Monday, October 26, 2020

In Their Footsteps: New England History - Lizzie Borden

 *Warning - Graphic Photos Below*

    Her name is infamous despite actually being acquitted of the crime she was accused of. A creepy poem was introduced into the American lexicon based around said crimes. It was the crime of the century and she was front and center. The city was Fall River, the year was 1892, and the accused murderer was young Lizzie Borden. This is the story of her life before, the crimes she was put on trial for, and the aftermath.

    Lizbeth Andrew Borden was born in Fall River, Massachusetts on July 19, 1860. Her parents were Andrew and Sarah Borden. The family was wealthy thanks to Andrew's success in manufacturing and real estate. Lizzie had a sister Emma who was 9 years older than her. Prior to her birth a second daughter had been born to Andrew and Sarah named Alice, but she died at only 2 years old in 1858 due to hydrocephalus (water on the brain). Lizzie's birth was sure to have been seen as a blessing to Sarah and Emma alike and she was showered with love.

The Borden family home at 230 Second St., Fall River

    Lizzie led a normal life only for a few years. On March 26, 1863 her mother Sarah died of uterine congestion and spinal disease at the age of 39. This left a toddler Lizzie without a mother, a role that Emma gladly stepped into. The sisters bond was very tight. It became tested though when their father remarried. On June 6, 1865 Andrew married Abby Durfee Gray when Emma was 14 and Lizzie was almost 5. Emma immediately resented Abby becoming a mother-figure to Lizzie since the youngest Borden had no memory of her real mother.

    Emma went away to Wheaton Female Seminary (Wheaton College) in Norton, Massachusetts for a year and a half between 1867-1868. Abby had a chance to bond with Lizzie unopposed. It is purported that Emma didn't finish her studies at Wheaton simply because she lacked the charm and experience of her classmates and felt out of place. However one could point to her potentially growing anxious of her beloved sister growing closer to their stepmother. Whatever the reason Emma returned home to Fall River and the tensions only increased between her and Abby.

Lizzie Borden (public domain)

    The relationship between Abby and the Borden sisters grew more distant. The girls addressed her as 'Mrs. Borden.' As Lizzie grew up her resentment toward Abby intensified likely with help from Emma. As early as grammar school Lizzie spoke badly of her stepmother. She also was odd and did not make friends easily. She carried herself with an air of haughtiness likely from knowing her family was wealthy.

    Andrew was a workaholic, usually putting in 14-hour days, and saving as much money as he could. He tried to cultivate a family dynamic moving into a different home at 92 Second Street in 1874.  As they grew older Lizzie and Emma helped to manage the rental properties he had accumulated. His greatest accomplishment was the building he erected on South Main Street in 1889. The 3-story commercial brick building cost $35,000 ($990,000 in 2020) was a symbol of Borden's success as well as the growth of Fall River into a respected industrial city. By 1892 his net worth was close to $7 million when adjusted to 2020.

    The family fortune may have become a constant source of contention between Abby and the Borden sisters in the years leading up to the murders. Lizzie and Emma remained under the same roof as Andrew and Abby into their 30's and were seen as spinsters by the community. Lizzie for her part wished the family could move up to the hills into a much more fitting home as she saw her family as above the middle-class living around them. On the outside the Bordens were living a charmed life, but behind the doors of the home on Second Street it was a bubbling cauldron of frustration.

    Then came August 4, 1892. One of the most infamous crimes not only in Massachusetts but in the United States as well. Now in the days leading up to the crimes themselves other suspicious events occurred concerning the Borden family. Two days earlier on August 2nd Andrew and Abby Borden awaken claiming stomach sickness. Abby went to Dr. Seabury Bowen suggesting they may have been poisoned although he was skeptical.

    On the morning of August 3rd Lizzie Borden purportedly attempted, unsuccessfully, to purchase prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) at D.R. Smith's drug store. That evening Lizzie spoke forebodingly about things potentially happening to her father. She spoke of him having enemies and mentioned poisoning specifically and worried someone would do something.

    August 4th began with Abby, Andrew, and friend John Morse having breakfast at 7am. Morse left at 8:45 and Andrew went out to mail some letters while Abby went upstairs to do some cleaning. Before Andrew returned Abby was brutally murdered by 19 hatchet blows to the back of her head. She was left laying beside a bed partially concealed.

Andrew Borden's slain body and the replica sofa at the Lizzie Borden B&B.

    Andrew returned, gave a package to housekeeper Bridget Sullivan. Lizzie tells her father Abby was not home. Bridget went upstairs to her attic room not seeing Abby's body and Andrew lay down on the sofa in the sitting room. Shortly thereafter he is also murdered with 10 savage hatchet blows to his face.

    Lizzie called to Bridget that her father was murdered while also establishing an alibi of being in the barn while the murders happened. At 11:15am the police are called. Dozens of officers descended on the Borden home and conducted postmortems on Abby and Andrew. They also interviewed Lizzie noting that she had no blood on her although immediately naming her a suspect. Although fingerprint technology was available it was relatively new and the police were wary of its accuracy. A hatchet in the basement of the home was therefore never tested for prints.

Abby Borden's slain body and the bedroom at the Lizzie Borden B&B.  

    Emma, who had been in New Bedford for the last few weeks, returned to Fall River. Upon her return August 7th she purportedly witness Lizzie burning a blue corduroy dress in a fireplace. Lizzie was formally arrested August 11th after a closed door inquest by police about the Borden murders. She pleads not guilty and is sent to prison in Taunton until her trial began in New Bedford Superior Court which was June 5, 1893.

    Even before the trial began the story of the horrific murders possibly by Lizzie Borden made the story a nationwide phenomenon. Despite seeming emotionally detached from the gravity of what had happened there was doubt whether Lizzie could have committed such a crime due to her standing in Fall River as a churchgoer and member of an upper-class family. Plus the sheer brutality of the murders led many to believe a woman was incapable of such atrocities. Her story was filled with inconsistencies and even though Emma staunchly defended her in court all signs pointed to Lizzie Borden being convicted of double-murder. In the end though the prosecution could not produce a murder weapon, bloody clothes, and even chalked up the attempted purchased of the prussic acid to mistaken identity.

Andrew(left) and Abby(right) postmortem.  

    On June 20, 1893 Lizzie Borden was found not guilty. She inherited a sizable chunk of money from her father's estate and in a not-so-subtle piece of irony Lizzie and Emma moved into a large house up in the hills as they had desired years prior. It was a 14-room home at 306 French Street bought by Lizzie and named Maplecroft. Despite being acquitted in court it was not the same in the court of public opinion. Lizzie Borden was shunned by the community and her former friends. She was ridiculed and pranked by kids. She took to traveling to Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. to live the lavish lifestyle without the scrutiny of her past.

    In 1897 Lizzie, now going by Lizbeth, was accused of shoplifting in Providence. She was not arrested and apparently restitution was made. Outside of her traveling Lizzie stayed close to her Maplecroft home even developing a close relationship with actress Nance O'Neill in 1904. This new relationship led to Emma moving out of the home in 1905. Sadly the two sisters remained estranged for the rest of their lives.

Lizzie Borden's Maplecroft (Mott & Chace Sotheby's International Realty)

    Outside of an appearance in probate court in May 1923 to obtain equal distribution of the Andrew Borden Building in Fall River, Lizzie remained out of the spotlight. She had gone in for an operation in 1926 to remove her gallbladder and her health never recovered. Lizzie Borden died of pneumonia on June 1, 1927 at the age of 66. In her will she left several sizable charitable donations. Her estranged sister Emma died a little more than a week later.

    Nobody was ever charged for the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden after Lizzie's acquittal. The home at 92 (now 230) Second St. is a popular museum and Bed & Breakfast. People can get the tour of the home complete with crime scene photos and also spend the night where the murders took place. Lizzie's Maplecroft home in Fall River still stands and as of September 2020 was actually for sale. She is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Fall River in the family plot, alongside her sisters Emma and Alice, mother Sarah, father Andrew and stepmother Abby. Even nearly 130 years later it remains one of the most fascinating and shocking cases in history, sparking countless theories, books, films, and one very famous rhyme. 

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


Coming November 5, 2020 the debut episode of the In My Footsteps Podcast wherever you get your podcasts!  

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