Lizzie Borden - Meek or Murderess?

Lizzie Borden - Meek or Murderess?

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Famous Dogs in History

Animals still benefit from the love the accused murderess had for dogs.

Lizzie Borden and one of her Boston terriers

In 1892, Lizzie Borden was accused of killing her father and stepmother with a hatchet. In 1893, she was acquitted. Her father was worth almost $10 million in today's money, and Lizzie and her sister Emma inherited a significant portion of his estate.

Lizzie loved animals, especially dogs. In 1913, she helped fund the start of a rescue center in her hometown Fall River, Massachusetts to care for abused draft horses. In 1914, the center called Animal Rescue League was in business, and in 1917, it expanded its mission to dogs and cats.

Lizzie had a fondness for Boston terriers, and before her death in 1927 she owned three of them named Royal Nelson, Donald Stuart and Laddie Miller.

After her death, the Animal Rescue League (now named the Faxon Animal Care and Adoption Center) was to receive money from her trust if they agreed to take care of her three dogs. They took care of them for the rest of their days, and today the center continues to receive money.

In addition, the center also receives donations from the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum - the family home where the brutal killings took place.

All three dogs are buried in the Pine Ridge Pet Cemetery in Dedham, Massachusetts under one headstone with the words "Sleeping Awhile".

How Lizzie Borden Spent Her Life After Being Acquitted

Everyone knows that Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks—and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.

That old jump rope rhyme has a few factual errors, actually: Abby Borden was Lizzie’s stepmother, not her mother, and she was on the receiving end of 18 or 19 blows, while her father received about 11. And, not least of all, Lizzie was acquitted of the horrific murders in Fall River, Massachusetts.

After winning the trial of the century, in which a jury of 12 heavily mustachioed men (picture below) deliberated for 90 minutes, Borden chose to stay in Fall River. She quickly learned that though she had been acquitted in a court of law, not everyone was willing to let her off the hook.

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

She bought a new house, which she deemed “Maplecroft,” in one of the nicest neighborhoods in town. And, perhaps to fit into her swanky new digs, she started going by “Lizbeth” instead of Lizzie. Two years after the murder, she and her sister Emma even spent more than $2000 to purchase a 10-foot-tall blue granite monument for their famously deceased relatives.

But if Borden thought she was going to get a fresh start in town, she was dead wrong. All of her friends abandoned her. People refused to sit near her at church. And children, probably daring each other to tempt the murderess, would ring her doorbell in the middle of the night and pelt her house with gravel and eggs.

It’s not surprising that the court of public opinion turned against Borden. Had the citizens of Fall River not already made their minds up for themselves, their opinions may have been swayed when Judge Josiah Blaisdell pronounced her “probably guilty” at her preliminary hearing.

In 1905, even her sister turned on her. Lizzie often traveled to Boston and New York to go to the theater and had developed a relationship with actress Nance O’Neil. Emma disapproved, and a party Lizzie threw for O’Neil at Maplecroft ended up being the last straw. Emma moved out of the house, and though she refused to discuss the matter, she told the Boston Sunday Herald that “I did not go until conditions became absolutely unbearable.” The sisters remained estranged for the rest of their lives.

Lizzie may have gotten one final dig in at the residents of Fall River who had condemned her. After a year of illness, Lizzie died on June 1, 1927—and no one was invited to her burial.

71: Lizzie Borden - The Mistress of Maplecroft

Today we cover an individual who is more an icon of queer pop culture and than an actual figure of queer history. The infamous Lizzie Borden. And this is not to say that Lizzie was not gay or bisexual, there is certainly some evidence which we will produce for the listener to decide for themselves. However, Lizzie’s true role in queer history is as a dark legend and a wistful fantasy. The mystery of her sexuality is ALMOST as hotly debated as the mystery of her parents death. And so for more than a century the whispers of a lesbian ax murderer have filled the halls of queer spaces, spilled onto the pages of queer erotica, and even graced the screens of queer cinema. Now let us begin the tale of the Mistress of Maplecroft.

Andrew Jackson Borden struggled to make ends meet as a young man. Despite inheriting a small estate from his father he had little financial stability. This changed after some prudent investments in the textile and manufacturing industries. And by the time Borden was middle aged he had earned a small fortune and bought a large estate at 92 Second Street. However, he was a frugal man and refused to install electricity and indoor plumbing or add many of the luxuries he could very well afford. The estate alone was worth over $300,000 at the time of Borden’s death, an estimated 8 million by today’s standards. The deliberate unsanitary conditions would cause many problems in the future, and could have contributed to the death of Andrew’s first wife Sarah.

We do not know when Sarah and Adrew were married but in 1851 they brought their first daughter into the world, Emma Lenora. Nine years later on July 19, 1960 Lizzie Andrew Borden was born. Her father gave her his name when it became apparent he would not have a son. Most likely because of Sarah’s declining health. Sadly, just a few years later Sarah Borden would die after a slow progression of spinal disease and uterine congestion. Which was common for women who had borne more than one child during this time period. The unsanitary conditions of the time and uncleanliness of the Borden house certainly did not help. Three years after Sarah’s death Andrew remarried in 1865 to Abby Gray. The Borden sisters struggled with their relationship with their stepmother. Though Lizzie was only 5 years old when Abby came into the picture, she grew up convinced that Abby had only married Andrew for his wealth. It seems likely that Emma, who was 14 when the couple married, most likely instilled this thought into Lizzie. Regardless, the three women fought often and for the last part of Abby’s life Lizzie and her stepmother hardly spoke – even though they lived in the same house.

As a young child, Lizzie was known to be lively and a bit eccentric. She did well in school but for some reason did not go off to college. Again, this despite her family’s wealth and ability to send her to any school in the country – which allowed women of course. There are A LOT of speculations about why Lizzie never left home. Some of the most prominent center around Andrews control of his daughters. Many have speculated that Andrew was abusive, others have proposed that his daughters were merely lazy and spoiled. Another strange thing which adds to this speculation is that both Lizzie and Emma never married and never seemed to have any serious prospects. However, there are also some practical answers to these questions. For one, even with the families wealth, a woman going to college in the 1880’s and 90’s was extremely rare. And as for lack of suitors, some have attributed this to the shortage of men following the Civil War. Though, men who were Lizzie’s age would have been born after the war and we wonder why no one wanted to get in on the Borden fortune.

As the daughters grew older the tension between them and their parents grew as well. Both girls regularly accused Andrew of wasting their inheritance. Andrew bought houses for his wife Abby’s family members. So Emma and Lizzie demanded he buy them a house. Which he did, but he did so in a poor part of town where the girls refused live. Instead they rented out the space and eventually Andrew bought it back from them. Another rare gesture of monetary kindness extended by Andrew was when he funded a trip for Lizzie to travel with a group of women to Europe. But these gestures seemed few and far between. However, it isn’t like Lizzie and Emma were living in squalor. They held status in the community and attended the theatre regularly. Both girls also would have been more than welcomed on the local socialite scene, but Lizzie especially declined the open invite. In truth, she seemed more comfortable at home on the farm with animals.

The Borden family raised a coup of pigeons and Lizzie was especially known to care for them. However, she later testified that she only saw the pigeons as livestock and not as pets. Her view of the animals mattered greatly because one day Andrew Borden went into the coup and killed all the pigeons with his bare hands, wringing their necks one by one. The full reason is not known, though it was speculated that Andrew did it as a punishment to Lizzie. This was right around the time that Lizzie was accused of stealing her stepmother’s jewelry and pawning it. It was also around this time that Lizzie was cut off from using the Borden credit line in downtown Fall River. Before the days of credit cards, clerks in stores would keep a written list of items added to credit and then send a bill to the customer at the end of the month. Gossip over Lizzie’s exclusion from the credit line swirled around the town along with other stories of the strange Borden sisters. To say there was strong dysfunction in the family is an understatement. It seemed that four people who could hardly stand each other were stuck in an old and outdated house. And what could add more to the tension than the arrival of a new maid.

Bridget Sullivan was a 25 year old immigrant from Ireland who had taken the newly opened position as maid of the Borden household. There have been extensive rumors and stories about Bridget and Lizzie having an affair. So much so that last year the movie Lizzie was released starring Chloe Sevigny as Lizzie and Kristen Stewart as Bridget, Lizzie’s maid…and lover. The entire plot centers around this forbidden love story which has been told in queer circles for decades. Sadly, there is not a shred of evidence to support this romance. While it does seem that Bridget pitied Lizzie, the two were far from lovers. The roots of this rumor dates back to the 1985 fictional novel “ Lizzie!” by author Evan Hunter (a.k.a E.D. McBain). In which Hunter lays out a torrid and steamy romance between the two women before they are discovered by Lizzie’s stepmother Abby. This revelation ultimately pushes Lizzie to kill her parents to save her secret. But Hunter admitted that he fabricated the affair based on other events in Lizzie’s life and not because there was any new information to support this notion.

As is the case with most prominent and wealthy women of this era, if they weren’t married by the ripe old age of 21 the rumors began to swirl. And if a woman never married, then she was almost certainly a lesbian. While we is fun to speculate on who COULD be “on our team” it must be noted that many queer historians did a diservice to the queer community in the 80’s and 90’s. By slapping the labels of gay or lesbian on any bachelor or spinster they could, historians limited the scope of queerness. Genderqueer folks, non binary individuals, Asexuals, poly sexuals, trans people, and bisexuals were often erased or ignored. In addition, many cisgender, straight femists had their stance against the patriarchy and male dominance completely pushed aside. We must remember that marriage for wealthy women was often simply a lifelong prison sentence. Once a daughter was married off – usually to a much older suitor who was not of her choosing – her rights and independence became non existent. A married woman had no rights to her body, her property, her money, or her children. Her husband could legally beat and rape her as much as he pleased. And any inheritance left to a wife by her family went directly to the husband. In the few cases where a couple divorced, the husband retained everything. So it is no wonder why some women would choose to be alone rather than bound to even more restrictions than women already endured.

And we see the oppression of women also in Bridget Sullivan. As the mystery of the Irish maid is not confined to Lizzie. There have also been rumors of a relationship or sexual abuse perpetuated by Andrew Borden. Again, there is no evidence of this. Although it is certainly possible that Borden could have abused his power and forced himself on the attractive young maid. Regardless, we do know that Bridget certainly was not nearly the object of affection she is so often portrayed. Even if she was used as a sexual release, she was still seen as the maid. The family did not even call her Bridget. They called her Maggie or ‘New’ Maggie, because the former maid had been named Maggie and the family couldn’t be bothered to learn a new name. Some have speculated that this was a term of endearment from love of the past maid. Others have insisted Lizzie secretly called Bridget by her real name. But again, there is no evidence for that. In the trial Bridget would testify she was called Maggie and all witnesses supported this claim.

The basis for all these theories stem from the motive behind the murders. If Lizzie Borden DID murder her parents then why? Was it for the wealth? Was she worried Andrew had cut her and Emma out of the will or significantly reduced her inheritance? The women’s Uncle John Morse claimed that Borden had drawn up a new will that did just this- limit their inheritance however, the new will was never found. And suspiciously, John also claimed he had been appointed power of attorney for the will and the women’s trust fund. Did Lizzie murder her father to protect her lover Bridget from his abuse? Whatever Bridget’s ties to the case, one thing sticks out. After her arrival tensions in the family escalated. This could be due simply to coincidence and poor timing, or there could be a more sinister reason at play.

And there is the assumption that Andrew Borden’s control and abuse of his daughters became too much. Author Marcia Carlisle of American Heritage Magazine proposed that Lizzie and her sister Emma suffered from “battered woman syndrome”. Carlisle suggested that after Lizzi’s birth her mother was most likely on bedrest for her final two years of life. This is due to the Uterine Congestion she was diagnosed with and the usual debilitating and painful progression of the disease. Because of this Andrew Borden might seek to find sexual release somewhere else. And being a wealthy and prominent member of a small town, as well as extremely private, Borden would have avoided houses of prostitution. Instead, focusing on his then 12 year old daughter Emma. And once Emma had gone off to boarding school or become more independent, he could have turned to Lizzie.

Again, there is no evidence for this abuse other than the pure rage show in the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden. If Lizzie felt her stepmother knew of the abuse and ignored it, that could further explain why she so bitterly hated Abby. In the final year of Abby’s life Lizzie would publicly and aggressively correct anyone who called Abby her mother. Even at her trial Lizzie still refused to use that term in reference to Abby. However, as is often the case of children abused in incestuous relationships, her feelings towards her father were mixed. At moments she was especially gentle with him even gifting him a beautiful ring, which he always wore. Yet in other moments she openly despised him. Further circumstantial evidence is pointed to in Andrew’s choice of the house on 2nd street.

Borden bought this home seven years after marrying Abby. It was essentially a two family dwelling and Andrew never did anything to change this. The girls could have their own side quite separated from Abby and Andrew. Some could see this as the Borden sisters gaining a little independence. Abby would have been 22 or 23 years old, but Lizzie was still only 12 or 13. Others could see it as Andrew attempting to diffuse the rising tension between his wife and daughters. But still people propose that Andrew did it so he could more easily continue his abuse of Lizzie and Emma without being caught by Abby. However, we cannot discount the age old tie between abuse and homosexuality. Where psychologists like Sigmund Frued erroneously positioned that all homosexuality stemmed from childhood abuse. And thus the rumors of a lesbian ax murderer would certianly fit with the idea that she had been sexually abused. False psychology aside, one must wonder why both Lizzie and Emma never entertained marriage. And if she did kill Andrew and Abby, why?

Marcia Carlisle wrote this stirring paragraph in her article What Made Lizzie Borden Kill:

No single disorder is enough to make a case for a family at war with itself. But viewed as a pattern, the long-time absence of a wife-mother, the ages of the girls at the time of their mother’s illness, the autocratic father, the isolation of the family, the failure of the family to bond as a unit when the new Mrs. Borden moved in, the timing of the move to the new house, the structure of the house, the special relationship between Lizzie and her father, the tensions between both daughters and the stepmother—all these together suggest long-standing structural flaws that could have led to family violence and to the murders. Even the way in which the killings were committed seems telling. All the hatchet blows directed at Mr. Borden were aimed at his face. As the prosecuting attorney described it in his closing argument, the hand that held the weapon was “not the hand of masculine strength. It was the hand of a person strong only in hate and the desire to kill.”

Dr. Judith Herman, a leading authority on fatherdaughter incest, helped one group of adult women through the healing process recently. The median age in the group was Lizzie’s at the time of the murders, thirty-two. The majority were white, educated, and unmarried and had suffered some degree of amnesia about the incest. Many were engaged in the “helping professions,” today’s counterpart to the church activities that were important to Lizzie in the 1890s .

And we do know that Lizzie, despite her social anxieties, was active in these so called “helping professions”. She was the secretary and treasurer of the Christian Endeavor Society . She also joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union . And she became a sunday school teacher at her local Congregational Church, teaching a group of newly immigrated children. This was the woman who woke up on August 4, 1892 and joined her family for breakfast. After which, Andrew Borden went on his morning walk. Abby relaxed in the sitting room and Bridget was ordered to wash the windows. It was an incredibly hot day and it seemed cruel to ask Bridget to do such a task. In addition, the entire family – Bridget included – were suffering from a stomach virus. This was most likely due to Adrew’s stinginess. He had brought home a leg of mutton and forced the family to eat every last bit, which took them several days. Since Andrew refused to invest in any modern conveniences, there was no ice box for the mutton. Which means the family had been eating 5 day old meat which had been sitting out. In addition, there were no restrooms. Though he could have paid for them, instead the family was still using buckets in their rooms. So everyone was puking in the backyard, shitting in the buckets upstairs, and eating rotten meat.

It is no wonder then that Bridget felt ill and after Andrew left she went to her room and lied down. Sometime between 9:00am and 10:30am Abby Borden went up to her room. She was either met or followed by her killer who proceeded to whack Abby 18 times with a hatchet. The first hit was to the side of Abby’s face, and after she fell, 17 more blows were delivered to the back of her head. Around 10:30 Andrew Borden returned. His key wouldn’t work and he began banging and screaming for Bridget. When she arrived she found the door jammed and as she struggled to open it she cursed. At which time she heard Lizzie laugh. But the laugh was coming from upstairs near Abby’s room. Once Andrew was in he went straight to the sitting room. Lizzie came in shortly, offered him some tea and gave him a pillow so he could lie down. Between 10:30 and 11:00 the killer returned with the hatchet and struck Andrew Borden 11 times in the face. At 11:10am Bridget heard Lizzie scream and cry “Maggie!! Come quick! Fathers dead! Someone’s came in and killed him!!”

Police were called to the scene and initially only one officer was on duty. As it was the town’s annual picnic. But once Abby’s body was also found upstairs the officer hurried for backup, bringing a large crowd with him. Police searched the house but could find no other significant evidence. Though the did find the handle of a hatchet, just not the head.. They were a bit put off by Lizzie’s calm manner. Bridget was almost hysterical yet Lizzie seemed very reserved and and uncaring. Her clothes were pristine, almost oddly clean. But most suspiciously was her conflicting story. She couldn’t get her times right, she insisted she hadn’t been upstairs and then later she said she had. She told officers she had removed Andrews boots but he died with them on. She couldn’t explain where she was when the murders happened and then said she was doing some ironing. Nothing added up.

The town seemed at once convinced that Lizzie Borden was the killer. A few days after the murder neighbor Alice Russel witnessed Lizzie burning a blue dress with blood on it. However, Lizzie had been menstruating at the time of murders and claimed this was the reason. The suspect had a reason for everything but it never quite fit. Regardless, after an 11 day trial, and only 90 minutes of deliberation, a jury found Lizzie Borden not guilty. In truth, the jurors later admitted they immediately found her not guilty but waited an hour out of “respect for the process”. The real reason behind Lizzie’s acquittal lies in the expert testimony of Dr. Bowen:

“I do not believe a hardened man of the world, much less a gentle and refined woman, in her sober senses, devoid of sudden passion, could strike such a blow with such a weapon as was used on Mr. Borden and linger to survey the bloody deed.”

The truth is, authorities who had witnessed the gruesomeness of the crime could not bring themselves to believe a woman could do such a dastardly deed. But the rest of the town believed it. Bridget left 92 Second Street the day after the murder and moved to Montanna. But for some strange reason, Lizzie and Emma decided to continue living in Fall River. Though they did sell the house at 92 Second Street and move to a more affluent area on The Hill, the place they had always wanted to live. They called the place Maplecroft which has been used in Lizzie Borden fan fiction ever since. Sadly, the sisters would eventually part ways as Lizzie became a bit of a party girl. She drank and hosted parties, for those who dared to attend. She also carried on affairs with several men, including a few prominent married men. And in 1897 she was arrested in Providence, Rhode Island for shoplifting.

But the final straw came when Lizzie began an affair with actress Nance O’Neil. And this is where the basis for Lizzie’s sexuality comes into play. Whether she was bisexual, gay or simply fluid, Lizzie was definitely attracted to women. And her notoriety and wealth landed her a beautiful one. But it cost her relationship with her sister Emma. The Boston Herald reported in June of 1905:

“After repeated disagreements, Lizzie A. Borden and her sister, Emma Borden, have parted company. Several days ago Miss Emma packed up her belongings, called a moving wagon and shook the dust of the French street home, where they have lived together ever since the acquittal in the famous murder trial, from her feet. She is reported to have moved to Fairhaven. Ever since her departure the tongue of gossip has been wagging tremendously, even for Fall River, which is saying a great deal. All sorts of reasons for the quarrel between the sisters have been afloat, but the best founded ones involve the name of Miss Nance O’Neil, the actress.

We know very little about the relationship. Only that Nance had the reputation of being a lesbian and that she was a struggling actress. Lizzie was immediately smitten with the actress and the two fell in love pretty quickly. Though some have suggested Nance was using Lizzie for her money. Either way, for a brief period Lizzie Borden enjoyed complete sexual freedom and a hot, whirlwind romance. Whether she deserved it or not is up to the listener to decide. On June 1, 1927 Lizzie Borden died at age 68 of pneumonia after gallbladder removal. Nine days later Emma died as well, she was 76 and the two sisters hadn’t spoken in over 20 years. Lizzie’s fortune amounted to $250,000 (Over 4 million today) which she left to friends, the Fall River Animal Rescue, and the Humane Society. As well as $500 in a perpetual trust for maintenance of her father’s grave.

Your references for this episode is the new book The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson. Or you can skip that and watch the movie Lizzie released in 2018 with Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Steward, available on Amazon or Shudder.

Benefited from Well-Known Defender

The Borden murders were among America's first crimes to play out under the glare of the mass media. The case was covered extensively by New York's strenuously competing newspapers, and Lizzie Borden granted interviews in which she tried to influence public opinion. To forestall the impression that she seemed emotionless in the face of her parents' deaths, she told the New York Recorder (as quoted by King), “They say I don't show any grief. Certainly I don't in public. I never did reveal my feelings and I cannot change my nature now.” When her trial finally began, on June 5, 1893, Borden had a celebrity attorney in her corner: former Massachusetts governor George Robinson. One of the prosecutors, Frank Moody, was a future U.S. attorney general.

The case against Borden seemed strong, but it was entirely circumstantial. No witness could testify to direct knowledge of her involvement, and no murder weapon was ever definitively located. An ax head, found without its handle in the Borden home's basement, was linked by an expert witness, a Harvard University professor, who testified that it matched the wounds inflicted on Andrew and Abby. No blood was found on the blade. It seemed possible that Borden, who was menstruating at the time of the murders, could have cleaned it off (and also cleaned her own hands and face) with one of the cloths that women of the time used as sanitary napkins blood is much easier to remove from metal than from fabric. The cloth she used would then have blended in with those she had already accumulated over the course of her menstrual period when all were thrown in a bucket.

The all-male jury began its deliberations on June 20, and after an hour and a half it returned with a verdict of not guilty. Newspapers of the time generally praised the verdict and the painstaking cross-examinations that led to it, but a preponderance of later evaluations has concluded that Borden was the murderess. The view is far from unanimous, however, with other studies advancing Morse as the culprit or other townspeople or an illegitimate son of Andrew Borden or that perhaps Bridget Sullivan, angered at having to wash windows on the hottest day of the year, did the deed. Lizzie's possible motive has also been dissected, with a group of modern commentators suggesting that the killing might not have been linked to money. Brown University psychiatry professor Eileen McNamara argued that incest could have played a role it would explain both the family's fixation on locked doors and the extreme violence of the attacks—the first few ax blows were sufficient to kill each of the Bordens, but whoever killed them continued to swing the ax long past the point of death. “When an offspring kills a parent, there is usually a pattern of psychological, physical or sexual abuse,” psychologist Steven Kane told Jo Ann Tooley of U.S. News & World Report.

Lizzie Borden, using the new name of Lizbeth, continued to live in Fall River after the trial's conclusion. She and Emma bought a substantial hilltop house they called Maplecroft they were ostracized by many Fall River citizens, but opened their home to artists and traveling actors. Lizzie may have carried on a lesbian relationship with an actress named Nance O'Neill a letter she wrote to O'Neill (quoted by King) read, “I dreamed of you the other night but I do not dare to put my dreams on paper.” Author Evan Hunter has advanced the theory that the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget Sullivan was sexual, and that the murders resulted from Abby's discovery of the situation. Emma moved out of Maplecroft in 1905, and Lizzie lived there alone until her death from pneumonia on June 1, 1927. She left $30,000 in cash to the Animal Rescue League. An enormous variety of popular cultural treatments of Lizzie Borden remained unabated as of 2007, when New York actress Jill Dalton premiered her onewoman show, Lizzie Borden Live.

Part II

As the New England autumn deepened, news from the Taunton jail diminished and with no co u rt appearances imminent, all that was heard of Lizzie Borden came from the occasional newspaper article. On November 12 the Fall River Globe reported that “Miss Borden . . . is outwardly the same cool and composed woman who entered [the] Taunton jail so many weeks ago. During the day, when she desires, she takes exercise in the corridors of the woman’s [section], and also spends much of her time in the hospital room above, where Mrs. Wright has given her two windows full of flowers to look after, and in a measure to divert her mind. She is very fond of them, and in their care for a time appears to forget that she is a prisoner. Her health continues good.”

Newspapers reported that Lizzie’s Christmas was “cheerless,” with no visitors and no remembrances, and Christmas dinner was “just an ordinary affair.” While it’s quite likely that the jail was closed to visitors on the holiday (as it was on Sundays), it’s unknown whether the Taunton Inn supplied the dinner.

January 1893 marked the sixth month of Lizzie’s confinement. She received several New Year’s gifts despite Sheriff Wright’s alleged embargo and when frigid weather set in she was reported to be quite comfortable. On January 10, when the weather outside brought sub-zero temperatures, the Fall River Globe reported that “[Lizzie’s] abode is as warm as toast and she enjoyed herself quite as well in the little whitewashed cell as during any day of her incarceration.” Although she never went to Sunday services held in the jail’s chapel, the Globe said, “She receives and writes a great many letters, has all the reading she wants, is blessed with a good appetite and enough [food] to satisfy it, and revels in interested callers to break the monotony. Her mind appears to be still well balanced.”

Toward the end of January, a young woman just released from the jail delivered her impressions of Lizzie, saying that she appeared to be healthy and happy. She was constantly singing and was far more cheerful than any of the other prisoners. She loved to read and was allowed to keep the gas lamp in her cell burning until 9 P.M. each evening. The former inmate reported that Mrs. Wright wasn’t feeling well and that Lizzie was devoted to attending to her. Three months earlier, a prisoner just released from the men’s section had a similar tale to tell. In his version, Lizzie was accorded freedom to walk the corridors and enjoyed — however implausibly — laughing, chatting and gossiping with the other prisoners. He also asserted that she was constantly singing.

These reports of Lizzie’s contentment and high spirits were sometimes at odds with what she told friends. In researching Parallel Lives, their excellent social history of Fall River, Michael Martins and Dennis A. Binette uncovered a number of private letters written by Lizzie from jail, and they tell a different story. In an October 1892 letter, the same one in which she mentioned Daisy the cat, Lizzie replied to Mrs. William Lindsey, of Dorchester, Massachusetts, who had offered to send her a tea kettle. After explaining that her cell was so small that she would have to place it under her bed, Lizzie told her friend, “I am awfully blue. . . . Why do you tell me to keep up courage a little while longer? My counsel gives me no hopes of anything soon, or ever an acquittal.”

In another letter to Mrs. Lindsey dated January 18, 1893, Lizzie told her friend that “ . . . my head troubles me so much I write very little. I think soon they can take me up the road, to the Insane Asylum.”* She hardly seemed optimistic when she said, ”Do you know that I cannot for the life of me see how you and the rest of my friends can be so full of hope over the case. To me I see nothing but the densest shadows.”

In a subsequent letter, dated April 30, Lizzie wrote to a friend identified only as “Annie” about the coming spring. “Have just sugared some strawberries for lunch,” she reported. The plants that she had tended all winter were “just rewarding me now.” “I am wild to go out of doors today” she said, “the air smells so sweet but oh, dear, I cannot go.” She noted her frustration that Daisy the cat had jumped up on her lunch tray and “down went a plate and two saucers. I was provoked you may be sure.”

Lizzie’s formal arraignment was scheduled for May 8, 1893 in New Bedford, a fact that was carefully concealed from the public and press. First thing that morning, in an attempt to forestall any suggestion that the day was anything special, Sheriff Wright left the jail by himself and took an early train to New Bedford. In that city, he allowed himself to be seen by passersby and whatever newsmen might have been prowling around the courthouse. Having aroused no suspicion that the day was in any way extraordinary, he quickly returned to Taunton. When the sheriff arrived back at the jail, he, Mrs. Wright and Lizzie were spirited into a waiting carriage and quickly driven to the Taunton depot, where they boarded an outbound train that took them to New Bedford. So secret was the arrangement that even Emma Borden hadn’t been informed. Anticipating her usual Monday visit, she showed up at the jail with a box of candy for Lizzie, only to find her sister and the Wrights about to leave. She joined them for the ride back to the depot, where she boarded yet another train and returned to Fall River.

In a proceeding that lasted no more than a few minutes, Lizzie was arraigned at the New Bedford courthouse at 5 P.M. that afternoon. Supporting her in the prisoner’s dock was Mrs. Wright, whose “motherly face,” according to the press, betrayed her disgust with a few spectators who were gawking at Lizzie. The defendant, showing no emotion whatsoever, issued a robust plea of not guilty. The court was adjourned and the Borden party returned to Taunton, having been gone for less than four hours.

Some observers noted that at her arraignment Lizzie appeared to suffer from “jail pallor,” and within hours of returning from New Bedford, she was sick with bronchitis, or perhaps tonsillitis. She was moved out of the women’s section of the jail and into the sheriff’s private quarters, where she was cared for by Mrs. Wright. She was also treated there by Dr. Nomus Paige, a well-known Taunton physician. He stated that it was unlikely that Lizzie would return to her jail cell before her trial because great care had to be taken to prevent a relapse.

Three days after her arraignment, and while still sick, Lizzie again wrote to Mrs. Lindsey. “My spirits are at ebb tide,” she said, “I see no ray of light amid the gloom.” Apparently in reply to an earlier letter from Mrs. Lindsey, she wrote: “My friend — do not make any plans for me at Christmas. I do not expect to be free — and if I am, I could not join in any merry making. I don’t know that I ever could again, certainly not at present. You know my life can never be the same again if I ever come home.”

A week after Lizzie wrote that letter she sat for an interview with Mary Livermore, whose criticism of the Taunton jail had infuriated Sheriff Wright back in October. A battle-scarred champion of hyperbole and self-aggrandizement, Mrs. Livermore left little doubt as to where she stood. Labeling the whole prosecution a “farce,” she tried to give the world a sympathetic portrait of Lizzie. Stating that when she first arrived in Taunton, the prisoner was “given no privileges and kept in her little cell,” but thanks to Livermore “making such a time of that” Lizzie was now “comparatively comfortable.” She stated that even though Lizzie was still feeling the effects of her illness, she appeared to be in good spirits and was no doubt truthful in her profession of innocence. Livermore said that as she prepared to depart after a long and enjoyable conversation, Lizzie “begged me to stay longer.”

Lizzie’s trial was scheduled to begin in New Bedford on June 5, 1893. In the run-up to that, and after almost ten months in jail, some observers were anxious to suggest that Lizzie was undergoing a mental health crisis. Throughout her confinement there had been the keenest interest in her mental state, the implication being that a privileged woman could not withstand the shame and isolation of prolonged incarceration. This speculation peaked as the trial grew near. On May 23, for example, the Fall River Daily Herald had it on good authority that her “long confinement and approaching trial are rapidly unnerving Lizzie Borden.” She was, said the paper, “on the grade down.”

On June 1, four days before the start of the trial, Lizzie was visited at the jail by former Massachusetts governor George D. Robinson, a polished attorney who had been brought into the case by Lizzie’s Fall River counsel. Robinson, like most defense lawyers, projected the greatest confidence that Lizzie would be exonerated. “He sat down and looked at me,” said Lizzie, “as if he would read all my heart. . . .”

Two days later, on Saturday, June 3, Lizzie walked out of the Taunton jail for the last time as a prisoner. In the custody of Sheriff Wright, she boarded a morning train bound for New Bedford, and upon arrival was taken to the Ash Street jail, where she would be housed in a “hospital cell” for the duration of her 10-day trial. (A correspondent for the Fall River Daily Herald was pleased to report that Lizzie looked “spic and span” and showed no trace of insanity.)

Everybody knows that on June 20, 1893 a jury of twelve men — including three from Taunton and one from Raynham — found Lizzie Borden not guilty of the murders of her father and stepmother. The final verdict of the court of public opinion, however, is still under deliberation. It’s unlikely that a ruling will come any time soon.

Lizzie Borden outlived both Sheriff and Mrs. Wright by more than two decades. Andrew Wright served as Bristol County sheriff until 1895 and then he and Mary moved back to Fall River. He died in July 1899 and she followed six years later. The Taunton jail — never mistaken for a private school, the Boston Globe’s opinion notwithstanding — was closed in 1898, when the New Bedford House of Correction was built. It stood empty for many years before the Veterans of Foreign Wars purchased it in 1947. The building was demolished in 1970 as part of an urban renewal program and an elderly housing complex stands on that site today.

One more thing. Lizzie’s last day as a prisoner at the Taunton jail was June 3, 1893, but she returned there on another occasion. Not long after the trial, Mary Wright, during a trip to Fall River, paid a call on Lizzie. They had a pleasant visit and enjoyed a carriage ride together. Lizzie wanted to reciprocate, and also to thank the Wrights for their earlier kindness to her, so she notified them that she was coming to Taunton on July 27 to bring them a picnic.

Early that afternoon found Lizzie, Emma and their friend, Mrs. Mary Brigham, at the Fall River depot boarding the train to Taunton. Somehow, word of their errand reached the office of the Taunton Daily Gazette and that’s when trouble began. Somebody at the newspaper was assigned to write a quick story detailing Lizzie’s impending visit with the Wrights. In a misguided effort to be funny, the writer headlined the piece by saying that Lizzie was reporting “voluntarily” to the Taunton jail. A story was written underneath the headline and then passed along to the Associated Press for distribution throughout its network. Apparently there was some mix-up, because by the time the Associated Press released the story, it had Lizzie Borden being held at the jail after having confessed her guilt in her parents’ murders to Sheriff Wright. According to the story, she had gone to the jail hoping to find safety from an angry mob.

Lizzie arrived at Taunton’s central depot just as all hell was breaking loose in newspaper offices around the country. The mistake was quickly rectified and the story recalled, but the Taunton Daily Gazette’s editor spent the next couple of days trying to explain away the paper’s self-induced fiasco.

Certainly Lizzie heard about this at some point during her visit, but we don’t know how or when. Leaving the depot, she and her party first took a walk into downtown Taunton and asked for directions to Leonard’s confectionary shop, which was located in a building still standing at 4 Main Street. There, said a reporter, they “indulged in some of Leonard’s best,” and afterwards made their way over to the jail for their picnic with the Wrights. As she walked the streets of Taunton, said the newsman, Lizzie looked “radiant.”

*Editor’s Note: Over the years a story has made the rounds that Lizzie Borden was sent to the Taunton State Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. No evidence of this exists, and there are convincing arguments against it. Foremost among them is that out-patient services were not available at the State Hospital. Treatment or examination of any kind would have required that Lizzie be admitted to the hospital. Copies of the hospital’s admission registers for this period are in the collection of the Old Colony History Museum, and they show no record that Lizzie Borden was ever treated there.

Nothing can ever be simple, of course, and here is perhaps the source of the misunderstanding. Lizzie Andrew Borden, accused Fall River murderess, was never under the care of the Taunton State Hospital, but Eliza Ann Borden, a Fall River housekeeper, was. This poor soul was committed to the hospital by the Fall River district court on at least three occasions between 1887 and 1897. She was not a patient there at the time of the Borden murders or the subsequent trial, but she had returned in time to die at the hospital in November 1901.

Lizzie Borden’s LGBTQ Secret

This is not your mother’s Lizzie Borden. Most are aware of the infamous Borden. Though the information seems to be based around the allegations she killed her parents. Yet, there was so much more to the Lizzie Borden legend that seems to have disappeared under the glare of the more salacious stories.

For starters, the woman largely credited as bein g Borden’ mother, was her stepmother. Both Borden and her sister, Emma were upset with their father and stepmother. The parents had planned on selling the childhood home of the girls. This led to a massive family fight, just before the murders.

Ancestry of Lizzie Borden

The murders of Lizzie Borden's father and step-mother occurred on the morning of August 4, 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts at the Borden home. The Bordens were murdered by repeated blows to their heads with a hatchet.

The case received much notoriety at the time due to the extreme violence with which the murders were committed, and the fact that the only suspect was the daughter Lizzie Borden.

Lizzie was tried and acquitted of the murders and historians still argue today over who the real killer was. But be that as it may, the legend of Lizzie Borden is still as popular today as it was over 100 years ago.


HERE, virtually yoked together by the coincidence of simultaneous publication, are two books about America's most acclaimed murderess (at least in the category of Family Tragedy), Lizzie Borden. Both are titled Lizzie, and both agree that she was guilty, if not quite as charged, of the crime for which she has been so celebrated in history and light verse:

And gave her mother forty whacks

When she saw what she had done

She gave her father forty-one.

There, however, resemblance ceases, for Frank Spiering's Lizzie is a nonfiction reconstruction of the crime and its long (and dramatically compelling) aftermath, while Evan Hunter's is a novel, albeit a novel incorporating some hundred or more pages of less-than-riveting transcript from both the inquest and trial. The fictional components in this demi-faction is shuffled into the trial transcripts with no compelling dramatic necessity and describes Lizzie's tour of a fin de siecle Europe where the murderess-to-be is subjected to the longest, slowest seduction since Marjorie Morningstar's.

Parricide is a crime that appeals (if Freud is right) to the child in all of us, and Lizzie's was on a truly mythical scale--not only because of its violence and the fact that she got away with it and lived to spend Daddy's money applying gold-leaf to her bedroom ceiling, but because she came to her vocation late in life, at age 32. She is the archetype of the smoldering spinster, and such is the innate fascination of her crime that most readers will willingly overlook narrative irritants of style and pacing (Hunter is guilty of many) if the solution that's offered is able to account for those questions which, by their lack of an answer at the trial, led to acquittal: Why was the murder weapon never found? Why, given the double blood- bath, could no garments be discovered with appropriate stains?

With respect to offering the careful armchair detective a satisfactory account of these and other conundrums Spiering's Lizzie is the hands-down winner. Hunter's solution to the mystery is to suppose collusion between Lizzie and the Borden's maid Bridget, whom he represents as having been caught in flagrante delicto by Mrs. Borden. The chief elegance of ths theory is the possibility (undreamt by her contemporaries) that there was no blood on Lizzie's clothes because she did the deed in the nude. There's certainly a good painting to be had from that idea, but it doesn't really simplify matters, since Hunter's scenario requires Lizzie to be dressed for her second murder later in the morning.

It also requires a degree of coordination between Lizzie's and Bridget's alibis--and a degree of staunchness and guile in Bridget's character--that neither the transcripts nor subsequent events would seem to bear out. Hunter finally did not persuade me that it could have happened as he imagines. Bluebeard may have done such things, but not Lizzie.

Frank Spiering's theory is altogether more persuasive and probably comes as close as anyone ever will to being a definitive solution. Spiering maintains that the actual murderess was Lizzie's sister, Emma, with Lizzie abetting her and taking all the heat. He collates the circumstantial evidence amassed at the trial with a psychological family portrait of the Bordens that never violates (as Hunter's X-rated scenario does) a sense of Victorian probabilities. At the same time the tragic dimensions of the materal is much more evident in this handling (Hunter's narrative strategy allows him to evade in-depth portraiture of the victims or of Emma). His Lizzie is heroic in her lifelong assumption of public obloquy, and his Emma, though necessarily a more shadowy presence, finally becomes her sister's equal in psychological interest. Not since Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? have I encountered such a well-matched and sinister pair of sisters.

Without the bad luck of its timing, I would surely have enjoyed Hunter's Lizzie more, and true-crime buffs might well enjoy checking out his last chapter, if only as a kind of litmus test of Spiering's theory. But I have no doubt at all that if Spiering had been the prosecutor, Lizzie--and Emma--would have paid for their crimes-- and America would have been deprived of a great legend.

Home of Victorian “Axe Murderess” For Sale, just in time for Halloween

“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 murders of Andrew J. Borden and his wife Abby on the morning of August 4th, 1892, shocked the citizens of Fall River, Massachusetts and caused an international sensation when Mr. Borden’s 32 year-old daughter, Lizzie, was charged with the crime. After a sensational thirteen day trial, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of all charges. More than 100 years later, the case remains unsolved. Guilty or not, there is one thing we now know for sure: Lizzie Borden had killer taste in houses– because the one she lived in until her death just came on the market.

Lizzie Borden

The unsolved case of a wealthy couple butchered with an axe is a complicated one, mostly because Lizzie Borden’s story about what she had been doing that day continually changed throughout the investigation. First you need to know that 32 year-old Lizzie had a very strained relationship with her father and step-mother at the time of their murders. She believed their father’s second wife Abby was after his money and resented his gifts of real estate to various branches of Abby’s family. In the days leading up to the double murder, Lizzie had been away on an extended vacation following terrible arguments at the family residence.

Lizzie Borden’s original family home

The brother of Lizzie’s late mother, John Morse, had also arrived in town at this time for a visit to discuss business matters and property transfer with her father Andrew, which some speculate may have aggravated an already tense situation. On the morning of the murders, Andrew, Abby, and the housemaid Bridget, all fell violently ill after breakfast, however both Lizzie and her maternal uncle were perfectly fine. Lizzie’s eldest sister Emma Borden, was out of town.

Despite his illness, Andrew went off to work, John went to meet with relatives, which left Lizzie, her step-mother Abby and Bridget the housemaid at home. Between 9am and 10.30am, Abby went up to make the bed in the guest room when she was struck with a hatchet 18 times in her head, until she was dead.

Left: A hatchet found in the basement Right: The body of Abby Borden

When Andrew returned at around 10:30 a.m to rest, his key failed to open the door and knocked for attention. The housemaid Bridget unlocked the door, finding it jammed, and would later testify that she heard Lizzie laughing immediately after this, stating that the laughter was coming from the top of the stairs where Abby’s body would have been visible. Lizzie denied this and testified that when her father had asked her where her step-mother was, she had replied that a messenger had delivered a note asking Abby to visit a sick friend. Lizzie also stated that she then helped removed her father’s boots and into his slippers before he lay down on the sofa for a nap. In his death photo (below), Andrew’s boots are clearly visible and still on his feet. Next she informed Bridget of a department-store sale and permitted her to go, but Bridget felt unwell and went to take a nap in her bedroom instead. All the while, Abby’s body is still lying undiscovered in the guest room upstairs. Lizzie told Bridget of a department-store sale and permitted her to go, but feeling unwell, the housemaid declined the offer.

The Andrew Borden crime scene, how he was found

At 11.10am, the housemaid was cleaning windows when she heard Lizzie call, “Come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.” Andrew was found slumped on a couch in the downstairs sitting room, struck 10 or 11 times with a hatchet. At the time of his death, Andrew’s estate was valued at the modern-day equivalent of $8,000,000.

Lizzie Borden

Police officers who interviewed Lizzie reported that they were suspicious of her calm and poised attitude. Despite her changing alibis, no one checked her clothes for bloodstains and barely searched her room. Two days later, after the Lizzie was informed by police that she was a suspect, a friend caught her in the kitchen tearing up a dress. Lizzie explained that she was planning to burn it was covered in paint.

During the trial, her behaviour was erratic, largely due to the morphine she had been prescribed to calm her nerves. During the time of her father’s murder, she claimed she had been in the barn looking for tools to fix a door and then eating pairs in the outhouse for 20 to 30 minutes. Initially she had reported hearing a groan or a distress call before re-entering the house, but hours later told the police she’d heard nothing and entered not realizing that anything was wrong. In the basement, police had found two hatchets, two axes, and a hatchet-head with a broken handle, but neither were convincingly shown to be the murder weapon in court.

In a most gruesome display, the victim’s skulls were used as evidence during the trial. Their heads had been removed during autopsy and upon seeing them in court, Lizzie fainted. The heads were later buried at the foot of each grave.

On June 20, after deliberating an hour and a half, the jury acquitted Lizzie. The trial has been compared to O.J. Simpson’s case as a landmark in publicity and public interest in the history of American legal proceedings.

While John Morse and the housemaid Bridget had also been considered suspects at a time, no one else was ever charged with the murders.

Lizzie Borden chose to remain a resident of Fall River, Massachusetts, despite facing ostracism. After her acquittal, Lizzie and her sister Emma bought a nearby house in 1893 after inheriting their father’s estate. A decade later, Emma moved out after an argument and the sisters never saw each other again. Lizzie Borden lived in Maplecroft until she died alone on June 1, 1927.

Today, Borden’s Queen Anne Victorian is for sale for $890,000 two years after it was initially listed at $845,000. (Apparently, there were a few buyers who got cold feet).

“The current owner has meticulously restored the property to its original splendor. The 4,000 square foot home features 8 bedrooms, 3 ½ bathrooms and 6 fireplaces. The home is being offered for sale completely furnished and has a variance to operate as a bed and breakfast. The home has been a private residence since it’s restoration: unseen by the public.”

If you can get past the possibility of a resident ghost that may or may not have murdered her parents, enquire within. For a suspected axe murderess, she certainly had impeccable taste in wallpaper.

But if you’re not in the market to buy, it might be worth mentioning that Borden’s original family home where the murders took place is still standing and operating as a bed & breakfast/ haunted house museum no less. Should you be so inclined, you can book a room “where the body of Abby D. Borden was discovered by Bridget Sullivan and the Borden’s neighbor, Mrs. Churchill. With it’s beautifully carved Eastlake bed and dresser, the room has been meticulously decorated to transport you back to that fateful morning.” Rooms start at $200 or you can rent the entire house “for family gatherings, ghost hunting, birthday parties, weddings, corporate outings, etc.”