By Bill Stewart
It’s August 4, 1892, and a married couple is murdered in their Fall River home. The city fell into disbelief. The police were stunned. Fall River history was changed forever.
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one
This murder is still discussed today – not only in Massachusetts, not only in New England, not only in the United States – but is renowned worldwide. The Guardian in England has reported the murder many times.
Lizzie was accused of murdering her father, Andrew, and her stepmother, Abby, with a hatchet in their Fall River home on Second Street.
A time line of the events follows. Lizzie was born on July 19, 1860; her mother died on March 26, 1863; her father married Abby Durfee Gray on June 6,1865; Lizzie’s uncle, John Morse, arrived at the family home on August 4, 1892, to stay for a period; on August 5, 1892, the bodies of her father and mother were discovered in their home; on August 14, 1892, Lizzie was arrested and charged for the murder of her parents; on June 5, 1893, Lizzie was brought to trial for the murders; on June 20, 1893, Lizzie was acquitted due to a lack of evidence; Lizzie bought a house and her sister Emma lived with her; then on June 1, 1927, Lizzie was no more, dead.
Lizzie was out of the house in the morning. She returned to find the horrible situation and found the maid to witness the murders. When the trial began, her lawyer, Andrew Jennings, proclaimed her innocence, claiming that a woman could never do such a heinous crime, and the murder weapon was never found. The police found an ax-head in the cellar that did not have a handle, and it contained no blood.
The local press produced an immense amount of data on theories of the killings, and the action became a serious situation in Massachusetts, then the country, then the world. There was a large amount of text in newspapers of that time where they first claimed her guilty; then later there was widespread debate about her culpability. The Borden’s physician, Dr. Sidney Bowen, stated that Abby was making a bed on the second floor when she was attacked, “striking her two or three times from the front, one blow cut off nearly two inches of flesh from the side of her head. Andrew was summarily attacked. He suffered heavy blows to his face from above as he slept in the living room.”
The physician further stated, “Physician that I am and accustomed to all kinds of horrible sights, it sickened me to look upon the dead man’s face. I am inclined to think that an axe was the instrument used. The cuts on Andrew “were about four and a half inches in length and one of them had severed the eye-ball and socket.”
Two days after the killings, in the Borden family living room, bodies of Lizzie’s father and mother were waked with about 75 mourners, according to the contemporary account by a reporter named Edwin Porter. ”The bodies of the victims were laid in the caskets with the mutilated portions of the head turned down, so that the cuts could not be noticed.” Porter further wrote “the caskets were open and the faces of both looked wonderfully peaceful.”
Lizzie and her sister offered a reward of $5,000 to anyone who could prove the killer, and the ad was regularly in the Fall River papers. The five thousand dollars in today’s value is about $170,000.
The Borden family was also involved in May of 1831 when Hannah Borden Cook was scouring her pots in the water of Quequechan River using beach sand. Hannah was digging sand and uncovered an intact skeleton buried in a sitting position, wearing a brass breastplate and a belt of brass tubes, near a quiver of arrows tipped with brass arrowheads. The found elements were given to the Fall River Atheneum, which is a library inside Town Hall. The woman, Hannah, who was an aunt of Andrew Borden, found the body about 700 feet from Lizzie’s home and was a great-aunt of Lizzie. Speculation tends toward a Portuguese explorer in the New World, or a Native American warrior. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1840 wrote a poem in which he imagines a Viking warrior, and the myth lives on.
Hundreds of studies, documentaries, novels, fictionalized films, songs and a ballet all bring a story of the murders to the fore.
Lizzie became an unwanted citizen of Fall River after acquittal, and she changed her name more than once. She sometimes used the name Mary Smith Borden, and her marker at Oak Grove Cemetery reads Lizbeth Borden.
A host of projects appeared, including the film “Lizzie Borden,” starring Chloe Sivigny and Kristen Stewart, then the novel “See What I Have Done,” and a revival of the rock musical “Lizzie” placed America’s most famous patricide back into the spotlight again. In 2014 the cable channel Lifetime showed a television program, “Lizzie Borden Took An Ax,” and followed it up with the 2015 series “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles.” There are many other films and books, too many to name, that purport to tell the story. I believe this story will continue to live in stories and films for long after I can see or read them. The horror of the time will live in infamy.
(Editor’s Note: Bill Stewart, better known to Saugus Advocate readers as “The Old Sachem,” writes a weekly column about sports – and sometimes he opines on current or historical events or famous people.)