Lizzie Andrew Borden (July 19, 1860 – June 1, 1927) was a New England spinster who was the central figure in the hatchet murders of her father and stepmother on August 4, 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts in the United States. The murders, subsequent trial, and following trial by media became a cause célèbre. The fame of the incident has endured in American pop culture and criminology. Although Lizzie Borden was acquitted, no one else was ever arrested or tried, and she has remained notorious in American folklore. Dispute over the identity of the killer or killers continues to this day.
During the morning of August 4, 1892, Borden's father, Andrew Jackson Borden, and her stepmother, Abby Durfee Borden, were murdered in the family home. The only other people present at the residence at the time were Lizzie and the family maid, Bridget Sullivan. Emma Borden, Lizzie's sister, was away from home. The Borden sisters' uncle, John Vinnicum Morse, brother of Andrew Borden's first wife, was visiting at the time, but was also away from the house during the time of the murders.
That day, Andrew Borden had gone into town to do his usual rounds at the bank and post office. He returned home at about 10:45 a.m. About a half-hour later, Lizzie Borden found his body. According to Sullivan's testimony, she was lying down in her room on the third floor of the house shortly after 11:00 a.m. when she heard Lizzie call to her, saying someone had killed her father, whose body was found slumped on a couch in the downstairs sitting room. Andrew Borden's face was turned to the right hand side, apparently at ease as if he were asleep.
Shortly thereafter, while Lizzie Borden was being tended by neighbors and the family doctor, Sullivan discovered the body of Mrs. Borden upstairs in the guest bedroom. Mr. and Mrs. Borden had both been killed by blows from a hatchet, which in the case of Andrew Borden, not only crushed his skull but cleanly split his left eyeball.
Over a period of years after the death of the first Mrs. Borden, life at 92 Second Street had grown unpleasant in many ways, and affection between the older and younger family members had waned considerably if any was present at all. The upstairs floor of the house was divided. The front was the territory of the Borden sisters, while the rear was for Mr. and Mrs. Borden. Meals were not always eaten together. Conflict had increased between the two daughters and their father about his decision to divide valuable property among relatives before his death. Relatives of their stepmother had been given a house, and John Morse, brother to the deceased Sarah Borden (the mother of the Borden daughters), had come to visit that week. His visit was to facilitate transfer of farm property, which included what had been a summer home for the Borden daughters. Shortly before the murders, a major argument had occurred which resulted in both sisters leaving home on extended "vacations." Lizzie Borden, however, decided to end her trip and returned early.
She was refused the purchase of prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) by local druggist Eli Bence, which she claimed was for cleaning a seal skin coat.
Shortly before the murders, the entire household became violently ill. As Mr. Borden was not a popular man in town, Mrs. Borden feared they were being poisoned, but the family doctor diagnosed it as bad food.
Lizzie Borden was arrested on August 11, 1892, with her trial beginning ten months later in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Her stories proved to be inconsistent, and her behavior suspect. She was tried for the murders, defended by former Massachusetts Governor George D. Robinson and Andrew V. Jennings. One of the prosecutors in the trial was William H. Moody, future United States Attorney General and Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
1893 trial juryDuring the police investigation, a hatchet was found in the basement and was assumed to be the murder weapon. Though it was clean, most of its handle was missing and the prosecution stated that it had been broken off because it was covered with blood. However, police officer Michael Mullaly stated that he found it next to a hatchet handle. Deputy Marshall John Fleet contradicted this testimony. Later a forensics expert said there was no time for the hatchet to be cleaned after the murder. The prosecution was hampered by the fact that the Fall River police did not put credence in the new forensic technology of fingerprinting, and refused to take prints on the hatchet.
No blood-soaked clothing was found as evidence by police. A few days after the murder, Borden tore apart and burned a blue dress in the kitchen stove, claiming she had brushed against fresh baseboard paint which had smeared on it.
Despite incriminating circumstances, Lizzie Borden was acquitted on June 20, 1893 by a jury after an hour and a half's deliberation. The fact that no murder weapon was found and no blood evidence was noted just a few minutes after the second murder pointed to reasonable doubt. Her entire original inquest testimony was barred from the trial. Also excluded was testimony regarding her attempt to purchase prussic acid. Adding to the doubt was another axe murder in the area, perpetrated by José Correira, which took place shortly before the trial. While many details were similar, Correira was not in the country when the Borden murder took place.
After the trial Borden and her sister moved to a new house called Maplecroft. In June 1905, the two argued over a party Lizzie gave for Nance O'Neil and a group of actors. Shortly after that, Emma moved out of the house, and Lizzie Borden began using the name "Lizbeth A. Borden."
Lizzie Borden died of pneumonia on June 1, 1927 in Fall River, Massachusetts. The funeral details were not made public and few people attended her burial. Borden was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery under the name "Lizbeth Andrew Borden", her footstone reading "Lizbeth". Her will, probated on June 25, 1927, left $30,000 to the Fall River Animal Rescue League. She also left $500 in perpetual trust for the care of her father's grave. Nine days later, her estranged sister, Emma Lenora Borden, died from a fall in Newmarket, New Hampshire, on June 10, 1927.
The house on Second Street where the murders occurred is now a bed and breakfast. Maplecroft, the mansion Borden bought after her acquittal, on then-fashionable French Street in the "highlands" is privately owned, and only occasionally available for touring.
Several theories have been presented over the years suggesting Lizzie Borden may not have committed the murders, and that other suspects may have had possible motives. One theory is that the maid, Bridget Sullivan, did it; possibly out of outrage for being asked to clean the windows, a taxing job on a hot day, just a day after having suffered from food poisoning. Another potential culprit was forwarded by Arnold R. Brown in his work, Lizzie Borden: The Legend, The Truth, The Final Chapter, in which Brown theorizes that the true culprit was an illegitimate paternal half-brother named William Borden, as a revenge killing in his failed efforts to extort money from his father.
Yet another theory is that Borden suffered petit mal epileptic seizures during her menstrual cycle, at which times she entered a dream-like state, and unknowingly committed the murders.
The book Lizzie by Evan Hunter posed the theory that Lizzie Borden had an affair with the actress Nance O'Neil, whom she met in Boston in 1904. In the early 20th century, it was still considered socially unacceptable for women to become actresses. O'Neil was a spendthrift, always in financial trouble, and Borden came from a wealthy background. The two got along, despite Borden's notoriety.
While there has never been any significant evidence that the two were intimate, the friendship was cited as the cause of Borden's final separation from her sister, Emma. O'Neil was later a character in the musical about Lizzie Borden, entitled Lizzie Borden: A Musical Tragedy in Two Axe, where she was played by Suellen Vance. Feminist Carolyn Gage refers to O'Neil as an overt lesbian, and although there are few documented details of any affairs, Gage claimed that her sexual orientation was well known in entertainment circles, despite her marriage.
The trial received a tremendous amount of national publicity. It has been compared to the later trials of Bruno Hauptmann, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and O.J. Simpson as a landmark in media coverage of legal proceedings.
The case was memorialized in a popular jump-rope 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 anonymous rhyme was made up by a writer as an alluring little tune to sell newspapers even though in reality her stepmother suffered 18 or 19 blows, her father 11. Though acquitted for the crimes, Lizzie Borden was ostracized by neighbors following the trial. Lizzie Borden's name was again brought to the public forefront when she was accused of shoplifting in 1897.
Borden was distantly related to the American milk processor Gail Borden (1801–1874) and Robert Borden (1854–1937), Canada's Prime Minister during World War I.
Elizabeth Montgomery and Lizzie Borden were sixth cousins once removed, both descending from 17th-century Massachusetts resident John Luther. Rhonda McClure, the genealogist who documented the Montgomery-Borden connection, said, "I wonder how Elizabeth would have felt if she knew she was playing her own cousin."
Borden and culture
Morton Gould wrote a ballet on the subject of Lizzie Borden, Fall River Legend, which premiered in a production by Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on April 22, 1948 with Alicia Alonso in the lead role. He later abridged the music into a suite which is the more commonly performed version. Choreography by Agnes de Mille.
Nashville Ballet premiered Lizzie in October 2006 with choreography by Paul Vasterling, set to Fall River Legend. His interpretation investigates allegations of sexual abuse as the motive for the murder.
Rick Geary used the device of a fictional journal written by a Fall River contemporary of Lizzie as the basis of his comic book The Borden Tragedy: A Memoir of the Infamous Double Murder at Fall River, Massachusetts, 1892. NY: NBN Pub., 1997. It was an entry in his series A Treasury of Victorian Murder.
The regularly published newsletter: The Lizzie Borden Quarterly featured a comic strip titled Princess Maplecroft.
Borden was the topic of The Chad Mitchell Trio's aptly named "Lizzie Borden/You Can't Chop Your Poppa Up in Massachusetts." It was written by Michael Brown for New Faces of 1952.
She was the subject of the operas Lizzie Borden (1965) by Jack Beeson and Lizbeth by Thomas Albert.
She was the subject of the cockney knees-up style song "Oh, Mother Borden" by late 80s UK musical satirists The Dubious Brothers.
The song "She Took An Axe" by the thrash metal band Flotsam and Jetsam tells Borden's story, portraying her as a demon-inspired woman, treating the subject with humour.
American glam metal band Lizzy Borden is named after her.
Melora Creager, of Rasputina, wrote her first song at the age of six, which was called "Ballad of Lizzie Borden"
Angela Carter wrote two short stories about Borden, one entitled Lizzie's Tiger is about a trip to the circus as a young girl, the other, The Fall River Axe Murders, focuses on the events leading up to the murders.
Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain) wrote a fictional account of the murder in his book Lizzie.
Elizabeth Engstrom wrote a novel titled Lizzie Borden, published by Tor Books in 1981. Most of the known facts of Borden's life are integrated into the fictional tale.
In Maxine O'Callaghan's short story, "An Insignificant Crime", a shopkeeper and his son-in-law debate whether or not to stop the young lady who comes to the store and steals small items, because her father is so influential. They decide not to stop her shoplifting that day. In the final lines it is revealed that the shoplifter's name is Miss Borden, and that the small item she chose to steal on this day was an axe.
The radio anthology series Suspense aired adaptations of the Borden story twice, once as "The Fall River Tragedy" on January 14, 1952, and once as "Goodbye, Miss Lizzie Borden" on October 4, 1955. Other radio adaptations include "Crime Classics: The Bloody Bloody Banks Of Fall River" from 1953, CBS radio's "Second Look At Murder", and "Unsolved Mysteries: Lizzie Borden".
An episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents entitled "The Older Sister" retold the Borden story, in which Emma had murdered her parents due to a mental illness she suffered, while Lizzie covered for her.
Armstrong Circle Theatre, Season 12, Episode 1, "Legend of Murder – The Untold Story of Lizzie Borden" (first aired October 11, 1961), was a dramatization of Edward D. Radin's book Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story (Simon and Schuster, 1961), which put forth the theory that Bridget Sullivan was the actual murderess. Lizzie was played by Clarice Blackburn, Bridget by Mary Doyle.
Elizabeth Montgomery depicted Borden in William Bast's two hour television movie, The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975). In the movie, Lizzie Borden performs the murders after stripping naked (thus explaining the lack of bloodstained clothing).
The Sci-Fi Channel Ghost Hunters "TAPS" team investigated the Lizzie Borden house for paranormal activity in episode 12 of season 2.
On January 23, 2007, the Crime & Investigation Network aired a documentary on the Lizzie Borden story.
In 2004, the Discovery Channel aired an investigative documentary called Lizzie Borden Had an Axe. In the episode, a pair of detectives used modern forensics to exonerate Sullivan and prove Lizzie could have been the killer.
In 2008, The History Channel's series MonsterQuest visited the Borden home looking for ghosts.
The Travel Channel's show Scariest Places on Earth featured the Borden home as the #1 most scary place on earth.
The Lizzie Borden Minis is a series of short documentaries produced by Garden Bay Films and filmed at 92 Second Street where the Borden murders occurred in 1892.
The anthology of short plays, "Sepia and Song", contained a play called "A Memory of Lizzie," with scenes from Lizzie Borden's childhood interpersed with quotes from her trial.
Blood Relations by Sharon Pollock premiered at Theatre Tree, Edmonton Canada in 1980. The play is set in 1902, with its "dream thesis" set in 1892, at Fall River, Massachusetts. It explores the events leading up to the trial.
The Testimony of Lizzie Borden by Eric Stedman, a docudrama staged in an accurate reproduction of the Borden sitting room which re-created much of Lizzie's actual inquest testimony, premiered at Theatre on the Towpath in New Hope, Pa. in 1994 and was presented in Fall River in 1995.
Lizzie Borden's Tempest by Brendan Byrnes played the New York International Fringe Festival in 1998. As Lizzie reads the role of Miranda in The Tempest with her local theatre club, Shakespeare's storm resurrects and reunites the Borden Family. The play's central idea is based on an actual program displayed at the Fall River Historical Society that lists a "Miss Borden" playing the role of Miranda in The Tempest.
Lizzie Borden, a rock musical adaptation of Lizzie's story created by Tim Maner, Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, and Alan Stevens Hewitt, will be produced by Took An Axe Productions in New York, NY, Sept 10-Oct 17, 2009, at The Living Theatre. This version assumes Lizzie's guilt and explores the events leading up to the murders and the trial.
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