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A Week to Remember: Lizzie Borden

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Portrait of Lizzie Borden in 1890
Portrait of Lizzie Borden in 1890

On July 19, 1860, Lizzie Borden was born. Borden was the defendant in one of the 19th century’s most notorious murder trials, acquitted of the murders of her father and stepmother. The case was so widely discussed that it became a children’s jump-rope rhyme:

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

The Borden family lived in Fall River, Massachusetts, about fifty miles from Boston. Borden’s father, Andrew, was successful in multiple businesses—textiles, furniture manufacturing, real estate—but very frugal. The Borden home had no indoor plumbing or electricity, which were common among families of their class at the time, and they lived in a nice neighborhood, but not the very best part of town.

It was a religious family, Lizzie worked with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an anti-alcohol organization, and taught Sunday school to the children of recently arrived immigrant families.

The Bordens were not, however, a close-knit family, especially after Lizzie’s mother died and Andrew remarried. Lizzie and her stepmother, Abby, had a particularly tense relationship, and Lizzie was convinced that Abby had married her father for his money. According to the family’s live-in maid, Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, Lizzie and her sister, Emma, rarely ate their meals with Andrew and Abby.

Tension among the family had been building in the months before the murders. Andrew had made several gifts of property to Abby’s relatives, to which Lizzie and Emma had objected. And in the days before the murders, the entire Borden household had been taken ill. It seems likely that the illness was caused by eating meat that had been left too long at room temperature, but Abby suspected that the family might have been deliberately poisoned by someone with whom Andrew had had difficult business dealings.

The family gathered for breakfast on the morning of August 4, 1892. In addition to the Bordens and the maid, Maggie, Lizzie’s maternal uncle, John Morse, was present. He had spent the night after a long conversation about business with Andrew. Morse left after breakfast to visit other family members, planning to return for lunch; and Andrew left at about 9 for his usual morning walk.

At some point during the next hour or so, Abby was killed by 18 blows from a hatchet. Andrew returned from his walk at about 10:30. Shortly after 11, Lizzie called out to Maggie, who was napping in her room, “Come quick, Father’s dead!” Andrew had been struck with the hatchet ten or eleven times, probably while asleep.

Because of the recent illness in the home and the possibility of poisoning, Andrew’s and Abby’s stomachs were tested for poison, but none was found. The police briefly considered other suspects; there was some gossip that Maggie was unhappy working for the Bordens, and John Morse’s alibi was thought to be almost too perfectly prepared.

But Lizzie’s disagreements with her father were widely known in the community, and there were a variety of rumors about other possible motives. Perhaps Andrew had sexually abused her, some thought, or he might have discovered a lesbian relationship between Lizzie and Maggie.

For whatever reason, the police quickly settled on Lizzie as the primary suspect, especially after the coroner’s inquest on August 8. Lizzie’s behavior at the inquest was described as erratic, and she often refused to answer questions, even when the answers would have helped her. But her behavior might have been the result of the morphine her doctor had been prescribed to help calm her nerves during the turmoil after the murders. A grand jury indicted Lizzie Borden on charges of murder on December 2.

Lizzie’s trial began on June 5, 1893. There was no conclusive evidence, in part because the original police investigation hadn’t been very thorough. Lizzie had never been searched for bloodstains, and the police gave her room only a cursory search, later saying that they hadn’t taken more time because Lizzie claimed to be ill and asked them to leave.

The trial lasted for two weeks, and the jury deliberated for only ninety minutes before returning a verdict of not guilty. Lizzie and Emma inherited their father’s estate and moved into a new home together. Lizzie Borden was never able to escape the cloud of suspicion that hung over her, and a charge of shoplifting in 1897 only revived the speculation about her criminal conduct. The sisters had a falling out in 1905, and Emma moved out of their home; the sisters never saw each other again.

The Trial of Lizzie Borden
Robertson, Cara

Lizzie died of pneumonia on June 1, 1927; Emma, who was living in a New Hampshire nursing home, died nine days later. Lizzie was quite wealthy at her death, with an estate of about $250,000, the equivalent of nearly $5,000,000 today. She left a large bequest to the Fall River Animal Rescue League, and generous gifts to several friends and family members.

Cara Robertson’s The Trial of Lizzie Borden draws on contemporary newspaper reports, the trial transcript, and Lizzie’s own letters to tell the story of the case. Brandy Purdy novelizes the story in The Secrets of Lizzie Borden; and in the two volumes of the "Borden Dispatches,” Cherie Priest puts a horror/fantasy spin of her imagined version of Lizzie’s life after the trial.

The Secrets of Lizzie Borden
Purdy, Brandy

The story of Lizzie Borden has inspired a few pieces of music. Morton Gould’s 1948 ballet Fall River Legend and Jack Beeson’s 1965 opera Lizzie Borden take the story seriously; the song “Lizzie Borden” from the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952 reduces it to a five-minute vaudeville sketch.

Also This Week

July 17, 1917

Phyllis Diller was born. Diller started performing stand-up comedy in the mid-1950s, and became one of the first successful female comics. Her stage persona was a broadly exaggerated version of frumpiness; she wore garish, ill-fitting dresses and wildly unkempt hair, and joked about how undesirable she was. Everything was punctuated with a loud braying cackle. Diller can be heard performing on The Best of Phyllis Diller and Live from Los Angeles; her memoir is called Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse.

July 18, 1950

Glenn Hughes was born. Hughes was a member of the disco group Village People, whose “Y.M.C.A.” is still a favorite whenever a DJ wants to get people dancing. The group dressed as stereotypical icons of masculinity, which made them campy gay icons; Hughes was the leatherman/biker, and the group usually included such figures as a cowboy, a soldier, and a construction worker. Albums from the Village People’s late 1970s peak are available for streaming at Hoopla.

July 19, 1960

Atom Egoyan was born. Egoyan is a Canadian filmmaker who came to international attention with his 1990s movies Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. Three of his recent films are available at Hoopla: Devil’s Knot, based on the true story of three teenagers falsely accused of murder; Remember, about an elderly Holocaust survivor; and The Captive, a dark thriller about kidnapping and child pornography.

July 17 is World Emoji Day

The first emoji were created in Japan in the late 1990s; over the next twenty years, they became part of the messaging systems on most mobile phones. Emoji are now such an integral part of communication that the Oxford Dictionaries chose an emoji as the 2015 Word of the Year. Fred Benenson offers a beginner’s guide in How to Speak Emoji; Vyvyan Evans explains how emoji are enriching our language in The Emoji Code.