The Borden murders: what we know

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Sharon Pollock's Blood Relations tells a story of Lizzie Borden, famously accused of murdering her father and stepmother in 1892.  In this and future posts, we'll be looking at the historical record: the murder itself, the trial and its coverage in the media, and the aftermath.  Today: the murder itself.


In 1892, the house at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts was the home of Andrew Borden, his wife Abby, his daughters Emma and Lizzie, and a live-in maid named Bridget Sullivan.  Andrew Borden was a successful businessman, with interests in textile mills and banking; Abby was his second wife, his first having died of illness a few years after Lizzie's birth.

There were tensions within and around the family.  The sisters were concerned with various gifts of real estate to members of Abby's family, having already harboured suspicions that Abby had married Andrew for his money.  An argument within the family sent the sisters off to New Bedford for some time in July of 1892; upon their return, Lizzie spent several days in a local rooming house before coming back to the family home.  Shortly afterward the residents of the house all fell ill; while it's likely this was a simple case of food poisoning, Abby was worried that they might have been the victims of a poisoner since her husband was not universally popular.

On August 4th, John Morse (brother to Andrew's first wife, the sisters' mother) was visiting the home, as he frequently did in the summers.  That morning Abby was making the bed in the guest room where John had slept when she was confronted by an assailant with a hatchet.  The first strike was just above her ear; after she fell, the attacked struck her 17 more times in the back of her head.

Later that morning, Andrew returned to the house from his morning walk and retired to the sitting room; it's believed that he took a nap, as evidence suggested that his hatchet-wielding murderer found him asleep.  The killer had struck him ten times or more; when Lizzie found his body and called for Bridget's help, his wounds were still bleeding.

Suspicion quickly fell upon the younger Borden daughter.  Lizzie had never gotten along well with her stepmother, addressing her as "Mrs. Borden" rather than anything more familiar; while the same could be said of Emma, the older sister was out of town on the day of the murders.  When questioned by the police, Lizzie's answers were confused and at times contradictory — possibly because of the morphine doses she took to calm herself.  An investigation found a hatchet-head with a broken handle in the cellar; unlike the other tools around it, this one appeared to have dust and grime deliberately applied.  On August 8th an inquest began; on August 11th Lizzie Borden was arrested for the murder of her father and stepmother.

(Photo of the Borden house from the Lizzie Andrew Borden Virtual Museum & Library, a fantastic source of information about the entire affair.)