It’s August 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, and police arrive at the home of a wealthy local family. Earlier that day, 32-year-old Lizzie Borden had told them she’d stumbled across a terrible sight – the bloody body of her father Andrew lying dead in the sitting room. But upstairs, another horror awaits, sparking a mystery that endures even to this day.
Even in such a fast-growing and febrile community, this was a particularly grisly crime. Initially settled by European colonists in the mid-1600s, Fall River had opened its first mills at the beginning of the 18th century. And by 1868, it had become the biggest textile city in the whole country. But tensions began to grow, with the industry bringing thousands of French Canadian and Irish immigrants to the area.
By 1892, immigrants had begun to assimilate into Fall River society, taking important positions in the community. In fact, just two years previously, an Irishman had been elected mayor of the city. However, a strong nativist sentiment remained among people like Lizzie, whose family had played a central role in the textile industry from the very beginning.
But if Fall River itself was fraught with tension, it was nothing compared to what was going on behind doors in the Borden household. Born in 1822, Andrew came from a wealthy local family. However, his own upbringing had been modest, and he did not become successful until later in life – perhaps explaining the thrifty attitude for which he became known.
Eventually, however, Andrew became a wealthy man. And after enjoying some success making and selling furniture, he boosted his fortune with a lucrative career as a housing magnate. On top of that, he also continued the family business, taking on the role of director at a number of local textile mills.
In 1845, Andrew married his first wife, Sarah, and the pair had two daughters. The eldest, Emma, was born in 1851, while Lizzie followed some nine years later. But their family life was cut tragically short in 1863, when Sarah died at just 39 years old. Now, the two young girls were left without a mother figure.
Three years later, another woman arrived in the Bordens’ lives. That year, Andrew married Abby Gray, and Emma and Lizzie had a new stepmother to take care of them. However, reports differ on how close the relationship really was. In fact, some claim that Lizzie came to believe the older woman was merely a gold-digger who had married her dad for his money.
Although they were well off, however, the Bordens lived a modest life. At the time, most of Fall River’s wealthy residents owned houses on The Hill – an affluent enclave with little in the way of class or ethnic diversity. Meanwhile, Andrew and his family resided in a much less fashionable area, where their neighbors were often people who had immigrated to the United States.
Although some sources have suggested that Lizzie fostered anti-immigrant views, she was also known as a pious young woman. In fact, she even taught Sunday School lessons to the children of families recently arrived in the country. Elsewhere, she was a member of a number of different Christian organizations.
By 1892, however, it was clear that all was not well within the Borden household. In fact, according to the family’s Irish maid Bridget Sullivan, the two younger women rarely joined Andrew and Abby at the dinner table. Then, in May, a frightening incident allegedly occurred that many believe foreshadowed the tragedy to come.
According to many reports, Lizzie had grown fond of some pigeons that visited the Borden residence. In fact, she had even made a home for the birds in their barn. However, Andrew apparently believed that the creatures were attracting trouble in the form of children keen to hunt this easy prey. And so, he used a small axe to slaughter them all.
Although there is little evidence to support this story, many believe that this incident sparked further unrest within the Borden family. Meanwhile, both Lizzie and Emma had grown frustrated with their father’s uncharacteristically generous approach to Abby’s family. Apparently, the typically frugal Andrew had begun granting property to his wife’s relatives.
Eventually, Lizzie and Emma demanded equal treatment, and Andrew duly sold them a property for just one dollar. However, they were unable to make a decent income from the house, and ultimately persuaded their father to buy it back. Soon after, another disagreement saw both women temporarily leave the Borden home.
By late July, Lizzie had returned to Fall River, although Emma remained away on vacation. However, the younger woman did not immediately move back into Andrew’s home. Instead, she took a room in a local boarding house for four days, eventually returning to the Borden household just days before the gruesome attack.
On August 3, Lizzie and Emma’s uncle John Morse – the brother of their mother Sarah – arrived at the Bordens’ home. Apparently, he and Andrew had financial matters to address. And although nobody is sure exactly what was discussed that day, some believe that the two men made arrangements that did not favor the sisters.
Moreover, it wasn’t just financial trouble that was brewing in the Borden household. Apparently, the family had also been struck down with a mystery illness – one that some have attributed to a suspect cut of mutton that had been used for several meals. However, Abby allegedly suspected that the family had been poisoned, due to Andrew’s status as an unpopular local figure.
On the morning of August 4, both Abby and Andrew were ill, along with Bridget, the maid. However, Lizzie and her uncle apparently escaped unscathed. And after sharing breakfast with the family, the two men retreated to another room. Then, at around 8:48 a.m., Morse left to run some errands in Fall River.
At some point, Andrew also left for work. However, he returned home later that morning. And after that, nobody is sure what transpired in the Bordens’ home. According to Lizzie, she took off her father’s boots and helped him to settle down for some rest in the sitting room. Meanwhile, she claimed, a message arrived calling Abby to attend to an ailing relative.
According to Bridget, Lizzie then told her that there was a sale on at a local department store. But rather than attend, the servant decided to head up to her bedroom for some rest. However, she was interrupted at around 11:10 a.m., when her employer’s daughter called out to her from downstairs.
Shockingly, Lizzie had discovered Andrew brutally slain in the sitting room. “Come quick! Father’s dead,” she reportedly cried. “Somebody came in and killed him.” And when she made her way downstairs, Bridget saw that the man had been viciously attacked multiple times with a bladed weapon.
Soon, the police arrived at the scene of the crime. But as they questioned Lizzie, inconsistencies began to crop up in her story. For example, she initially told them that she had heard signs of distress emanating from the sitting room. However, she later claimed to have been unaware of any disturbance.
After a while, Lizzie told police that her stepmother might have returned from visiting her relatives. But when Bridget and a neighbor went to look for her, they were met with another shocking sight. On the floor of the guest bedroom, they discovered Abby’s bloodied body. Apparently, Andrew’s wife had also been the victim of a gruesome attack.
In fact, Abby had been struck on the head a staggering 18 times with a weapon similar to the one which had killed her husband. However, there was no evidence that anyone had broken into the Borden home. And when police launched an investigation into the murders, the inconsistencies in Lizzie’s account began to add up.
Apparently, Andrew’s youngest daughter frequently changed the version of events that she told the police. Moreover, investigators noted that she did not seem to be particularly upset about the brutal murders of her father and stepmother. But despite their suspicions, they failed to perform an adequate search of Lizzie’s room.
According to reports, a number of potential murder weapons were discovered at the scene. However, it wasn’t until August 6 that a police officer removed one of the items from the Bordens’ home. And by that time, the killings had sent shock waves throughout the Fall River community.
Then came another twist in the tale. Apparently, it emerged that Lizzie had visited a local pharmacy in the days preceding the murder, where she had attempted to purchase an extremely toxic substance known as prussic acid. Had the youngest Borden planned to poison Andrew and Abby, only to turn to violence when things did not go to plan?
At the inquest, even more doubt was cast on Lizzie’s story. Apparently, she continued to give differing accounts of the morning of the murders, and her behavior was unpredictable. Moreover, she repeatedly insisted that she had swapped her father’s boots for slippers before settling him on the sofa. However, photographs from the scene of the crime clearly show that Andrew was still wearing his outdoor footwear.
Although evidence was mounting against Lizzie, however, there were still those who defended her. For example, the Bordens’ doctor claimed that a morphine prescription meant to aid sleep could have caused her confusion during the inquest. Moreover, Emma – now returned to Fall River – testified that there was no bad blood between her sister and Abby.
However, many were unconvinced by Lizzie’s testimony. And on August 11, she was arrested on suspicion of murdering her father and stepmother. By that time, interest in the crimes had spread to the national press. But while some believed that the 32-year-old woman was guilty, other insisted that she was innocent and rallied to her defense.
In fact, the case came to take on much more significance than a just an everyday provincial murder trial. In places such as Fall River, changing demographics had seen more and more immigrants rise to positions of power. However, these changes were not universally popular – particularly among the wealthier members of society.
Unsurprisingly, these tensions created a divide in communities across America. And in Fall River, Lizzie found herself at the center of the debate. After all, Irish officers had been among those who had pursued and arrested her – a woman allegedly above their station. Moreover, the city’s immigrant-leaning newspaper, the Fall River Globe was outspoken in its belief that Lizzie was responsible for the murders.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, the women of The Hill refused to believe that one of their own could have committed such a horrific crime. In fact, they crowded into the courtroom to show their support during Lizzie’s trial. And because of her family’s wealth, the accused was able to afford the very best in legal representation.
As the trial unfolded, there were many twists and turns in favor of the accused. For example, the judge dismissed Lizzie’s earlier attempt at buying prussic acid as irrelevant to the case. Meanwhile, one chemist testified that he had been unable to find any traces of blood on the weapons that had been retrieved from the Bordens’ home.
In fact, prosecutors were unable to produce anything that they could claim was the murder weapon. Moreover, Lizzie had apparently handed over the dress that she had been wearing on August 4 – and that too was free from incriminating stains. However, Alice Russell, a friend of the Bordens, gave testimony that cast doubt on this apparent evidence.
According to Russell, she had witnessed Lizzie thrusting a dress into the flames of the kitchen stove four days after the murders. But despite this damning testimony, the defendant proved adept at winning over the press. Presenting herself as a classic damsel in distress, she soon had commentators believing that she was incapable of something as brutal as murder.
On June 20, 1893, Lizzie was acquitted. But even though she walked free, many believed that she got away with murder. And today, it is widely accepted that Andrew and Abby died by their daughter’s hand. However, her motive remains a mystery. And while one writer would later claim that she unknowingly committed the crime while in a trance-like state, others have not been so kind.
According to one of the most popular theories, Lizzie murdered her father in revenge for a lifetime of sexual and physical abuse. Meanwhile, one writer suggested that the youngest Borden sister had actually been embroiled in a lesbian affair with Bridget. In this version of events, a desperate Lizzie murdered Andrew and Abby when they discovered her secret.
After the acquittal, the two Borden sisters used their inheritance to move to The Hill, where they finally occupied a property more fitting of their wealth. However, the rumors about Lizzie’s guilt refused to go away. Moreover, Emma was apparently disapproving of the parties and extravagant occasions that the younger woman hosted in their shared home.
As time passed, the citizens of Fall River became even more convinced that Lizzie had killed her father. Terrorized by local children, she was eventually ostracized by the very community that had once claimed her as their own. Then, in 1905, Emma left their Fall River home and never returned. It’s said that the sisters never spoke to one another other again.
On June 1, 1927, Lizzie succumbed to a fatal bout of pneumonia. And soon after her death, she was immortalized in a folk rhyme that remains popular to this day. Meanwhile, she has also appeared as a character in a number of movies and novels over the years. But while all of these depictions are different, most tell a similar tale – that Lizzie was guilty, and a murderer walked free from court that day.