How Did 19th-Century Ax Murderer Lizzie Borden Become a Household Name?

The Wealthy Yankee’s Brutal Crime Went Unpunished, Infuriating an Increasingly Diverse and Egalitarian Public

How Did 19th-Century Axe Murderer Lizzie Borden Become a Household Name? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Illustration by Be Boggs.

What It Means to Be American The Lizzie Borden murder case abides as one of the most famous in American criminal history. New England’s crime of the Gilded Age, its seeming senselessness captivated the national press. And the horrible identity of the murderer was immortalized by the children’s rhyme passed down across generations.

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

While there is no doubt that Lizzie Borden committed the murders, the rhyme is not quite correct: sixty-four-year-old Abby was Lizzie’s stepmother and a hatchet, rather than an ax, served as the weapon. And fewer than half the blows of the rhyme actually battered the victims—19 rained down on Abby and ten more rendered 69-year-old Andrew’s face unrecognizable. Still, the rhyme does accurately record the sequence of the murders, which took place approximately an hour and a half apart on the morning of August 4, 1892.

Part of the puzzle of why we still remember Lizzie’s crime lies in Fall River, Massachusetts, a textile mill town 50 miles south of Boston. Fall River was rocked not only by the sheer brutality of the crime, but also by who its victims were. Cultural, religious, class, ethnic, and gender divisions in the town would shape debates over Lizzie’s guilt or innocence—and draw the whole country into the case.

In the early hours after the discovery of the bodies, people only knew that the assassin struck the victims at home, in broad daylight, on a busy street, one short block from the city’s business district. There was no evident motive—no robbery or sexual assault, for example. Neighbors and passersby heard nothing. No one saw a suspect enter or leave the Borden property.

Moreover, Andrew Borden was no ordinary citizen. Like other Fall River Bordens, he possessed wealth and standing in the city. He had invested in mills, banks, and especially real estate in a town that was booming as Irish, French Canadian, and Portuguese immigrants, among others, made the town a dynamic, if destabilized, place to live.

But Andrew had never made a show of his good fortune. He lived in a modest house on an unfashionable street instead of on “The Hill,” Fall River’s lofty, leafy, silk-stocking enclave. Thirty-two-year-old Lizzie, who lived at home, longed to reside on The Hill. She knew her father could well afford to move away from a neighborhood increasingly dominated by Catholic immigrants.

It wasn’t an accident, then, that police initially considered the murders a male crime, probably committed by a “foreigner.” Within a few hours of the murders, police arrested their first suspect: an innocent Portuguese immigrant.

Likewise, Lizzie had absorbed elements of the city’s rampant nativism. Consider what happened on the day of the murders: Lizzie claimed that she came into the house from the barn and discovered her father’s body. She yelled for the Bordens’ 26-year-old Irish servant Irish servant, Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, who was resting in her third-floor room. She told Maggie that she needed a doctor and sent the servant across the street to the family physician’s house. He was not at home. Lizzie then told Maggie to get a friend who lived down the street.

Yet Lizzie never sent the servant to the Irish immigrant doctor who lived right next door. He had an impressive educational background and served as Fall River’s city physician. Nor did Lizzie seek the help of a French Canadian doctor who lived diagonally behind the Bordens. Only a Yankee doctor would do.

And these same divisions played into keeping Lizzie off the suspect list at first. She was, after all, a Sunday school teacher and young woman leader of her wealthy Central Congregational Church. People of her class could not accept that a person like Lizzie would slaughter her parents. For one thing, Victorian women typically committed murder by poisoning their victims. Just six years before, in the industrial town of Somerville, Massachusetts, Sarah Tennant, a Scots-Irish immigrant, went on a murder spree—poisoning six people, including her husband and three daughters. Her actions escaped police notice because she was an impoverished member of the working class, and in the end she was caught primarily because she poisoned too often and too quickly.

But during the interrogation, Lizzie frustrated police as her answers to different officers shifted. Above all, her unruffled demeanor and inability to summon a single tear in the aftermath of the domestic savagery aroused police suspicion. Then an officer discovered that a woman identified as Lizzie had tried to purchase deadly prussic acid a day before the murders in a nearby drugstore.

Fall River was rocked not only by the sheer brutality of the crime, but also by who its victims were. Cultural, religious, class, ethnic, and gender divisions in the town would shape debates over Lizzie’s guilt or innocence—and draw the whole country into the case.

To understand what was going on as the crime was solved, I think it helps to understand how the police force was changing its ethnic makeup at the very time the Borden investigation occurred. As Fall River’s immigrant population surged, the size of the police force had grown apace and more Irishmen turned from millwork towards policing.

On the day of the murders, Irish police were among the dozen or so who took control of the Borden house and property. Some interviewed Lizzie. One even interrogated her in her bedroom! Consider the social dynamic at work on the day of the murders: A privileged lady found herself surrounded by lowly policemen, some of whom were Irish, and she was made to explain repeatedly her movements while Abby and Andrew were being slaughtered. Lizzie was not used to being held to account by people she considered beneath her.

The Lizzie Borden case quickly became a flash point in an Irish insurgency in the city. The shifting composition of the police force, combined with the election of the city’s second Irish mayor, Dr. John Coughlin, and rise of the paper he founded, the Fall River Globe, were all pieces of a challenge to the native-born’s control of the city.

Coughlin’s Fall River Globe was a militant working-class Irish daily that assailed mill owners. Soon after the murders it focused its class combativeness on Lizzie’s guilt. Among other things, it promoted rumors that Bordens on The Hill were pooling millions to ensure that Lizzie would never be convicted. By contrast, the Hill’s house organ, the Fall River Evening News, refuted such claims and became a steadfast defender of Lizzie’s innocence.

Five days after the murders, authorities convened an inquest into the crime that would set in motion a series of legal procedures, which in turn would define the case and the rest of Lizzie’s life. At the three-day inquest, numerous witnesses were called to testify, including Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan. Lizzie took the stand each day: The inquest was the only time she testified in court under oath.

Even more than the heap of inconsistencies that police compiled, Lizzie’s testimony to the district attorney led her into a briar patch of contradictions and seeming self-incrimination. Lizzie did not have a defense lawyer during what was a closed inquiry, rather than a trial. But she was not without defenders. The family doctor, who staunchly believed in Lizzie’s innocence, testified that after the murders he prescribed a double dose of morphine to help her sleep. Its side effects, he claimed, could account for Lizzie’s confusion. Her 41-year-old spinster sister Emma, who also lived at home, tried to deflect suspicion away from Lizzie. She claimed, for instance, that the sisters harbored no anger toward their stepmother.

How Did 19th-Century Axe Murderer Lizzie Borden Become a Household Name? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Illustration by Be Boggs.

Yet the police investigation, and the family and neighbors who gave interviews to newspapers, suggested otherwise. Five years before the murders, Andrew bought the half-share of the house where Abby’s mother lived to prevent her eviction and Lizzie found out from a friend. The secrecy only fueled suspicion that, behind their backs, her stepmother Abby was threatening the sisters’ inheritance. At the inquest Lizzie denied there was any domestic acrimony among the Bordens. But we know that the sisters began to avoid eating with Andrew and Abby. One of the ironies of this discord over Andrew Borden’s estate is that no family member knew that he never filed a will in Bristol County Probate Court. Thus, the sisters’ fear that Abby manipulated their father and influenced legal arrangements for the disposal of his wealth was unwarranted.

Beyond Lizzie’s testimony at the inquest, circumstantial evidence weighed heavily against her. With her sister Emma 15 miles away on vacation, Lizzie and Bridget Sullivan were the only ones left at home with Abby after Andrew left on his morning business rounds. Bridget was outside washing windows when Abby was slaughtered in the second-floor guest room. While Andrew Borden was bludgeoned in the first floor sitting room shortly after his return, the servant was resting in her attic room. Unable to account consistently for Lizzie’s movements, the judge, district attorney, and police marshal determined that Lizzie was “probably guilty.”

Lizzie was arrested on August 11, exactly one week after the murders. The judge sent Lizzie to the county jail in Taunton, 16 miles from Fall River. This privileged suspect found herself confined to a cheerless 9 ½-by-7 ½ foot cell for the next nine months.

Lizzie’s arrest provoked an uproar that started on The Hill and in the Central Congregational Church and quickly became national. At the local level as well as nationally, women’s groups rallied to Lizzie’s side, especially the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and suffragists. Both groups encompassed native-born Protestant women such as Lizzie who were active in reform causes. One argument for giving women the right to vote involved their potential role as political counterweights to immigrants and their ethnic offspring. Lizzie’s supporters protested that at trial she would not be judged by a jury of her peers because women, as non-voters, did not have the right to serve on juries.

The weeklong preliminary hearing that began on August 22 marked a watershed in the Lizzie Borden case. First, it ginned up journalistic sensationalization of the crime. Newspapers from Boston to New York and beyond sent reporters and sketchers to the courtroom. Second, it exposed holes in the prosecution’s case, though the district attorney had only to convince the judge that a preponderance of evidence pointed toward Lizzie’s probable guilt. The preliminary hearing also amplified the drumbeat in the press and among women’s groups that Lizzie had also become a victim of the Borden family tragedy.

Lizzie could afford the best legal representation throughout her ordeal. During the preliminary hearing, one of Boston’s most prominent defense lawyers joined the family attorney to advocate for her innocence. The small courtroom above the police station was packed with Lizzie’s supporters, particularly women from The Hill. At times they were buoyed by testimony, at others unsettled. For example, a Harvard chemist reported that he found no blood on two axes and two hatchets that police retrieved from the cellar. Lizzie had turned over to the police, two days after the murders, the dress she allegedly wore on the morning of August 4th. It had only a minuscule spot of blood on the hem.

But the prosecution presented credible testimony. The drugstore clerk who described Lizzie’s attempt to purchase prussic acid helped the district attorney’s case. Moreover, since the defense was highly unlikely to put Lizzie on the stand, the district attorney read into the record crucial parts of her inquest testimony.

Her attorneys put up a stout defense. They stressed that the prosecution offered no murder weapon and possessed no bloody clothes. As to the prussic acid, Lizzie was a victim of misidentification, they claimed. In addition, throughout the Borden saga, her legion of supporters was unable to consider what they saw as culturally inconceivable: a well-bred virtuous Victorian woman—a “Protestant nun,” to use the words of the national president of the WCTU describing churchly single women like Lizzie—could never commit patricide, or do so with such savagery.

The reference to the Protestant nun raises the issue of the growing numbers of native-born women in late 19th-century New England who remained single. The research of women historians has documented how the label “spinster” has obscured the diverse reasons why women remained single. For some, the ideal of virtuous Victorian womanhood was unrealistic, even oppressive. It defined the “true woman” as morally pure, physically delicate, and socially respectable. Preferably she married and had children. But some women saw new educational opportunities and self-supporting independence as an attainable goal. (Nearly all of the so-called Seven Sisters colleges were founded between the 1870s and 1890s; four were in Massachusetts.) Still, other women simply could not trust that they would choose the right man for a life of marriage.

As to the Borden sisters, Emma fits the stereotype of a spinster. On her deathbed their mother made Emma promise that she would look after “baby Lizzie.” She seems to have devoted her life to her younger sister. No wonder Emma tried to protect Lizzie throughout her court testimony. Lizzie, though not a reformer of the class social ills of her era, acquired the public profile of Fall River’s most prominent Protestant nun. Unlike Emma, Lizzie was engaged in varied religious and social activities from the WCTU to the Christian Endeavor, which supported Sunday schools, to visiting the poor and sick at home and in the hospital. She also taught Sunday school and served on the board of the Fall River Hospital.

At the preliminary hearing Lizzie’s defense attorney delivered a rousing closing argument. Her partisans erupted into loud applause. It was to no avail. The judge, the same one from the inquest, determined she was probably guilty and should remain jailed until a Superior Court trial.

Neither the attorney general, who typically prosecuted capital crimes, nor the district attorney were eager to haul Lizzie into Superior Court, though both believed in her guilt. There were holes in the police’s evidence. And while Lizzie’s place in the local economic and social order was unassailable, her arrest had also provoked a groundswell of support among women’s groups and within the national press, which was largely controlled by native-born Protestants.

Though he did not have to, the district attorney brought the case before a grand jury in November. He was not sure he would secure an indictment. Twenty-three jurors convened to hear the case on the charges of murder. They adjourned with no action. Then the grand jury reconvened on December 1 and heard dramatic testimony.

Alice Russell, a single, pious 40-year-old member of Central Congregational, was Lizzie’s close friend. Shortly after Andrew had been killed, Lizzie sent Bridget Sullivan to summon Alice. Then Alice had slept in the Borden house for several nights after the murders, with the brutalized victims stretched out on mortician boards in the dining room. Russell had testified at the inquest, preliminary hearing, and earlier before the grand jury. But she had never disclosed one important detail. Distressed over her omission, she consulted a lawyer who said she had to tell the district attorney. On December 1, Russell returned to the grand jury. She testified that on the Sunday morning after the murders, Lizzie pulled a dress from a shelf in the pantry closet and proceeded to burn it in the cast iron coal stove. The grand jury indicted Lizzie the next day.

Still, the attorney general and the district attorney dragged their feet, despite constant pressure from Lizzie’s Fall River attorney urging them to set a trial date. They finally relented. Jury selection would begin on June 5. The attorney general bowed out of the case in April. He had been sick and his doctor conveniently said that he could not withstand the demands of the Borden trial. In his place he chose a district attorney from north of Boston to co-prosecute with Hosea Knowlton, the Bristol County District Attorney, who emerged as the trial’s profile in courage.

Knowlton believed in Lizzie’s guilt but realized there were long odds against conviction. Yet he was convinced that he had a duty to prosecute the case and to do so with all the skill and passion he possessed. His sense of duty is best exemplified by the inspired five-hour closing argument he made to the jury. A leading New York reporter, who believed in Lizzie’s innocence, wrote that the district attorney’s “eloquent appeal to the jury … entitles him to rank with the ablest advocates of the day.” Knowlton thought a hung jury was within his grasp. It might satisfy both those convinced Lizzie was innocent and those persuaded of her guilt. If new evidence emerged, Lizzie could be retried.

The district attorney perhaps underestimated the legal and cultural impediments he faced. Lizzie’s demeanor in court, which District Attorney Knowlton perhaps failed to fully anticipate, also surely influenced the outcome. Here lies a gender paradox of Lizzie’s trial. In a courtroom where men reserved all the legal power, Lizzie was not a helpless maiden. She only needed to present herself as one. Her lawyers told her to dress in black. She appeared in court tightly corseted, dressed in flowing clothes, and holding a bouquet of flowers that changed from day to day in one hand and a fan in the other. One newspaper described her as “quiet, modest, and well-bred,” far from a “brawny, big, muscular, hard-faced, coarse-looking girl.” Another stressed that she lacked “Amazonian proportions.” She could not possess the physical strength, let alone the moral degeneracy, to wield a weapon with skull-cracking force.

Moreover, with her father’s money in hand, Lizzie could afford the best legal team to defend her, including a former Massachusetts governor who had appointed one of the three justices who would preside over the case. That justice delivered a slanted charge to the jury, which one major newspaper described as “a plea for the innocent!” The justices took other actions that stymied the prosecution. For example, they excluded testimony about prussic acid because the prosecution had not refuted that the deadly poison might be used for innocent purposes.

Finally, the jury itself presented the prosecution with a formidable hurdle. Fall River was excluded from the jury pool and so the jury pool was tilted toward the county’s small, heavily agricultural towns. Half of the jurors were farmers; others were tradesmen. One owned a metal factory in New Bedford. Most were practicing Protestants, some with daughters approximately Lizzie’s age. A sole Irishman made it through the jury selection process. Not surprisingly the jury quickly decided to acquit her. Then they waited for an hour so that it would appear that they had not made a hasty decision.

The courtroom audience, the bulk of the press, and women’s groups cheered Lizzie’s acquittal. But her life was altered forever. Two months after the innocent verdict, Lizzie and Emma moved to a large Victorian house on The Hill. Yet many people there and in the Central Congregational Church shunned her. Lizzie became Fall River’s curio, followed by street urchins and stared down whenever she appeared in public. She withdrew to her home. Even there, neighborhood kids pestered Lizzie with pranks. Four years after her acquittal a warrant was issued for her arrest in Providence. She was charged with shoplifting and apparently made restitution.

Lizzie enjoyed traveling to Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., dining in style and attending the theater, which she loved. She and Emma had a falling out in 1904. Emma left the house in 1905 and evidently the sisters never saw each other again. Both died in 1927, Lizzie first and Emma nine days later. They were interred next to their father.


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