What Made Lizzie Borden Kill?


A century ago in Fall River, Massachusetts, a jury of twelve men deliberated about one hour before acquitting Lizzie Borden of killing her father and stepmother. Lizzie’s innocence has not been so easily accepted by other people—either in 1892, when the murders were committed, or today. Since the trial people have continued to question evidence, police procedures, alibis, and strange behavior by members of the Borden household. Amateur prosecutors have put forward other suspects. Still, the evidence against Lizzie is strong enough to keep alive the speculation that she was the killer.

For many, the mystery hangs on motive. In the nineteenth century only two motives could explain her actions: jealousy and greed. Yet neither seems adequate to account for the extreme violence of the crime. Whoever killed Mrs. Borden knocked her down with the first stroke and then drove eighteen other blows into her back. Approximately ninety minutes later the murderer attacked Mr. Borden as he slept, chopping his face beyond recognition. Was this merely the work of a greedy, socially ambitious young woman?


Today, looking back across a century on the events of that stifling summer day, we would be likely to ask a somewhat broader question: Why would a ; woman kill her father and stepmother; j what was wrong with that family? Of course, all the participants are far beyond the reach of our speculation, and hence it can remain only that —speculation. But a growing body of literature on women and family violence has given us a vantage point that simply didn’t exist a hundred years ago, or even twenty years ago. And in examining distant events through the lens of the present day, we find an impressive body of circumstantial evidence to suggest, in that bloody morning’s work, the awakening rage of the incest survivor.


Although nearly everyone can recite the rhyme, many people are unfamiliar with the details of the case. Andrew Jackson Borden, seventy, and his wife, Abby, sixty-four, were respectable residents of Fall River, a mill town divided into crowded working-class neighborhoods and a fancier section for the upper classes on “the Hill.” Mr. Borden was a retired businessman who had made his considerable fortune through a combination of ruthless financial practices and fanatical thrift. With assets worth at least five hundred thousand dollars, he could well have afforded to live in the better neighborhood, but he chose to live downtown on Second Street. His wife Abby was the second Mrs. Borden. She had few friends and spent her days quietly in the home she shared with Mr. Borden’s two unmarried daughters, Emma, forty-two, and Lizzie, more than ten years younger. Lizzie led a more active life than her sister, teaching Sunday school and doing volunteer work for local charities.

On Thursday morning, August 4, 1892, Mr. and Mrs. Borden and John Morse, a visiting relative, ate an early breakfast together. Around 9:00 A.M. Morse left to run errands and Mr. Borden went downtown, as was his custom, to take care of small business matters. Mrs. Borden went upstairs to make up the guest room and was killed there at about 9:30. Mr. Borden returned home and lay down for a nap on a couch in the parlor, where he died shortly after 11:00. Emma had gone to visit friends, and Lizzie and Bridget Sullivan, the domestic servant, were the only people around the house that day. Not long after 11:00 A.M. Lizzie found her father’s body and called Bridget for help. They discovered Mrs. Borden’s body a short time later. Medical examiners determined early that both people probably had been killed with an ax or a hatchet.

In the nineteenth century the connection between sexual abuse and homicide was simply not part of the public consciousness.

The Fall River police, working under considerable pressure from an outraged, frightened public, were hampered in their search for the killer by the absence of any witnesses. Every door to the house had been locked and double-locked, making it unlikely that anyone unfamiliar with the home could have gotten in without being seen. The absence of probable suspects encouraged frantic speculation: rumors circulated about a tenant who had a grudge against Mr. Borden; about a Portuguese farm laborer who had once been employed by the Bordens in nearby Swansea; about a poorly dressed man hurrying down the street on the morning of the murders, carrying what appeared to be a hatchet wrapped in newspaper. The Borden sisters offered a five-thousand-dollar reward for information. But as the August 5 edition of the Fall River Herald lamented, there wasn’t a single theory “against which some objection could not be offered from the circumstances surrounding the case.”