The 1893 murder trial of Lizzie Borden was a media sensation, dubbed the trial of the century by reporters who covered the lurid details of the brutal deaths of her father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby. The murders inspired a famous nursery rhyme, which continued to haunt Lizzie long after her acquittal, as she struggled to make a life for herself in a world in which many remained convinced of her guilt.
The Borden household was a troubled one
Considered by many a spinster, 32-year-old Lizzie lived in Fall River, Massachusetts with her father Andrew, a wealthy property developer and Andrew’s second wife, whom he had married following the death of Lizzie's mother. Her relationship with her stepmother was strained, and friends and relatives later noted the uptick in tension within the family in the months before the murders.
Despite Andrew’s financial success, the family lived a frugal lifestyle (their home lacked electricity and indoor plumbing), and Lizzie, who was fond of fine clothes and longed to travel, frequently chafed against her father’s penny-pinching, noting that a number of Borden relatives lived in the more socially prominent Fall River neighborhood known as “The Hill.” The wealthy Borden was not a popular man, and he had personal and professional disputes with a number of people, any of whom, Lizzie later claimed, could have had a motive to kill him.
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Lizzie did herself no favors during the investigation
On the morning of August 4, 1892, the lifeless bodies of Andrew and Abby were found in their home. Lizzie, Andrew, Abby and the Borden’s Irish maid, Bridget, were the only people known to have been in the house at the time of the murders. Andrew was napping on a couch; Abby was cleaning an upstairs bedroom; Bridget, feeling unwell, was resting in her room.
Around 11:30 am, Bridget said she heard screams, and rushed downstairs, where she found Lizzie yelling that Andrew had been killed. He had been so viciously attacked that his face was nearly unrecognizable. Bridget and a family friend soon found Abby’s body upstairs. While their wounds were brutal, neither received the 40 and 41 “whacks,” described in the nursery rhyme. Andrew was struck 11 times and Abby received 18 or 19 blows.
Despite Lizzie’s attempts to deflect suspicion, she soon became the prime suspect. Lizzie told police she had been in the barn when she’d heard noises coming from the house. But her conflicting testimony throughout the investigation led many to doubt her claims of innocence, and she was arrested for the double murder.
Her trial lasted two weeks, but the jury came to a quick verdict
After nearly a year in jail, Lizzie’s trial began at the New Bedford Superior Court in June 1893. She hired a talented defense team, including a former Massachusetts governor. During the trial, they chipped away at the prosecution’s case. In an era before more sophisticated forensic testing, the defense noted the lack of physical evidence linking Lizzie to the murders.
They also played the gender card, arguing to the all-male jury (women were not allowed to sit on juries at the time) that Lizzie, a well-liked churchgoer, would not have been capable of committing such a heinous act. Lizzie may have helped matters in that regard when she fainted in the courtroom upon seeing plaster casts of Abby and Andrew’s butchered skulls presented as evidence.
The prosecution, meanwhile, called a number of people close to Lizzie to testified about her unusual behavior in the weeks preceding the murder, including an unsuccessful attempt to purchase Prussic acid and Lizzie’s burning of a dress shortly after the murders, which she claimed was because it had been stained with paint. They presented a hatchet with its handle broken off as the possible murder weapon. They also tried to establish a motive, hinting at the difficult relationship between Lizzie and her parents, and noting that Lizzie was in line to inherit part of Andrew’s fortune, estimated at more than $8 million in today’s money.
Lizzie did not take the stand in her own defense. The jury adjourned and returned an hour later (there were later reports that they deliberated for just 10 minutes). They found her not guilty on all counts, as Lizzie sank to her chair in relief.
Lizzie stayed in Fall River after the trial
Lizzie and her older sister, Emma, briefly returned to the house, but soon purchased a 14-room, Queen-Anne style home on The Hill, which they named Maplecroft. The now-wealthy sisters lived the life Lizzie had always dreamed of, with a large staff of servants and all the modern conveniences of the day. They also built a lavish monument which they placed at the site of Andrew and Abby’s graves.
Lizzie began using the name Lizbeth and while she may have hoped for a fresh start, Fall River refused to allow her to forget her past. Maplecroft became a target for school children, who threw objects at the house and regularly pranked and taunted her. Former friends abandoned her, and even fellow church members avoided her. Newspapers wrote thinly-veiled attacks, all but accusing her of getting away with murder. In 1897, Lizzie faced another scandal, when she was accused (but not charged) of shoplifting while visiting Rhode Island, leading her to become even more isolated within the walls of Maplecroft.
Her new lifestyle destroyed her close relationship with her sister, Emma
Fall River society may have treated Lizzie like a pariah, but others were more than willing to take advantage of her largesse. An avid theater-goer, Lizzie began traveling frequently to New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere to shop and attend shows. She also began throwing lavish parties at Maplecroft for her new friends.
Among them was Nance O’Neill, an actress whom some in the press dubbed the “American Bernhardt.” Lizzie met Nance in Boston around 1904, and the two quickly became close. Lizzie doted on her, and gossip soon began to spread that the two were having a sexual relationship, though neither woman commented on the accusations. Some accused Nance of taking advantage of Lizzie’s generosity and financial support.
Emma, who had been her sister’s closest confidante throughout their lives, grew increasingly frustrated with Lizzie, and moved out of Maplecroft in 1905, later telling a Boston newspaper, “The happenings at the French Street house that caused me to leave I must refuse to talk about. I did not go until conditions became absolutely unbearable.”
Nance’s friendship with Lizzie ended after just a few years, but Lizzie and her staunchest supporter remained estranged for the rest of their lives. Lizzie died in June 1927, at age 66. Emma died a little more than a week later.
Today, the Borden family home on Second Street is a popular bed and breakfast, where those brave enough can spend the night at the scene of the one most famous — and officially unsolved — murders in American history.