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Lizzie Borden: 1892's Unsolved Axe Murder Mystery Case

1800s | August 4, 2020

The infamous home where Andrew and Abby Borden were killed. (Public domain)

We probably all remember the morbid schoolyard ditty about Lizzie Borden, in which we learned that she gave her parents 40–41 whacks with an ax. Officially, however, she was acquitted of the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden. The grisly crime remains unsolved to this day.

Lizzie Borden (rollingstone.com)

Who Was Lizzie Borden?

Lizzie Borden was born the second daughter of Andrew and Sarah Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1860. When Lizzie was still very young, her mother died, but Andrew Borden was a prominent businessman and real estate developer with the means to hire servants to care for his children. Still, several years later, Andrew remarried Abby Durfee Gray. 

Andrew and Abby Borden. (allthatsinteresting.com)

An Evil Stepmother?

Neither Lizzie nor her older sister, Emma, had a close relationship with their new stepmother, addressing her only as "Mrs. Borden." Lizzie and Abby frequently clashed, and Emma always stuck up for her baby sister. In private, the Borden sisters worried that their stepmother was out to get their father's money and swindle them out of an inheritance.

Lizzie and her father disagreed about money. (cbsnews.com)

A Penny-Pinching Father

Lizzie and Emma Borden also disagreed with their father over money. Andrew was well-to-do, but he was tightfisted. As unmarried women, the sisters had to remain living at their father’s house in accordance with the customs of the time, even though Emma was 42 years old and Lizzie was 31. They had hoped to move into one of their father's rental houses, but he refused to finance them. 

The Borden House in Fall River as it stands today. (newengland.com)

The Morning Of The Murders

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden had breakfast with their house guest, John Morse, a relative from out of town. Morse left around 9:00 A.M., and Andrew Borden departed a few minutes later to take care of some business matters in town. Abby went upstairs to make up the bed in the guest room, where she was suddenly, brutally attacked and murdered. Investigators believed that she was dead by 9:30 A.M. It appeared that the first blow of the ax knocked her to the floor and the assailant then struck her 18 times with the sharpened ax. 

The parlor of the Borden House. (bostonglobe.com)

Andrew Borden's Death

In the late morning, Andrew Borden returned home. As was his habit, he lay down on the parlor room couch to take a nap ... and never woke up. As he slept, he was repeatedly struck with an ax. Investigators theorized that he died around 11:00 A.M.

The scene of Abby Borden's murder. (cbsnews.com)

The Discovery Of The Crime

According to Lizzie, shortly after 11:00 A.M., she walked into the parlor, saw the mutilated remains of her father, and yelled for the maid, who summoned the police. The only two people in the house at the time of the murders were Lizzie and the maid, Bridget Sullivan. (Emma was away visiting friends.) Sullivan claimed she was outside washing the windows of the house all morning and did not hear the attacks. Lizzie stated that she spent the morning in the barn out back because she was trying to escape the oppressive August heat. She, too, insisted that she did not hear or see anything amiss until after her father was dead.

News spread about the murders. (pinterest.com)

The Arrest

Lizzie was the prime suspect almost immediately. There were no signs of forced entry or evidence that anyone else was in the home at the time, and a few days later, Lizzie was caught burning one of her dresses. She explained to the officers that the dress had been stained with paint, but they believed that she was destroying evidence. About a week after the murders, Lizzie was arrested. 

An ax with a broken handle was found in the basement of the Borden House. (cbsnews.com)

The Murder Weapon

During their investigation, the Fall River police found two axes and two hatchets in the basement of the Borden house. One of them had a freshly broken wooden handle. The other tools were covered in dust, but the broken ax looked like it had been deliberately covered with ash to give the impression that it, too, had been unused for quite some time. The axes and hatchets were left in the home. 

Lizzie was put on trial for murder. (kpbs.org)

Were There Other Suspects?

The terrible murders were the talk of Fall River. Some residents thought that the stingy Andrew Borden and his wife were killed by a disgruntled former tenant, while others claimed that a disgruntled, poorly dressed man was seen scurrying down the street and carrying something that could have been an ax wrapped in newspaper. Still others pointed a finger at a Portuguese immigrant who worked as a farm hand in the next town over, had once worked for Andrew Borden, and left his employment on poor terms. Emma and Lizzie Borden offered a substantial reward for information about the murders, but nothing concrete came to light. 

Lizzie was acquitted because she was a woman. (publishersweekly.com)

The Trial

Lizzie Borden's trial, which began in early 1893, became a media sensation. There was much evidence against her, albeit circumstantial, but Lizzie never took the stand in her own defense. She didn't have to: It was believed at that time that a woman, especially one from such a distinguished background, could not possibly commit such a heinous act. On June 20, 1893, she was found not guilty. 

Did Andrew Borden sexually abuse his daughters? (history.com)

A New Theory

In recent times, a new theory has emerged to provide a possible motive for the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden. Several historians have suggested that Lizzie and her sister were the victims of years of sexual abuse at the hands of their father, and Lizzie finally snapped and killed her father and stepmother in a desperate attempt to end the abuse once and for all. Of course, people did not talk about this taboo subject in the 1890s, so if this theory were true, it would have been kept under wraps. 

Lizzie and Emma Borden. (pinterest.com)

After The Trial

After Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the double ax murders, she and her sister inherited their father's estate and wealth. Although Lizzie suddenly had the means to move away and start a new life, she chose to stay in Fall River even though she'd been found guilty by the court of public opinion in her hometown. No one spoke to her in the shops, and people avoided sitting by her at church. She lived the rest of her life as an outcast

Tags: 1800s | crime | murder

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.