Who was Lizzie Borden?

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Who was Lizzie Borden? - Photo

We all know Lizzie Borden as the woman who supposedly killed her father and stepmother in a brutal double murder that rocked the community of Fall River. But Lizzie was more than that. She was a devout Christian, a member of Fall River’s high society, and an active member of her community. She was a teacher, a singer in the choir, and helped campaign against alcohol use. Longstanding familial tensions led to resentment, and financial mismanagement on the part of her father drove her over the edge. Andrew Borden was one of the wealthiest men in town, and granted generous amounts of money and land to his wife, Abby. This angered Lizzie and her older sister, Emma. While Emma distanced herself from her family, Lizzie was driven toward murder. 

Young Lizzie 

Andrew J. Borden and Sarah Anthony Borden gave birth to Lizzie on July 19th, 1860, in Fall River, Massachusetts. She had one older sister, Emma Borden, who was nine years her elder. When Lizzie was just two years old, her mother passed away. A.J. Borden remarried three years later to a woman named Abby, who Lizzie never got along with. This internal familial tension was carried along all the way to the day of the murder. 

A.J. Borden grew up living in a frugal household, despite being the son of wealthy Fall River locals. A.J. worked his way to the top of the food chain, starting off making and selling caskets, and moving onto property development. He designed and built several buildings in the Fall River area, including the A.J. Borden Building, which still stands today. 

Despite A.J. Borden’s success, he was quite frugal at home, meaning Emma and Lizzie didn’t have many of the amenities shared by their equally wealthy peers. The house lacked indoor plumbing, a commonality for the wealthy at the time. They also lived near the city’s industrial district, while most of the affluent residents of Fall River lived as far from the industrial center as possible.

A Religious Upbringing

Both Lizzie and Emma were deeply involved in the local church. They attended the Central Congregational Church on Rock Street in Fall River, where she was an important part of the community. Lizzie was known for her good deeds, like teaching Sunday School classes to children and recent immigrants, and delivering baskets and bouquets to the poor and sickly around town. She also worked part-time at a charity hospital and prepared Thanksgiving dinners for underprivileged children.

Lizzie also took on leadership roles within her religious organizations. She served as the secretary-treasurer for the Christian Endeavor Society, and campaigned for Prohibition with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. 

Rising Family Tensions

Lizzie at the murder trial. Source: B.W. Clinedinst

Neither Lizzie nor Emma really got along with their stepmother, Abby. The tension was such that they rarely ate meals with their parents. Lizzie often called Abby “Mrs. Borden” as a form of sarcastic disrespect. She firmly believed that Abby only married her father for his wealth. Abby also wondered by Lizzie and Emma hadn’t gotten married. Lizzie was in her thirties, and Emma in her forties, and it was unusual for women of their stature to have not found husbands. Abby thought this made the family look bad, and constantly scolded them for it. 

While the disdain between the women and their stepmother was a constant throughout their lifetime, the rising tension against their father was a more recent development. A.J. Borden had really begun to rub his daughters the wrong way. He was giving land grants and financial gifts to members of Abby’s family, enraging both Emma and Lizzie. After Abby’s sister was gifted a home, the women demanded a rental property from their father. He gave them the old house they once lived in with their mother for $1. They sold the property back to their father for $5,000 a few weeks before the murders. 

Another point of tension was that A.J. was killing off Lizzie’s pigeons, which she was brooding in the barn. A.J. believed that children were sneaking onto the property to hunt and kill them, so he bludgeoned several of them to death with a hatchet. 

In July of 1892, a particularly heated family argument led Emma and Lizzie to take a vacation in New Bedford. Upon returning, Lizzie, still reeling from the argument, decided to stay in a boarding house for several days before returning home. 

The night before the murder, the family was visited by John Morse, Lizzie and Emma’s maternal uncle. They had a discussion with A.J. about financial matters and property transfers. Many speculate that their conversation aggravated Lizzie even further, creating even more anger and tension in the Borden household. 

During the few days leading up to the murders, several members of the Borden household had fallen ill. Spoiled mutton was said to be the cause, though some speculate they were poisoned, as A.J. Borden wasn’t a popular character around town.

Murder and Acquittal 

The scene of the brutal double murder in 1892. Source: Wikimedia

On the morning of August 4th, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered and mutilated in their home with an axe. Abby was murdered first, being killed on the second floor. She was struck in the head before being hacked to death by her killer, who delivered another 17 blows to her body while Abby lay on the floor. Andrew was next. He came home shortly after Abby’s murder and was promptly killed. He was found on the downstairs couch, having been dealt over ten blows to his head and body. 

There were no witnesses, and Lizzie was the only person awake and present in the house the entire time. Jonathan Morse had taken off a few hours before, and Sullivan, the housekeeper, was upstairs sleeping, still ill from the bad mutton. The murders took place in the late afternoon, and their home was on a busy street. People were out and about and running their daily errands. Yet, nobody heard any unusual commotion from the outside of the Lizzie Borden House. No screaming, yelling, or loud noises that would typically accompany someone being bludgeoned to death. 

Lizzie was questioned by the police, giving answers that were, at times, contradictory. Police found the murder weapon in the basement, and because the entire family fell ill, many suspected Lizzie of attempting to poison the family. Shortly afterward, Lizzie was informed that she was the primary suspect in the murder. 

Lizzie Borden’s trial began in June of 1893. Numerous contradicting statements and disputes from police, Lizzie, and Sullivan lead to her acquittal. Whether or not the hatchet was actually the murder weapon was a point of contention, as police officers disagreed on if the handle was covered in blood. Lizzie’s presence in the house was also disputed, as Lizzie claimed she was in the barn the entire time. The lack of bloody clothing was also a major point in Lizzie’s favor.

Lizzie Borden After the Murder

After the trial, Lizzie and Emma moved into a newer home in an upscale Fall River neighborhood known as “The Hill.” Lizzie began going by Lisbeth A. Borden in an attempt to distance herself from the murders, as she had become a national sensation. They named their house Maplecroft, and had a robust staff consisting of several live-in maids and housekeepers. 

Lisbeth was shunned by the high society of Fall River, even though she was found not guilty of the murders. Eventually, even Emma distanced herself from Lisbeth. Lizzie was accused of shoplifting in Providence, Rhode Island. She then had a dispute with Emma over a party, after which Emma moved out, never returned. 

Lizzie passed away in June of 1927 with pneumonia after the removal of her gallbladder. Just nine days later, Emma died of nephritis. The two were buried side-by-side at the Oak Grove Cemetery in Fall River. 

Speculations 

While it’s generally agreed that financial and personal tensions led Lizzie to murder her parents, some people have speculated that more personal matters caused her to kill. 

Some say that Lizzie was sexually abused by her father, and the murder was an act of revenge. Historians say that there’s no proof to say that this was the case. But in the 19th century, cases of sexual assault were hardly reported, and it was much more common as the assailants were less likely to be caught. 

Want more Lizzie Borden?

The Lizzie Borden murder is said to be one of the most sensationalized cases in American history, being a turning point in how murder trials are observed and reported on. The gruesome double-murder changed the way the wealthy were viewed at the time, exposing the often scandalous lifestyles of the elite class. Over a century after the killings, the nightmare lives on. So what are you waiting for? Book a night at the spooky Lizzie Borden House for a hauntingly good breakfast with US Ghost Adventures!

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