Lizzie Borden

Annie Lee | Sep 15, 2022

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Lizzie Andrew BordenListen was an American woman born on July 19, 1860 and died on June 1, 1927. Protagonist of one of the most famous events in the United States, she was accused of killing her father and stepmother with an axe on August 4, 1892, in Fall River.

Having tried to buy poison the day before the double murder and having given contradictory testimony just after the fact, she was arrested and tried. Her lawyers presented her as a well-educated woman from a good family, who could not be guilty of such a violent act. The elements against her are rejected by the judge, which leaves little room for maneuver for the prosecution lawyers. After an hour of deliberation, the jury finds her not guilty. No other credible suspects were identified, although there were rumours about Lizzie's sister, Emma Borden, her uncle, John Morse, and the maid, Bridget Sullivan.

The motive of the murder is never confirmed: if the most often retained thesis is that of the inheritance of half a million dollars, other explanations suppose a psychiatric disorder in Lizzie, a revenge after years of incest.

After the death of their father and stepmother, Lizzie and Emma inherit the family fortune and together buy a house where they live a life of luxury. Ostracized by the Fall River community, they rarely go out, although Lizzie made a habit of throwing large parties at her home for visiting theater groups. After one of these parties, Emma left their home for a reason unknown to this day and never spoke to her sister again. When they died, maid Bridget Sullivan inherited all their property; like the Borden sisters, she refused to tell anyone about the events of August 4, 1892, until her death.

The double murder, the ensuing trial, and their media coverage, which is amplified by the rise of the print media, become a subject of study in criminology and make Lizzie Borden an icon of American folklore. A popular children's song, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, was composed about the case. In the 1950s, she became an icon of feminism because of the verdict obtained through Victorian sexist clichés that portrayed women as inherently weak. From that time on, popular theories did not seek to exonerate her so much as to justify the double murder.

Early life

Lizzie Borden was the second daughter of a wealthy businessman, Andrew Jackson Borden, born in 1822, and Sarah Borden, one year his junior. Andrew remarried in 1865, three years after the death of his first wife, to Abby Durfee Gray. Although his fortune was estimated at more than half a million dollars at the time, which is equivalent in 2019 to some ten million euros, Andrew categorically refused to settle in a posh district of the city, remaining in the working class neighborhood to limit his expenses. The Bordens also live with an Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan, born in 1869.

In her youth, Lizzie was involved in many charitable endeavors and was generally well liked by the people of Fall River, which is remarkable for a woman who is still single at the age of 32. Her friends describe her as sweet and helpful and say she has never been rude or mean. She is a Sunday school teacher in her parish and is affiliated with the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Like her older sister, Emma, who is about ten years older than she is, she doesn't get along well with her father and stepmother, who are known in the area for being stingy and unsympathetic. While Emma generally remains quiet and reserved despite the tensions, Lizzie regularly argues with them, especially because their strict financial control prevents her from participating in social events with her friends.

After the death of Andrew's first wife, Lizzie and Emma's mother, the atmosphere in the Borden household cooled considerably. Meals were rarely eaten together, and the sisters became estranged from their father after his decision to write a will that would deprive them of certain property. In 1887, Andrew offered a house to Abby's sister, which Lizzie and Emma considered to be favoritism. One house was to go to Abby's relatives, and a brother of Andrew's first wife, John Morse, was visiting the week of the double murder to facilitate the transfer of a piece of land where a house much loved by both sisters was located.

Double murder

A few days before the murder, the Borden parents and their maid Bridget become very ill. Abby is convinced that someone is trying to poison them and visits Dr. Bowen, the family doctor. The doctor diagnoses food poisoning from some questionable food served at dinner the night before.

On August 3, the day before the murder, Lizzie tried to buy hydrogen cyanide from a pharmacist, but was unsuccessful. That evening, she told a friend, Alice Russell, that she felt depressed: "as if something was on my shoulders and I couldn't get rid of it, and it comes on and off, wherever I am.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden had breakfast with his wife and John Morse, his first wife's brother, and left the house at about 9:00 a.m. to conduct business, leaving Abby, Lizzie, and Bridget at home; Emma was visiting friends, and Morse left in the morning. Lizzie asks Bridget to clean the windows on the first floor: the maid says she does so and then goes to the third floor to rest.

Andrew returned home at about 10:45 a.m. and lay down on the couch to take a nap. Lizzie claims to have entered the room about half an hour later and discovered her father dead, his skull shattered by eleven blows from a sharp instrument. It later turns out that the murder weapon was an axe, which split his skull in two, taking out his left eye; his head is no longer recognizable. Bridget testifies that she was sleeping on the third floor when, shortly after 11:00 a.m., Lizzie called her from downstairs saying that someone had killed her father.

The neighbors and the family doctor arrive quickly on the scene to take care of Lizzie. Meanwhile, Bridget climbs the stairs and finds Abby's dead body, even more mutilated than her husband's. Abby was killed with the first blow, but the killer continued to strike her with eighteen more axe wounds in the back. The investigation shows that her death preceded Andrew's by about an hour. At the end of the day, witnesses see Bridget leaving the house with a bag.

An axe matching the blows was found in the basement of the Borden home. Part of the wooden handle is missing, and the police assume that this is the bloodstained part that was cut off.

The police immediately suspect Lizzie, but do not arrest her right away. The only witnesses are Lizzie and Bridget, which makes the investigation very difficult. Lizzie provides several contradictory testimonies about her activities during the morning of the double murder. She first claims to have been in the barn looking for iron and making fish hooks, and then says she ate pears in the same place. Because the temperature on the day of the murder was so high, police believe it is highly unlikely that anyone would have gone into the barn in such high heat. In addition, Lizzie says that her mother-in-law was called by a messenger on the morning of the murders, but no other witnesses mention this. The inconsistency of Lizzie's claims can be explained by the fact that Dr. Bowen gave her morphine to help calm her down. Every door in the house is double locked, making it almost impossible for anyone outside the household to break in. The lack of credible suspects encourages speculation. Several suspects are proposed: a tenant in one of the houses Andrew owns, a Portuguese farmer who used to be an employee of the Bordens, a poorly dressed man seen on the street the morning of the murders with a badly wrapped package in his hand. The Borden sisters offer a $5,000 reward for information, but no credible leads emerge.

On August 6, the day of the burial of the two victims, the mayor of Fall River called Lizzie a suspect. More than 1,500 people attended the funeral, most of them onlookers. Andrew's sister's husband, Hiram Harrington, is interviewed the same day and recounts a recent conversation with Lizzie: for him, the only possible motive is that of the half-million-dollar inheritance; he points out that Lizzie showed no emotion during their conversation, but is not particularly surprised by this, saying that she is never emotional; during their discussion, he finds it suspicious that Lizzie insisted on the small tokens of love she gave her father when she returned home on the morning of the crime; however, this is not the kind of relationship she would have usually had with her father, according to Harrington.

The next day, Lizzie burns a dress that belongs to her. She claims that she stained the dress with paint. During the trial, the lawyers for the prosecution speculate that her dress was stained with blood and that she wanted to get rid of it.


On August 11, 1892, Lizzie was arrested; the next day, she pleaded not guilty to the double murder. A grand jury examined the case from November 7 to December 2. In June 1893, the trial took place in New Bedford. One of the lawyers for the prosecution was William Moody. Lizzie Borden's lawyers were Andrew Jennings, Melvin Adams and George Robinson.

The judge in charge of the case, considering that Lizzie did not receive sufficient legal support before providing her first testimony, which contained numerous contradictions, declared it inadmissible. He also refused to consider the testimony of the pharmacist, stating that the purchase of a toxic product did not constitute an intention to poison a person. These two decisions are highly criticized, since they remove the two main arguments of the prosecution. Reduced to relying on impressions, a lawyer for the prosecution described the murders as "not the work of a male force, but the work of a person who was only strong because of his hatred and desire to kill.

Emma is called to testify. She provides testimony that supports Lizzie, without clearly exonerating her or providing more information about the course of events, but her lack of conviction is very noticeable. She also did not react as one might have expected on the day of the murders; the two sisters slept in the family home without complaint, even as the bodies of their father and stepmother lay in the kitchen.

On June 20, 1893, after an hour of deliberation, the jury found Lizzie not guilty.

The trial received extensive national media coverage. Newspapers outside Massachusetts and feminist groups portrayed Lizzie as the innocent victim of incompetent police officers, regularly citing her involvement in her local church as evidence that she could not have committed a hate crime. The popularity of the case is multiplied by the contemporary democratization of mass newspaper reporting.

After the trial

After the trial, although acquitted, Lizzie was ostracized by the people of Fall River. Having inherited half of her father's fortune after his acquittal, she bought the Maplecroft mansion in an upscale neighborhood in the hills above Fall River and moved in with Emma. In the years that followed, she changed her name from Lizzie to Lisbeth Andrew Borden, using her father's name in everyday life, and lived more and more lavishly.

In 1897, her reputation was further tarnished when she was accused of shoplifting.

In 1904, Lizzie met Nance O'Neil in Boston. O'Neil is married and still in debt, while Borden, still single, has a lot of money set aside and does not hesitate to spend it. A rumor that O'Neil was a lesbian, the two women having become very close until 1906, it is possible that they had an intimate relationship.

In 1905, Emma abruptly left Maplecroft and the two sisters no longer spoke to each other. The reason for her departure is never explained, but two hypotheses emerge: that of a potential intimate relationship between Lizzie and Nance O'Neil, which would have shocked her deeply religious sister, and that Emma had discovered more information about the murder.

In 1926, Lizzie became seriously ill and had her gallbladder removed. A year later, she died of pneumonia at the age of 66. There was no official funeral announcement, and few people attended the funeral. She is buried under the name Lisbeth Andrew Borden in Oak Grove Cemetery. She bequeathed $30,000 to the Fall River Humane League, $500 to a fund to maintain her father's grave, and the rest of her fortune to her former maid, Bridget Sullivan.

Search for a mobile

Andrew's inheritance is a sensitive issue in the Borden family. According to the most recurrent hypothesis at the time of his trial, Lizzie resented her father for breaking the inheritance by giving property to distant relatives. This is the most plausible theory for many historians, and it would explain Emma's possible complicity, as the inheritance was divided equally between the two Borden sisters.

Research on incest made significant advances in the second half of the 20th century. In 1992, American Heritage magazine hypothesized that the Borden sisters were victims of incest. The mother's sexual unavailability and the father's sense of entitlement or recent loss are recurring factors in incest. Children aged four to nine are particularly vulnerable in these cases, and incidences of incest increase if extramarital relationships are strongly discouraged.

In the Borden family, all of these factors are present during Emma's childhood, and then Lizzie's. A Borden daughter, Alice, died of hydrocephalus just before her second birthday. Two years later, Lizzie was born; two years later, her mother, Sarah, died. During these four years, Sarah became seriously ill with "uterine congestion," a vague term for an unidentified disease. Between her illness, the death of one child and the birth of another, it is likely that she was less sexually available to her husband. Despite the presence of prostitutes in Fall River, it is unlikely that someone with Andrew's character would have chosen this option. After his wife's death, Andrew makes thirteen-year-old Emma the mistress of the house. He forbids their distant family to visit, isolating the Bordens, again a common pattern among incest victims. In this scenario, it is likely that Andrew first committed incest on Emma and then on Lizzie a few years later.

This transition would also have coincided with the arrival of Abby, the mother-in-law, in the family. The Borden sisters refuse to call her "Mom," which is understandable for Emma, but not so much for Lizzie, who is four years old when she joins the household. Abby, though young and healthy, never becomes pregnant, which might suggest a relatively chaste marriage. Lizzie and Emma, though wealthy and rather pretty, never have a confirmed romantic relationship. There is evidence that Lizzie was extremely close to her father and devoted to him without limit.

In this scenario, Abby is killed as an accomplice to incest. Emma's apparent indifference throughout the case can be explained by the fact that she is her father's former victim.

A theory proposes that Lizzie killed her father and her stepmother because they would have discovered her a lesbian affair. This theory of lesbianism is based on her supposed relationship, ten years later, with Nance O'Neil. The most common hypothesis in this scenario is a relationship with Bridget, the maid, which would explain why she testified on his behalf during the trial.

Another theory is that of "petit mal", catamenial epileptic seizures that are expressed as dissociation during her periods. Lizzie's mood swings are noticed by those close to her, and it is possible that she had a psychiatric condition such as dissociative identity disorder.

Search for a culprit

One theory is that Bridget Sullivan rebelled against her employers after being ordered to clean the windows just days after recovering from severe food poisoning and in the middle of a heat wave. Dying in 1948, she would have told her sister that she had changed her testimony in order to protect Lizzie: in this case, she would only be an accomplice to the crime.

Some analysis suggests that Emma is the real killer. Lizzie's contradictory testimony could be explained by the fact that she lied to protect her sister.

John Morse, the brother of Andrew's first wife, is sometimes cited as a suspect. The main proponent of the theory at the time was George Fish, the husband of one of Abby's sisters. He believes that Lizzie is an accomplice and that together she and Morse hired an assassin. The rest of the family immediately disputes this idea.

Dr. Bowen was also suspected at the time. According to some police officers, the doctor did not get along well with the Bordens. Two witnesses mentioned the doctor: Hiram Harrington, the husband of Andrew's sister, said he saw him burning a paper with the name "Emma" possibly written on it; another person said his character "was suspicious to say the least. An anonymous letter received by police says that on the day of the crime, Bowen and an unknown young man drove at high speed, "looking completely crazy." The letter asks if the doctor has an alibi and if he has been investigated.

One person suggests that David Anthony, a resident of the village who wanted to marry Lizzie, murdered the Bordens after they refused.

A final suspect is a Portuguese farmer to whom Andrew Borden refused to pay his full salary and who stopped by earlier in the week to demand that he pay him. This lead is taken seriously for a few months, as detectives at the time believe Abby was killed by a large man.

Arnold Brown puts forward the idea that Andrew Borden had an illegitimate son named Billy or William and that he murdered Andrew and Abby with the complicity of Lizzie. There is no evidence to support this theory.

Remarkable places

The house on Second Street where the murders took place is now transformed into a bed and breakfast. It is open daily to the public.

The Maplecroft residence went up for sale in late 2017 and was quickly purchased by the owners of the Second Street house, who announced they wanted to convert it into a bed and breakfast with tours.

Musical works

The case gives rise to a popular children's song:

Alice Cooper covers the first two lines in the song Inmates (We're all Crazy) on his 1978 album From the Inside.

Two ballets were written on the story of Lizzie Borden. The first, composed by Morton Gould and called Fall River Legend, was first performed on April 22, 1948 by the Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with Alicia Alonso in the title role and Agnes de Mille as choreographer. In October 2006, Lizzie, a darker revival of Fall River Legend, was presented by the Nashville Ballet with choreography by Paul Vasterling.

In 1965, Jack Beeson composed the opera Lizzie Borden. In 1976, Thomas Albert composed another opera, Lizbeth.

In 1985, the group Flotsam and Jetsam included the song She Took an Axe in their first album.

In 2011, the band Macabre released the album Grim Scary Tales, where each song tells the story of a gruesome case in American history. The song Lizzie Borden picks up on this story.

In 2017, an all-female cast British musical, LIZZIE, was performed at the Greenwich Theatre in London.

Several music groups have taken their names from them, including Lizzie Borden and the Axes, The Liz Borden Band's and, simply, Lizzy Borden.

Works of fiction

In 1955, an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock series, The Older Sister, presented an alternative version of the double murder. Twenty years later, Elizabeth Montgomery played the axe murderer in Paul Wendkos' ABC TV movie, The Legend of Lizzie Borden.

Sharon Pollock wrote Blood Relations at Theatre Tree, Edmonton, Canada in 1980. The play is set in 1902, but one scene is set in 1892 in Fall River. It explores the events leading up to the trial.

In 1981, Angela Carter wrote two short stories on the theme of double murder. One is entitled The Fall River Axe Murders, the second parodies children's stories under the name Lizzie's Tiger. The same year, Elizabeth Engstrom (en) published a novel entitled Lizzie Borden based on the known facts.

In 1984, Evan Hunter published the novel Lizzie: A Novel, in which Lizzie is the main character.

In 1989, Walter Satterthwait published Miss Lizzie, set in 1921. In 2005, he published the sequel, The Return of Miss Lizzie, which takes place three years later.

In 1997, Rick Geary created the comic book The Borden Tragedy: A Memoir of the Infamous Double Murder at Fall River, Massachusetts, 1892, in which he presents the fictional diary of a Fall River resident during the events.

Lizzie Borden's Tempest by Brendan Byrnes was performed at the New York International Fringe Festival in 1998. While Lizzie rehearses the role of Miranda in The Tempest with her drama club, Shakespeare's hurricane resurrects and reunites the Borden family. The central idea of the play is based on an actual theater program that featured a Miss Borden playing the role of Miranda in this play in Fall River at the time Lizzie might have been involved.

In 2004, the Discovery Channel aired a documentary entitled Lizzie Borden took an Axe, in which two detectives used modern forensic techniques to support the hypothesis that Lizzie committed the murders. Also in 2004, the premiere of Lizzie Borden: The Musical, by Christopher McGovern, played at the Stoneham Theatre in Massachusetts.

A year later, The Ghost Hunters search for paranormal phenomena at Lizzie Borden's house in episode 12 of season 2.

On August 1, 2014, the first episode of season 8 of the documentary series Femmes fatales produced by the Discovery Channel, presented as the first episode of the first season on Netflix, is dedicated to Lizzie Borden.

In the same year, the American TV movie Lizzie Borden did she kill her parents, aired on Lifetime on January 25, 2014, revisits the story with Christina Ricci in the lead role. Audience success during the broadcast, it gives birth to a direct sequel on the same channel, which uses the same cast: the eight-episode TV miniseries The Lizzie Borden Chronicles is broadcast in April 2015. It recounts fictional events that would have taken place after Lizzie's acquittal.

In 2018, Chloë Sevigny plays the title role in the film Lizzie directed by Craig William Macneill.

Feminist symbol

In Blood Relations, Sharon Pollock presents the double murder as a release of Lizzie Borden from the grip of her father. Other works of fiction, such as Elizabeth Engstrom's novel Lizzie Borden, suggest an incestuous context. Still others present Lizzie as a woman who buckled under the pressure of Victorian women. Feminist currents thus move from an attempt to exonerate Lizzie to an assumption that she is guilty of the murders, but they are explained by an oppression from which she must at all costs free herself: innocent or not, she is excused. Her trial is also strongly tinged with sexism, which gives her a significant advantage. Lizzie is seen as feminine, loving and respectable, because she is an educated woman from a wealthy family. Her lawyers' main argument is that a woman of her social class could not have committed a horrible crime, and for this reason she is eventually acquitted. After the murders, she changes completely, opening up to social life and attending large parties: single until her death at 66, she embodies the liberated woman of the time.

In the 1950s, for all these reasons, Lizzie Borden became a feminist icon.


  1. Lizzie Borden
  2. Lizzie Borden
  3. ^ During the 1892 inquest over her father and stepmother's death, Lizzie stated that she had been christened as Lizzie, not Elizabeth.[2]
  4. ^ Author Sarah Miller states in her 2016 book The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century that the account of Lizzie being profoundly upset over the deaths of the pigeons is unfounded and has become part of the myth surrounding her.[19]
  5. a et b (en-US) « Lizzie Borden Dies; Her Trial Recalled; Acquitted Thirty-three Years Ago of Murdering Wealthy Father and Stepmother » (), The New York Times,‎ 3 juin 1927 (ISSN 0362-4331, lire en ligne, consulté le 8 juin 2019).
  6. Fanthorpe, R. Lionel; Fanthorpe, Patricia (2003). The World's Most Mysterious Murders. [S.l.]: Dundurn. p. 142. ISBN 1-55002-439-6
  7. Scott, Gini Graham (2005). Homicide By The Rich And Famous: A Century Of Prominent Killers. [S.l.]: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 134. ISBN 0-275-98346-3
  8. FamilySearch. (Nicht mehr online verfügbar.) Ehemals im Original; abgerufen am 4. August 2022 (englisch).@1@2Vorlage:Toter Link/ (Seite nicht mehr abrufbar, Suche in Webarchiven)
  9. Cecil Adams: Did Lizzie Borden kill her parents with an ax because she was discovered having a lesbian affair? In: The Straight Dope. 13. März 2001, abgerufen am 4. August 2022 (englisch).

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