoln wrote in her 1967 Edgar Award–winning biography of Lizzie Borden. “However, Lizzie bought off the printer, a local, and the books were destroyed before they hit the shop.”
Over the years the “fact” that Lizzie Borden burned all but four copies of The Fall River Tragedy sprouted out of Lincoln’s story, despite the absence of any evidence supporting her claim. On the contrary, a 1933 New Yorker article reported that Porter’s book failed to sell well, leaving a portion of the original print run (estimated at five hundred to a thousand copies) to gather dust in the loft of an old barn. (Originals are both scarce and expensive but not unattainable—I own one myself!)
It may be true, however, that the majority never found their way into bookshops, for The Fall River Tragedy was sold at least in part by subscription rather than in stores.
9. Lizzie Borden was a lesbian—she murdered her parents because they discovered her secret.
This theory relies almost entirely on stereotype and innuendo. Here are the main facts it is derived from:
- Lizzie never married. If she had any suitors (male or female), their names are lost to history.
- An avid theatergoer, Lizzie was captivated by an internationally acclaimed actress named Nance O’Neil around the turn of the century. (O’Neil was a tall, deep-voiced woman who remained single well into her forties—wink, wink. Although a presumption that O’Neil was gay seems to have arisen in the 1960s, I’ve yet to track down any source for this belief.)
- Lizzie hosted at least three lavish parties for O’Neil and her cast.
- Lizzie’s sister, Emma, disapproved of Lizzie’s association with O’Neil, and moved out of Lizzie’s house shortly after the last of Lizzie’s theater-cast galas.
10. Lizzie was sexually abused by her father.
Not surprisingly, there’s no evidence—only the slimmest of hints, hinging largely on the interpretation of these verifiable facts:
- Lizzie gave her father a ring as a teenager. It was the only article of jewelry he wore, and he was buried with it.
- Lizzie’s bedroom adjoined her parents’, and her bed was angled so as to obstruct the doorway between them. (At the time of the murder, the connecting door was locked from both sides. Note that Lizzie’s bedroom also adjoined her sister’s, and the guest room.)
- Lizzie kept her bedroom door locked at all times. (So did Mr. and Mrs. Borden.)
Now that you're more versed on the Lizzie Borden case than most of the general public, read an excerpt from the book the research inspired.
The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century by Sarah Miller is non-fiction that reads like a thriller. Following the brutal murders of Andrew and Abby Borden and the subsequent trial of Andrew's daughter Lizzie Borden, this book attempts to separate fact from sensationalized fiction and includes photos, newspaper clippings, and images from the murder scene (Available January 12, 2016).
“SOMEBODY HAS KILLED FATHER”
Thursday, August 4, 1892
Lizzie could hardly look past the blood, there was so much of it. Blood soaked Mr. Borden’s neatly folded Prince Albert coat. It dripped from the slick horsehair cushions to the flowered carpet below. It arced in a fine spatter across the wall and picture frame above. In the midst of it all, her father lay stretched out on the couch with his face so carved and bloodied that she did not know whether he was alive or dead. “I did not notice anything else, I was so frightened and horrified. I ran to the foot of the stairs and called Maggie.”
Bridget Sullivan—nicknamed Maggie by Lizzie and her sister—had barely managed to drift to sleep when the shouting woke her. Bridget did not dally an instant. A housemaid had no business stealing a few winks at eleven in the morning, and be- sides, that scream was too loud, too strident for any ordinary rep- rimand.
“What is the matter?” Bridget shouted back. “Come down quick!”
Down three flights of stairs Bridget came pounding to find Miss Lizzie Borden in a state such as she’d never seen before— backed up against the screen door as though she were about to flee the house entirely.
“Go for Dr. Bowen as soon as you can,” Lizzie commanded. “I think Father is hurt.”
Instinctively Bridget moved toward the sitting room to see what was the matter with her employer, Mr. Andrew Borden. “Oh, Maggie, don’t go in,” Lizzie cried. “I have got to have a doc- tor quick. Go over. I have got to have the doctor,” she insisted.
Bridget dashed across Second Street and “rang violently” at Dr. Bowen’s door, only to have Mrs. Bowen inform her that the doctor was out making house calls. Back Bridget hurried with the bad news. Lizzie had not budged from the doorway.
“Miss Lizzie, where was you?” Bridget ventured to ask. “Didn’t I leave the screen door hooked?”
“I was out in the backyard and heard a groan, and came in and the screen door was wide open.”
But Lizzie Borden did not want to answer questions. She wanted help. If she could not have the doctor, she wanted her friend, Miss Alice Russell. “Go and get her,” she begged. “I can’t be alone in the house.”
Bridget yanked her hat and shawl from their hook and took off toward Borden Street.
Lizzie Borden waited, alone—as far as anyone knew. There were three locks on the front door. No one intent on harming her father could have gotten in that way. And anyone who might still be lurking inside could not possibly escape without her notice now.
“Lizzie, what is the matter?” said a voice from behind her. But it was only Mrs. Adelaide Churchill, the young widow next door. On her way home from her marketing she’d noticed Bridget crossing the street from Dr. Bowen’s house, “running, and she looked as if she was scared.” Mrs. Churchill went straight home and laid her groceries on a bench in the kitchen. Through her kitchen window she caught a glimpse of Miss Lizzie leaning against the doorway of the back screen, rubbing her face “as if she was in great distress.” The young woman looked so much out of sorts, Mrs. Churchill had opened her window and called across the fence.
“O, Mrs. Churchill,” Lizzie answered, “do come over, some- body has killed Father.”
By the time Mrs. Churchill hurried across the yard, Lizzie had sunk down onto the second step, “pale and frightened.”
“O Lizzie, where is your father?” she asked, laying a hand on Lizzie’s arm.
“In the sitting room.”
Mrs. Churchill did not go in. Instead, she asked, “Where was you when it happened?”
“I went to the barn to get a piece of iron.” “Where is your mother?”
“I don’t know,” Lizzie said, her words spilling out now, “she had a note to go and see someone that was sick this morning, but I don’t know but they have killed her too. Father must have had an enemy, for we have all been sick, and we think the milk has been poisoned. Dr. Bowen is not at home, but I must have a doctor.”
“Shall I go, Lizzie, and try to find someone to go and get a doc- tor?” Mrs. Churchill asked.
She answered yes, and Mrs. Churchill ran across the street to L. L. Hall’s Stable for help.
Lizzie Borden did not want to be alone in that house. She had told Bridget so, and still Bridget had brought her neither the doc- tor nor Miss Russell. Where could that girl be?
“I DON’T KNOW BUT WHAT MR. BORDEN IS DEAD”
It was no more than quarter past eleven when Alice Russell saw the Bordens’ maid hurrying up her front steps. Right then Alice knew there was trouble. Only last evening her friend Lizzie had come calling with worrisome news. She and her father and step- mother, Lizzie said, had all been taken sick Tuesday night—very sick indeed.
Alice laid aside her work at once and met Bridget at the door. “What is it, Bridget? Are they worse?” Alice asked.
Bridget did not take time to explain. She hardly knew herself just what had happened. “Yes,” the young Irishwoman said. “I don’t know but what Mr. Borden is dead.” She paused only long enough to hear Alice say she would come before taking off again. To Bridget’s relief, Dr. Bowen was just stepping from his carriage as she ran back up Second Street.
“What is the matter, Lizzie?” Dr. Bowen asked as he entered the house.
Under any other circumstances, the sight of his familiar face with its graying mustache and side-whiskers might have calmed Lizzie. After all, he had lived across the street from the Bordens for twenty years; she had known him since she was a girl of twelve.
Lizzie answered that she was afraid her father had been stabbed or hurt.
That one word—stabbed—took him aback. He expected sick- ness, possibly bad, judging from the way his wife had called out They want you quick over to Mr . Borden’s! before he stepped from his carriage. Even poisoning would not have completely surprised him. The previous day, Mrs. Borden had arrived at his office be- fore eight o’clock in the morning, nearly hysterical with fear that her family’s bread had been tainted. But stabbing?
“Has there been anybody here?” Dr. Bowen asked. Not as she knew of, Lizzie answered.
“Where is he?” the doctor asked.
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Lizzie led him through the dining room and motioned toward the sitting room door. Not a sound came from the other side.
Steeled for the worst, Dr. Bowen went in.
Nothing in all his twenty-five years as a medical man had pre- pared Dr. Bowen for the sight that assaulted him as he stepped into the Bordens’ sitting room. Before him on the sofa, Lizzie’s father lay keeled sideways, the left side of his face so smashed that Dr. Bowen did not, could not, recognize him. The elderly gentleman’s features were a pulp of chipped bone and razored flesh, his left eye cleaved in two.
The wounds were so violent, so obviously criminal, that they completely derailed Bowen’s instincts as a doctor. Instead, his first thought was that of a policeman. Something in that room— something besides the obvious horror on the sofa—felt wrong. “Like a flash,” it struck him to check the room to see if anything else was disturbed. Nothing. Not one thing was out of place, not even a speck of blood on the side table. It was not a particularly reassuring observation.
Only then did the doctor do what he had been called upon to do, and lifted one of Mr. Borden’s hands from his lap to feel for a pulse. Still warm, but that was all.
“WILL SOMEBODY FIND MRS. BORDEN?”
Alice Russell had taken just enough time to change her dress be- fore hurrying over the three blocks that separated her home from the Bordens’. There, she found Bridget, Mrs. Churchill, and a “dazed” Lizzie. “Sit right down here Lizzie in the kitchen,” Alice told her friend, and led her to a rocking chair.
While Mrs. Churchill fanned Lizzie, Alice rubbed Lizzie’s hands and bathed her forehead with wet cloths. No one informed Alice what was wrong with Mr. Borden, but seeing her friend in such a state must have told her that it was something dreadful. The Lizzie she knew was simply not the sort of person who came easily unhinged.
At this moment, however, Lizzie Borden was not herself at all. She seemed so much in need of comfort that Alice could not content herself with holding Lizzie’s hand. Within minutes of her arrival, Alice Russell climbed into the chair beside Lizzie as though she were a child, and Lizzie laid her head on Alice’s shoulder.
Then Lizzie’s voice, drifting up from beneath the waving newspapers and cool compresses, stopped them all with one sim- ple question:
“Will somebody find Mrs. Borden?”
Amidst all the frantic coming and going, the women realized, not one of them had seen Abby Borden.
Lizzie was insistent that her stepmother had received a note that morning. Somebody was sick, Mrs. Borden had told her, and she intended to call on the invalid when she went out to pick up the meat for that afternoon’s dinner.
“Oh, Lizzie,” Bridget said, “if I knew where [Mrs. Borden’s sis- ter] was I would go and see if Mrs. Borden was there and tell her that Mr. Borden was very sick.”
“No,” Lizzie replied, “I think I heard her come in.”
But if Mrs. Borden had already returned from her errand, why didn’t she come running herself when Lizzie screamed for Bridget? Mrs. Borden’s second-floor bedroom was directly be- low Bridget’s—the maid had rushed right by it on her way down. Wouldn’t the repeated slamming of the screen door or the drum- ming of excited footsteps have attracted Mrs. Borden’s attention as the neighbors arrived on the scene?
As the pitch of excitement rose, Lizzie’s conviction wavered. “I don’t know where Mrs. Borden is,” she said to Mrs. Churchill. “I think she is out, but I wish you would look.”
Someone must search the house for Mrs. Borden, the women decided, and it would not be Lizzie. She was plainly in no condi- tion to do any such thing.
At that moment, Dr. Bowen came out of the sitting room, shaking his head as though he hoped to dislodge the image of what he had just seen from his mind. “That is awful,” he said.
“O, I can’t go through that room,” Bridget said. From where they stood, there was no way into the front of the house but through the sitting room, where Mr. Borden’s murdered body lay with the blood still oozing onto the haircloth sofa.
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When Andrew Borden bought Number 92 Second Street in 1872, it was not a single-family home. At that time the building was fitted out as upper and lower flats with identical floor plans: a front parlor, central dining room, rear kitchen, and two small side bed- rooms. This compact arrangement accounts for both the lack of hallways and the peculiar interconnecting layout of the upstairs bedrooms during the Bordens’ time—Lizzie’s room had once been the upstairs fam- ily’s dining room, with doors opening to the entry, par- lor, kitchen, and one of the bedrooms.
Andrew Borden made two substantial changes to the house. He tore out the upstairs kitchen and con- verted the space into a master bedroom, and he joined the two downstairs bedrooms to create a large din- ing room. What had been the downstairs family’s din- ing room then became the Bordens’ notorious sitting room.
The most significant alteration, however—at least in terms of the murder—was not structural. It was the mutually locked door between Lizzie’s room and the master bedroom. That door, with its bolt on one side and hook on the other, essentially became a wall dividing the second floor into two completely separate compartments. As long as both sides of that door were locked, no one in the front half of the upstairs could access the master bedroom, back stairs, back door, cellar, or attic without going down the front stairs and passing through both the sitting room and the kitchen.
“Get me a sheet, and I will cover Mr. Borden over,” Dr. Bowen offered.
But the linens were stored upstairs in the small dressing room off Mr. and Mrs. Borden’s locked bedroom. And the key to that bedroom lay on the mantel in the sitting room—just steps from Mr. Borden.
Again Dr. Bowen spared the ladies by going back into the sit- ting room to retrieve the key, and a reluctant Bridget, accompa- nied by Mrs. Churchill, set off up the back stairs.
“GO AND GET THE POLICE AS FAST AS YOU CAN”
“Doctor, will you send a telegram to Emma, my sister, for me?” Lizzie asked after he had draped Mr. Borden’s body.
“I will do anything for you,” Bowen gallantly replied. As a doctor, there was nothing left for him to do. He acted now as a friend.
Her mind suddenly astir with practicalities, Lizzie asked him to word the telegram as gently as possible, not just for her sister’s sake, but because “the old lady where Emma was visiting was feeble, she had better not have the shock.”
As Dr. Bowen headed out the back door, two men met him at the screen—one was Charles Sawyer, a neighbor from just a few doors down Second Street. Bowen balked at letting them in until Sawyer identified his companion, a burly, pork-faced fellow dressed in an ordinary suit of clothes, as Officer George Allen of the Fall River Police Department.
“All right, come right in,” Bowen said.
Before he went any farther, Officer Allen deputized Mr. Saw- yer and stationed him at the screen door with instructions that he must not allow anyone to come in, only police officers. Then Allen followed Dr. Bowen into the sitting room, where the doctor pulled the sheet from Mr. Borden’s face. “You go down, and tell the Marshal all about it,” Bowen instructed the policeman. “Go and get the police as fast as you can.”
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Lizzie’s moments of clearheadedness were fading in and out.
Again Lizzie said, “I wish someone would go and try to find Mrs. Borden.”
They could avoid it no longer. Once more Bridget and Mrs. Churchill screwed up their courage to creep through the house. There was no one else for the job.
Together, the two women went through the dining room to the sitting room door. From there they scurried kitty-corner toward the foyer, trying not to see the end of the sofa a few inches to their left, where Mr. Borden’s head lay. Bridget was just ahead of Mrs. Churchill, leading the way. Down the hall and then up the open staircase they crept, uncertain whether a murderer still lurked within the house.
As the floor of the landing and then the open door to the guest room came into view, Mrs. Churchill turned her head, peering beneath the railing. Her nose was not quite level with the second floor. Through the spindles she could see across the landing and straight under the guest-room bed. Lying on the floor on the other side of the bed was something she did not want to recognize, but even in the dim light she could not pretend it was anything but the form of a person.
Mrs. Churchill went not one step farther.
Bridget, suddenly bold, continued. Drawn by the glimpse of a woman’s dress on the floor, she ran as far as the foot of the spare bed before the dreadful sight stopped her: Mrs. Borden, splayed facedown on the red Brussels carpet between the bed and the bu- reau in a thick black pool of drying blood.
Mrs. Churchill did not wait for Bridget to react. She rushed downstairs into the dining room, so frightened she doubled her- self up, and cried out, “O, Mrs. Borden!”
“Is there another?” Alice Russell asked.
“Yes,” Mrs. Churchill gasped, “they killed her too.”
“FOR GOD’S SAKE, HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?”
First her father, now her stepmother. Lizzie reeled at this second blow, appearing so “very much overcome” that Alice Russell was compelled to shepherd her friend out of the hot kitchen and into the dining room. There Lizzie “threw herself ” down on the green-striped lounge at the end of the room.
Alice bustled and fussed over Lizzie, anxious to keep her cool and calm. Thinking she was faint, she started to loosen Lizzie’s dress. But Lizzie suddenly rallied, refusing to succumb com- pletely to Alice’s ministrations.
“I am not faint,” Lizzie declared.
Nevertheless, Alice and Mrs. Churchill strove to maintain an atmosphere of calm for Lizzie’s sake, even as a rapid succession of policemen bombarded the Borden property.
Copyright © 2016 Sarah Miller.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Sarah Miller is the author of two historical fiction novels, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, which was called “an accomplished debut” in a starred review from Booklist and was named an ALA-ALSC Notable Children’s Book, and The Lost Crown, about the Romanovs, hailed as “fascinating” in a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and named an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults.
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