“I knew there was an old axe down cellar; that is all I knew.” —Lizzie Borden
On the night of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden repeatedly took an axe to the heads of her father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden—or that’s how the story goes.
With the violent and enigmatic murder of her parents, the case of 32-year-old Lizzie Borden of Fall River, Massachusetts rose to become the most famous trial of the late 19th century. Everyone seems to have their “take” on what happened that fateful summer day. Speculation has come in the form of everything from books and film to even dance and music. So if you’re into true crime, mysterious cases, and grisly details, stick around. Let’s sharpen that hatchet to 45 dreadful facts about the Lizzie Borden tragedy.
“Believe that you can make a difference; in fact, you do with every single choice you make. Your money is your power and each time you spend it, it’s a vote for something, so make it count. I personally live and work by this African Proverb – If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.” – Lizzie Borden
Lizzie Borden and the Fall River Tragedy Facts
45. Blood & Money
Obviously, the Bordens were not your average family. For one, they were very rich. Lizzie’s father and alleged victim, Andrew, was a wealthy property developer who also prospered in the making and sale of furniture and—wait for it—caskets. At the time of his death, Andrew’s estate was valued at $300,000, which is about $8.17 million USD in today’s money. Those must’ve been some really nice caskets.
44. Home, Dank, Home
Despite the family wealth, Lizzie’s home lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. That was considered odd because such accommodations were already very standard for well-to-do households at the time.
Then again, as this article will only continue to show, the Borden’s were an odd bunch.
43. Social Butterfly
The image of Lizzie Borden as a reclusive, shut-in spinster-come-killer is largely exaggerated. Lizzie was very involved in the community, especially in her church. She and her older sister, Emma, attended the Central Congregation Church, where Lizzie also taught Sunday school to the children of recent immigrants and served as secretary treasurer of the Christian Endeavor Society.
She was also part of the Women’s Christian Women Temperance Union, which championed national prohibition. Talk about making yourself unpopular to future historians.
42. The Second-Wife Blues
Lizzie’s father had remarried a few years after her mother’s death, and Lizzie believed her stepmother was a gold-digger.
During the police inquest, Lizzie always referred to Abby as “Mrs. Borden” and demurred on whether they had a cordial relationship.
That, in itself, is not evidence of Lizzie’s being the killer. Then again, it may have offered a potential motive…
41. Turning (Dad’s) Dime into a Dollar
In the months leading up to the murders, tensions were high in the Borden house. When Andrew gifted a home to his wife’s sister, his daughters Lizzie and Emma demanded that they too should receive a house. Their father sold them a rental property, the house they had lived in until their birth mother’s death, for $1. A few weeks before the murders, the girls sold it back to their father…for $5,000.
40. Sick Before the Storm
The entire Borden house fell violently ill just a few days before the murders. One family friend speculated that mutton left on the stove for several days had been the cause. In contrast, stepmother Abby feared poison. Perhaps Abby was aware that she had married a man who was not very popular in their town…
39. Mr. Congeniality He Was Not
Andrew Borden was not Fall River’s most beloved citizen. In fact, he had a reputation for being cheap and made a few enemies in business. Before the murders, a Portuguese man is said to have been in the home, a former work friend to the Bordens, but he was never identified. Lizzie herself feared that someone would hurt her father because “he is so discourteous to people.”
Then again, Lizzie’s testimony on the matter is a little hard not to take with a grain of salt.
38. A Close Call
The night before the murders, Lizzie’s maternal uncle, John Morse, was invited to stay a few nights to discuss business with her father. Morse had left the house on the day of the murders to visit another relative.
What do you think? Pretty convenient to leave just before the murders, no? Or perhaps incredibly unlucky, to have spent any time in that house at all.
37. Lizzie in Dance
Fall River Legend is an Agnes de Millie-choreographed ballet that retells the story of Lizzie and her family through dance. This American ballet premiered in 1948 at the Metropolitan Opera House, where it received generally positive reviews.
36. Laugh Track
The family maid Bridget Sullivan would go testify to an eerie incident that occurred on the morning of the murders. After Andrew returned from a morning walk, his key failed to open the door to the house. Sullivan came to help him, but she also found the door jammed, which caused her to swear. She then heard Lizzie laughing at the top of the stairs but not moving to help. Spooky.
That Lizzie was upstairs later became a key piece of evidence in her trial. A person who walked upstairs would have been able to see Abby’s body. If Lizzie was up there, wouldn’t she have known her step-mother was dead?
35. Strike One
Lizzie’s stepmother was killed first. According to forensics, Abby was upstairs and facing her killer at the time of the attack. First, the hatchet struck Abby at the ear, which caused her to turn and collapse facedown on the floor. The assailant then struck her 17 times at the back of her head, until she was dead.
That is, by anyone’s standards, overkill.
34. Sleeping Beauty
Andrew’s body was found slumped over the couch in the downstairs living room. His position, and the fact that one of his eyeballs had been split in two, suggested that he was attacked while asleep. Like his wife, Andrew was bludgeoned with a hatchet-like weapon and struck 10 or 11 times.
33. Gumshoe Gumption, Amateur Execution
Despite Lizzie’s variations in her attitude—and her alibis—when she spoke to the investigators, nobody ever bothered to check her for bloodstains. Gaffes such as these led others to criticize the investigation for its lack of diligence.
You would think that at Day 1 of police-officer-training, they would pretty much insist you get that one straight. If there’s a violent axe-murder, chances are the person responsible is going to end up with some blood on their clothes. Hmmmmmmm. Maybe check for that?
32. Exit Strategy Deferred
A store clerk testified that Lizzie had tried to purchase cyanide from his drug store—one day before the killings. He refused on the grounds that she did not have a prescription. I frequently forget to carry my cyanide prescription with me, it’s a common mistake. But seriously, it’s extremely odd that she would have been looking for something like that, so close to the date of the killings.
The judge, though, would later declare this coincidence inconsequential, and inadmissible as evidence in court.
31. Don’t Do the Crime If You Can’t Fake the Grime
In the family basement, police uncovered two hatchets, two axes, and a hatchet-head with a broken handle. This broken hatchet took center stage as the suspected murder weapon; the break in the handle was fresh, and the dust on its head appeared to have been deliberately applied, as if to make the hatchet look as untouched as the other tools.
30. Hey, It’s Cheaper Than Airbnb
There was a popular rumor going around that Lizzie’s uncle, John Morse, spent the night after the murders right in the murder-site guest room. The truth is slightly more decent: Morse spent the night in the attic guest room. At least in the attic you can hear when someone is sneaking up on you.
Even still, imagine two of your close family members were murdered by an axeman. Where are you spending the night? If you answered anything other than, “literally as far away as humanly possible” you’re a braver soul than me.
29. Next Time, Try Tide to Go
After the murders, Lizzie and her sister stayed with their friend, Alice Russell. The morning after, Russell entered her kitchen to find Lizzie tearing up a dress. According to Lizzie, she was simply putting the garment on the fire because it was covered in paint.
28. Dopey, The Stabbiest Dwarf
Although Lizzie had a lawyer present throughout her inquest hearing, she was prescribed regular doses of morphine to calm her nerves. It’s entirely possible this regime of drugs affected her testimony. Witnesses to the trial claim that Borden acted irrationally and irrationally, frequently refusing to answer questions even when the answers would have benefitted her case.
27. Lizzie’s Little Edits
Lizzie’s story to the cops was infamously erratic. At one point, she claimed to have been reading in the kitchen when her father arrived home, not laughing atop the stairs as the maid had claimed. Then, she claimed that she was ironing clothes in the dining room. And then, she was coming down the stairs, as the maid had placed her…
26. Seven Days of Freedom
Lizzie Borden was officially arrested on August 11, 1892—just one week after her father and stepmother’s murders. The madness was just beginning, and Lizzie was to face some serious and difficult questions.
25. Scrapping the Story
In June 1893, all the information drawn from Lizzie’s original inquest testimony was declared inadmissible in court. It’s this eliminated testimony that inspires much of the modern debate around Lizzie’s guilt or innocence.
24. Raising the Barn (and Suspicion)
At the trial, Lizzie finally stuck to an alibi: she told the court she had visited the barn on the day of the killings and was not in the house for “20 minutes or possibly half an hour.” A neighbor testified that he saw Lizzie leaving the barn at 11:03am. It was 11:10am when Lizzie called the maid to tell her that Andrew had been killed, but she did not tell Sullivan to go into the room where he died. Instead, Lizzie sent for her to fetch a doctor.
Andrew and Abby’s heads were removed during the autopsy. Their skulls were presented as evidence before the court during trial, which caused Lizzie to faint.
22. Justice in 90 Minutes or Less, Or It’s Free
On June 20, the jury deliberated for 90 minutes on Lizzie’s case. They declared her not guilty.
That verdict has remained controversial ever since. No other trial was ever brought against another person.
21. A Bloody Inheritance
It’s twisted to say aloud, but the Borden sisters struck gold when the hatchet struck their stepmother first. Because Abby died before Andrew, her personal wealth was transferred to her husband, and then, at his death, their combined estate was passed onto his daughters. Nevertheless, the daughters paid a considerable settlement to Abby’s family.
20. Rich and Acquitted
Despite their social misfortune, the Borden sisters stayed financially well off after Lizzie’s acquittal. With their inheritance, Lizzie and Emma moved into a large, modern house in the Hill neighborhood of their hometown. This house, which Lizzie nicknamed “Maplecroft,” came equipped with live-in maids, a housekeeper, and a coachman, who presumably lived in fear for their lives at least a tiny bit.
19. Name of the Game
After her acquittal, Lizzie began to go by the name of “Lizbeth A. Borden.” Despite her name change and the “not guilty” verdict, Lizzie remained ostracized by Fall River society. Surprise, surprise.
18. Sticky Fingers
Five years after the killings, Lizzie’s name and legal troubles made headlines again, albeit for less bloody reasons. She had been arrested for shoplifting in Providence, Rhode Island.
Here’s a bit of life advice: if you’re ever accused and then acquitted of horrifying murder in one of the most public trials ever to take place in American history, do NOT commit another crime in your lifetime.
17. She Went Stag to Her Own Funeral
Lizzie Borden died on June 1, 1927 at the age of 66.
The only people present for her internment were undertakers. Strange how a public belief that you are responsible for the grizzly murder of your own family-members can make you a little unpopular…
16. No Way to Treat a Lady
Some cite Lizzie’s acquittal to the reluctance of 19th century men to execute a woman. At the time of Lizzie’s trial, the state had not hanged a woman for centuries.
There are also criticisms of how she was questioned, as aspects of her life and mental state may have been considered “taboo” by the men in charge of her trial.
15. Fleeing the Nest
In 1905, Lizzie and her sister Emma had a falling out. Lizzie had given a party in their house for actress Nace O’Neill, of whom Emma did not approve. The fight ended with Emma moving out. Let’s appreciate how authentically #SiblingLove that is: “Murder trial? I’ll stand by you. Dramatic guests? In our house? I’m can’t live here anymore!” The sisters would never see each other again.
14. From the Womb to the Tomb
Emma died only nine days after her little sister Lizzie. Despite their estrangement, Lizzie and Emma were buried side by side at the family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery, as neither had ever married.
Strange how the bonds of family can persist even through such traumatic circumstances.
13. It Pays to Stay Friends with Wealthy (Acquitted) Killers
Upon her death, Lizzie left $30,000 ($567,000 USD in 2017) to the Fall River Animal Rescue League. She also left $500 ($9,000 USD in 2017) in trust for the perpetual care of her father’s grave. Other recipients of her will were her closest friend and a cousin, who each received $6,000 ($113,000 USD in 2017).
12. You Skip, I Nitpick
In addition to countless crime novels and television movies, Lizzie Borden’s case inspired a popular skipping-rope rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an axe / And gave her mother forty whacks. / When she saw what she had done, / She gave her father forty-one.” Obvious misnomers: it was Lizzie’s stepmother, not her mother, who was killed, and the couple gratefully suffered less than 40 and 41 blows.
11. Ay Carumba!
In the afterlife, Lizzie Borden has made many guest appearances in pop culture, including an episode of The Simpsons. This time, Lizzie—alongside other notorious figures like Richard Nixon, Benedict Arnold, and John Wilkes Booth—found herself in the jury box to determine the fate of Homer Simpson’s soul, which he had, of course, sold for a donut.
10. Putting Urban Myths on the Hot Seat
The weather keeps playing a role in Lizzie’s story. It’s said the murders happened on the hottest day of the year in Fall River, when it was over 100 degrees. In reality, it was only 83 degrees. The prosecution exaggerated the temperature to throw doubt on Lizzie’s alibi; she claimed to have been outside during her father’s death.
9. A Sapphic Scandal?
In his 1984 novel Lizzie, mystery author Ed McBain put forth a theory that Lizzie committed the murders after being caught in a lesbian affair with Bridget Sullivan. In her later years, there had been some speculation in Fall River social groups that the never-married Lizzie had been a lesbian, it remains just that: speculation.
8. Bloody Brother from Another Mother
A possible illegitimate son by the name of “William Borden,” was put forward as the possible culprit in Arnold Brown’s book, Lizzie Borden: The Legend, the Truth, the Final Chapter.
In the theory, William was Andrew’s son. Talk about extra intrigue.
7. Bacon With a Side of Bloodshed
If you’re a true crime aficionado, you can relive the grisly glory of the Borden murders at The Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast, set in the real Borden House. It’s both museum and bed & breakfast, and it opened in 1996. Sleep next to framed crime scene photos which jokingly tell you to “watch your head.” Peer into the dining room cabinet, where two model skulls show you exactly how the couple was bludgeoned. Even eat the exact breakfast the Bordens enjoyed on that fateful August morning! According to the owners, the room where Abby Borden was killed is the most requested bedroom among their guests.
6. Time of the Month, Scene of the Crime
Menstrual rags…or evidence? Police found a small pail of bloodied towels in the cellar, but the nature of its content remains dubious. Lizzie’s doctor assured them it was “all right” and Lizzie herself told authorities it had been there for three or four days. (The maid, however, said she had not seen the pail earlier that week, or else she would have put it in the wash.)
5. The Burn Book
In Lizzie’s post-trial years, a rumor floated around that Lizzie Borden had purchased all copies of Edward H. Porter’s The Fall River Tragedy and burned them, hence why the book is hard to find. The story was spread by Victoria Lincoln in her 1967 biography of Lizzie Borden. However, there has never been any evidence to support Lincoln’s claim. On the contrary, it looks like Porter’s book simply failed to sell well, which left about 500 to 1,000 copies gathering dust in an old barn.
4. Putting Money Where Their Mouths Were
Lizzie and Emma Borden set up a $5,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of their parents’ murderer. They took action into their own hands, to try and finally get justice.
Although the money was never awarded. You can’t fault them for trying.
3. Daddy Dearest
In 2012, the journals of Lizzie’s lawyer were uncovered. While they did little to offer a concrete answer on whether Lizzie was guilty or innocent, they offered some insight into her mind and family. The journals show that Lizzie grieved terribly for her father. Despite his reputation for being a cheapskate and tough businessman, by the standards of his day, Andrew was more generous towards his daughter than most fathers were expected to be.
2. Waking Nightmare
The family had a maid, an Irish immigrant named Bridget Sullivan. On that fateful night, Sullivan was still recovering from the flu and went to rest in her room, where she fell asleep. She woke up to become the first witness to the murders, rising to the sound of Lizzie screaming that her father was dead.
1. Hot Flash
The Lizzie Borden scandal has inspired decades of writers with their own theories. In 1992, one author put forward the maid Bridget Sullivan as the culprit. Apparently, Sullivan could’ve snapped in a murderous rage after being ordered to clean windows on that hot summer day—and while still recovering from the mysterious illness that afflicted the house.