“Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.”
On the morning of August 4, 1892, Bridget Sullivan, a maid for the household of the Borden family in Fall River, Massachusetts, was resting in between cleaning duties. Around 11 A.M., she heard the Bordens’ eldest daughter, Lizzie, scream, “Come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.”
Arriving downstairs in the family’s parlor room, Bridget saw Andrew Borden slumped on the couch. Andrew’s face was gashed so badly he was unrecognizable, one eye had been split in half, and his nose had been cut off. His injuries indicated he had been attacked by a sharp object.
Bridget sent Lizzie across the street to get the doctor. In the meantime, their neighbors heard the commotion and began to crowd around the Borden home. When Lizzie returned, neighbors questioned her on the whereabouts of her stepmother, Abby. She claimed to not know where she was, but thought she had heard her return home.
When Dr. Bowen arrived, he observed Andrew’s body and found that he was stabbed about 10 times. Minutes later, Lizzie again suggested that Abby was home, and perhaps she was upstairs. Bridget and a neighbor went upstairs and found Abby lying facedown in the guest room in a pool of blood.
She had been stabbed in the back more times than Andrew, and the blood indicated that she had been deceased for much longer.
Police were called around 11:15 A.M., however, since most of the officers were out for the department’s annual picnic, only one officer was dispatched to the scene. Once Officer George W. Allen arrived at the home and realized the gravity of the crime, he returned to the station for backup.
In the 30 minutes during which he left the crime scene unattended, neighbors filtered in and out of the house, trampling any potential clues.
The investigation into the deaths was nothing short of messy. Lizzie initially claimed that the family suspected their milk was being poisoned by an enemy of her father’s, as they had all been feeling sick in the days leading up to the murders. The police also followed many other clues that led nowhere.
As all their theories eventually reached dead ends, the focus of the investigation shifted to Lizzie. Police were initially hesitant to suspect her, as it was unheard of for a woman to commit such a crime.
However, the evidence was slowly stacking up against her. Police couldn’t ignore her changing alibis or the relaxed attitude she took after the murders occurred. Adding to Lizzie’s guilt was a broken hatchet head police found in the Borden’s basement, which was suspected as the murder weapon and later confiscated.
According to witnesses, the relationship among Lizzie and her father and stepmother was tense in the months before the murders. Lizzie and her sister, Emma, were reportedly upset about the money their father lavished on Abby and her family, rather than on his two daughters. When questioned, Lizzie was vague on her feelings toward her stepmother.
On August 8, an inquest hearing was conducted, and without the aid of an attorney, Lizzie further incriminated herself. She was arrested on August 11 and remained in prison until her trial in June 1893.
The trial was widely publicized at the time, both for the manner in which the Bordens were murdered, and also because a woman was on trial. Much of the prosecution’s evidence and testimony was inconclusive, and Lizzie was acquitted on June 20.
Despite being found not guilty, Lizzie remained a pariah in her hometown. Lizzie moved into another home in Fall River with her sister and lived off the money left by both her father and stepmother’s estates.
Lizzie died of pneumonia on June 1, 1927. No one else was ever charged with the murders.
Other than the popular nursery rhyme, the folklore and speculation about the murders continues to this day. Most recently, a television miniseries starring Christina Ricci, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, imagined the life of Lizzie after her acquittal.
Her reputation has even extended to superhero levels, as seen in Walter Satterthwait’s novel, Miss Lizzie, in which she fights crimes in place of committing them. Thirty years after her own parents were killed, Miss Lizzie befriends a 13-year-old girl who faces a frighteningly familiar tragedy.
“Don’t you dare,” she said, standing up and moving around the table, toward him, “don’t you dare call me that, you sneaky little bastard.” Next to him now, she slapped him viciously across the face. In the tiny kitchen the sound was as loud as an explosion. I heard Mrs. Mortimer gasp. William shut his eyes and his fingers clutched at his forearms, knuckles turning white.
She hit him again. “Bastard! I’m not good enough for you, I was never good enough for you, I’m just fat old Audrey, stupid old Audrey.” She hit him again, backhanded. “You bastard, you bastard, you bastard.”
William stood up. He towered over her and still she hit at him. He turned and, without a word, moved toward the rear entrance to the house. She stayed close behind, hitting at him with both hands now, left, right, smacking at him. I stood up and followed them. I was afraid that William might strike back at her — strong as he was, he might have killed her. I think I believed that I could stop him.
Out on the back porch, her arms still flailing at him, he opened the screen door. He turned to her. She stepped back—suddenly afraid, perhaps, that at last he would strike back: He said, “You’ll be sorry, Audrey,” and then he went down the steps, closing the door behind him.
She slammed the door open and went down the steps, stopped at the bottom and called out after him: “You bastard!”
Without turning back, walking slowly, in no hurry, he disappeared behind the hedges. Then my stepmother turned and saw me standing there in the doorway.
For a moment, I think, she was going to hit me. Her eyes narrowed and her body tautened. But she hesitated. Perhaps she considered how Father might have reacted if he learned of it.
She took a deep breath, exhaled, and snapped at me, “Get out of my way.”
I stepped back, and she tramped up the stairs and passed me.
Mrs. Mortimer was almost at the front door. My stepmother called out to her, “Esther!”
I stepped into the kitchen. Quickly, I sneaked a gulp of coffee from her cup: I would get something for myself, despite all this melodrama. Then I left the kitchen and ran up the back stairs to my bedroom. I locked the door behind me.
I pulled open the bottom right-hand drawer of the dresser. The two decks, a stripper deck and a marked deck, had been underneath a box of stationery. The box looked untouched. She must have come up here last night, while I was reading in the parlor. Which meant that she had probably known for some time that the cards were there. For how long?
I felt as though I had been violated. The woman had no right to go through my things, no right to take the cards.
I shut the drawer, crossed the room, flounced onto the bed. What would Father say when he learned that I had been going over to Miss Lizzie’s nearly every day?
I heard the front door shut, heard my stepmother moving around downstairs. She was alone.
From the bottom of the stairs she called out my name. I did not answer. For a few moments I was afraid that she would come upstairs; but she did not.
What was it that William had done with Marge Grady? What was it that Marge had done that made her a slut? And what was in the package that my stepmother had thrown to the table? What did it have to do with him “sticking it in her”? What had my stepmother meant by that? And why had the woman been so incensed?
It was as though all these questions were too much for me. After a while, lying there, I fell asleep.
I awoke out of a dream, one I can no longer remember. But it had been one of those dreams — we all have them, I think — which seem so foreign that they might have been dreamed by someone else, with us acting only as a means, a medium. And, because shreds and wisps of the other still cling to the wisps and shreds of ourselves, we are appalled and frightened at how frail a thing our personalities, our identities, truly are. (After we regain ourselves, of course, we forget the truth and dream, once again, that we are immutable.)
I looked at the clock on the nightstand. Twelve-fifteen. I had slept for almost two hours.
I sponged my face again at the washbasin, then went downstairs to find my stepmother. I knew that I had not gambled, had never gambled, and I wanted my cards back.
Usually at this time my stepmother would be in the parlor, doing needlepoint, or up in the guest room taking a nap.
The parlor was empty.
I climbed up the front stairs to the guest room. Its door was at the top of the landing, opposite the door to William’s room.
In the air was the smell of lilacs — my stepmother’s favorite scent — and it was mingled with another smell, this one heavier, metallic, vaguely remembered but for the moment unidentifiable.
The guest-room door was open and she was lying on the bed.
The eye can see, and the mind understand, only what they already know. (This is of course the principle upon which magic is worked.) Confronted with a thing which is new, a thing which is impossible, they will perceive it as something else, something with which they are familiar.
And so at first I thought, absurdly, that the thin dark striping that covered her heavy body was a piece of netting, of the kind the local fishermen used, and I wondered what she was doing with it. And then I saw that her face was quite literally falling apart. Her forehead was sliced open, pink brain showing through the bloody rent, and a flap of skin hung loose from her cheek, exposing the white bone of her skull. Her left eye was gone and her right stared sightlessly upward. And I saw that the striping that covered her was, in fact, her own blood, and that it was everywhere, the walls, the ceiling, the bed. The pillow beneath her head was black with it, soaked through, and this was the smell that hung in the air behind the smell of lilacs, the stench of blood, and, backing out of the room, I could no longer breathe that thick dreadful coppery reek, my throat had closed against it.
I tottered down the stairs and unbolted the front door and went reeling from the house. Numb, my vision narrowed to see only what lay directly before me, I staggered across the lawn, seeking out the one person nearby who might help me. Seeking out Miss Lizzie.