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Lizzie Borden, Sensational Victorian Murder

Entrance way to the house.  The door leads to the sitting room, where Andrew died on the sofa

Entrance way to the house. The door leads to the sitting room, where Andrew died on the sofa

Every year I take the week (or two) after Christmas as a vacation from Life. I play computer games, avoid family (all but those living at my house), friends, the internet, television, radio, newspapers. This year though, the vacation stretched longer and finally my husband and I decided we needed to get out of the house. Where did we go? Well naturally to see Lizzie Borden’s house!

I’ve spent the majority of my life in New England, so I pretty much grew up with the lore of Lizzie Borden, along with the famous ditty, “Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks, when she was done she gave her father 41″. I’m not quite sure if this is something the rest of the U.S knows about, never mind other areas of the world. So for those who don’t know the story–a little history. In 1892, Fall River Massachusetts, the police were called to the home of Andrew and Abby Borden. When they got there they discovered a horrific murder, even by today’s standards. Abby died in the upstairs guest room, Andrew on the parlor sofa. Abby had been hit by a sharp instrument in the back of the head many, many times. Andrew in the front of the head, pretty much obliterating his face. His nose was gone, an eyeball cut in half. If you look at the pictures (I don’t have one, but they do at the house) you can only make out Andrew’s face by finding his ear, and then his chin. What is left is indiscernible.

The only plausible suspect was Andrew’s 32 year-old-daughter Lizzie.

At the time of the murder, there were 5 people living at the house–Andrew, Abby (his second wife, and stepmother to his two daughters) Emma (his older daughter and 10 years Lizzie’s senior), Lizzie, and the maid Bridget. Emma was away and had been for almost two weeks. Bridget had nothing against her employers. A relative staying with them for one night had only amiable relations with the Bordens. That left Lizzie. Lizzie did NOT have amiable relations with Andrew and Abby. In fact, she called Abby Mrs. Borden.

The guest room, where Abby died, between the bed and the mirror.

The guest room, where Abby died, between the bed and the mirror.

I give the police credit. They did run down leads, they did try to find other viable suspects. This was 1892 and the idea that anyone, never mind a woman and daughter, could do something so heinous was difficult to believe. But in the end, no one else had any motive, never mind real opportunity, to kill the two. The doors of the house were always locked. Although Andrew was mean (in Victorian parlance, meaning stingy) he was considered an honest man. He had no enemies. It’s difficult to establish an exact time of death for Abby, but due to testimony by Lizzie, Bridget and neighbors etc, we know Andrew died probably in a 20 minute time period, between 12 noon and 12:20. It’s just inconceivable that an outsider could have caused all that damage in the time period, never mind kill Abby (it is assumed a good hour and a half before, based upon stomach contents–but this was 1892 and I’m wary of the forensic abilities back then) as well. Without anyone hearing?

So Lizzie was brought to trial. And acquitted. Why? Lack of evidence perhaps, but without having read the entire proceedings (I’m in the process right now) I would speculate that it was due to the time period and the thinking of women back then. In 1893 a jury of Lizzie’s “peers” consisted of 12 men–women did not serve on juries at this time. She was a daughter and rather pretty and from a “good” home. No one wanted to believe she could have done such a thing, never mind 12 middle-aged men. So she was let go and went on to inherit her parents’ money and live many more years, even while most of Fall River believed her guilty, possibly up to and including her sister.   The jurors were so happy with their verdict that they had a picture taken of them the day of the acquittal and gave it to Lizzie.  It (or a copy, I’m not sure) currently hangs in the house.

I have always believed Lizzie did it. Never a doubt in my mind. From watching way too much television, I’ve concluded that viciousness of the murders and the fact that the murderer obliterated Andrew’s face indicates extreme anger and a personal relationship. The medical examiner determined that both victims died with the first blow. But the axe was swung an estimated 10 blows on one victim and 20 on another (I’m not completely sure of my facts). If this was just murder, you’d have though 2-4 blows would have sufficed.

But why? Well I knew from bits and pieces that Andrew was a skin-flint. But exactly how bad I didn’t know until I visited the house. Understand that Andrew at the time of his death was worth about 1/2 million dollars. In 1892. But the house was small–smaller than what I currently live in and we are middle-class–for 5 grown adults. Moreoever while it had radiators, thus a certain degree of warmth, there was no gas-lighting (never mind electricity) and no hot running water. Andrew refused to have either installed in the house–it was a waste. My characters in Wicked Woman had hot running water and gas lighting in 1855! And I researched this. Although both were new at the time in, Boston, just an hour or so away, the city had both.  And we’re not comparing the “luxuries” to something like cable television. Women in this period were required to take care of the house, even if they had a maid. To clean a house without hot water? Oh yes, I can see Lizzie’s rage.

Lizzie's room.  That's the doorway, there, between Lizzie's room and her parents.

Lizzie's room. That's the doorway, there, between Lizzie's room and her parents.

The other thing that struck me was the floor plan of the house. When Andrew bought it in 1870 or so, it was a two family house (which I found every enlightening, because I’ve got a similar layout for a book I’m currently plotting. Nice to know they exisited back then!). He had it made into a single family house, but still, there are no hall ways. This is fine for the lower floor. It makes sense to go from the dining room into the kitchen or the sitting area or front room. But the layout was the same upstairs for the bedrooms.  Thus in order for Emma to get to her room, she had to go through her sister’s, Lizzies. In addition, there was a connecting door between Lizzie’s room and her parents. It was locked, bolted and never used. That makes sense but Lizzie also had her bed kitty-cornered in the room, wedged against the door.  It makes me wonder if at some point there was some sort of sexual abuse. 

There’s more–everyone in the house locked the doors to their bedrooms.  Also, I wonder in the Victorian era why two not-horribly-ugly women would not marry? Ever–not even after their father died. It’s strange to me. It was strange to the people back then as well. Many referred to the Borden’s as “odd” and “peculiar”.

I could go on and on and on, but there are books out there. What I’m reading right now is Lizzie Borden: a Case Book of Family and Crime in the 1890′s, by Joyce G. Williams J. Eric Smithburn and M. Jeanne Petersen. You could too, if you’re ever in the area visit the home. You can take a tour–or you can actually sleep there! It’s a Bed and Breakfast now. Me, I happily took the tour, but sleeping? I don’t know. That’s something I’d have to give a lot of thought to!

Here’s the link to the house, for more information http://www.lizzie-borden.com/   I’ve also added a few more photos to our Picture Page–take a look!

***I’ve had a complaint that I didn’t include photos of the victims.  I don’t actually have them, but if anyone’s interested here’s a site:  http://www.lizzieandrewborden.com/CrimeLibrary/Crime%20Scene%20Photos.htm

These are, by the way, the photos that the owners of the bed and breakfast used to re-create the rooms to the best of their abilities.

13 Responses

  1. I’ve heard this story many times, Dee. And they’ve done it on the History Channel too! I agree with you that Lizzie is the likely suspect and your reasons she got off as well. The house sounds a lot like Jenny Wade’s house in Gettysburg, PA. That was a two family home too. And the rooms were all so tiny by today’s standards. And my house is a small city rowhouse, so my rooms aren’t all that big.

    Lizzie Borden’s story is an interesting one.

  2. Great information, Dee. Her story has always intrigued me. You brought a lot of information to light that I hadn’t heard before. It was such an interesting read. Thanks!

  3. [...] You can read the post here. If you have trouble finding the picture gallery, click here. [...]

  4. Well written, informative and just a lot of fun. Thanks for putting this post together. And thanks for the trackback to my own post on yours.

  5. this website is not good. because i want to see blood. so do other people and a picture of lizzy borden murder and the ax she used to kill her parents with.also a picture of lizzy borden.

  6. Hey Emily, if you take a trip to the inn you can see those pictures first hand. But it’s been over a hundred years and the photography back then was very poor in comparison to today’s, and black and white to boot..

    They are not at all sure which ax killed the Bordens. And Lizzy was acquitted, so techinically she didn’t kill them with anything, never mind an ax.

    If you want to see blood, I suggest CSI or the Saw movies.

  7. [...] considered the illness that killed Dr. Chapman. It was implicated in some small degree in the deaths of Lizzie Borden’s parents.  Cholera Morbus is now thought to have been food-born illnesses due to poor food [...]

  8. My father’s family are cousins to Lizzie Bordon via his mother. Could you tell me how I can find out the names of the juors, we had a few relatives who served on her jury. I have done internet searches, but to no avail. Thanx! :D

  9. scared the crap out of me :(

  10. found the information about this sensational murder because i am a geek and love to learn about the history in the past

  11. Superb article, well written I must say.

  12. the bordens were not killed by an axe !

  13. I have visited the house many times and have never found the rooms particularly small or cramped. I think that house is cozy, comfortable and downright pleasant. Only five adults lived there, and when not cleaning them, the family rooms were off limits to the maid. The house did have running water when the Borden’s lived there. In fact, Andrew paid a monthly water bill for two spigots: one upstairs and one downstairs. Water was heated on the stove for various purposes when needed. Victorian vacuum cleaners had to be pumped manually. Just because domestic electricity was available doesn’t mean that people rushed out to get all the latest gadgets at once. (When color TV was available, Hollywood continued to produce black and white programs for years.) Spinsterhood was not unheard of in Victorian days, so the fact that the Borden sisters never married is hardly unususual nor should be a reason to make 21st speculation about their sexuality like some authors have done. Virginity was once considered a desirable virtue, and sometimes continued after marriage. If anyone thought that Lizzie’s and Emma’s spinsterhood was “strange,” it was because the Borden’s were socially connected, which should have given the sisters an advantage over other women. Of course people said that the Borders were odd – after the murders.

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