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What Made Lizzie Borden Kill?

June 2024
17min read

On the hundredth anniversary of the unsolved double murder of Andrew and Abby Borden, is it time to ask: What was going on in Lizzie Borden's family?

Borden's story and trial captivated the American public in 1893. Frank Leslie's Illustrated

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?

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; 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.”

One story that surfaced would reverberate later. According to accounts in several newspapers, Mr. and Mrs. Borden and Bridget had suffered upset stomachs earlier in the week. Mrs. Borden had consulted Dr. Bowen, the family physician, wondering if someone might be trying to poison them. After questioning both Mr. and Mrs. Borden, Dr. Bowen attributed their symptoms to leftover food they had eaten for dinner the night before. Lizzie must have emerged early as a possible suspect, because in the same interview in which Dr. Bowen dismissed the allegations of poisoning, he denied the possibility that she could have been involved in the murder. “I do not believe a hardened man of the world,” he said, “much less a gentle and refined woman, in her sober senses, devoid of sudden passion, could strike such a blow with such a weapon as was used on Mr. Borden and linger to survey the bloody deed.” The police and many Fall River residents were beginning to think otherwise.

At the inquest early the following week, Lizzie was unable to maintain a consistent story about her activities on the morning of the murders. Pressed on her whereabouts at the time of her father’s death, Lizzie first claimed she was in the barn loft seeking iron to make sinkers for a fishing expedition, then that she was up in the loft eating pears. Since the temperature that day stood in the nineties, it seemed unlikely that anyone would choose to spend time in the loft for any reason. Lizzie also testified that her stepmother had been called away by a messenger on the morning of the murders, but no corroboration of that story ever came to light. Even more damaging was testimony of a clerk in a local drugstore. The day before the murders, he said, Lizzie had come in shopping for prussic acid—a deadly poison. This, along with the illness in the family the week before, seemed to suggest Lizzie had attempted the murders more than once. Finally, the police produced what they said was the murder weapon—a hatchet they had found hidden in the basement, its wooden handle, which might have borne traces of blood, broken off.

All this evidence seemed to point to Lizzie, but the only motive anyone could come up with was simple greed: upon the deaths of her father and stepmother, Lizzie and Emma would come into a sizable inheritance. At the end of the inquest, Lizzie was arrested and charged with the crimes.

The following June Lizzie was tried in New Bedford’s Superior Court. If convicted as charged, she would be the first woman to be executed in Massachusetts since 1778. Although many people in the eastern part of the state believed her guilty, some newspapers outside Massachusetts and fledgling feminist organizations across the country portrayed her as the innocent victim of incompetent police work. Much was made of her church activities and her Christian character.

The prosecution’s case, which rested almost entirely on Lizzie’s inquest testimony, was dealt a serious blow when the judge ruled it inadmissible as evidence because he felt she had not received adequate legal counsel at the time she gave it. He also declared the druggist’s testimony inadmissible, since the purchase of poison did not prove that it was to be used to commit murder. Both these rulings were disputed at the time and continue to be questioned by legal scholars.

borden house
The Borden's lived at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts. Public domain

Lizzie’s own lawyers poked holes in the prosecution’s case, but they made no sustained attempt to incriminate anyone else; nor did they put Lizzie on the stand to defend herself. Emma testified, but she seemed oddly passive. She stood by her sister but didn’t go out of her way to proclaim her innocence, saying simply that the prosecutor’s case had not been proved. In short order Lizzie was acquitted.

In the century since the trial, a number of authors have reopened the case, finding new motives and new interpretations of the evidence. A kind of historiography of the Lizzie Borden murders has emerged, depending on who was writing and when. Lizzie has been recast as a woman who killed for love, as a woman who killed in an epileptic fit, and as a loyal sister who covered for Emma, the real killer. Others have turned suspicion on Bridget Sullivan, the maid, and John Morse, the visiting uncle, as well as on mysterious strangers in the neighborhood. Perhaps the most systematic and credible attempt to retry Lizzie was made in 1974 by Robert Sullivan, a Massachusetts judge. In Goodbye Lizzie Borden he argued convincingly that Lizzie was guilty and that she was acquitted by the actions of the judge partial to her case. Historians writing in the context of the burgeoning women’s movement have accepted Lizzie’s guilt but sought other explanations for her acquittal. Both Kathryn Jacobs, writing in American Heritage in 1978, and Ann Jones in Women Who Kill , published in 1980, argued that Lizzie was acquitted because she was a “lady” who, to a classbound age, simply couldn’t have done such a thing. But for all the contention about whether Lizzie Borden did it, there has been little discussion of why she would have done it.

In the century since the trial, a number of authors have reopened the case, finding new motives and new interpretations of the evidence.

In the last thirty years much research has been done on family violence. In 1962 an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association documented a “battered-child syndrome.” Not long after, the women’s movement began to focus on the “battered-woman syndrome.” This new focus on physical violence and neglect has turned up controversial but alarming data on the number of children who are sexually abused in the home and the impact of that abuse on their adult lives. Only twenty years ago the psychiatric community estimated that perhaps one person in two hundred thousand was a victim of incest. A well-respected 1985 study by the sociologist David Finkelhor put the figure at closer to one in five. Part of this almost inconceivable increase has come about because of a broadening of the definition of incest: today incest is often defined as sexual abuse by a relative or someone else—stepparent, baby sitter, family friend—whom the child would be expected to trust and obey. But current statistics also suggest the extent to which incest may have been underreported in the past.

The link between sexual abuse and parricide came forcefully into the public consciousness in 1982, when the sixteen-year-old Richard Jahnke killed his father after enduring years of physical abuse and witnessing the physical and sexual abuse of his mother and sister. According to Paul Mones, a lawyer who specializes in defending abused children who kill their parents and the author of a book on the subject, the Jahnke case was “the first parricide to attract intense national attention since Lizzie Borden.” In 1986 a Long Island teen-ager named Cheryl Pierson paid a classmate to murder her father. When she was caught, Pierson told authorities that she had been abused by her father since she was eleven and that she feared he was about to turn on her younger sister. These two cases drew attention to abuse in respectable middle-class families, families in which the abusers, as Mones writes in his When a Child Kills , are “successful wage-earners, regarded by their peers as honest, hardworking people,” people, in other words, “generally indistinguishable from the rest of us.”

In the nineteenth century the connection between sexual abuse and homicide was simply not part of the public consciousness. A rare example came to light in Boston in 1867, when the seventeen-year-old Alice Christiana Abbott poisoned her stepfather. According to the correspondent for The New York Times , she claimed he had had “improper connection” with her from the time she was thirteen. She had told others about it, but most believed “something was the matter with her head.” When her stepfather threatened to put her in a reform school if she revealed the abuse, she killed him. Her case came before the Suffolk County Grand Jury in August 1867. That body committed her to the Taunton Lunatic Asylum without further investigation. Buried in the records of the Magdalen Asylum, a home for “fallen women” in Philadelphia at the turn of the century, are other reports of women seeking refuge from their fathers. The administrators of the home told these women to work hard and to pray hard; little other recourse was available.

Sigmund Freud himself met with disbelief when he raised the issue of incest. In Vienna in 1896 he presented a paper suggesting that the hysteria in the women he was treating was caused by childhood sexual trauma. So outraged were his male colleagues that Freud recanted and constructed his seduction theory, incriminating fantasizing daughters instead of their abusive fathers. He did so, he told a correspondent, with a sense of relief. If he had been right the first time, he added, it would have meant that “perverted acts against children” were a general occurrence in society.

Recent work by historians suggests that they were. In Heroes of Their Own Lives , published in 1988, Linda Gordon analyzed the case records of one of the many child-protection organizations at the turn of the century. She identified one hundred cases of incest. According to her sources, the average age of the victims at the time the incest was reported was ten. About onequarter of the episodes took place in households in which the mother was absent. In another 36 percent of cases the mother was “weakened” by illness or fear of violence from the male in the household. Some of the victims resisted the abuse by running away. When they did, they entered the files of other social service agencies as “delinquent girls” or prostitutes.

The way the killings were committed seems telling. All the hatchet blows directed at Mr. Borden were aimed at his face.

In the early 1980s Denise Gelinas, a co-founder and co-director of a medical treatment center for incest victims in Springfield, Massachusetts, documented certain conditions under which incest is most likely to occur (although the conditions themselves are not causes of abuse). A father may turn on his children when the mother is unavailable and his sense of entitlement is strong or when he has sustained an important loss. Children between the ages of four and nine are particularly vulnerable because they are trusting, deferential to authority, and eager to please and because they cannot always distinguish between proper and improper actions. The likelihood of incest can also increase if there is a strong sanction against extramarital sexual activity.

All these signs of a family at risk were visible in the Borden family when Emma and Lizzie were growing up. Two years prior to Lizzie’s birth, her mother bore and buried another daughter, “baby Alice.” The first Mrs. Borden died two years after Lizzie was born. In the interim she suffered from a condition described on her death certificate as “uterine congestion,” one of the unspecific female complaints that plagued Victorian wives. Its victims often took to their beds for long periods of time. This, coupled with the death of one child and the birth of another, might have made Mrs. Borden sexually unresponsive to her husband. Although there was a subculture of prostitution in Fall River, Mr. Borden, an intensely private and rigid man, might have been reluctant to turn to it. As provider and patriarch he may also have expected his needs to be met in his own home.

Emma might easily have been urged to take up her mother’s role in a process therapists call “parentification.” She was just thirteen when her mother died, and for the last two years of Mrs. Borden’s life, Emma had cared for Lizzie. In the absence of other women in the home, Emma would have assumed responsibility for household tasks. Mr. Borden refused offers of help from other family members, including his sister. He chose to keep his household his own private domain, establishing a kind of family isolation well documented in the case histories of incest survivors.

As the result of a sense of entitlement and the absence of an appropriate sexual partner, Mr. Borden might have abused first Emma, then Lizzie. Research on serial abuse is sketchy, but it may occur in as many as 50 percent of all cases. The shift from one sibling to another often takes place as the older child begins to resist the abuse. In the Borden household the transfer might have taken place when Emma was about fifteen and Lizzie was about four. This would have coincided with the arrival of the second Mrs. Borden.

Shadows of the first marriage haunted the second. Most followers of the case agree that the Borden girls did not respond well to the arrival of a stepmother. There is no indication that Abby treated them badly, but from the first Emma refused to call her Mother. Lizzie never established a close relationship with her either, although she was young enough for Mrs. Borden to have assumed a mother’s role.

Abby Borden might well have been expected to bear children herself; neither her age nor Mr. Borden’s precluded a second family. The absence of children raises the possibility that Andrew Borden’s second marriage was an asexual one.

Seven years into the marriage the family moved to the house on Second Street, a building that has been the source of much controversy about the Bordens as a family. Although it was a marked improvement over their old house, it still lacked many of the amenities that others of Mr. Borden’s position would have demanded. If the move was made, as some have argued, to enhance the Borden girls’ chances for matrimony, it was unsuccessful. Lizzie and Emma were average-looking girls with a more than average inheritance due them, but neither was ever engaged nor married.

If, however, the house was purchased to allay Abby’s suspicions, the choice was a sound one. The building was a long, narrow, two-family dwelling. When the Bordens moved in, they made only minor changes, leaving the structure essentially divided. Mr. and Mrs. Borden’s upstairs bedrooms, for instance, were not accessible to Lizzie’s and Emma’s bedrooms except by coming downstairs and going up another flight of stairs. The doors connecting several upstairs rooms were kept locked and blocked with furniture. The house effectively separated Mr. Borden from his daughters. As time went on, the family divisions grew even deeper, and by the time of the murders, the Bordens did not regularly eat together at a common table.

Apparently, little affection passed between any of the family members with one exception: by all accounts Lizzie and her father had once been very close. Mr. Borden always wore a gold ring she gave him when she graduated from high school. He was wearing it when he died. This affection between a teen-age Lizzie and her father would not be inconsistent with a past history of sexual abuse. Whatever passed between her and her father was her only experience of parental love. She did not know her mother or love her stepmother. She had been her father’s “special girl.” Confused feelings would be expected, too, if Lizzie had successfully repressed her memories of abuse, as many incest victims do today. A powerful chronicle of another special girl who repressed abuse is Sylvia Eraser’s My Father’s House , published in 1988. Fraser, a Canadian journalist and novelist, created an imaginary “twin,” another self who experienced her incestuous relationship with her father and the guilt that accompanied it. The presence of the twin enabled Fraser to live a normal teen-ager’s life loving her father.

No single disorder is enough to make a case for a family at war with itself. But viewed as a pattern, the long-time absence of a wife-mother, the ages of the girls at the time of their mother’s illness, the autocratic father, the isolation of the family, the failure of the family to bond as a unit when the new Mrs. Borden moved in, the timing of the move to the new house, the structure of the house, the special relationship between Lizzie and her father, the tensions between both daughters and the stepmother—all these together suggest long-standing structural flaws that could have led to family violence and to the murders. Even the way in which the killings were committed seems telling. All the hatchet blows directed at Mr. Borden were aimed at his face. As the prosecuting attorney described it in his closing argument, the hand that held the weapon was “not the hand of masculine strength. It was the hand of a person strong only in hate and the desire to kill.”

What drove Lizzie to murder, according to the prosecution, must have been greed. The evidence for this assumption was a previous family squabble that became public at the trial. In 1887 Andrew, normally frugal to a fault, had bought Abby a house for her sister to live in. Both Emma and Lizzie were upset at what they saw as favoritism; Lizzie’s anger was later interpreted as selfishness. But arguments about property and money are often about position in family structure as well. This disagreement may even have triggered memories of other moments when Mr. Borden’s affections were sought by both Mrs. Borden and Lizzie.

The awakening or surfacing of memories about incest is a slow and unpredictable process. Sometimes a woman who has repressed her victimization for years will remember what happened as she becomes a mother herself. This phenomenon, well known to clinicians treating incest patients, made national news recently when Eileen Franklin-Lipsker, twenty-nine years old, suddenly remembered that her father had raped and killed her childhood friend. She was eight years old at the time. Her father had told her that no one would believe her if she reported what happened, and for two decades she had repressed the memory. Then, one day, prompted by a look on her daughter’s face, the memory surfaced. Psychologists call such awakening of memories “delayed discovery.” Children deliberately forget as a way to distance themselves from the guilt and shame they feel. Once they remember, they must not only believe themselves but ask others to believe them as well. Recent research on delayed discovery has prompted lawmakers to extend the statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual assaults against children. The most liberal of these laws allows a victim twenty-two years after his or her eighteenth birthday to file charges.

Delayed discovery can have what Gelinas describes as a “time-bomb quality.” When such an awakening happens today, a skillful therapist can guide the survivor through the tangled morass of feelings. Dr. Judith Herman, a leading authority on fatherdaughter incest, helped one group of adult women through the healing process recently. The median age in the group was Lizzie’s at the time of the murders, thirty-two. The majority were white, educated, and unmarried and had suffered some degree of amnesia about the incest. Many were engaged in the “helping professions,” today’s counterpart to the church activities that were important to Lizzie in the 1890s.

But in the 189Os the silence around incest could not be broken in a healing fashion. Women who remembered were left alone to bear the hurt, the anger, and the sense of worthlessness and guilt that can emerge. Some women acted strangely, became neurotic without knowing why. Lizzie herself reported confused feelings to her friend Alice Russell the night before the murders. “I feel depressed … as if something was hanging over me that I cannot throw off, and it comes over me at times, no matter where I am.… When I was at the table the other day … the girls were laughing and talking and having a good time and this feeling came over me, and one of them spoke and said Lizzie, why don’t you talk?”

Victims in the nineteenth century who did talk were not believed or were labeled crazy. As recently as 1934 the legal scholar John Wigmore argued in his definitive classic Treatise on Evidence that women and children were not trustworthy witnesses in sex offense cases because they were likely to bring false charges against men of good character. He even discounted medical evidence corroborating their testimony if he was in any way suspicious of the stories they told. Even today, when incest victims take matters into their own hands and kill their abusers, they are frequently portrayed as crazy by the media. People are disturbed, in particular, because they don’t seem to experience remorse for what they have done. Psychologists explain this absence of feeling as a defense. As Mones writes, incest victims are “forced to numb their real emotions for so long, by the time of the parricide they have no tears.”

Parricide is the most extreme, the rarest response to incest. Why some victims kill their abusers and others do not is, of course, a mystery embedded in the deepest layers of human character, and it is here that speculation must become most tentative. Today most women Lizzie’s age who experience delayed discovery are living outside the family home. Many of them experience homicidal rage, but they don’t have to face their fathers every day. Lizzie was still under her father’s roof. With no means of earning a living and no prospect of marriage, she would have been trapped there as the memories surfaced.

Why did she kill Abby too? Perhaps because her stepmother had known about the incest and had been unable to stop it, or worse, had blamed Lizzie for it. What about Emma? She must have known Lizzie had committed the murders and why. Otherwise her eerie calm in the face of violent death is almost inexplicable. The day of the murders both Emma and Lizzie stayed in the house with the bodies laid out on the dining-room table. They stayed there until the funeral, which was held in the room where Mr. Borden was killed. Is it possible that either woman would have done so if she thought some unknown killer had entered the house and committed the crimes?

In the months and years following the trial, Lizzie changed. She began calling herself Lisbeth; she moved to a stately new house she named Maplecroft. She began buying things for herself and living the life she felt she had been denied. She struck up a close friendship with a Boston actress. Lisbeth’s new way of life wore on her sister. In time Emma left Maplecroft and Fall River, where children were still chanting the insidious rhyme. The two sisters never saw each other again.

In a rare interview twenty years after the crime, Emma defended Lizzie and stressed the duty she felt toward her sister. She had promised her mother that she would take care of Lizzie. “I am still the little mother,” the old, graying woman said, “and though we must live as strangers, I will defend ‘Baby Lizzie’ against merciless tongues.”

Today the Borden double murder is remembered as bloody hatchet work. We all nod in recognition when a television anchor reports that a Senate committee did a “Lizzie Borden” on a piece of legislation. But if that same newscaster were reporting the Borden murders today, it is far from inconceivable that he or she would, a few days later, return to the subject with an even darker side to the story.

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