The Legend of Lizzie Borden: Gruesome Truth or Fantastic Fiction?

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Lizzie Borden

You've mostly likely heard it. And it's what most people think of when they hear her name:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Lizzie Borden has been a perennial cult figure since her parents were murdered in 1892. The most enduring image of her is that of a maniacal young woman, hellbent on viciously murdering her father and step-mother, reveling in a premeditated bloodbath.

Some representations of Lizzie, pulled from pop culture

The reality of Lizzie Borden couldn't be more different.

Lizzie was born July 19, 1860 in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her mother, Sarah, died when Lizzie was only 2-years-old, and her father, Andrew—apparently a miserly, unpopular man—remarried when she was 5.

Lizzie never grew close to her step-mother, Abby, and referred to her only as "Mrs. Borden." From a young age though, Lizzie and her big sister, Emma, were extremely close. Not only was Lizzie an avid church-goer, she was a Sunday School teacher and was also involved in the temperance movement, which campaigned in favor of prohibition. Hardly a hell-raiser.


At the time of her father and step-mother's deaths, Lizzie was 32-years-old, and still living with her parents (as was the standard for single women at the time). Her step-mom was found face down in an upstairs bedroom, her head smashed. And her father died in the living room downstairs, struck in the face to the point that he was almost unrecognizable.

The murders were undoubtedly savage, and Lizzie came under immediate suspicion, thanks to the fact that police officers considered her demeanor too calm and collected the day the bodies were found. This, despite the fact that, at her trial, police admitted they had not searched her bedroom thoroughly that day, because she was feeling so unwell.

Police suspicions were further exacerbated by the fact that Lizzie's story was riddled with contradictions and unlikely scenarios. For example, she told police that she had removed her father's shoes and helped him into slippers when he came home from his daily walk that morning. Andrew's body was found still wearing boots.

In the days following the murders, Lizzie was seen cutting up and burning one of her dresses. She claimed it was ruined by a paint stain and several witnesses corroborated this. On another occasion, police were unnerved by the sight of Lizzie gazing at the bloody clothes of her father and step-mother, which had been placed in buckets in the basement by police. Officers also found a broken hatchet in the house and decided it was likely the murder weapon.

At the inquest, where Lizzie was denied the presence of the Borden family attorney, suspicions around her guilt increased, as she refused to answer certain questions. Her confused, incomplete testimony was, in all likelihood, not aided by the fact that she was under the influence of morphine, which had been given to her by a doctor to calm her nerves.

Coverage of Borden's murder trial

Three days after the inquest, Lizzie was arrested and held in jail for ten months, as she awaited her much-publicized trial. Evidence in the case was patchy, as no bloody clothes were ever located in the house, and doubts were raised about whether the found hatchet was actually the murder weapon. In addition, Lizzie claimed to be in the family's barn at the time of the killing, and a witness confirmed seeing her there. Also working in her favor? The sketchy testimony Lizzie had given at the inquest was deemed inadmissible, and she appeared a much more sympathetic figure during her trial. At one stage, she fainted at the sight of her parents' damaged skulls, which had been removed during autopsy.

In the end, after just an hour of deliberation, a jury found Lizzie not guilty. (A mock trial conducted at Stanford University in 1997 seconded the verdict.) Not that it helped—rumors of her guilt persisted, and she remained ostracized in her community for the rest of her life.

Once released, Lizzie changed her name to Lizbeth. She and her sister Emma moved out of the family home, and they lived together for 13 years. The arrangement ended after an argument over some parties Lizzie had thrown, which drove Emma out of the house. After Emma moved out, the sisters remained estranged for the rest of their lives. Strangely though, the two died just 9 days apart: Lizzie first, at the age of 66, from a bout of pneumonia; Emma, at the age of 76, from kidney disease.

The lifelong spinsters were buried side by side in Oak Grove Cemetery, next to their parents.

Lizzie Borden's grave

In stark contradiction to her reputation, Lizzie left most of her fortune—$567,000 in 2018 money, to be exact—to an animal charity, the Fall River Animal Rescue League, which still operates today. Across town, the original Borden family home also remains standing, almost entirely unchanged. It currently operates as a purportedly haunted tourist attraction and bed and breakfast. Thanks to Lizzie's persisting legend, during the hotel's summer peak season, parties of 10 can rent the entire house at a rate of around $1,645 a night. Rooms go for between $200 and $700. The house also offers ghost tours and psychic readings.

As the years have passed, theories about what really happened on Thursday, August 4, 1892, have been offered at regular intervals. Suggestions include: Lizzie did it in the nude (hence no bloody clothes); Emma did it; Lizzie did it in a fugue state; Andrew's illegitimate son did it; Lizzie and the maid, a secret lesbian couple, did it together; Lizzie did it to make sexual abuse at the hands of her father stop; the maid did it to make sexual abuse in the household stop. In addition, a nurse who treated Lizzie at the end of her life claimed that Lizzie had told her she had a boyfriend that her father hated, and that he was the one that committed the murders.


In the end, we'll never know if Lizzie Borden really did it. The truth about who killed Andrew and Abby was buried in the Borden family plot in 1927, the same day that Lizbeth was.