Beyond The 40 Whacks: The Story Of The Infamous Lizzie Borden Murders

Published June 20, 2016
Updated May 7, 2021

Sunday school teacher Lizzie Borden became a media sensation when she was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an ax on August 4, 1892.

Lizzie Borden

Wikimedia Commons Lizzie Borden sits for a portrait in the early 1890s, before her parents were brutally murdered in the Borden home in 1892.

Something horrible had happened in the quiet town of Fall River, Massachuttses. Andrew Borden and his wife Abby had been murdered — bludgeoned to death with an ax. Before long, suspicion began to fall on Andrew’s 32-year-old daughter: Lizzie Borden.

Borden, a spinster schoolteacher, never admitted to the murders. But her 1893 trial captivated the nation. And her acquittal on June 20, 1893, only deepened the mystery. Did Lizzie Borden kill her father and stepmother? If so, why? And if she didn’t — then who did?

The Day Of The Borden Ax Murders

The Borden House

Wikimedia CommonsThe house where the Lizzie Borden murders took place, circa 1892.

The morning of August 4, 1892, started as usual at the Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts. The family’s maid, Bridget Sullivan, served breakfast to Andrew and Abby while Lizzie Borden slept upstairs. Andrew went into town. And Abby decided to straighten up the guest room, where Lizzie’s uncle had slept the night before.

The Bordens were a prosperous family and well-respected in Fall River. Andrew had been married to his first wife, Sarah, until her death, and married his second wife a few years later. His two daughters, Emma and Lizzie, were well-behaved and devoutly Christian.

Andrew And Abby Borden

MurderpediaAndrew and Abby Borden, whose brutal murder became a national sensation.

But all was not well beneath the surface at the Borden house. Although Abby had been their stepmother nearly all their lives, Emma and Lizzie didn’t particularly like her. And Lizzie longed for the family to move to a nicer part of town.

That August, tensions in the Borden family were particularly taut. For one thing, it was hot. An oppressive heat wave clung to the air in Fall Rivers. And the Borden family had felt unwell for the past couple of days, perhaps because of bad mutton stew.

By the morning of Aug. 4, however, everyone except for Sullivan felt more or less well. After her husband left for town, Abby Borden climbed the stairs to the guest room to make the bed. And — in the drifting, oppressive heat of that August morning — someone followed her.

Meanwhile, Andrew had returned from town. He asked his daughter where Abby had gone, to which Lizzie Borden replied that “Mrs. Borden” had left the house. According to Lizzie, her stepmother had received a note alerting her about a sick friend.

Andrew believed the story. He settled down on a sofa in the sitting room, as Sullivan — still feeling unwell — went to take a nap in her room.

The maid was awoken by a scream. Lizzie Borden was shouting for her, crying that her father was dead.

Inside The Murder Of The Bordens

Andrew Borden

Wikimedia CommonsCrime scene photo showing the dead body of Andrew Borden as it was found, with a sheet over the mutilated face.

Following the discovery of Andrew Borden’s body, Sullivan fled the house to find a doctor. But the screaming had also attracted the attention of the Borden’s neighbors, who called the police. Slowly, a curious crowd gathered outside the Borden residence.

At this point, Abby’s whereabouts were still unknown. Lizzie Borden told her concerned neighbors the same story she’d told her father: that her stepmother had received a note asking her to visit a sick friend.

Lizzie also mentioned that her parents had been ill in the previous days and that she suspected their milk had been poisoned.

After returning with a local doctor named Seabury Bowen, Sullivan went to see if Abby was upstairs — and found her lying face down in a pool of her own blood.

Abby Borden

Wikimedia CommonsCrime scene photo showing the dead body of Abby Borden.

Abby Borden had been struck 19 times with a hatchet; Andrew had been hit 11 times with the same weapon. One of Andrew’s eyes had been cut in half and his nose had been completely severed from his face. Abby’s blood was dark and congealed, leading Bowen to believe that she had been killed first.

But who had killed them? The Lizzie Borden murders would yield far fewer answers than questions.

The Investigation Into The Borden Murders

Borden Skulls And Hachet

MurderpediaThe skulls of Andrew and Abby Borden, which were shown at trial as evidence against Lizzie Borden.

At first, the police did not suspect Lizzie Borden. After all, she was a spinster from a respected and well-off family. Lizzie swore to District Attorney Hosea Knowlton that she was in the barn looking for a piece of iron when the attacks took place.

Authorities felt confident they could solve this alarming case. But their wealth of clues quickly withered into dead ends. A bloody hatchet was found on a neighboring farm — but it had been used to kill chickens. A strange man was seen near the Borden’s property at the time of the murders — but he had an airtight alibi.

Meanwhile, Lizzie Borden’s story kept changing. Her claim about searching for iron shifted into one about eating pears in the barn loft.

There was no physical evidence against her — not even a bloody scrap of clothing. But as the police investigated the double murders, they began to believe that simply no one else could have done it.

Lizzie Borden Photo

Wikimedia Commons Lizzie Borden in an undated photo.

If Abby was killed early in the morning, the murderer — assuming it wasn’t Lizzie or Sullivan — would have hidden in the house for several hours, waiting for Andrew’s return. He or she would have risked being spotted by Lizzie or Sullivan.

And what about that note Lizzie claimed her stepmother received? Abby had clearly never made it out of the house, so where was it? Lizzie told her friend Alice Russell that her stepmother may have accidentally burned it.

Investigators also discovered that the day before the murders took place, Lizzie had tried to buy prussic acid, otherwise known as cyanide, from a drug store. But the clerk had refused to sell it. He said that she needed a prescription.

And a few days after the murders, Russell saw Lizzie burning one of her dresses at the stove in her house. When Russell asked her why she was destroying the dress, Lizzie said that it was stained and could no longer be worn.

On Aug. 8, Borden attended an inquest hearing, during which she provided contradicting information about the murders. On Aug. 11, she was arrested and put in jail.

The Infamous Trial Of Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden Trial Illustration

Wikimedia CommonsThe Lizzie Borden lands on the cover of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly on June 29, 1893.

The 14 days of Lizzie Borden’s trial consumed the nation. Newspaper headlines screamed “LIZZIE BORDEN DEFENSE OPENS.” Reporters from Boston and New York crowded the courtroom day after day, calling the Borden murder trial “The Great Trial.”

“Our proper Victorian ancestors couldn’t fathom that someone among the upper class – especially a woman – could commit such a heinous crime,” noted Deborah Allard, a reporter, and resident of Fall River.

Though Lizzie never testified during the trial, she was still the star of the show. At one point, a piece of tissue paper covering the skull of her father fell to the floor. Lizzie caught sight of the bludgeoned skull and fainted.

But presenting the skulls of the murdered Bordens turned out in Lizzie’s favor.

Her lawyer reasoned that whoever caused such extreme damage must have been covered in blood after the incident, but Lizzie’s clothes were perfectly clean. (This has led some to believe that she committed the murders naked.)

Lizzie Borden Jury

Wikimedia CommonsThe jury at the Lizzie Borden murder trial.

And the defense was able to further cloud the water. They produced witnesses who claimed to have seen Lizzie leaving the barn at the time of the murders and witnesses who’d seen strange characters around the Borden property.

The defense was even able to get the drug clerk’s testimony struck from the record, calling it “irrelevant and prejudicial.” They argued that the drug store had misidentified Lizzie Borden — and that, anyway, prussic acid could be used for innocence purposes.

On June 19, 1893, Lizzie was found not guilty of murdering Andrew and Abby.

She and her sister Emma, who inherited their father’s estate, bought a house in the fashionable part of Fall River — where Lizzie had always wanted to live.

The Aftermath Of Lizzie Borden’s Acquittal

Lizzie Borden Portrait

Wikimedia Commons Lizzie Borden in a photo taken in 1890.

The sisters lived peacefully at Fall River until 1904, when Lizzie Borden (now calling herself “Lizbeth”) met an actress named Nance O’Neill.

The pair formed a strong bond — some speculate they were lovers — but Emma did not approve. Two years after Lizzie met Nance, Emma moved out of the house they shared.

Lizzie Borden lived out the rest of her days in relative quiet and privacy. She died in 1927 at the age of 67 — taking anything she knew about the murders with her to the grave.

But if Lizzie Borden didn’t kill her father and stepmother, then who did?

Some think Andrew’s illegitimate son, William, committed the crime — and that Lizzie and Emma conspired to cover up his involvement. Others believe that the two sisters plotted the murders together. Another line of speculation suggests that Lizzie and Sullivan were having an affair, which led to the murders.

In 2012, journals kept by Lizzie’s lawyer, Andrew Jackson Jennings, were obtained by the Fall River Historical Society.

The journals revealed Jennings’ direct observations of his client, who history remembers as cold-blooded and callous. But Jennings saw a sensitive side to Lizzie, a woman grieving for her loss.

Lizzie Borden Bed And Breakfast

David/FlickrA 2009 picture of the house where the brutal killings occurred, which is now called the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, a museum to the notorious murder case.

The notebooks did not, however, bring the public any closer to knowing who actually killed the Bordens.

And so, the mystery endures. As does the popular rhyme about the Lizzie Borden murders, which goes:

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

After diving into the life of Lizzie Borden, discover the tale of Hans Schmidt, the only Catholic priest ever executed in the United States. Then, read about the truck driving mass-murderess Olga Hepnarová.

Elisabeth Sherman
Elisabeth Sherman is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.