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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

The Lizzie Borden House

On August 4, 1892, a horrific crime of seismic proportions sent shockwaves through the headlines. An elderly New England couple bludgeoned to death in their own home, a covert killer at large, a nation captivated by the unfolding investigation. At the center of it all was the victims’ 32-year-old daughter—implicated by presupposition and suspicious circumstance—whose inquest testimony and subsequent criminal trial transpired into one of the most prolific unsolved murders in American history.


Lizzie Borden was born on July 19, 1860, in Fall River, Massachusetts—a bustling textile town located along the Quequechan River. She was the youngest of three children to Sarah and Andrew Borden. The couple’s first child, Emma, was born in 1851, while their middle daughter, Alice Esther (b. 1857), passed away from hydrocephaly at the age of two. On March 26, 1863, Lizzie’s mother died of “uterine congestion,” now believed to be complications from an ectopic pregnancy. In the immediate months after Sarah’s death, Emma assumed the maternal role, raising young Lizzie and helping Andrew with household responsibilities.



On June 6, 1865, Andrew Borden married 37-year-old Abby Durfee Gray—a spinster laywoman whose family owned several profitable businesses around town, though she possessed little affluence herself. The new family dynamic was anything but cordial. The Borden sisters rejected Abby as their stepmother and mockingly addressed her as “Mrs. Borden” to articulate their repudiation. Deep-seated resentment festered within Emma and Lizzie, convinced that Abby was after their father’s assets, and moreover, their inheritance.


The son of a Yeomen farmer, Andrew experienced a modest upbringing. He began his career as a lowly carpenter’s apprentice, nearly impoverished, but eventually prospered in casket sales and furniture manufacturing. By the late 1800s, Borden managed numerous commercial properties, directed several textile mills, and served as President of the Union Savings Bank. Andrew’s net worth in 1890 was approximately $300,000, roughly $11.5 million today. Yet despite his wealth, Andrew maintained a parsimonious reputation. Instead of living amongst the Fall River elites on “The Hill”—the city’s most fashionable neighborhood—Andrew established his family home at 92 Second Street, mere steps away from working-class tenements and industrial commotion. The Borden residence also lacked electricity and indoor plumbing, contemporary contrivances for upper-class families.


Lizzie sought the affluent lifestyle of Fall River’s upper echelon; however, Andrew’s frugality restricted her participation in such “frivolous pursuits.” Notwithstanding these limitations, Lizzie remained active in the Fall River social scene. She was involved in the Christian Endeavor Society—teaching Sunday School to immigrant children at the Central Congregational Church—and deeply invested in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a progressive feminist group that advocated for women’s suffrage and social reform.


While outwardly philanthropic, Lizzie’s self-indulgent desires became increasingly hard to repress. She was implicated in several shoplifting events around town; however, these infractions were never publicly disclosed and Andrew allegedly compensated store owners for their missing merchandise. In June 1891, the Borden house was robbed at midday. One hundred dollars and some of Abby’s jewelry were missing, but nothing else outside the master bedroom was disturbed. Andrew filed a police report, only to abruptly call off the investigation three weeks later. Rumors swirled that Lizzie was the culprit, and much like the shoplifting incidents, any discipline was levied internally.



In 1887, tensions between the Bordens intensified after Andrew allocated Abby's sister, Mrs. Bertha Whitehead, $1,500 to retain title of their family home. Emma and Lizzie were infuriated by their father's partisan generosity (which was not immediately disclosed to them) and demanded rectification. Andrew abashedly agreed to deed his daughters a house on Ferry Street for one dollar. During the summer of 1892, the sisters sold the property back to Andrew for five thousand dollars. They subsequently vacationed in New Bedford, Massachusetts—Lizzie returned home in late July while Emma visited some friends in neighboring Fairhaven.


On the morning of August 3, the entire Borden household was blighted by a severe gastrointestinal illness. Andrew and Abby spent the twilight hours furiously vomiting while Lizzie only complained of minor symptoms. Much to the chagrin of Andrew’s penny-pinching tendencies, Abby consulted their neighbor and family physician, Dr. Seabury Bowen, about the abrupt ailments. Abby expressed concern about intentional poisoning, but Dr. Bowen, exercising logical skepticism, reassured her that the true culprit was a food-borne illness, most likely caused by old mutton stew or improperly stored swordfish.


As the Bordens recuperated that evening, John Vinnicum Morse, Lizzie and Emma’s maternal uncle, made an unannounced visit to the residence. He joined the family for dinner (as much as they could stomach) and settled into his overnight accommodation on the second floor. While Andrew and Abby entertained John, Lizzie met with Alice Russell—a close friend and distinguished member of the Congressional Church—to discuss recent events. Lizzie detailed the suspected poisoning and forebodingly speculated that “someone will do something” to harm her family.


AUGUST 4, 1892


It was another mundane summer’s morning at 92 Second Street. The Bordens’ live-in maid, 25-year-old Bridget Sullivan—whom Lizzie and Emma called “Maggie,” a disparaging term for female Irish immigrants—served breakfast to Andrew, Abby, and John around 7 am. Lizzie remained in her bedroom upstairs—her absence from family meals was commonplace given the tense household atmosphere. After mealtime, Andrew and John retired to the sitting room, where they discussed property dealings for nearly an hour, while Abby assisted Bridget with housekeeping duties. John left the premises at 8:45 am; Andrew followed suit sometime after 9 am for his morning walk.


After cleaning the kitchen, Abby directed Bridget to wash the home’s windows inside and out. The poor maid barely tended to the ground floor panels before she was overcome by nausea and rushed outside to vomit—induced, perhaps, by a combination of the oppressive August heat and previous day’s intestinal distress. At 9:30, Abby proceeded to tidy up the second-floor guestroom where John had slept the night before. Sometime during the next hour, Abby Borden was bludgeoned to death. According to the subsequent forensic investigation, Abby was facing her killer at the time of the attack. She was initially struck with a sharp instrument in the left temporal region, causing her to turn and fall face-first onto the floor. The killer then delivered eighteen additional blows to the back of her head.


Bridget reentered the Borden home around 10:20 am, already fatigued and weakened by the day’s arduous chores. Andrew returned ten minutes later, but found himself locked out. He knocked. Bridget hastened to the front door and struggled to open it herself. A mischievous giggle bellowed from the second floor. Believing it to be Lizzie’s condescending utterance, Bridget did not turn to see who it was. When Andrew finally entered the house, he laid down on the couch. Lizzie greeted her father a few minutes later. Andrew asked where Abby had gone. His daughter replied, “Mrs. Borden received a note from a sick friend and left the house sometime ago.” Content with Lizzie’s answer, Andrew settled down for a midmorning nap. Bridget, still feeling unwell, decided to do the same in the third-floor servant’s quarters. Just before 11:10 am, Bridget awoke to Lizzie’s distressing call; “Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Someone came in and killed him.”



Lizzie directed Bridget to fetch Dr. Bowen from across the street. The maid ran over, but could not locate the doctor. Lizzie sent her away again, this time to find Alice Russell. The Bordens’ watchful neighbor, Adelaide Churchill, witnessed Bridget’s distraught manner as she hurriedly exited the home. A concerned Mrs. Churchill ran into the home and found Lizzie standing expressionlessly next to Andrew’s mutilated corpse slumped over on the couch.


Dr. Bowen arrived five minutes later. He examined the bloody pulp that once composed Mr. Borden’s face. His nose had been completely severed and one of his eyes split directly in half; his facial profile, a concavity—the result of ten or eleven violent blows. The lack of defensive wounds indicated that the victim was asleep when attacked. Andrew’s blood continued to ooze from every cephalic orifice during Dr. Bowen’s inspection, placing time of death around 11 am.


While the immediate turmoil revolved around Andrew, witnesses soon realized that Abby was unaccounted for. When asked of her stepmother’s whereabouts, Lizzie relayed the same story—that Abby left to see a sick friend—but remarked “she may have returned a while back.” An uneasy ambience hung over the household as bystanders attempted to locate the missing woman. Mrs. Churchill and Bridget ascended the front staircase to check the second floor. About halfway up the flight, the women turned to the left—their eyes level with the floorboards—and spotted Abby’s lifeless body opposite the guestroom bed. Dr. Bowen inspected Mrs. Borden’s corpse amidst the renewed commotion. Her blood was already congealed, suggesting that she had been killed 60 – 90 minutes before her husband.


THE INVESTIGATION


Police were initially notified around 11:15 am, but their response time was delayed, as many authorities were attending a precinct barbecue in Rocky Point, Rhode Island. Pandemonium greeted the first junior officers on scene. Curious onlookers had infiltrated the Borden residence, contaminating evidence and disrupting the delicate state of affairs. Law enforcement officials eventually managed to secure the crime scene by midafternoon.


Investigators were perplexed by the lack of obvious motive—no valuables were missing from the deceased, which ruled out a “robbery gone wrong.” Preliminary criminal profiles suggested that a “foreigner” had committed this heinous atrocity—ironic, considering many Fall River policemen were Irish immigrants themselves. Several suspicious characters were apprehended around town, the majority of whom were Portuguese, which accentuated local ethnic tensions; however, no official arrests were made.


At 3 pm, Deputy Marshal John Fleet interrogated Lizzie, who confabulated strange, and at times contradictory, answers to police questioning. She originally reported hearing a “groan” from inside the home around 9:30 that morning, but later recanted, stating she heard nothing. When asked about Abby’s note, Lizzie recalled her stepmother burning the message, but was unable to identify the mail courier nor the obscure sick friend. Fleet pressed for an alibi. Lizzie maintained that she retreated to the barn following her conversation with Andrew; however, her rationale kept changing. At first, Lizzie was fashioning sinkers from scrap iron, then she was eating a pear in the hayloft—a claim investigators deemed quite implausible, considering the barn’s sweltering and stagnant heat. Policemen could hardly stand the oppressive environment for fifteen minutes, let alone thirty, and there were no obvious signs of recent occupation.


While investigating the premises, detectives were confronted with a peculiar household layout. The home had originally been constructed as a duplex, but never remodeled following the Bordens’ sole occupancy. The structure was devoid of hallways—only doors connected adjacent rooms. The Borden sisters’ bedrooms and second-floor guestroom could only be entered through the front stairwell, while the parents’ chambers and servant’s quarters were accessible via the backstairs. If Abby was killed around 9:30, the murderer would have spent nearly two hours hiding inside the house awaiting Andrew’s return, at risk of being spotted by Lizzie or Bridget.


When police searched the basement, they discovered two hatchets, two axes, and a hatchet head with a freshly-splintered handle. They also found a bucket of blood-soaked rags. Bridget, who spent considerable time laboring in the cellar, claimed she had never seen the soiled garments before. Investigators questioned Lizzie, but Dr. Bowen answered for her. He informed them of the bucket’s purpose—a cleansing bath for menstrual towels—and sternly recommended the matter “need not be further investigated.”



The Bordens’ dining room functioned as a makeshift morgue during the immediate murder investigation—medical examiners performed Andrew and Abby’s autopsies throughout the afternoon. Because of the family’s recent illness and Abby’s fear of poisoning, the victims’ stomach contents were examined for toxic substances; none were found. Despite the postmortem findings, police interviewed local drug stores for possible leads. Eli Bence, a pharmacist at D. R. Smith’s drug store, recalled a woman inquiring about prussic acid (i.e. hydrogen cyanide) the day prior to “put on the edge of seal skin coat.” Bence denied the sale since the patron lacked a prescription, and the woman left amicably. That customer, Bence later claimed, was Lizzie Borden.


Despite Lizzie's inconsistencies and questionable demeanor, law enforcement officers only performed a cursory inspection of her room, as it was considered improper to rummage through a woman's belongings without sufficient cause. The Fall River Police Department was subsequently criticized for its lack of diligence.


The Fall River community was rocked by the butchery of Andrew and Abby Borden—an audacious crime perpetrated by an unknown assailant. The public feared that a deranged killer was on the loose—invading the homes of affluent families and slaying their occupants—but intuitive crime scene investigators considered a different theory, one more disturbing in scope: Lizzie Borden murdered her parents.


On August 9, judiciary officials organized a formal inquest hearing to consider the homicidal events at 92 Second Street. For Massachusetts District Attorney Hosea Knowlton, the state’s lead prosecutor, the proceedings were necessary to establish clarity in a convoluted case, through witness testimony and expert analysis. Upon receiving her summons, Lizzie asked for her lawyer, Andrew J. Jennings, to be present; however, the presiding Judge Josiah Blaisdell denied her request, citing the inquest’s private nature.


Without proper legal counsel, Lizzie’s inquest testimony degenerated into a badgering web of self-incrimination. She became increasingly flustered as her interrogation progressed, at one point exclaiming, “I don’t know what I have said. I have answered so many questions and I am so confused. I don’t know one thing from another.” Dr. Bowen came to Lizzie’s defense, providing a medical explanation for her erratic behavior and spotty memory. Shortly after the gruesome double homicide, he had prescribed Lizzie morphine for sedative purposes, which could cause “mental distress and nervous excitement.” However, Dr. Bowen never saw Lizzie consume the medication—an admission that brought her cognitive state under further scrutiny.


Investigators were convinced that Lizzie had much to gain from her parents’ untimely demise—a substantial inheritance and social autonomy—and many police officers testified to Lizzie’s unusually poised conduct and “lack of emotion” during their initial crime scene interviews. Additional character witnesses corroborated Lizzie’s bitter relationship with her stepmother, although these impressions originated in hearsay rather than first-hand accounts.


On August 11, Lizzie was arrested and charged with the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden. She pled “not guilty” and was transferred to the Bristol County Jail in Taunton, Massachusetts. A preliminary hearing was held August 25 – September 1, with Judge Blaisdell overseeing the arraignment. Lizzie’s defense team immediately called for Blaisdell to recuse himself since the inquest was prejudicial against their client. Unfortunately, Judge Blaisdell denied their motion and ultimately found cause for Lizzie’s murder trial to proceed.


On November 7, 1892, District Attorney Knowlton presented the case before a grand jury made up twenty-one white males. Only a simple majority was required for an indictment. For nearly four weeks, jurors listened to testimony regurgitated from the inquest hearing; however, on December 1, a previously undisclosed revelation shocked the court. Alice Russell—who stayed with the Borden sisters during the homicide investigation—issued a sworn statement claiming she witnessed Lizzie "burn a dark blue dress [allegedly] stained with brown paint” in the kitchen stove three days after the killings. Alice’s recollection was damning. On December 2, the grand jury voted 20-1 to indict Lizzie on all charges.



While the prosecution secured a formal indictment, Knowlton recognized the legal and sociocultural hurdles his team faced in court. First, crime scene investigators possessed no hard evidence connecting Lizzie to the crime. Only a mountain of circumstantial testimony implicated her involvement. Second, Lizzie's arrest provoked a divisive groundswell of national proportions, stressing the incongruities of class, ethnicity, and gender. Fall River elites rushed to defend Lizzie's innocence. Women’s groups, such as the WCTU and suffragettes, organized protests admonishing the hypocrisy behind her indictment—Lizzie was supposed to tried by a jury of her peers, yet women were barred from serving on juries. While social groups drew on activism, affluent newspapers stood behind Lizzie’s femininity. They portrayed her as a respectable woman, incapable of committing parricide due to her genteel nature and delicate sensibilities—proper social conformities for upper-class Victorian females. Conversely, proletariat publications challenged the privileges Fall River's high society enjoyed. Rumors speculated that residents on The Hill were conspiring to assure Lizzie's acquittal, through monetary assistance and sociopolitical influence. The proclivity of Lizzie's assumed guilt or innocence became a flashpoint for class combativeness.


THE TRIAL


The Trial of Lizzie Borden began on June 5, 1893, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Prosecuting attorneys were Hosea Knowlton and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice William H. Moody. Lizzie's defense team consisted of Andrew Jennings, Melvin O. Adams, and former Massachusetts Governor George Dexter Robinson. A three-judge panel presided over the proceedings: Chief Justice Albert Mason, Justice Caleb Blodgett, and Justice Justin Dewey—the most controversial figure of the group. Dewey, who had been appointed to the State Supreme Court by former governor Robinson, maintained an obvious conflict of interest that Lizzie’s critics found hard to ignore.


During the presentation of prosecutorial evidence, Lizzie’s defense filed a stipulation challenging the admissibility and legality of her inquest testimony—it was discovered that the City Marshal Office had drafted Lizzie’s arrest warrant prior to the inquest proceedings. Given the document’s prejudicial nature, Robinson argued that Lizzie was essentially in police custody at the time of her statements. And since she was denied legal representation, her constitutional right to due process had been violated, thus rendering her deposition involuntary. The bench agreed and ruled Lizzie’s inquest inadmissible.


Defense attorneys subsequently impugned the relevancy of Lizzie’s alleged attempt to purchase prussic acid. While Robinson acknowledged the insidious properties of hydrogen cyanide, he argued that the chemical could still be used for innocent purposes. He dissected Bence’s testimony and his inability to definitively identify Lizzie as the purported patron. Even if Lizzie did acquire the poison, he argued, no evidence was found during the victims’ autopsies. The prosecution strongly maintained that the attempted acquisition of such a toxic substance was evidence of premeditation. Again, the judges sided with the defense, ruling that Bence’s allegation was “too remote to have any connection.”


In the absence of key inquest testimony, the crux of Knowlton’s argument centered around Lizzie’s dress. While Lizzie had supposedly supplied police with the garment she wore the morning of August 4, Alice Russell’s grand jury revelation contradicted such benefactive action. But Emma Borden came to her sister’s defense. She eloquently explained the situation—that Lizzie had walked through brown paint earlier that summer—and implicated herself as the one who persuaded Lizzie to burn the dress. Emma claimed they only performed the act to preoccupy themselves during a time of crisis. Alice’s version of events was simply a “misunderstanding.”


Lizzie’s inconsistent alibis were another point of dispute during the trial. While her father was mercilessly hacked to death, Lizzie alleged she was in the barn for nearly half an hour; but criminal investigators refuted the defendant’s claim, citing the dwelling’s unbearable heat and undisturbed appearance. However, the defense managed to locate several witnesses who testified that they snuck into the barn and observed the crime scene prior to police arrival. One bystander, a local ice cream man named Hyman Lubinsky, swore that he saw Lizzie exit the barn at 11:03 am. Knowlton questioned the accuracy of Lubinsky’s recollection—considering the only field of vision was a one-foot gap in the fence line—but the eyewitness maintained his firm resolve.



With their criminal case floundering, prosecutors called upon members of the Fall River Police to reestablish credibility. Unfortunately, many individuals, including some jurors, held nativistic tendencies against Irishmen. Lizzie’s defense played into this prejudice, insinuating that Irish police exercised favoritism with Bridget—the Borden’s Irish maid whose alibi was almost as unbelievable as Lizzie’s. Bridget was present the entire time the murders took place, yet apparently oblivious to any commotion that resonated within the residence. Police never interviewed Bridget—an investigative oversight that sparked criticism concerning the department’s dereliction of duty. The very fact that Irish cops were accusing an affluent, sophisticated woman of double homicide was not only insulting, but proof of their ineptitude.


Lizzie's counsel further scrutinized crime scene forensics, arguing that whoever inflicted such carnage would have surely been covered in blood. Additionally, a woman of Lizzie's character lacked the moral degeneracy, let alone the physical strength, to assail with such force. The prosecution's expert witness, Dr. David Cheever, disagreed with the defense. He explained that if the victims were killed with the first whack, systemic circulation would immediately cease, yielding little blood splatter from subsequent blows, which could explain why no trace blood was found on Lizzie.


When Dr. William Dolan—the Bristol County medical examiner—took the stand, Knowlton submitted Andrew and Abby Borden’s fractured skulls as evidentiary exhibits for the prosecution. The gut-wrenching courtroom theatrics proved too much for poor Lizzie, who fainted at the sight of her father’s emaciated remains. She was escorted out of the courthouse while Dr. Dolan demonstrated how the broken hatchet head fit perfectly into the cranial concavities. Lizzie’s emotional reaction overshadowed the medical experts’ testimony and reinforced her sympathy as a distraught daughter, not a heartless killer.


During closing arguments, the prosecution reiterated Lizzie’s obvious motive—insatiable selfishness and greed that transformed into bloodlust—unsubstantiated alibis, and destruction of potential evidence. While nothing was concrete, the mountain of circumstantial evidence presented a disturbing and undeniable conclusion—Lizzie Borden was the killer. The defense responded by censuring the state’s baseless criminal case and emphasizing their failure to prove wrongdoing beyond a reasonable doubt. On June 20, 1893, after scarcely ninety minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with their verdict: not guilty.


The New York Times editorialized, “It will be a certain relief to every right-minded man or woman who has followed the case to learn that the jury in New Bedford has not only acquitted Miss Lizzie Borden of the atrocious crime with which she was charged, but has done so with a promptness that was very significant.” The Times continued by castigating the “vanity of ignorant and untrained men” in the Fall River Police Department—“the usual inept and stupid and muddle-headed sort that such [smaller] towns manage to get for themselves.”



Though triumphant in the legal system, Lizzie became a social pariah in the court of public opinion, where the burden of proof is nonexistent and circumstances speak volumes. She was ostracized by former defenders—suffragettes, Christians, and societal elites alike—wary of her probable guilt. Shortly after her acquittal, Lizzie unofficially changed her name to Lizbeth—perhaps to distance herself from the trial’s consequential sensationalism—but her scandalous reputation was unshakable.


Because Abby died before Andrew, her net worth was absorbed by the Borden estate, which was subsequently passed to Lizzie and Emma. In September 1893, the sisters purchased their long-desired house on The Hill, dubbed ‘Maplecroft.’ The scorn of Fall River, Lizzie endured a secluded lifestyle, but found bohemian acceptance in the company of thespians. She developed a peculiar friendship with actress Nance O’Neill—some believe the relationship was romantic in nature—much to Emma’s disapproval. In 1905, the sisters became estranged. Emma moved to New Hampshire, leaving Lizzie isolated in her Maplecroft hermitage.


Lizzie Borden died of pneumonia on June 1, 1927, at the age of 66. Emma Borden succumbed to chronic nephritis nine days later. Both sisters were interred beside their slain father and stepmother at Oak Grove Cemetery. Funeral details were not published and very few mourned Lizzie’s passing.


The Borden murders remain one of the most controversial and divisive events in American legal history, with Lizzie's persona dominating contemporary pop culture narratives. The haunting legacy behind this infamous double-homicide persists at Fall River's own Lizzie Borden House—the former crime scene turned museum and bed-and-breakfast. The building hosts a variety of historic and paranormal experiences, but the most popular option is the Daytime House Tour—an engaging 90-minute excursion through the entire Borden estate—during which knowledgeable guides analyze circumstantial context and entertain various theories and perspectives explicating this convoluted crime. For those daring enough, book an overnight accommodation in one of the home’s six historic rooms supposedly inhabited by restless Borden family spirits, including Lizzie herself. When considering its conspicuous past and macabre appeal, the Lizzie Borden House is a must-visit destination for any true crime aficionado or paranormal thrill-seeker.



Visit The Lizzie Borden House for more history and tour information

Click the following links for Part 1 and Part 2 of the Official Stenographic Report from Lizzie Borden's trial

For those interested in the paranormal, check out The Fall River Herald News, LizzieAndrewBorden.com, HauntedHouses.com, and Fringe Paranormal

Listen to the following podcast episodes about Lizzie Borden: Lore, Crime Junkie, Serial Killing: A Podcast, Stuff You Should Know, Killer Psyche, and Lady Killers with Lucy Worsley

Read the following publications of the Lizzie Borden case:

  1. Carlson, A. Cheree. "The Lizzie Borden murder trial: womanhood as asset and liability (Fall River, 1892)." Historical Journal of Massachusetts 38, no. 2 (2010): 17.

  2. Conforti, Joseph A. Lizzie Borden on Trial: Murder, Ethnicity, and Gender. University Press of Kansas, 2016.

  3. Ford, Christian. "The history of Lizzie Borden: Burying the axe." (2019).

  4. Kent, David, and Robert A. Flynn, eds. The Lizzie Borden Sourcebook. Branden Books, 1992.

  5. Robertson, Cara W. "Representing Miss Lizzie: Cultural Convictions in the Trial of Lizzie Borden." Yale JL & Human. 8 (1996): 351.

  6. Schofield, Ann. "Lizzie Borden took an axe: history, feminism and American culture." American Studies 34, no. 1 (1993): 91-103.

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