Get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it takes to be considered one of the worst figures in history, with this fourth book in a nonfiction series that focuses on the most nefarious historical figures.
Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.
On August 4, 1892, the murders of wealthy and prominent Andrew and Abby Borden rocked the small town of Fall River, Massachusetts. The accused? Mild-mannered and highly respected Lizzie Borden, daughter of Andrew and stepdaughter of Abby. But did she actually do it? And if she did, why?
Lizzie had as much to gain from the death of her father as anyone. Despite his wealth, Andrew did not believe in spending money and Lizzie had grown frustrated with the situation. And her actions in the days before the murder—trying to buy a type of strong poison—as well as those after the murder—burning a dress she claimed was stained—didn’t help. On August 11, Lizzie was arrested. But after a sensational trial, she was found not guilty.
Rumors lingered. Stories persisted. And Lizzie continues to fascinate even today.
Lizzie Borden 1 MURDER COMES TO FALL RIVER Ready for his day, Andrew J. Borden left his house around nine a.m. and headed to the business district of ?Fall River, Massachusetts, a city he had called home his entire life. He had taken this morning stroll for years. He had no idea that this would be the last time he’d do it.
The Borden name was well known in this manufacturing city along the Quequechan River. Andrew’s ancestor Richard Borden had settled in Rhode Island during the 1630s, and other relatives then moved into nearby Fall River. Some of the Bordens became important business owners and leaders of the community. One distant relative of Andrew’s was president of the Fall River Railroad, while another ran the local ironworks. Those Bordens and their closest family members were some of the richest people in town.
Andrew, though, came from a much simpler background. He had trained as a carpenter before going into the furniture business. Over the years, he became a successful businessman and investor. One local resident described him as “just and honest” but also “hard, stern, and puritanical.”?1 Despite making plenty of money from his business dealings, Borden didn’t like to spend it. It was said that Borden boasted he had never foolishly spent a single dollar. Even with his success, he chose to live with his family on Second Street rather than in the neighborhood known as the Hill, the most fashionable part of the city. Still, the Borden home was comfortable, and the family’s neighbors included doctors and other professionals. Borden saw no need to show off his wealth by moving to a larger, fancier home. Besides, living at 92 Second Street gave him an easy walk into town.
When Borden set out on the morning of ?Thursday, August 4, 1892, he wasn’t feeling so well. Two days earlier he had come down with an upset stomach, most likely from a case of food poisoning. The family had eaten some leftovers that had gone bad in the summer humidity. This day was already starting out as another muggy one.
As he ran his errands, Borden passed a building he owned that had his name prominently displayed on the front. He then stopped in briefly at the National Union Bank, where he was president. He continued on to the post office before heading to another bank; for that one, he served on the board of directors. Going to the banks to deposit a check or carry out some other business was almost a daily ritual for Borden. He also stopped to chat with people on the street. That day he talked with Jonathan Clegg, a store owner who rented space from him. Borden also went to one of his properties where workmen were making repairs. But at least one person Borden met that day noticed that the businessman was still under the weather. The lingering queasiness in his stomach may have led Borden to cut short his daily rounds and head back home.
Andrew Borden lived with his wife, Abby, and his adult daughters, Emma and Lizzie, the children from his first marriage. The family had had a houseguest the night of August 3: John Morse, Mr. Borden’s brother-in-law from his first marriage. Morse and Borden often talked business. That morning the two men and Mrs. Borden had breakfast together; then Morse left the house shortly before Borden, though he expected to return for dinner. Emma was away visiting friends, so just Lizzie, Mrs. Borden, and the housekeeper, Bridget, were home when Mr. Borden returned.
THE FIRST BLOODY BODY HE WENT FIRST to the side door and, finding it locked, went next to the front door. That door was locked too, and he fumbled a bit with his keys. Inside, Bridget heard him at the door and came over to let him in. She was surprised to find it locked and let out a little cry of frustration as she tried to open it. Lizzie was upstairs at the time, by the front stairs, and she laughed as she heard Bridget’s troubles with the door.
Lizzie soon came down to greet her father. He sat in the dining room, reading, and she asked if he had any mail for her. He said no. Then Lizzie told her father that Mrs. Borden was not home after all. Someone had come to the door earlier in the morning with a note that asked Abby to go visit a sick friend.
As she did her chores, Bridget saw Mr. Borden walking through the house before he finally settled down in the sitting room to read the newspaper. In the dining room, Lizzie had set up an ironing board to iron handkerchiefs—one household task she always did herself. Thanks to her father’s money, Lizzie didn’t have to work. She could sleep late, as she had that morning, and generally avoid doing much housework. Cleaning their own rooms was about all Lizzie and her sister regularly did. Taking a break from her ironing, Lizzie went into the kitchen and mentioned to Bridget that Mrs. Borden had gone out. Then the two young women discussed a sale at a local store.
By now, Mr. Borden had stretched out his tall, thin body on the sofa in the sitting room. When Lizzie saw him, he had stopped reading and was simply resting. Lizzie then went outside for a few minutes. Meanwhile, Bridget went upstairs to take a break from her chores. She heard a bell ringing in the distance at city hall, signaling that it was eleven o’clock. A few minutes later Bridget heard Lizzie yelling her name from downstairs, saying, “Come down quick. Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.”?2 Later, though, Lizzie said that in that moment, she wasn’t sure whether he was dead, but she was “so frightened and horrified” ?by what she saw.?3
Bridget rushed down the stairs and found Lizzie standing by the bloody body of Andrew Borden. But he was not merely bloody—his head and face had been hacked with an ax, leaving a hole in his skull and deep cuts that had splattered the walls with blood. One eyeball had been sliced in half. “Go for Dr. Bowen,” Lizzie ordered, and Bridget ran out to get the doctor, who lived across the street.?4
As Bridget dashed across the street to look for Dr. Bowen, Adelaide Churchill was returning from grocery shopping. She lived next to the Bordens. She saw Bridget leave the doctor’s house alone and head back home. The neighbor noticed the housekeeper’s frightened look. Churchill then went inside to put away her groceries. Looking through a window, she saw Lizzie outside by the side door. She, too, looked frightened or upset. Opening the window, Churchill asked Lizzie if something was wrong. Lizzie replied, “Oh, Mrs. Churchill, do come over; somebody has killed father.”?5
Churchill quickly ran over. Bridget was gone again, as Lizzie had sent her to get Alice Russell, one of her friends. Churchill arrived to see Lizzie sitting on a step of the house’s back stairs. She explained that she had been in the barn, heard a noise, and come into the house to find her father’s mutilated body. Churchill asked where Mrs. Borden was, and Lizzie said, “I don’t know where Mrs. Borden is. I think she is out, but I wish you would look.”?6 Lizzie explained again about the note Abby Borden had received that morning, and while she assumed her stepmother had gone out, she didn’t know for sure if she had returned. Lizzie said she might have heard her come in. If Abby had returned, she might have suffered the same bloody fate as Mr. Borden.
ANOTHER GRUESOME DISCOVERY SINCE DR. BOWEN wasn’t home, Lizzie asked Churchill to go search for another doctor. The neighbor headed out, leaving Lizzie alone at the crime scene, but not for long. Dr. Bowen came home and his wife told him about trouble at the Borden residence. He went over and found Lizzie in the hall. By then, both Bridget and Churchill had returned. Lizzie explained that her father had been killed. Bowen asked if she had seen anyone, and Lizzie said no. After Bowen announced that Mr. Borden was indeed dead, Lizzie asked him to send a telegraph to her sister Emma to tell her what had happened. While the doctor was away, Lizzie once again said that Mrs. Borden could be in the house too. Bridget and Churchill went upstairs—Bridget refused to go alone—and the two made a gruesome discovery in the guest bedroom. Even before they reached the top of the stairs, they could see a body lying under the bed. Without looking any further, Churchill was sure it was the dead body of Abby Borden, and she hurried back down the stairs, filled with fear. As a local newspaper later reported the scene, Abby “had died evidently where she had been struck, for her life blood formed a ghastly clot on the carpet.”?7
Fall River police soon arrived at the home, and as the day went on, Lizzie answered a barrage of questions from the officers investigating the crime. Her friend Alice Russell was there for much of the time, and the two women presented very different images. Officer Philip Harrington wrote in his notes that Russell was “very pale, and much agitated, which she showed by short sharp breathing and wringing her hands.” Lizzie, on the other hand, “talked in the most calm and collected manner; her whole bearing was most remarkable under the circumstances.” At one point, Harrington offered to wait till the next day to question Lizzie further, when she might be less upset. Lizzie replied, “No, I can tell you all I know now just as well as any other time.” The exchange with Lizzie did not sit well with Harrington. As he wrote in his notes, “I don’t like that girl.”?8
By nightfall, Second Street was still crowded with local people seeking more information about the horrible crime. Newspapers in and around Fall River reported what little was known at the time, including rumors that a Portuguese man who worked on a farm Andrew Borden owned was a suspect. The Boston Advertiser played up the gory nature of the murders, reporting that the Bordens’ heads were “chopped to pieces by repeated and fiendish blows with an axe.” The paper wrote that some twelve hours after the bodies were first discovered, “the police and the people are in just as utter ignorance as they were when it was first noised abroad this noon.”?9
Within a few days, however, the police had a suspect in the grisly murders: Lizzie Borden. Her parents’ murders and then her trial captivated the country. Some people couldn’t imagine that a young woman from a wealthy and respectable family could commit such a crime. Others, though, saw Lizzie as cool and calculating—and able to kill in cold blood. Here is her story.
THE FAMOUS RHYME
More than 120 years after the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden, the most some people know about the case comes from a simple 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.
The little poem has been called a nursery rhyme and a jump-rope song, and it seems children began reciting it not long after the crime. The rhyme, though, is not historically accurate, as the killer used only twenty-nine blows of the murder weapon, not the eighty-one mentioned. The rhyme has had several variations, as explained by Olive Woolley Burt in her 1958 book, American Murder Ballads. In one version, after Lizzie delivered the first forty whacks, she “stood behind the door, and gave her father forty more.” Another version goes:
Michael Burgan has written numerous books for children and young adults. Many of his books have focused on US history, geography, and the lives of world leaders. He has also written fiction and adapted classic novels. Michael has won several awards for his writing, and his graphic novel version of the classic tale Frankenstein (Stone Arch Books) was a Junior Library Guild selection. Michael graduated from the University of Connecticut with a bachelor’s degree in history. When not writing for kids, he enjoys writing plays, and his works have been staged across the United States. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his cat, Callie.