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Warning! This post contains really gross crime scene photos. Don't read it if you're going to go cry about it.
Never admit your fear of a 19th century axe murderer to people who know where you sleep. I share this advice with you because I wish someone had been kind enough to clue me in before it was too late. Last spring, my roommate Emily and I celebrated the course-selecting freedom of senior year by taking a course called “Trials of the Century.” It had nothing to do with anything either of us wanted to do, and it was awesome. We spent our Tuesday nights discussing Cold War spooks and culty kooks, colonial show-downs and assassin mow-downs, glove fittals and murder acquittals. It was a bowl full of clue-debatin’, OJ-hatin’ fun. The good times came to an end the night Lizzie Borden hatcheted her way into my life and my nightmares.
Sure, I sort of knew who Lizzie Borden was. We all have heard the inappropriately macabre jump rope rhyme: “Lizzie Borden had an axe. She gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.” That, however, was about the sum of my knowledge. How I wish I could return to those days.
I was sitting on my dorm room bed one night, doing my weekly course reading, when I first saw those big, crazy eyes. Just seeing Lizzie’s picture gave me the heebie jeebies, but I soldiered on. The more I read, the more freaked out I got. By the end of the readings, I was sitting up uncomfortably straight on my twin extra-long sheets and nervously glancing out my bedroom door to make sure my roommates hadn’t left me alone. Clearly, I needed some human interaction, but I saw no need to confess that I was kind of alarmingly alarmed by the threat of hatcheting.
I sauntered over to Emily’s room and broached the subject with elaborate nonchalance. “Do your Trials of the Century reading yet?” I asked, leaning like Fonzie on her door frame.
“Oh,” Emily said, looking up from the Mets game or that episode of John and Kate Plus Eight where Kate gets mad at John and the kid with the glasses does something cute or that website where you can watch puppies playing in real time. “Yeah. That was a good one.”
“It was like, kind of, creepy, right?” I asked, totally casual. I checked over my shoulder to make sure no one was standing behind me with an axe. Emily was on to me. I could see it in her eyes. “I mean, a little. I wasn’t SCARED or anything,” I added. I was slick as the blood on an axe blade.
“Um. Yeah, it was kind of scary, I guess,” Em responded. “Oh my God, these puppies are HUGGING! They are HUGGING each other, Kate! Get over here!” I watched the puppies cuddle and excused myself for bed, locking the door behind me.
My nightmares kept my memories of the case nice and clear for class the next evening. My fellow Jumbos were transformed into 19th century sleuths, debating the significance of burned dresses and missing axe handles. Besides this one time a guy in my polisci class tried to make a case for the advisability of facism, I have never seen Tufts students in such a fevered state. We all left the class wishing we just had the answer. Why wasn’t history like Law and Order?
That night, I was too on edge to keep up with my charade. I confessed my terror to Emily on the walk home, and then sat my roommates Kelly and Rachel down for a full recap of the case in the living room. I wanted to stop thinking about it, but I was too scared to do anything but. In the hushed tones of a campfire ghost story, Em and I presented the case. The mocking laughter died down right about when we got to the maniacal laughter bit. Soon, Kel and Rachel were looking mighty uncomfortable themselves. “No one knew where Abby was,” I whispered, menacingly. “So someone had to find her. They went upstairs, and they opened the door, and they saw….”
With that, there was a bang on the window. The entire apartment screamed. It was our friend Matt, asking to be let in.
While everyone else was totally scared too, apparently my terror is the funniest variety. Over the next week, I was subjected to various Lizzie-related pranks. I got notes from Lizzie on my pillow (“Sleep tight”). She showed up, crazy eyes and all, on my desktop background. One time she burst into the bathroom when I was taking a shower (not cool, Rachel, not cool). Only as my friends found new jokes did the Borden mania fade from our lives. Sadly, I can never forget. It seems only right to share my fear and fascination with the rest of you. Take in the story, consider the clues, and hope you fall asleep tonight.
Meet the Family
Crazy-eyed Lizzie was born and raised in Fall River, MA. Her mom died when she was just a kid, leaving her and her sister Emma to be raised by their dad, Andrew, and his second wife. Abby. Andrew Borden was a rich and boring man. A banking exec and landlord of several properties, he was known for being rather grumpy and cheap. He had found a dutiful and equally boring companion in Abby. While she acted as a mother to Andrew’s children, there didn’t seem to be many fuzzy feelings at 92 Second Street.
When some jewels had gone missing in the Borden home, and several Fall River storekeepers accused Lizzie of shoplifting, it became apparent that the Borden daughter was a bit of a Winona Rider. The solution to this problem was facilitated by the weird layout of the family home. The house had no hallways. For whatever reason (maximum creepiness?) every room in the home just led right into the next. In an effort to squash easy thievery, the Bordens routinely locked each and every door.
Lizzie’s possibly sticky fingers were not the only source of family drama. Some claim Lizzie was annoyed by her father’s cheapskate ways. It certainly would have been understandable if she was rather sick of her downbeat dad by August, 1892. Lizzie was then 32, unmarried, and still living at home. Her father had recently killed off her beloved barn pigeons, dispatching them with an axe (he claimed they attracted neighborhood boys, who liked to shoot them). Her dad had a weird, possibly disabled, illegitimate son that may have caused Lizzie some embarrassment. Plus, she was none too crazy about Abby. While Lizzie had called her ‘mother’ for years, she had started referring to her only as ‘Mrs. Borden’ after a disagreement a couple years earlier. Lizzie only sometimes took her meals with her parents. Things were kinda awkward. Lizzie herself was a high-society debutante, but not a particularly popular one. She had a hard time attracting suitors, since her father tended to scare off potential beaus on the suspicion of being gold-diggers. Lizzie kept busy serving as treasurer of a bunch of clubs and teaching a Sunday school class. Her sister Emma was a bony, plain, quiet woman. Like Lizzie, the forty-three year old would have been considered a spinster in her time.
Thanks to the family maid, Bridget, the sisters had plenty of time for their hobbies. Bridget had emigrated from Ireland in 1883, starting with the Bordens six years after her arrival in the states. Only in her mid-twenties by 1892, she managed the Borden household. Her days were full of chores, from mopping floors to washing the clothes. She lived in the home’s attic, in a room that was pretty shoddy for such a rich family. The Bordens insisted on calling her Maggie, their old maid’s name, because they couldn’t be bothered to make the shift. Nice!
The Week Before
Lizzie and Emma got annoyed with their parents over an unspecified argument. The two young women decided to go on vacation, sulking all the way. Emma stayed on her fishing trip longer than Lizzie, who returned to town early.
Lizzie was a terrible neighbor. At 7 am on the morning of August 3rd, she woke up her neighbor, Dr. Bowen, to ask for his professional advice. Her father and stepmother, she explained, had been up all night puking. While I would have assumed that they enjoyed one too many margaritas the night before (or, on Andrew’s budget, maybe one too many PBR’s), Lizzie told him she was worried that they had been poisoned. Sleepy and apparently not a super suspicious sort, Dr. Bowen told her not to stress. After he got a couple more hours of sleep, he made his way across the street to check in. Andrew told Bowen he felt fine (and that he wouldn’t pay for a visit he hadn’t requested).
Meanwhile, Lizzie was off running some creepy errands. At around 10:30, she had headed over to the local drugstore, where she told the clerk she needed to buy some poisonous prussic acid to treat a sealskin cape. The guy was sketched out and refused to sell it to her without a prescription. Seal breathed a sigh of relief.
The day was off to a promising start. Later that afternoon, Lizzie’s uncle John Morse showed up to stay for a couple days. He and Lizzie didn’t cross paths that day, but she knew he was around. Instead of visiting with Morse, Lizzie spent the evening hanging with her friend Alice Russell. She told Alice that an unspecified person had threatened her dad and that she was worried he was going to get killed. For some reason, Alice didn’t feel the need to ask for details. I can only assume the Jersey Shore ad break was over and she needed Lizzie to stop jabbering already. When Lizzie got home at around nine, she heard her dad, stepmom, and uncle chatting it up in the living room. She went off to bed without saying hello.
The next morning Bridget was up at 6:00 to start her workday. She had the stomach flu, and felt pretty lousy. She even threw up in the backyard, enjoying both an encore of her breakfast and the already-sweltering heat of what would become the hottest day of the year. Lizzie, Abby, Andrew, and Uncle John had some breakfast and parted ways for the day. John went into town, and Andrew headed out around 9:00 to run business errands.
Abby asked Bridget to wash the windows while she cleaned up upstairs. Bridget asked her if it could wait, given that she was under the weather, but her request was denied. Abby headed upstairs to straighten the guestroom where John had spent the night, Bridget went to wash the damn windows, and Lizzie occupied herself with some ironing. While Lizzie was the only one downstairs, she claimed a man came to the house with a note for her stepmom. One of her friends was ill, and Abby had been summoned to meet her.
Bridget let Andrew back into the house when he returned from his errands around 10:40. Lizzie claimed she was in the kitchen when her dad walked in. This is awfully weird, since Bridget claims she heard Lizzie laughing on the second floor landing as she opened the door (re-read this paragraph: evil laughter, people!).
Andrew went to the sitting room to take a nap on the couch, while Bridget went back to washing the windows and then up to her room for a nap of her own. It was at this point that Lizzie claims she went out to the backyard barn. Despite the suffocating heat, she went up to the barn loft to eat pears and make fishing hooks. She later explained that she had hoped to meet back up with her sister Emma, who was still away fishing.
When Lizzie came back in a little after eleven, her dad was dead on the couch. His face had been gashed eleven times, one of his eyes had been chopped in half and was sticking out of its socket, and his nose had been cut off. Lizzie called up to the attic, where Bridget was resting. “Maggie, Come down quick! Father’s dead! Somebody’s come in and killed him!”
Bridget ran downstairs. Lizzie blocked her from entering the room, telling her to run as fast as she could to get a doctor. Bridget went across the street, to the home of Dr. Bowen. The doctor was out, so the maid reported the murder to his wife and went back home. Lizzie dispatched her yet again to go fetch her friend, Alice Russell.
While Bridget was busy scurrying around town, neighbor Adelaide Churchill noticed something was going on at the Borden house. Lizzie was hanging out at the back door of the house, and Adelaide yelled over to see if there was an issue. Lizzie told her that her father was dead and asked her to come over. Don’t mind if I do!
Adelaide asked Lizzie where the hell her stepmom was. Lizzie responded that someone had come to the door that morning with a note, asking Abby to visit a sick friend. Therefore, Lizzie assumed she was out. Adelaide offered to send her handyman to the police station, and he went off to report the crime. Dr. Bowen eventually showed up, and Bridget returned home.
Bowen checked Andrew out carefully. The doctor made a shocking diagnosis: his patient had come down with a bad case of the dead. It was like an episode of House. Someone asked Bridget to get a sheet to cover Mrs. Borden. “We’ll need two,” she said, cryptically.
Bowen took off to telegram Lizzie’s sister Emma. Bridget had the great idea that she should go over to Abby’s sister’s house to see if she was there. If she found her, Bridget planned to tell her mistress that Mr. Borden was “very sick.” Tactful! Lizzie retorted that she was pretty sure she had heard her stepmom come home, and asked Bridget to go look around upstairs for her. When she refused, Lizzie and Adelaide went up to hunt for her alone. There, they found Abby lying dead and bloodied on the guest room floor. She had been axed nineteen times. Her face was chopped to shreds.
Dr. Bowen came back, and Alice Russell finally got her butt to the crime scene. At 11:15, the fuzz arrived. They asked Lizzie if there were any hatchets in the house, to which she responded that “they are everywhere.” Okay then. She took them down to the basement, where they found four axes. While one was found covered in blood and hair, surprisingly, these were found to be the products of slaughtering cows. Another, however, had a broken handle and was covered in ashes. This one was submitted into evidence as a likely murder weapon.
The cops then went out to the barn where Lizzie had supposedly had her pear-eating party. They found thick layer of dust on the loft floor seemingly undisturbed by footprints. Around three, Abby and Andrew were lifted onto the dining room table for an autopsy. Their stomachs were removed and preserved in milk so that they could be tested for poison later. When Emma returned home around 7:00, she found her parents’ bodies still on the table, waiting to be taken away by the undertaker. Everyone went off to bed, with Uncle John staying in the bedroom where Abby had been murdered.
On the 7th, Alice Russell came over to visit Lizzie and found her burning a blue dress in the kitchen stove- the same color dress she was wearing on the day of the murders (side note: what is with blue dresses showing up as evidence in famous court cases?) She claimed it was stained with paint and, to be fair, people did often burn old clothes during this time period. Still, this weird scene was the final straw: Lizzie was charged with murder. She pleaded not guilty.
The trial lasted two weeks. The prosecution argued that the murders were premeditated. They asserted that Andrew had planned to change his will, giving more of his estate to Abby than his daughters (in actuality, no version of Andrew’s will was ever found). Lizzie remained pretty stoic and unemotional, which some people found incriminating. Bridget testified, but neither hurt nor helped Lizzie with her account.
The prosecution called the druggist who had refused to sell Lizzie prussic acid the day before the murders, but the defense objected. The judge ruled that, because no poison was found in the Bordens’ stomachs during the autopsy, the witness was inadmissible. Still, the prosecution pulled no punches. At one point, the attorney pulled a dress off a lump on the table, revealing Abby and Andrew’s disfigured skulls. Lizzie fainted.
Lizzie's gender came into play in interesting ways. The defense argued that a woman could not possibly have committed such a gruesome crime.“We are challenged at the outset to find who was equal to that enormity, whose whole heart is blackened with crime. A maniac, not a man of senses and heart, a lunatic, a devil!! They were well-directed blows which caused those deaths, not directed by a blunder; none going amiss. It is a wreck of human morals to say this of her." The Boston Globe chimed in with a similar message, citing "her modesty of manner, unswerving sincerity, gentle forbearance and aspirations to be and to do all that is best and right in life." The prosecution, however, countered that this crime had ‘lady’ written all over it. They argued that craftiness was a feminine trait, and Lizzie's plotting and coverup coordinated nicely with her X chromosomes. “She is a woman and it is hard to believe that women can be guilty of crime. It is not a pleasant thing to say, but they are humans and no better or worse than we. They make up for lack of strength in cunning, their hates are more undying, more unyielding, and their passions stronger."
When not expounding her womanly virtues, the defense focused on their theory that an unidentified young man had been lurking around the Borden house the day of the murders. Several witnesses said they did see a stranger in the area that August day. The jury was also probably aware of a string of axe murders that were committed in Fall River just days before jury selection. While the Portuguese murderer hadn’t even been in the country when the Bordens were hacked eight months earlier, the idea that another axe murder was out there was still a potent one. Apparently, the defense did a sufficient job in establishing reasonable doubt. After just over an hour of deliberations, they found Lizzie not guilty.
A month after the trial, Lizzie and Emma bought a home together in Fall River. Emma became a devout Christian. Lizzie changed her name to ‘Lizbeth,’ and her life started to take a different route from her sister’s. In 1904, she met an actress named Nance O’Neil. They formed a tight relationship that some speculate was more of a romance. Possibly because of the tensions this caused, Emma moved out of the house. Lizzie died in 1927, and Emma died nine days later. They were buried next to another deceased sister, their mom, their stepmom, and their dad.
The Unusual Suspects
Now that you know the story, I’d be interested in your theory. Read through some of the ideas that historians have thrown around, and cast your own vote!
1) It was one of Lizzie’s Chinese Sunday school students!
This wild theory was theory dreamt up immediately after the murders. I just think it's funny.
2) It was Lizzie!
There are lots of Lizzie-blaming theories, but I like Victoria Lincoln’s best. It was published in a Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden in 1967. She theorizes that Lizzie planned to kill her hated stepmother, and then knocked off her dad to prevent him from testifying against her. When she went out to the barn, Lincoln asserts that she was seeking access to the water pump, which would allow her to wash Abby’s blood of her hands and dress before returning indoors to kill her dad. She also theorizes that Lizzie used a vise in the barn to break the handle off her axe. She could then burn the handle in the kitchen fire and dip the blade in the ashes. Here's where it gets crazy: she further theorizes that Lizzie was suffering a mentrual-cycle-induced seizure at the time of the murders. Some women's cycle can trigger petit mal epilectic seizures, during which they behave normally but are unaware of their actions. Sounds even worse than cramps!
3) It was Bridget!
In 1961, Edward Radin theorized that the maid, Bridget, was the true murderer. Bridget had reported that she had felt sick on the day of the murders, and even that she vomited in the backyard. Nonetheless, Abby had made her wash the windows in the blistering heat. Radin asserts that Bridget was tired of her bad treatment and snapped, hatcheting Mrs. Borden and then her husband (to cover her tracks). Radin further wonders whether Bridget and Lizzie may have been lovers- and whether Bridget’s murder was sparked not just by the window washing, but by seeing how much Lizzie disliked her parents.
Bridget was able to afford to go back to Ireland after the murders, a passage that was possibly paid by Lizzie and Emma. She returned to Montana and lived a quiet, poor life until she died in 1948. Some stories have it that, on her deathbed, she told her sister that she had ‘something to confess’- but died before she could say what. Lord! Can't we get a break?
4) It was Lizzie AND Bridget!
Gerald Gross pinned the guilt on both Lizzie and Bridget. He theorized that Lizzie killed her parents, but they had been plotted and covered up with Bridget. Since two-hundred pound Abby would presumably have made a loud noise as she fell dead to the ground, he wonders how it would be possible for both women not to have heard. Since the maid had been able to afford a return trip to Ireland, he theorized that Lizzie had paid her off.
5) It was Emma!
Frank Spiering wrote a 1984 book on the murders in which he points the finger at Emma, Lizzie’s sister. Spiering’s theory is that she was not truly on a day trip, but attempting to set up an alibi. In actuality, she took a buggy back to Fall River, hid upstairs, killed her parents, went back away to Fairhaven (the fishing destination), and feigned surprise when she was told of her parents’ death. When Lizzie was accused, they worked together to protect each other- with Lizzie demanding Emma share her share of their father’s inheritance with her. Spiering asserts that the sisters had an understandably tentative relationship in the aftermath, which was broken entirely with Nance’s arrival. He theorizes that Nance and Lizzie were lovers, and that Emma disapproved.
6) It was the Illegitimete Son!
Arnold R. Brown’s 1992 book, Lizzie Borden, presents the theory that Andrew’s bastard son was behind the murders, enraged by the fact that his father had not included him in his will. Brown suggests that William Borden hacked up Abby, hid in the house with Lizzie’s knowledge, and then took out Andrew. Lizzie took the fall to prevent him from claiming any portion of his father’s estate. Brown’s research found that William had a thing for hatchets, and that he had a memorable BO that witnesses remembered wafting around the yard after the murders. That's a great advertising angle if I ever heard one: "Use Old Spice, and no one will remember your bodily stench and place you at the scene of an axe murder."