Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one!
On August 4, 1892, in the Massachusetts seaport and cotton-mill town of Fall River, a unique double axe murder occurred that shocked the citizenry at the time and continues to fascinate. Although the only person charged in the case was acquitted (and so, technically, the crime went unsolved), there was widespread refusal to accept the not-guilty verdict. That view was expressed in numerous ballads, songs, and rhymes—the best known of which is the anonymous quatrain quoted above (Benét’s 1987, 114).
Like many other sensational cases, it has attracted occultists, including ghost hunters who claim that the spirit of a murder victim possessed and spoke through one of their psychics and communicated—by means of a phenomenon called table tipping—the killer’s identity. Can we believe the claims?
Two Crime Scenes
At approximately 11:15 in the morning, Lizzie Andrew Borden, the thirty-two-year-old unmarried daughter of Andrew Jackson Borden, age seventy, shouted upstairs to the live-in maid, Bridget Sullivan, urging her to “Come down quick! Father is dead. Somebody came in and killed him!” When Bridget rushed down from the attic room (she had been resting from cleaning windows that hot day), Lizzie sent her for the doctor.
Andrew Borden was lying dead on the sitting-room sofa (see Figure 1), his face and head so mutilated he was virtually unrecognizable. As neighbors and the family doctor began to arrive, eventually someone thought to inquire about Mrs. Borden. The former Abby Gray Durfee was Andrew’s second wife and stepmother to Lizzie and her older sister Emma—the latter having been out of town visiting friends at the time of the slayings. Abby Borden was discovered savagely murdered in the upstairs guest room. Notwithstanding the popular ditty about the Bordens receiving a total of eighty-one “whacks,” it was actually an estimated eighteen to twenty-one blows for Andrew Borden and nine to eleven for Abby, all in the area of the head and neck (Holba 2008, 6). Mr. Borden had not been robbed (his ring, watch, and pocketbook were undisturbed); neither had there been a robbery of the house (Pearson 1987, 210).
Abby’s presence in the guest room was easily explained. She had gone there to make the bed of the briefly visiting brother of the first Mrs. Borden, John Morse, the Borden sisters’ uncle. Morse was naturally among the initial suspects, but having gone out for the morning, he had an airtight alibi and no apparent motive; therefore, police began to look elsewhere.
Because the blood from Abby’s wounds had ceased to flow and had coagulated on the floor, and due to her lower body temperature (Pearson 1987, 213), it was determined that Abby had been killed one to two hours prior to her husband’s death. Therefore, the murderer—if it were neither Lizzie nor Bridget—would have had to remain carefully concealed in the house for that amount of time, waiting for Andrew to return from business downtown and risking Abby’s body being discovered in the meantime. It was difficult for the police to suspect an upper-middle-class lady such as Lizzie of such barbarity toward her parent. Therefore, they focused instead on Bridget. However, she lacked motive, and her movements, verified by Lizzie and others, placed her away from the two crime scenes at the times of their occurrence (Kurland 1994, 42–46; Jones 1987, 191–194; Fido 1993, 90–91).
Sightings of possible suspects and rumors of sightings were run down. A “wild-eyed man” proved to be a local known as “Mike the soldier,” a sometimes weaver and saloon-frequenter whose activities were accounted for. A man seen by a Borden neighbor on the back fence had been, the man embarrassingly admitted, attracted by the pear tree. And so on. Police investigated the reports, some of them no doubt inspired by the $5,000 reward offered the day after the slayings by the Borden sisters, Emma and Lizzie (Pearson 1987, 220–22).
Journalist Edwin Porter of The Fall River Globe followed the case daily. A year after the murders, he turned his newspaper stories into a book, The Fall River Tragedy. He considered how unlikely the possibility of an outside perpetrator would have been, remarking “how fortune had favored the assassin.”
He continued: “It was a wonderful chain of circumstances which conspired to clear the way for the murderer; so wonderful that its links baffled men’s understanding” (qtd. in Kurland 1994, 45; see also Pearson 1987, 212–213). Unless, of course, it was an inside job!
Whereas the movements of Bridget, the maid, were corroborated, Lizzie’s were not. She had no witnesses to support her story. When asked where she was when her father was murdered, Lizzie stated she had gone to the barn loft to get some sinkers for fishing, spending twenty minutes there while eating some pears. However, the loft floor was covered with undisturbed dust, there were no fruit cores, and Lizzie had not fished for years. It was noted that Mr. and Mrs. Borden had been very ill on the night before and, when poison was considered a possibility, officers inquired at local pharmacies. A clerk at one said a lady had attempted to buy prussic acid (a solution of hydrogen cyanide) on the previous day, and he subsequently identified her as Lizzie Borden. She said she wanted it to kill moths in a seal-skin coat (Jones 1987, 202–214; Fído 1993, 91).
Lizzie had appeared to try to slyly manipulate those in the house in a way that would facilitate murder. When her father came home and might have been expected to inquire of his wife’s whereabouts—and perhaps even discover her murdered body—Lizzie told him, she said, “Mrs. Borden has gone out; she had a note from somebody who was sick.” In fact, no such note was ever found, nor was anyone ever identified as to having summoned Mrs. Borden, due to illness or otherwise (Pearson 1987, 200, 215, 231).
Again, as if she needed to be rid of a potential witness, Lizzie suggested that Bridget might want to go out for the afternoon, even offering helpfully, “There is a cheap sale of dress goods at Sargent’s at eight cents a yard.” Instead, the servant went to lie down in her attic room, which did effectively remove her from the murder site until, of course, she was summoned by Lizzie with the news that Mr. Borden was dead.
Lizzie’s behavior came under review, many noting her lack of emotion regarding the double tragedy. Her father’s brother-in-law—observing that Andrew Borden’s “estate furnishes the only motive”—had a long talk with Lizzie the night after the murders and observed: “She was very composed, showed no signs of any emotion, nor were there any traces of grief upon her countenance. That did not surprise me, as she is not naturally emotional.” Describing Lizzie as having been the most vocal of the two sisters during ten years of disputes over money with their father and stepmother, he said Lizzie
was haughty and domineering with the stubborn will of her father. … Lizzie is of a repellent disposition, and after an unsuccessful passage with her father, would become sulky and refuse to speak to him for days at a time. … Her father’s constant refusal to allow her to entertain lavishly angered her. I have heard many bitter things she has said of her father. (Harrington 1892)
Inquest and Trial
During the inquest, at which Lizzie Borden testified, she gave conflicting accounts of her actions at critical times. Her defenders point out that during this period she was sedated by morphine prescribed by the family physician. On one occasion, being pressed, Lizzie became so confused that she said: “I don’t know what I have said. I have answered so many questions and I am so confused I don’t know one thing from another. I am telling you just as nearly as I know how” (Holba 2008, 133).
Some of Lizzie’s former classmates had found her “rather eccentric.” Be that as it may, she did show animosity toward both her stepmother, whom she insisted on calling “Mrs. Borden,” and her father. This accounted for her motive, as did a large inheritance. Her presence at the house during both murders (despite her unsubstantiated claim to have been in the incredibly hot barn loft during her father’s murder) answered for means and opportunity.
That there was no blood on her dress was countered by the fact that a blue dress worn that morning had given way to a print one later—by her own admission (Borden 1892). Incredibly, Lizzie’s friend Alice Russell testified she had seen Lizzie burning a dress three days after the murders and heard her tell Emma, who had questioned her action, “I am going to burn this old thing up, it is covered with paint” (Kurland 1994, 47–48). The judge who conducted the hearing concluded Lizzie was “probably guilty,” and she was remanded to Superior Court (Pearson 1987, 231).
During the thirteen-day trial, the defense managed to have Lizzie’s inquest testimony excluded along with the testimony of the drug store clerk identifying Lizzie as having sought to buy prussic acid. With the most damaging evidence excluded, Lizzie choosing not to testify this time, and there being public sentiment for what the New York Times called “this unfortunate and cruelly persecuted woman,” the jury took just over an hour to acquit her on June 20, 1893 (Pearson 1987, 253, 263; Kurland 1994, 48–49).
Interestingly, following the trial Lizzie’s defense attorney, Andrew Jennings, severed all contact with her (Brown 1991, 96). The Borden sisters soon moved into another house. Lizzie—now calling herself Lizbeth—was charged with larceny in 1897 over two paintings allegedly shoplifted from a store and traced to Lizzie’s home, but apparently the warrant went unserved. In addition, despite her new-found wealth, she also stole some porcelain plates from a store in Providence. Even before the murders, she was a well-known shoplifter: “Stores such as McWhirr’s Dry Goods, Gifford’s Jewelry Store, and Cherry & Webb’s knew to watch her and send the bills to her father” (McNamara 1992, 40–41).
Emma soon separated from her sister, and the two ceased to speak. (I have wondered if the willful Lizzie may have boldly admitted her guilt to her after receiving the protection of a verdict of not guilty.) In 1923, the two were involved in litigation over a building of their father’s that they owned jointly; Lizzie wished to sell her portion. Lizzie died June 1, 1927, and her sister followed nine days later (Pearson 1987, 268–270; Kurland 1994, 49).
Various issues and innuendoes have surfaced over the years. After Lizzie’s death, The Evening Standard of June 3, 1927, cited reports “that she was a woman of decided opinion and will, more masculine in appearance and ways than feminine.” The Alyson Almanac: A Treasury of Information for the Gay and Lesbian Community listed Lizzie as a “suspected homosexual” (qtd. in Holba 2008, 147).
Of course, Lizzie’s presumed lesbianism does not in any way imply her guilt and is irrelevant, except perhaps as part of an attempt to understand her whole personality in its social context. Writer David Salvaggio, writing in the Lizzie Borden Quarterly, makes such an attempt:
Lizzie Borden was a miserable and lonely lesbian, tangled in the Victorian web of the late nineteenth century; caught in a man’s world long before women’s suffrage. A kleptomaniac obsessed with materialism, she could no longer bear the frugal father who thwarted the lavish life she desired. And what would her future be if the bulk of the estate went to [her stepmother] Abby? (Salvaggio 1994, 6)
Some still refer to the brutal slayings as an unsolved mystery. However, writing a century later, my friend Gary Earl Ross, winner of the 2006 Edgar Allan Poe Award from Mystery Writers of America, observed how the lack of advanced forensics, together with the inquest testimony having been ruled inadmissible, hindered the quest for justice. As he notes, today things would be different:
There would be no need for Officer George Allen to deputize passerby Charles Sawyer to stand guard at the rear door. The first officers on the scene would secure the site and safeguard the integrity of the physical evidence. The house would be cordoned off while evidence was collected, bagged, sealed and labeled. Modern forensic analysis of the physical evidence would leave few if any of the evidentiary ambiguities associated with the case. Fingerprinting, blood typing, electron microscopy and DNA testing would all play significant roles in determining the guilt or innocence of Lizzie Borden. (Ross 1992)
Nevertheless, based on the available evidence, I am persuaded that the case was indeed solved. The Fall River police came to realize that Lizzie Borden was the only person who could have committed the brutal murders and, given her obvious motive and incriminating additional evidence, shrewdly planned and brutally carried out the murders of her father and stepmother.
The original Borden House address of 982 Second Street has been changed to 230, but the house looks much the same as it did at the time of the murders. Long a city landmark, in 1996 it was converted into a combined museum and bed and breakfast, offering eight bedrooms. The interior has been restored with period-style furnishings. I had an enjoyable guided tour there on July 5, 2014 (following my lecture the previous day at an annual Mensa conference in Boston).
The tour guide seemed anxious for any opportunity to reinforce the notion of ghostly activity. As I had learned the night before, my camera battery charge was depleted and—having traveled very light and only planning the Fall River portion of my trip at the last minute—I had not packed a recharger. When I mentioned that my camera would not take a photo (and before a fellow tourist generously offered to take one for me), the tour guide announced that drained batteries were common there—reciting a claim often made by so-called ghost hunters who consider that a paranormal occurrence. But of course, the Borden house had nothing whatsoever to do with my depleted charge. Such claims sound suspiciously like confirmation bias: whenever one notes a drained battery, a ghost hunter may count it as evidence of paranormality, while ignoring all the times there is no battery drainage. For example, none of the other members of my tour group had any problems with their cameras as they snapped photos throughout the tour—evidence that puts the lie to the drained-batteries anecdotal claim.
On my tour, I saw no ghosts, only some very dubious old photographs that supposedly showed them. “Orbs” and “faces” in photos, as well as anecdotal evidence (including accounts of “feelings” and reported glimpses of specters), and so on, do not count as scientific evidence. Claims of ghosts—including their alleged detection by “ghost hunters”—invariably have science-based explanations. For example, as I have shown experimentally, “orbs” will occur when the camera’s flash rebounds from particles of dust in the air, while “faces” may be perceived in random patterns or may simply be faked. Ghost-hunting equipment (such as electromagnetic-field [EMF] meters and thermal-imaging cameras) does not detect ghosts but instead quite often detects the ghost hunters themselves (Nickell 2012, 65, 103, 259–268, 309–310)!
Table Tipping and More
In their book The Ghost Chronicles (2009), “medium” Maureen Wood and “paranormal scientist” Ron Kolek relate a lot of ghostly goings-on at the Borden house. As they began their so-called investigation, Wood had only stepped into the hallway when she “felt an overwhelming sense of evil.” Accompanying the duo was Gavin Cromwell, a Welsh “psychic,” who seems like a bad actor feigning clairvoyance. According to Wood, “He began to stumble around the kitchen, moving back and forth with his fingers to his forehead.” He said, “I’m getting the name Abby,” to which Wood showed a moment of skepticism, remarking, “Without being certain of how much prior knowledge of the gruesome murders Gavin had, I held my tongue” (Wood and Kolek 2009, 233, 234).
Indeed, everyone in the ghost-hunting group—including a pair from the United Kindom—seemed well acquainted with the Borden case. Cromwell sensed, “It feels like a male energy doing this killing,” then picked up a photo of Lizzie Borden and announced, “I think she was a lesbian” (Wood and Kolek 2009, 239). Cromwell said he is “getting” a name like “Sulliban” and, as others corrected that to “Sullivan,” he announced, “She’s a servant.” Wood seemed to channel a spirit who uttered moans and then spat, “Dirty girl.” The entity identified herself as “Abigail” and warned helpfully, “Never turn your back—in this house.” Then Wood’s body stiffened as the spirit supposedly took control (Wood and Kolek 2009, 245–248), although the others reacted quickly to drive the (imagined) entity out.
After Wood left for home to get some sleep before work, Cromwell asked for a small table to use in an attempt to communicate further with Abby. A nineteenth-century Spiritualist practice, the table-tipping phenomenon involved sitters placing their hands atop a suitable table (usually a pedestal one) and inviting spirits to tilt it, say, once for yes, twice for no. The famous physicist Michael Faraday conducted experiments that demonstrated the mediums actually caused the movement by putting pressure on the tabletop, often unconsciously. This unconscious action is known as the ideomotor effect, which is also responsible for the movement of Ouija-board planchettes and of dowsing rods and pendulums (Nickell 2012, 197, 348–349).
I have gone undercover to sit in on a medium’s table-tipping act. This occurred in a “haunted” mansion in upstate New York where, for a time in 2000, a private spiritualist circle held séances. I infiltrated the group with one attendee’s help, and I sat at one table-tipping session. I received loving messages from an apparent aunt and uncle, but because I had made them up on the spur of the moment, I knew the medium was—deliberately or unconsciously—simply providing “messages” from her imagination (Nickell 2012, 217).
At the Borden house, the little table was in the center of the front parlor. Cromwell called up the spirits and soon announced, “Abby’s here.” After some preliminaries, one of the sitters asked, “Abby, if Lizzie killed you, could you please make the table move again?” Immediately, the table rocked, appearing to confirm, writes Ron Kolek, “that Lizzie had murdered her” (Wood and Kolek 2009, 254). Next the group tried something called glass swirling. Invented by British occultists, it involves placing a glass mouth down on a table and each sitter then placing a finger on its bottom. As in table tipping, the glass responds according to directions. Asked to move the glass to the center of the table or to make a circular movement, “Abby” supposedly animated the glass accordingly. Asked if she got along with Lizzie, the supposed spirit of Abby Borden—or the sitters’ unconscious movement—slowly moved the glass off the table (Wood and Kolek 2009, 254–257).
The group had brought alleged ghost detection gadgets to the site, but these proved less than useful. Once, an EMF meter did sound, but the response proved only to be from electrical wires (a source of electromagnetic fields) that ran along the basement rafters (Wood and Kolek 2009, 251). The ghost seekers relied mostly on “spiritual methods” such as table tipping and trance channeling. These purportedly revealed “the pain of Abby’s death and a glimpse of her killer” (Wood and Kolek 2009, 259). In fact, the ghost hunt proved merely a silly exercise, adding nothing to the Borden case but superstition, pseudoscience, and playacting. In my view, Abby Borden remained as emphatically dead as the day her stepdaughter Lizzie hacked her to death.
- Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. 1987. Third ed., New York: Harper & Row.
- Borden, Lizzie. 1892. Inquest testimony reproduced in Pearson, 1987, 226–230.
- Brown, Arnold. 1991. Lizzie Borden: The Legend, The Truth, The Final Chapter. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press.
- Fido, Martin. 1993. The Chronicle of Crime: The Infamous Felons of Modern History and Their Heinous Crimes. New York: Carroll & Graf.
- Harrington, Hiram. 1892. Interview, “Close in Money Matters,” The Fall River Daily Herald (August 5); qtd. in Brown 1991, 118–119.
- Holba, Annette M. 2008. Lizzie Borden Took an Axe, or Did She? Youngstown, NY: Teneo Press.
- Jones, Richard Glyn. 1987. Unsolved! Classic True Murder Cases. New York: Peter Bedrick Books.
- Kurland, Michael. 1994. A Gallery of Rogues: Portraits in True Crime. New York: Prentice Hall.
- McNamara, Eileen. 1992. Was Lizzie Borden the victim of incest? In Ryckebusch 1993, 39–45.
- Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Pearson, Edmund. 1987. The Borden case, in Jones 1987, 185–271.
- Ross, Gary Earl. 1992. If Lizzie Borden had been born 100 years later. In Ryckebusch 1993, 241–249.
- Ryckebusch, Jules R. 1993. Proceedings Lizzie Borden Conference, Bristol Community College, Fall River, Mass., August 3–5, 1992. Portland, ME: King Philip Publ. Co.
- Salvaggio, David. 1994. Whodunit?: A Borden buff’s theory on the crime. Lizzie Borden Quarterly 2(2); qtd. in Holba 2008, 147.
- Wood, Maureen, and Ron Kolek. 2009. The Ghost Chronicles: A Medium and a Paranormal Scientist Investigate 17 True Hauntings. Naperville, IL: Sourcebook.