And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one
The poem, however inaccurate (she was found not guilty, only nineteen blows were counted, the nature of the murder weapon—thought to be a hatchet; not an axe—and the fact that Abby Borden was her step-mother) has kept Lizzie Borden (my 5th cousin, twice removed) a part of Americana since the murders of her father and her step-mother, Abby Durfee Gray Borden, on August 4, 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts. But few know little more than the poem. So who was Lizzie Borden and why she was considered the prime suspect in a crime for which she was found not guilty on June 20, 1893.
Lizzie Andrew Borden (1860 – 1927) was the youngest of three daughters of Andrew Jackson Borden and Sarah Anthony Morse. Her mother died shortly after Lizzie’s birth and Andrew married Abby Durfee Gray, who took over the task of raising his two daughters (Lizzie had an older sister Emma Lenora Borden and there was a middle sister who died at the age of two) and running the household. The Bordens were solid upper-middle class and nowhere near the richest family in Fall River as is generally thought. Lizzie grew up in an atmosphere of idle, not gentile living. She was never to hold a job, although she did volunteer work for church missions, temperance unions and various charities.
Andrew Borden was known to be stingy with a Scrooge-like attitude toward his customers, tenants, and those who borrowed money from him. During her trial, the prosecution attempted to depict Lizzie as a person who would not only kill for an inheritance, but would do so the avenge years of deprivation (both material and psychological) she had endured in her father’s household. There was evidence of friction between the sisters and their father over the way he catered to Abby’s relatives (or so the girls believed). It was during this time that Lizzie stopped calling Abby mother and began calling her “Mrs. Borden”.
Lizzie was considered a suspect in the killings by a number of police officers from the moment they were notified. At the time of the killings only Lizzie, Bridget Sullivan (the Borden’s domestic servant) and the victims were home. It has been thought that Lizzie murdered her step-mother while Bridget was outside the house washing windows. She later told her father that Abby had received a note about a sick friend and she was out of the house. She then encouraged her father to take a nap. Bridget, finished with her chores, went to her room to take a nap. Lizzie said that she then went out to the barn on an errand. According to Lizzie, she returned to the house after hearing a groan, a scraping noise or a call of distress (she related several contradictory stories to the police). Eventually she settled on the story that she went to check on her father and found him slain, his head mutilated.
On August 11th after appearing before an inquest she was arrested for the murders. In December a Grand Jury handed down three indictments against Lizzie Borden: one for the murder of her father, one for the murder of her step-mother, and one for the murder of both. She was removed to a Taunton jail where she remained until her trial in June 1893.
A jury of twelve, mostly Republican men, average age fifty-three, found her not guilty on all counts.
At first public opinion about the verdict was favorable—possibly because it was generally believed that Lizzie would leave Fall River and live someplace where she was less known. She did not, she returned to her home and remained in the city. The absence of closure about the murders caused Lizzie’s and Emma’s position in society to fall. The sisters had become wealthy women because Abby died before Andrew, the step-mother’s family was deprived of her estate and, as a legal matter, it fell into the sisters’s possession. The final blow to her status came when Lizzie (who had a history of stealing) was accused of shoplifting two paintings from a Providence, Rhode Island company. A warrant was never served and the matter was settled privately and Lizzie’s reputation was diminished and she became more isolated.
In 1905, Emma moved out with no public explanation. There is speculation that Emma learned something about the 1892 murders. The sisters never saw nor spoke with each other again.
Lizzie Andrew Borden spent the last twenty-two years of her life an aging spinster surrounded by faithful servants who have never broken their silence. She was quite generous with their salaries and even purchased a house as a residence for some of them.
Lizzie died on June 1, 1927, after suffering complications after a gall bladder operation. Emma died nine days later in Newmarket, New Hampshire. Neither had begotten children so the Andrew Borden branch of the family (the Borden family includes such well-know people as Sir Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe) came to an end.
Lizzie’s infamous name has endured and become iconic, spawning numerous books and at least one movie, starring Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie. Whether or not she committed the murders the unanswered questions continue to fascinate mystery lovers throughout the world.
In a subsequent blog, I'll look closely at Lizzie's trial and why it is still considered to be of great importance.
For more information about Lizzie visit http://www.thelizziebordencollection.com