The True Story Behind Lizzie Borden And The Infamous Borden Murders

Published June 20, 2016
Updated August 25, 2020

Was Lizzie Borden just a sweet Sunday school teacher, unfairly blamed for her parents' deaths? Or did she brutally and methodically murder them — and get away with it?

Lizzie Borden

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

Early on the morning of August 4, 1892, the Borden house was alive with activity, though the youngest daughter–Lizzie Borden–slept in.

The maid, a respectable Irish immigrant by the name of Bridget Sullivan, served breakfast to the patriarch, Andrew, and his wife, Abby, as usual. The eldest Borden daughter, Emma, was away visiting friends.

Lizzie Borden, an unmarried 32-year-old Sunday school teacher, was the last to join her family, coming downstairs after her uncle, John Morse–who had arrived unexpectedly for a visit the day before–left the house.

Lizzie Borden decided against eating breakfast. Her father, Andrew, decided to go downtown Fall River, Massachusetts–where the family lived–at around nine in the morning. It would be the last time he left his home alive.

The Bordens were prosperous, and their patriarch served on the boards of several banks while working as a commercial landlord.

Andrew And Abby Borden

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

In her husband’s absence, Abby went upstairs to make the bed where Morse had slept the night before. She would leave the room only one more time, looking for fresh pillowcases.

Meanwhile, Andrew had returned home. The maid let him in and Lizzie came downstairs, claiming that “Mrs. Borden” had left the house after receiving a note saying that a friend was sick. Lizzie and Emma always referred to Abby, their stepmother with whom they had an unfriendly relationship, as “Mrs. Borden.”

Her father believed the story and retreated to his room, where he would remain for only a few minutes, before coming back downstairs and settling on a sofa in the sitting room.

Sullivan, who was not feeling well — she reported throwing up that morning, perhaps from the flu that had traveled around the house days prior — went to rest in her room where she fell asleep.

According to Sullivan’s testimony during Lizzie Borden’s trial, she only awoke when she heard Lizzie screaming that her father was dead.

The Murder Of The Bordens

Fall River House

Wikimedia CommonsThe Borden residence in Fall River, Massachusetts, circa late 1800s.

Lizzie Borden later said that she found her father dead, sprawled out on the couch and covered in blood, his face so badly disfigured that he was unrecognizable.

After the screaming, Sullivan ran to fetch the doctor and a neighborhood friend of Lizzie’s, but the commotion had attracted the attention of neighbors who summoned the police.

Andrew Borden

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

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

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, Bridget checked for Abby upstairs, where she found her limp body 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.

The county medical examiner, Dr. Dolan, looked at the bodies after Bowen. Later, Dolan would have the Bordens’ stomachs removed and tested. No evidence that the couple had been poisoned was ever found.

The Investigation Into The Borden Murder

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, and Lizzie swore to District Attorney Hosea Knowlton that she was in the barn looking for a piece of iron when the attacks took place.

In the days after the murders, an abundance of clues that all led to dead ends confused the investigation even further: a bloody hatchet was found on a neighboring farm but it had been used to kill chickens.

A man seen wandering around the Bordens’ property had an airtight alibi for the time of the murders. Even Sullivan was a suspect before the police finally zeroed in on Lizzie.

But there was no physical evidence, not even a bloody scrap of clothing, to implicate Lizzie. It was just that no one else could have done it.

Lizzie Borden Photo

Wikimedia Commons Lizzie Borden in an undated photo.

The timeline doesn’t make sense any other way. If Abby was killed early in the morning, the murderer — if 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.

Eventually, 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 said she needed a prescription before she could purchase it.

That evening, Lizzie visited Russell. In her testimony at the inquest, Russell said that Lizzie was anxious that someone might be threatening her father. She confided that these enemies might want to hurt her family.

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.

After Russell revealed this incident at the inquest, the presiding judge charged Lizzie Borden with the murders.

The 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, 1983.

The trial of Lizzie Borden lasted 14 days. It was a media sensation. Newspaper headlines screamed “LIZZIE BORDEN DEFENSE OPENS.” Reporters from Boston and New York crowded the courtroom day after day. They called it The Great Trial.

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 Trial

Library of CongressA notice of the trial of Lizzie Borden in the June 16, 1893, edition of Fisherman & farmer.

The defense was able to produce witnesses who saw Lizzie leave the barn at the time of the murders, or who claimed to see strange characters lurking around the property — enough, at least, to create reasonable doubt for Lizzie’s guilt.

The defense was also able to have the drug store clerk’s testimony that Lizzie had tried to buy poison dismissed on the basis that it was “irrelevant and prejudicial.”

On June 19, 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.

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 before dying in 1927 at the age of 67.

She took whatever secrets she had about the murders of her parents to her grave. But that hasn’t stopped obsessed followers of her story from forming theories of their own.

Some think Andrew’s illegitimate son, William, committed the crime, and that Lizzie and Emma conspired to cover up his involvement, or more likely, that the two sisters made the plans while Lizzie alone carried out the actual murders. Others think Lizzie and Sullivan were having an affair and murdered the Bordens together.

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.

The murders of Andrew and Abby Borden continue to fascinate the public more than a hundred years after Lizzie Borden’s acquittal. People continue to flock to Fall River, Massachusetts, to visit the site of the murders, which has now been turned into a museum chronicling the history of the murders.

“Though the tour is entertaining,” writes Alyson Horrocks in a recent review of the tourist site for New England Today, “we were reminded of the horror of the events by well-placed crime photos and a presentation of the murders’ sobering facts. It was unsettling to hear of the nineteen blows to Abby’s head as we stood at the spot where she fell.”

Some visitors claim that the house is still haunted by the ghosts of Andrew and Abby Borden and one thing everyone can agree on is that the grisly murders, the sensational Lizzie Borden trial, and the unsolved debate about the true identity of the murder continues to fascinate as one of America’s most notorious murder cases of all time.

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.