Borden was born in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her father, Andrew Jackson Borden, grew up in very modest surroundings and struggled financially as a young man, despite being the descendant of wealthy and influential local residents. He eventually prospered in the manufacture and sale of furniture and caskets, and went on to become a successful property developer. He directed several textile mills, including the Globe Yarn Mill Company, Troy Cotton, and Woolen Manufacturing Company. He also owned a considerable amount of commercial property and was both president of the Union Savings Bank and a director of the Durfee Safe Deposit and Trust Co. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at $300,000 (equivalent to $8,000,000 in 2016).
Despite his wealth, Andrew was known for his frugality. For instance, the Borden home lacked indoor plumbing on its ground and second floors and was located near Andrew's businesses. The residence at 92 Second Street (number 230 after 1896) was located in an affluent area, but the wealthiest residents of Fall River, including Andrew Borden's cousins, generally lived in the more fashionable neighborhood, “The Hill”. The Hill was farther away from the industrial areas of the city and much more homogeneous racially, ethnically and socioeconomically.
Lizzie and her older sister, Emma Lenora Borden (1851–1927), had a relatively religious upbringing and attended Central Congregational Church. As a young woman, Lizzie was very involved in church activities, including teaching Sunday school to children of recent immigrants to the United States. She was involved in Christian organizations such as the Christian Endeavor Society, for which she served as secretary-treasurer, and contemporary social movements such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). She was also a member of the Ladies' Fruit and Flower Mission.
Three years after the death of Sarah Anthony (Morse) Borden (1823–1863), Andrew's first wife and mother to Lizzie and Emma, he married Abby Durfee Gray. During police questioning and inquest, Lizzie stated that she called her stepmother "Mrs. Borden" and demurred on whether they had a cordial relationship. Lizzie believed that Abby was after her father's money. During the inquest, Bridget Sullivan, the Bordens' live-in maid, testified that Lizzie and Emma rarely ate meals with their parentsIn May 1892, Andrew killed the pigeons in his barn with a hatchet, believing the pigeons were attracting local children to hunt them. Lizzie had recently built a roost for the pigeons and was upset over their deaths. A family argument in July 1892 prompted both sisters to take extended "vacations" in New Bedford. After returning to Fall River, a week before the murders, Lizzie chose to stay in a Fall River rooming house for four days before returning to the family residence
Tension had been growing in the family in the months before the murders, especially over Andrew's gifts of real estate to various branches of Abby's family. After their stepmother's sister received a house, the sisters had demanded and received a rental property (the home they had lived in until their mother died) which they purchased from their father for $1; a few weeks before the murders, they sold the property back to their father for $5,000 (equivalent to $133,000 in 2016). The night before the murders, John Vinnicum Morse, the brother of Lizzie's and Emma's deceased mother, visited and was invited to stay for a few days to discuss business matters with Andrew. Some writers have speculated that their conversation, particularly about property transfer, may have aggravated an already tense situation.
For several days before the murders, the entire household had been violently ill. A family friend later speculated that mutton left on the stove for use in meals over several days was the cause, but Abby had feared poisoning, as Andrew Borden had not been a popular man. Of note, the Bordens did have an icebox and some historians believe that the hot weather at the time makes it unlikely it was not used.
Abby and Andrew Borden were murdered at their home on the morning of Thursday, August 4, 1892; Abby between 9:00 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., and Andrew between 10:30 a.m. and 11:10 a.m.
Although cleaning the guest rooms was one of Lizzie's and Emma's regular chores, John Morse had slept in the room the previous night, and Abby had gone up to the room to make the bed. According to the forensic investigation, Abby was facing her killer at the time of the attack. She was first struck on the side of the head with a hatchet which cut her just above the ear, causing her to turn and fall face down on the floor, creating contusions on her nose and forehead. Her killer then struck her multiple times, delivering 17 direct hits to the back of her head, until she was dead.
After breakfast, Andrew and Morse went to the sitting room where they chatted for almost an hour. Morse left to visit a relative at 8:48 a.m. and Andrew left for his morning walk sometime after 9 a.m. When he returned at around 10:30 a.m., his key failed to open the door, so he knocked for attention. Bridget went to unlock the door; finding it jammed, she uttered an expletive. She would later testify that she heard Lizzie laughing immediately after this; she did not see Lizzie, but she stated that the laughter was coming from the top of the stairs. This was later considered significant because Abby's body was visible through the gap between the bed and the floor when climbing the stairs, only becoming hidden by the bed upon reaching the top. Lizzie later denied being upstairs and testified that her father had asked her where Abby was, and she had replied that a messenger had delivered a summons to visit a sick friend. Lizzie stated that she then removed Andrew's boots and helped him into his slippers before he lay down on the sofa for a nap. (However, in his death photo, his shoes are clearly visible.) 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.
Lizzie gave two different accounts of what happened next: originally she stated that she went to the barn to look for iron or tin to fix a door and remained in the loft for 20 to 30 minutes eating pears. Police were skeptical, alleging that it was unlikely that anyone could stand the stifling heat of the loft for that long (though the temperature for that day only reached 83 degrees); they also reported finding no footprints in the dust.
Bridget Sullivan testified that she was in her third-floor room, resting from cleaning windows, when just before 11:10 a.m. she heard Lizzie call from downstairs, "Maggie, come quick! Father's dead. Somebody came in and killed him." (Lizzie always called Bridget Sullivan "Maggie", the name of an earlier maid.) Andrew was slumped on a couch in the downstairs sitting room, struck 10 or 11 times with a hatchet-like weapon. One of his eyeballs had been split cleanly in two, suggesting that he had been asleep when attacked. His still-bleeding wounds suggested a quite recent attack.
Lizzie's answers to the police officers' questions were at times strange and contradictory. Initially she reported hearing a groan, or a scraping noise, or a distress call, before entering the house, but two hours later she said she had heard nothing and entered the house not realizing that anything was wrong. When asked where her stepmother was, she recounted Abby receiving a note asking her to visit a sick friend. She also stated that she thought Abby had returned and asked if someone could go upstairs and look for her. Bridget and a neighbor, Mrs. Churchill, were halfway up the stairs, their eyes level with the floor, when they looked into the guest room and saw Abby lying facedown on the floor. Most of the officers who interviewed Lizzie reported that they disliked her attitude; some said she was too calm and poised. Despite Lizzie's "attitude" and changing alibis, nobody bothered to check her for bloodstains. Police did search her room, but it was merely a cursory inspection; at the trial they admitted to not doing a proper search because Lizzie was not feeling well. They were subsequently criticized for their lack of diligence.
In the basement, police found two hatchets, two axes, and a hatchet-head with a broken handle. The hatchet-head was suspected of being the murder weapon as the break in the handle appeared fresh and the ash and dust on the head, unlike that on the other bladed tools, appeared to have been deliberately applied to make it look as if it had been in the basement for some time. However, none of these tools were removed from the house.
The sisters' friend, Alice Russell, decided to stay with them while John Morse spent the night in the attic guest room, contrary to later accounts that he slept in the murder-site guest room. Police were stationed around the house, and later that night an officer saw Lizzie enter the basement and bend over the pails containing her parents' bloody clothing, an action never explained. The following night, Morse left the house and was swarmed by hundreds of people; police had to escort him back to the house. On August 6, police conducted a more thorough search of the house, inspecting the sisters' clothing and confiscating the broken-handled hatchet-head. That evening a police officer and the mayor visited the Bordens, and Lizzie was informed that she was a suspect in the murders. The next morning, Alice Russell entered the kitchen to find Lizzie Borden tearing up a dress. Lizzie explained that she was planning to put it on the fire because it was covered in paint. It was never determined whether or not it was the dress she had been wearing on the day of the murders.
Lizzie appeared at the inquest hearing on August 8. Her request to have her family attorney present was refused under a state statute providing that an inquest might be held in private. She had been prescribed regular doses of morphine to calm her nerves, and it is possible that her testimony was affected by this. Lizzie's behavior was erratic, and she often refused to answer a question even if the answer would be beneficial to her. She often contradicted herself, such as claiming to have been in the kitchen reading a magazine when her father arrived home, then claiming to have been in the dining room doing some ironing, and then claiming to have been coming down the stairs. She had also claimed to have removed her father's boots and put slippers on him despite police photographs clearly showing Andrew wearing his boots. The district attorney was very aggressive and confrontational. On August 11, Lizzie was served with a warrant of arrest and jailed. The inquest testimony, the basis for the modern debate regarding her guilt or innocence, was later ruled inadmissible at her trial in June 1893.
A grand jury began hearing evidence on November 7, and Lizzie was indicted on December 2.
Lizzie's trial took place in New Bedford starting on June 5, 1893. Prosecuting attorneys were Hosea M. Knowlton and future Supreme Court Justice William H. Moody; defending were Andrew V. Jennings, Melvin O. Adams, and former Massachusetts governor George D. Robinson.
Prominent points in the trial (or press coverage of it) included:The hatchet-head found in the basement was not convincingly shown to be the murder weapon. Prosecutors argued that the killer had removed the handle because it was bloody. One officer testified that a hatchet handle was found near the hatchet-head, but another officer contradicted this.
Though no bloody clothing was found, a few days after the murder Lizzie burned a dress in the stove, saying that it had been ruined when she brushed against fresh paint.
According to testimony, the maid, Bridget, went upstairs at around 10:58 a.m. and left Lizzie and her father downstairs. Lizzie told many people that at this time, she went into the barn and was not in the house for "20 minutes or possibly a half an hour". Hyman Lubinsky testified for the defense that he saw Lizzie leaving the barn at 11:03 a.m. and Charles Gardner confirmed the time. At 11:10 a.m., Lizzie called the maid downstairs, told her Mr. Borden had been murdered, and told her not to go into the room where he died. Instead, Lizzie sent the maid to fetch a doctor.
There was a similar axe-murder nearby shortly before the trial, though its perpetrator was shown to have been out of the country when the Bordens were killed.
Evidence was excluded that Lizzie had sought to purchase prussic acid (for cleaning a sealskin cloak, she said) from a local druggist on the day before the murders when the judge ruled that the incident was too remote in time to have any connection.
Because of the mysterious illness that had struck the household before the murders, the family's milk and Andrew's and Abby's stomachs (removed during autopsies performed in the Borden dining room) were tested for poison; none was found.
The victims' heads were removed during autopsy. The skulls were used as evidence during the trial – and Lizzie fainted upon seeing them – the heads were later buried at the foot of each grave.
The presiding Associate Justice, Justin Dewey (who had been appointed by Robinson when he was governor), delivered a lengthy summary that supported the defense as his charge to the jury before it was sent to deliberate.
On June 20, after deliberating an hour and a half, the jury acquitted Lizzie.
The trial has been compared to the later trials of Bruno Hauptmann, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and O.J. Simpson as a landmark in publicity and public interest in the history of American legal proceedings.
No one else was charged, and the murders continue to be the subject of research and speculation. Among those suggested to be the killer or killers by various authors are:Lizzie herself. Although acquitted at trial, she remains the prime suspect. One writer proposed that she committed the murders while in a fugue state. One prominent theory suggests that Lizzie was physically and sexually abused by her father. There is little evidence to support this, but incest is not a topic that would have been discussed at the time, and the type of methods for collecting physical evidence would have been quite different in 1892.
Bridget Sullivan, perhaps in rage at being ordered to clean windows on a hot day—the day of the murders was unusually hot—and while still recovering from the mystery illness that had struck the household. Mystery author Ed McBain, in his 1984 novel Lizzie, suggested that Lizzie committed the murders after being caught in a lesbian tryst with the maid. McBain elaborated on his theory in an episode of the 1999 Film Garden Entertainment video series Case Reopened. He speculated that Mrs. Borden had caught Lizzie and maid Bridget Sullivan together and had reacted with horror and disgust, and that Lizzie had killed Mrs. Borden with a candlestick. When her father returned she had confessed to him, but he had reacted to her revelation of the affair exactly as Mrs. Borden had. Enraged, she got one of the hatchets and killed him with it, with Bridget disposing of the hatchet somewhere afterward. In her later years, Lizzie Borden was rumored to be a lesbian, but there was no such speculation about Sullivan, who found other employment after the murders and later married a man. Sullivan allegedly gave a deathbed confession to her sister, stating that she had changed her testimony on the stand in order to protect Lizzie.
A "William Borden," Andrew Borden's illegitimate son, may have tried and failed to extort money from his father. This theory is advanced by Arnold Brown in his book Lizzie Borden: The Legend, the Truth, the Final Chapter.
Emma Borden, having established an alibi at Fairhaven, Massachusetts (about 15 miles away from Fall River, Massachusetts) comes secretly to Fall River to commit the murders and returns to Fairhaven to receive the telegram informing her of the murders.
John Morse, Lizzie's maternal uncle, rarely met with the family after his sister died, but came to stay with them the night before the murders. He was considered a suspect by police for a period of time.
After the trial, the sisters moved into a large, modern house in the neighborhood called "The Hill" in Fall River. Around this time, Lizzie began using the name Lizbeth A. Borden. At their new house, which Lizbeth named "Maplecroft", the sisters had a staff that included live-in maids, a housekeeper, and a coachman. Because Abby was ruled to have died before Andrew, her estate went first to Andrew and then, at his death, passed to his daughters as part of his estate; a considerable settlement, however, was paid to settle claims by Abby's family (especially Abby's two sisters).
Despite the acquittal, Lizbeth was ostracized by Fall River society. Lizbeth Borden's name was again brought into the public eye when she was accused of shoplifting in 1897 in Providence, Rhode Island.
In 1905, shortly after an argument over a party that Lizbeth had given for actress Nance O'Neil, Emma moved out of the house. She never saw her sister again.
Lizbeth was ill in her last year following the removal of her gallbladder; she died of pneumonia on June 1, 1927 in Fall River. Funeral details were not published and few attended. Nine days later, Emma died from chronic nephritis at the age of 76 in a nursing home in Newmarket, New Hampshire, having moved to this location in 1923 both for health reasons and to get away from the public eye, which had renewed interest in the sisters at the publication of another book about the murders. The sisters, neither of whom had ever married, were buried side by side in the family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery.
Lizbeth left $30,000 (equivalent to $555,000 in 2016) to the Fall River Animal Rescue League and $500 ($9,000 today) in trust for perpetual care of her father's grave; her closest friend and a cousin each received $6,000 ($111,000 today) — substantial sums at the time of the estate's distribution in 1927.
The case was memorialized in a popular skipping-rope rhyme sung to the tune of the then-popular song Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.
Or the slightly more gruesome variation;
Folklore says that the rhyme was made up by an anonymous writer as a tune to sell newspapers. Others attribute it to the ubiquitous, but anonymous, "Mother Goose".
In reality, Lizzie's stepmother suffered 18 or 19 blows; her father suffered 11 blows."Lizzie Borden," a song in the 1952 musical and 1954 film New Faces of 1952.
The Legend of Lizzie Borden, a 1975 ABC film based on the case. Lizzie was played by Elizabeth Montgomery. Montgomery and Lizzie Borden were sixth cousins once removed, both descending from 17th-century Massachusetts resident John Luther. Rhonda McClure, the genealogist who documented the Montgomery-Borden connection, said, "I wonder how Elizabeth would have felt if she knew she was playing her own cousin." One of the gowns worn by Montgomery in the film is on display at the bed-and-breakfast that now occupies the Borden house.
Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, a U.S. television movie that premiered on Lifetime on January 25, 2014 with Christina Ricci in the title role.
The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, a limited series and sequel to the above TV movie that premiered on Lifetime on April 5, 2015 (with Ricci again playing Lizzie), which presents a fictional account of Lizzie's life after the trial.
"The Fall River Axe Murders," a short story by Angela Carter, was published in her 1985 collection Black Venus (ISBN 978-0701139643). Another Lizzie Borden story by Carter was "Lizzie's Tiger", in which Lizzie, imagined as a four-year-old, has an extraordinary encounter at the circus. The story was published in 1993 (posthumously) in the collection American Ghosts and Old World Wonders. Two versions of this story have been broadcast as readings on BBC Radio, unabridged on August 26, 1991 read by Liza Ross and abridged on June 29, 2012 read by Debora Weston.
Lizzie Borden, a 1965 opera based on the case.
Miss Lizzie, a 1989 novel by Walter Satterthwait, takes place 30 years after the murders and recounts an unlikely friendship between Lizzie Borden and a child and the suspicions that arise from a murder.
Lizzie Borden, another musical adaptation with music and lyrics by Christopher McGovern and Amy Powers, starring Tony nominee Alison Fraser premiered in 1998. A cast album was recorded.
"The Older Sister," an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Season 1, Episode 17, first aired January 22, 1956), written by Robert C. Dennis and Lillian de la Torre, and directed by Robert Stevens. Set a year after Lizzie was acquitted for the murder of her parents. Ambitious reporter Nell Cutts barges into the home of the Borden sisters Lizzie and Emma in the hopes of an exclusive interview. Cutter's aggressive questioning causes Emma distress, but it turns out that Emma killed their parents, and Lizzie was merely trying to protect her.
Lizzie, a 2017 American biographical thriller film directed by Craig William Macneill and written by Bryce Kass. The film stars Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jay Huguley, Fiona Shaw, Jamey Sheridan, Kim Dickens, Denis O'Hare, and Jeff Perry.
"Thin Lizzie," an episode of Supernatural (Season 11, episode 5, first aired November 4, 2015), written by Nancy Won, and directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green. Sam and Dean investigate the murder of a couple in a hotel that used to be the home of Lizzie Borden.