Vaughn Hardacker here: Do you have a famous or infamous ancestor in your family tree? A few years back, I set out to do my family’s genealogy. I had always told people that the only thing that kept my family from being trailer park trash was that we were too poor to own a trailer. I was shocked to learn the opposite. My great-grandmother on my father’s side was a Borden. There are among the Bordens some people who achieved a great deal. Among them is Gail Borden (4th cousin four times removed): who invented condensed milk and founded Borden Foods. Robert Laird Borden (1st cousin four times removed): the eighth prime minister of Canada and the last Canadian prime minister to be knighted by the King of England. Sir Winston Churchill (9th cousin): Nuff said. Norma Jean Baker aka Marilyn Monroe (7th cousin): Who’d a thought!
However, only one of my predecessors ever had a poem written about her: Lizzie Andrew Borden:
Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one
The poem has kept Lizzie Borden (my 5th cousin, twice removed) a part of Americana since the murders of her father and her stepmother on August 4th, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts. The poem is inaccurate: she was found not guilty, only nineteen blows were counted, the murder weapon was not an ax but a hatchet, and Abby Borden was her stepmother. But few know little more than the poem or the movies that have been made about the crime. So who was Lizzie Borden, and why she was considered the prime suspect in a crime for which she was found not guilty on June 20th, 1893? Here is what I have learned.
Lizzie Andrew Borden (1860 – 1927) was the youngest of three daughters of Andrew Jackson Borden and Sarah Anthony Morse. Her mother died shortly after Lizzie’s birth. Andrew married Abby Durfee Gray, a local widow. She took over raising his two daughters (Lizzie had an older sister Emma Lenora Borden, a middle sister who died at two) and running the household. The Bordens were solid upper-middle-class and nowhere near the wealthiest family in Fall River, as is generally thought. Lizzie grew up in an atmosphere of idle, not gentile living. She was never to hold a job, although she did volunteer work for church missions, temperance unions, and various charities. She had a reputation for thievery. Andrew was miserly and seldom gave his daughters money. Lizzie was well known to the various shopkeepers in Fall River and when she shop lifted, they would contact her father. Andrew would then go to the shop and pay for the item(s).
Andrew Borden was known to be stingy with a Scrooge-like attitude toward his customers, tenants, and those who borrowed money from him. During her trial, the prosecution attempted to depict Lizzie as a person. She would not only kill for an inheritance. Still, she would do so to avenge years of deprivation (both material and psychological) she had endured in her father’s household. There was evidence of friction between the sisters and their father over how he catered to Abby’s relatives (or so the girls believed). During this time, Lizzie stopped calling Abby mother and began calling her “Mrs. Borden.”
Lizzie was considered a suspect in the killings by several police officers when they were notified. At the time of the murders, only Lizzie, Bridget Sullivan (the Borden’s domestic servant), and the victims were home. It has been thought that Lizzie murdered her stepmother while Bridget was outside the house washing windows. She later told her father that Abby had received a note about a sick friend and was out of the house. She then encouraged her father to take a nap. Bridget finished with her chores, went to her room to take a nap. Lizzie said that she then went out to the barn on an errand. She returned to the house after hearing a groan, a scraping noise, or a call of distress. (she related several contradictory stories to the police). Eventually, she settled on the story that she checked on her father and found him slain, his head mutilated.
On August 11th, after appearing before an inquest, she was arrested for the murders. In December, a Grand Jury handed down three indictments against Lizzie Borden: one for the murder of her father, one for the murder of her stepmother, and one for the murder of both. She was removed to a Taunton jail, where she remained until her trial in June 1893.
A jury of twelve men, average age fifty-three, found her not guilty on all counts.
At first public opinion about the verdict was favorable. It was generally believed that Lizzie would leave Fall River and live somewhere less known. She did not. She returned to her home and remained in the city. The absence of closure about the murders caused Lizzie’s and Emma’s social positions to fall. The sisters had become wealthy women because Abby died before Andrew. The stepmother’s family was deprived of her estate and, as a legal matter, it fell into the sisters’ possession. The final blow to her status came when Lizzie was accused of shoplifting two paintings from a Providence, Rhode Island company. A warrant was never served, and the matter was settled privately. Lizzie’s reputation was diminished, and she became more isolated.
In 1905, Emma moved out with no public explanation. There is speculation that Emma learned something about the 1892 murders. The sisters never saw nor spoke with each other again.
Lizzie Andrew Borden spent the last twenty-two years of her life an aging spinster surrounded by faithful servants who have never broken their silence. She was generous with their salaries and even purchased a house as a residence for some of them.
On June 1st, 1947, Lizzie died after suffering complications after a gall bladder operation. Emma died nine days later in Newmarket, New Hampshire. Neither sister had begotten children, and the Andrew Borden branch of the family (the Borden family includes such well-known people as Sir Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe) ended.
Lizzie’s infamous name has endured and become iconic. The murders have spawned numerous books and at least two movies (one movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery and another with Christina Ricci as Lizzie—I believe the latter was closer to the facts as they are known.). Whether or not she committed the murders or not the unanswered questions continue to fascinate mystery lovers throughout the world.
As a member of the Borden line, here’s what I think: Did Lizzie murder her stepmother and father? Undoubtedly, yes. Why do I believe this? Andrew Borden, as stated, was well-to-do but not wealthy. However, Abby did have a sizeable estate (and children) from her first marriage. The sequence of the murders says a lot. Abby was killed first. Her husband, Andrew, was bequeathed all of her assets and possessions. When Andrew was murdered several hours later, his estate went to his daughters. This cut Abby’s children out of any inheritance. Shortly after the crime, a neighbor observed Lizzie burning a dress she believed was worn during the killings. What about the murder weapon? It was never found. My theory: The Bordens did not have an outhouse. Instead, they had a privy in the cellar of the house. In 1892, no companies pumped out the privy, as is done to modern-day septic systems. The hatchet was thrown into the privy. I, for one, would not go down there feeling around for it!
For more information about Lizzie, visit http://www.thelizziebordencollection.com