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The Death Scene

The Death Scene

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Lizzie Borden: American Murder Mystery

On August 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, a woman discovered her father dead on the living room couch. It was a gruesome scene, clearly showing that someone had taken an axe or hatchet to the man. Among the massive injuries, one of his eyeballs was cut cleanly in half. The woman called out to the maid in another room to go upstairs and fetch her stepmother. The maid did as she was asked, going to the guest room where the lady of the house was to be changing bed linen. Instead, the maid found the woman’s body lying face down on the floor, chopped in the back of the head. Thus began the story of Lizzie Borden: American Murder Mystery, never really solved to this day. Everyone believes they know who did it, but do they?

Bedroom death scene

Bedroom death scene: Abby Durfee Grey Borden

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Two Murders in the House

The murdered couple were Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abby Durfee Gray. Others in the home that day were Andrew’s two daughters by his first wife, the eldest,  Emma Lenora Borden and her sister, Lizzie Andrew Borden. It was Lizzie who found her father’s body and then called out to the maid, Bridgit Sullivan, to go upstairs to get her stepmother. So was she the one who committed these terrible deeds?

Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden

A Visit From An Uncle

John Vinnicum Morse, the brother of the mother of Lizzie and Emma, spent the night before the discovery in the guest room. It was in this room where Abby Borden was found. Before he left to return home the day of the murders, he and Andrew breakfasted together. Speculation is that there was tense discussion between Morse and Borden over the girls’ inheritance rights. This stemmed from Andrew’s gifts of real estate to members of Abby’s family. Did John Morse get angry enough to kill Andrew Borden, and then persuade the girls to lie about the time of his departure? The guilt or innocence of only one person has been debated since that time; daughter Lizzie. Was Lizzie Borden guilty? Or did elder sister Emma commit the murders and coerce her sister into seeming to be guilty, knowing she’d never be convicted because of her youth? Or was there possibly someone else to blame? Let’s look at the facts of the case.

Tension Between Father and Daughters

Anger existed between the girls and their father because of Andrew’s gift of a house to their stepmother’s sister. Because of that, the daughters demanded and received a rental property from their father, purchased for the sum of $1. But they sold it back to their father for $5,000  a few weeks before the murders.

Current day front sitting room in the Fall River, Massachusetts house, courtesy of Stephanie Malone

Current day front sitting room in the Fall River, Massachusetts house, courtesy of Stephanie Malone

Andrew Borden Was A Miser

Andrew Jackson Borden was a known miser, pinching pennies to save everything he could. He came from a wealthy family, but struggled financially in his young years. He eventually found financial stability with the manufacture and sales of furniture and caskets. He also became a  property developer, and director of several textile mills. But even with his successes, his wealth mainly came from simply keeping it. He wasted nothing, he cut corners, made do, and generally was known as a miser and was not well thought of in Fall River.

His miserliness extended to refusing to provide items of comfort for his own family. The ground and first floor of the house in which they all lived had no indoor plumbing as a money saving measure. In his point of view, there was no need for things to be easy for his family. He employed only one maid, expecting his wife to help with the chores.

Whenever household repairs were needed, he never hired a handyman, but expected Lizzie and Emma to do them. Once he made a decision on an issue, he was uncompromising, refusing to change. The other Borden relatives, cousins, etc., lived in the newer, wealthier section of Fall River,. Andrew refused to do that, preferring to continue in the less affluent, cheaper section of town.


The back of the house in modern day Fall River, Massachusetts courtesy of Stephanie Malone

The back of the house in modern day Fall River, Massachusetts courtesy of
Stephanie Malone

Distant, Polite Conversations

Lizzie’s relationship with her stepmother was not exactly cordial; she was always addressed by Lizzie as “Mrs. Borden.” Polite, stiff words were the extent of their necessary conversations. Emma Borden’s contact with Abby was distant as well. The girls rarely ever took meals with their father and stepmother. Lizzie was convinced the woman was after the Borden money, and Andrew’s giving things to Abby’s family only reinforced that feeling. The daughters felt cheated and resentful; their rightful inheritance, was being slowly disseminated to their stepmother’s family.

Cruelty Toward Daughters

Andrew at times seemed bent on making his daughters miserable. He had a cruel streak in him as witnessed by others. Lizzie had built a roost for pigeons she kept and cherished. Shortly thereafter, in May 1892, he killed every pigeon with a hatchet. He said it was because the “neighbor children were hunting them,” and he didn’t want them on the property. Lizzie, who thought of them as pets, was highly upset at their deaths.

In July of the same year, she and Emma took “extended vacations” to New Bedford, returning to Fall River only a week before the murders. Emma returned to the home alone. Lizzie chose to stay four days in a rooming house prior to returning to the Borden home. It seems she was still hurt and angry over the pigeons.

Current living room in Fall River, Massachusetts house, courtesy of Stephanie Malone.

Current living room in Fall River, Massachusetts house, courtesy of Stephanie Malone.

Axe and Hatchets Found

In the basement of the house, police found two axes, two hatchets, and one hatchet with a broken handle. Were any of these used as murder weapons? The broken hatchet was particularly suspicious, since it had a broken handle that could have become broken while in violent use. Abby Durfee Gray Borden was chopped 19 times; Andrew Jackson Borden was determined to have received 10 or 11 chops to the head. Lizzie Borden was not a particularly strong young woman, but because she’d had to do house repairs, she did know how to wield an axe and hatchet. It took great anger and great strength to use a hatchet in the manner used to kill Andrew and Abby Borden. Could she have managed it?

Lizzie Under Suspicion

Lizzie, given doses of morphine to calm her nerves before questioning by police, did not answer the questions to the satisfaction of the law. They weren’t impressed with her and reported that they “disliked her attitude.” Her stories became mixed and confused and some police said she was “too calm and poised.” Lizzie was under suspicion because she was the person who discovered the body. But was she really the one who did the terrible deed? On the evening of August 6th, 1892 , the police informed Lizzie and Fall River’s Mayor, that she was a suspect in the murders. Later that night, she was seen burning a dress which she said had paint on it. But was it blood?

Possible Motives and Suspects Brought To Light

  • Where was Lizzie before she discovered her father’s body? She gave several conflicting stories.
  • Why was Lizzie given doses of morphine before the police questioned her?
  • Was Uncle John Morse really gone after breakfast the next day, or could he have doubled back and hid in the house until Andrew returned?
  • Was Emma Borden really 15 miles away in Fairhaven, at the time of her father’s murder, or did she only make it seem that way?
  • Why was Emma never seriously considered a suspect?
  • Why was there never any other person considered for the murders?
  • Was there incest between the daughters and their father as modern day stories would have us believe?
  • Was there an illicit relationship between Lizzie and Bridgit the maid, and they were caught by Abby (who police believe was killed first) and so she was killed?
  • Was Andrew killed for the same reason, because Abby had told him, and he was going to throw Lizzie out of the house?
  • Or was it Emma who was having the love affair with Bridgit, and the sisters made a vow between them to murder Andrew and Abby and keep quiet about the rest of the story?
  • Was the murder committed in a rage by the maid Bridgit Sullivan, because miserly Andrew would not pay her rightful wages?

What Happened At Trial and the Aftermath

Lizzie was arrested on August 11, 1892 and jailed. She was tried in a court of law for the murder of her father and step-mother, but was acquitted because there wasn’t enough evidence proving her guilt. Lizzie never married, and for the rest of her life she was shunned by the community. Rumors were rampant that she was a lesbian.

Stubbornly, she bought a home in the better section of Fall River and she and Emma continued living there until in 1905, when they had an argument over a dinner party Lizzie gave for actress Nance O’Neil, after which Emma moved out.

Emma died of nephritis on June 10, 1927 without ever seeing her sister again. An oddity related to the passing of both sisters is that Lizzie died eleven days later on June 21, 1927 of pneumonia.  No one else was ever charged with the murders of Andrew Borden and Abby Borden and the investigation was never pursued again.

Children began singing a morbid song shortly after the murders that goes like this:  “Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.” Most people know the refrain by heart.

The house in Fall River, Massachusetts is now a Bed and Breakfast Museum, with daily tours, 11am to 3pm, seven days a week, 363 days a year. The house is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum

Want to know more about an American Murder Mystery; the story of the Borden murders? Here are my picks for you to satisfy your urge to know more.