Lizzie Borden and America’s most infamous axe murders #RealCrimeFriday

In Fall River, Massachusetts, on August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls the maid, Bridget into the downstairs sitting room. “Come quick!” she shouts “Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him!”

Her father, wealthy business owner Andrew Jackson Borden has been struck 10 or 11 times with a hatchet-like weapon, whilst sleeping. His wounds are still bleeding. Her stepmother Abby is discovered in the guest bedroom upstairs, with 19 direct hits from a hatchet to the back of her head.

The body of Lizzie's father, Andrew Borden
The body of Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden

When police arrive they find a hatchet-head in the basement with a freshly broken handle. Unlike the other tools in the basement, ash and dust have been deliberately applied to the hatchet-head, in order to make it look as if it has gone unused for some time.

When questioned by the officers, Lizzie’s answers are at times strange and contradictory. Her alibis keep changing. Most of the officers reported that they disliked her attitude, with some of them saying that they found her to be too calm and poised.

On August 6, the police return to the house to conduct a more thorough search. They confiscate the hatchet-head with the broken handle, and inspect Lizzie and her sister Emma’s clothing. That evening, Lizzie is told that she is a suspect in the murders. The next morning she is found burning a dress, by a friend who is staying with them. Lizzie claims that she was doing this as the clothing had become covered in paint. It is never determined if this was the dress she was wearing at the time of the murders.

The original axe head from the Borden murders
The original axe head from the Borden murders

During the inquest, Lizzie continued to contradict herself. Her whereabouts in the house kept changing. As did the task she was performing. At one point she claimed she had removed her sleeping father’s boots, in order to put his slippers on him. The police photographs of his body clearly showed that he was wearing boots.

It was also found that the relationships within the family were very strained. The maid Bridget testifies that the two sisters rarely ate in the same room as their parents. Lizzie stated that she always addressed her stepmother as “Mrs Borden”, and did not feel that they had a cordial relationship, believing that Abby was after her father’s money.

In May, Lizzie had built a roost for some pigeons that were living in the barn. Upon hearing that her father had killed the birds with a hatchet, believing that they were attracting local children to hunt them, she became very upset.

Lizzie Borden herself, pictured around 1890
Lizzie Borden herself

In the months leading up to the murders, tensions had risen even higher, when Andrew had gifted parts of his real estate to various branches within Abby’s family, much to the dismay and anger of his daughters.

For several days before the murders, the whole household had been violently ill. The cause of this illness was unknown.

On August 11, Lizzie was arrested and jailed for the murders.

Her trial began in 1893, on June 5 in New Bedford. During the trial, the hatchet-head found in the basement was not shown convincingly to be the murder weapon. No bloody clothing was found by the police. The mysterious illness that the family suffered from days before the murders prompted the stomachs of the victims, and the family’s milk to be tested for poison. None was found.

The Lizzie Borden trial, depicted in the Illustrated American, June 1893.
The Lizzie Borden trial, depicted in the Illustrated American, June 1893.

At one point during the trial the victims’ skulls, their heads having been removed during the autopsy, were brought into the court room to be used as evidence. Upon seeing them, Lizzie fainted. The heads were later buried at the foot of the graves.

On June 20, after deliberating for an hour and a half, Lizzie Borden was acquitted by the jury. No one else was ever charged for the murders, and though Lizzie remained the prime suspect, the killer has never been found.

The trial is remembered as being a landmark in publicity and public interest in American legal proceedings.

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