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Borden, Lizzie Andrewlocked

(19 July 1860–01 June 1927)
  • Olive Hoogenboom

Borden, Lizzie Andrew (19 July 1860–01 June 1927), the accused murderer of her father and stepmother in a celebrated trial, was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, the daughter of Andrew Jackson Borden, who started as a fish peddler and undertaker and ended as an investor worth a half-million dollars, and Sarah Anthony Morse. When Borden was two, her mother died. Her twelve-year-old sister, Emma, became her surrogate mother, even though two years later her father married thirty-seven-year-old Abby Durfee Gray. Borden developed into a pretty young woman with carefully kept red hair and large gray eyes who wore stylish clothes. Often pitted against their miserly father and 200-pound stepmother, Borden and her sister found their home a battleground. But the customs of the time kept the daughters from leaving the small, drab house, located in an area losing its residential character. After graduating from high school, Borden escaped her unhappy home by engaging in activities at the Central Congregational Church. At age thirty she toured Europe with a group of young Fall River women. On her return she taught a Sunday school class of immigrant children, became secretary-treasurer of the Christian Endeavor, and joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

On 4 August 1892, at approximately 9:30 a.m., Abby Borden was struck nineteen times by a sharp instrument, most likely a hatchet, while she was tidying the second-floor guest room. (Abby Borden’s time of death was determined both by forensic evidence and by when she was last seen.) About an hour and a half later, Andrew Borden, who, after a short tour of business, had returned home and was napping in the living room, was hit ten times by the same instrument. Lizzie Borden was home that morning, as was Bridget Sullivan, the family servant, who for much of the time was outside washing the first-story windows. Borden’s visiting uncle, who had slept in the guest room the night before, returned to the house after the murders. Borden’s presence in the house made her a suspect, as did her varied responses to the oft-repeated query, “Where were you when it happened?”

After an inquest, during which she was deprived of her counsel and made numerous inconsistent statements, Borden was arrested. The district attorneys prosecuting the case were Hosea M. Knowlton, a formidable cross-examiner with a bulldog manner who insisted that women “make up for lack of strength in cunning; their hates are more undying, more unyielding, and their passions stronger,” and William H. Moody, who would later become a U.S. congressman, serve in two cabinet positions, and be an associate justice of the Supreme Court. But they were no match for the defense, which was headed by George D. Robinson, a three-term Massachusetts governor and one of the state’s ablest trial lawyers. Patting her arm while assuring her, “It’s all right, little girl,” Robinson immediately put Borden at ease. She liked everything about him but his $25,000 fee.

Surpassing the simultaneous Chicago World’s Fair in newspaper coverage, Borden’s trial was the sensation of the year 1893. (The start of the trial had been delayed because the authorities, knowing they did not have an airtight case, had proceeded reluctantly.) Most newspapers thought Borden innocent, as did feminists Mary A. Livermore and Lucy Stone. The 5 to 20 June trial was held in New Bedford, rather than in Fall River, a textile town deeply divided between immigrant millworkers, who thought that Borden was guilty, and those like herself, who came from old, prominent families and rallied in her defense. During the trial, self-possession never deserted Borden. Wearing a stylish black mohair dress with leg-of-mutton sleeves, she entered the courtroom each day on the arm of one of the ministers of her church. Occasionally, when testimony brought tears to her eyes, she covered her face with her fan; twice she fainted in the stifling, hot courtroom; and she waited demurely in the hall when her father’s skull was exhibited. Borden half smiled when her eyes met those of Bridget Sullivan, who was testifying about the ever-present mutton, which had appeared at four consecutive Borden meals during her parents’ last twenty-four hours.

Robinson managed to get damaging inquest testimony excluded from the trial, as well as testimony that the day before the murders Borden had tried to buy prussic acid, a deadly poison. The chemical tests made by Professor Edward S. Wood of Harvard revealed no prussic acid in the stomachs of the victims, no blood on two axes and two hatchets from the Borden home, and no blood on Lizzie Borden’s garments excepting one pinhead-sized spot on an underskirt. One of the hatchets, which fitted the wounds of the murdered Bordens, had been broken from its handle and dusted with ashes. Also it was uncertain whether the garments tested for blood were the garments Borden was wearing the morning of the murders. Descriptions of her dress varied, and just before her trial a second grand jury was called to hear new testimony that she had burned a dress in the kitchen stove. Robinson deftly handled this circumstantial evidence, as well as testimony of bitter feuding in the Borden household.

In making his charge to the jury, Judge Justin Dewey hinted that a finding of not guilty was the only valid option. (Dewey, the father of three daughters, owed his appointment to superior court to Robinson, the former governor.) Evidently, the jury was ready to comply, but it waited more than an hour before giving its verdict. Although applause thundered in the New Bedford courtroom, Fall River people were less satisfied. Few of them wanted Borden executed, but many of them, particularly those of the working class, were not prepared for her complete exoneration. Even in her own church Borden was shunned when she triumphantly returned.

While the real Lizzie Borden moved to a better neighborhood, called herself Lizbeth, befriended the actress Nance O’Neill, and became estranged from her sister, the Lizzie Borden who emerged from the literature of her trial became part of American folklore. Her story was repeated in novels, movies, and plays. Suddenly children had a new rhyme to use in counting-out games:

Lizzie Borden took an axAnd gave her mother forty whacks;When she saw what she had doneShe gave her father forty-one!

When they died ten days apart, Lizzie and Emma Borden were buried with their parents and stepmother. Their wills were generous to institutions and people in Fall River, where Lizzie Borden died. In her will, she also remembered the animals. “Their need is great and there are so few who care for them,” she explained, after leaving $30,000 to the Fall River Animal Rescue League (Williams et al., p. 259).


Material on Lizzie Borden and her trial has been conveniently brought together by Joyce G. Williams, J. Eric Smithburn, and M. Jeanne Peterson, eds., Lizzie Borden: A Case Book of Family and Crime in the 1890s (1980). The Fall River Historical Society has a file on the murders and related materials. Books and articles on Lizzie Borden have appeared steadily, beginning with articles in Woman’s Journal, 20 Aug., 17 Sept. 1892, and 27 May, 24 June 1893; Edwin Henry Porter, The Fall River Tragedy (1893); and John H. Wigmore, “The Borden Case,” American Law Review 27 (1893):819–45. Her story is also a favorite with mystery writers and a constant in collections of famous murders and trials. Among the best of these are those by Edmund Pearson, especially his The Trial of Lizzie Andrew Borden (1937). The murders have been charged to her sister, Emma, in Frank Spiering, Lizzie (1984), and to the family maid, Bridget Sullivan, in Edward Radin, Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story (1961). Victoria Lincoln, A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight (1967), suggests that Borden committed the first murder while in an epileptic fit. Imaginative treatment of the Borden story is in Edward H. Bierstadt, Satan Was a Man: A Novel of Murder (1935); two plays: John Colton and Carlton Miles, Nine Pine Street (1934), and Lillian De La Torre, Goodbye, Miss Lizzie Borden: A Sinister Play in One Act (1948); and the ballet and book of the same name, Agnes de Mille, Lizzie Borden: A Dance of Death (1968). Among numerous obituaries are those in the New York Times, 3 June 1927, and the Fall River Daily Globe, 2 June 1927.