Most everyone has heard some version of the old nursery rhyme that has Lizzie Borden giving her mother “40 whacks” with an ax, and her father, one more than that.
Much like the real-life case itself, it’s withstood the test of time.
Whether it’s because the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden were so gruesome in nature, or because Lizzie, their daughter, was the only person to ever stand trial for them, remains in question.
Similar to other notorious cases, ranging from Jack the Ripper to JonBenét Ramsey, the Borden murders rank among history’s most captivating unsolved mysteries. And even now, more than 125 years later, the curious and the compelled continue to flock to Fall River, Mass., looking for answers and to see for themselves where it all unfolded.
Just The Facts
While it seems that no one can agree on exactly what happened, the indisputable facts are that on the morning of Aug. 4, 1892, wealthy Fall River residents, Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abby, were murdered in their 92 Second St. home, both victims of multiple blows to the head and face from a hatchet.
Unlike the limerick, which pretty much has it all wrong, Mr. Borden was struck 10 to 11 times, and Mrs. Borden, 19. And instead of being bludgeoned to death by an ax (a tool used with both hands), the murder weapon was determined to likely be a hatchet (typically used in just one).
Regardless of the number of hits they received, or the instrument used, it was undeniably a grisly, horrific crime with the blame falling squarely on Borden’s youngest daughter, 32-year-old Lizzie.
Outside of the Borden’s live-in maid, Bridget Sullivan (who had an alibi), Lizzie was supposedly the only person in the house when the murders took place.
Finding no other feasible suspect, police charged her with the crimes, three in total (one for her stepmother, one for her father, and one for both), and Lizzie was imprisoned in neighboring Taunton, Mass., to await trial.
In an 1893 court case that, by today’s standards, can only be compared to the OJ Simpson trial in terms of infamy and sensationalism, Lizzie was acquitted, leaving behind a whodunit of epic proportions, that has even the most knowledgeable of experts on the subject, still scratching their heads.
Despite Lizzie’s acquittal, the verdict and details surrounding the case have been hotly debated for more than a century, as well as the subject of countless articles, books, movies and documentaries.
“There’s lots of theories, and it’s all extremely baffling, but what I always caution people, is to be extremely careful and only believe a fraction of what they read,” says Michael Martins, curator at the Fall River Historical Society and co-author of the book “Parallel Lives: A Social History of Lizzie A. Borden and Her Fall River.”
“And when they read something, always check where and how it’s cited, and if it’s not cited, question it, because it’s imperative that these things be documented, because there is so much outlandish material out there.”
A Bed And Breakfast To Die For
The enduring intrigue and macabre nature of the crime is, in part, what draws visitors by the thousands to the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum: the Bordens’ former home where they were killed.
Converted to an inn in 1996, the historic house accommodates up to 20 overnight guests, and also serves as a museum for daily tours ($12 to $20 per person), which are offered every hour, seven days a week, with the exception of Christmas and Thanksgiving, from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.
Though most of the interior décor isn’t original, it’s been carefully reproduced to appear as close as possible to how it would have looked when the Borden’s were murdered in 1892.
Overnight guests of the inn are given an in-depth, two-hour tour of the house, and have the choice of staying in one of six bedrooms (two are suites) including the room that Lizzie shared with her sister, Emma, and the John Morse Room, where her stepmother, Abby, was murdered as she made the bed.
The Andrew Borden Room and Bridget Sullivan Room are among some of the others, as is the Andrew Jennings Room, Lizzie’s attorney.
Rooms range from $200 a night for a stay in the servant’s quarters, to $250, and up, for sleepover in John Morse’s room.
Is it morbid? Yes. Do people still want to stay there? Most definitely, especially during October when the inn is almost always sold out for the entire month.
“Everyone wants to see where something happened,” says Daniella Cabral, a tour guide at the bed and breakfast. “Whether it’s because it was a murder, because it’s an old house, built in 1845, because it’s haunted … it’s half and half, people come because they think it’s haunted, or people come for the history.”
With a reputation for supernatural activity, the property has been the sight of countless paranormal investigations, and featured on popular TV shows like the Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures.”
Drawing thrill seekers and erstwhile ghost hunters in droves, it’s not uncommon for guests to come equipped with EMF meters, video cameras, and recorders hoping for a ghostly experience.
“I’ve had my fair share of experiences in the house; I definitely believe the house is haunted,” says Cabral. “People have come and had things happen to them that they just can’t explain.”
Tapping into that, the bed and breakfast offers periodic séances, psychic readings, ghost-hunting, and costumed re-creations.
However, beyond possible spiritual encounters, Cabral says that what’s especially compelling is the story itself, which continues to evolve as more details about the case become public, as well as the not knowing what really happened on Aug. 4.
“Since the beginning of time, people hate the unknown. They always want answers, and with this case, they’re not going to get them.”
If You Mark It, They Will Come
Beyond the bed and breakfast, the curious often make it a point to stop at the historic Oak Grove Cemetery, located on Prospect Street in the center of the city, and final resting place of the deceased Borden family, including Lizzie, her father, and stepmother.
Frequented enough to warrant painted arrows on the ground indicating the location of the gravestone, it’s an oft-visited spot for those either paying their respects or motivated by morbid fascination.
Maplecroft, the 14-room Victorian home where Lizzie, along with sister Emma, lived out the remainder of her life after being acquitted of murder, is another popular destination in town.
Located on 306 French St., in the Highlands area of Fall River, the home is not open to the public, but attracts tourists and other visitors just the same, who come to view and take photographs of the exterior.
The Best Place to Start
Before visiting any of those places, the first stop for anyone interested in the details surrounding the Lizzie Borden case is the Fall River Historical Society (451 Rock St.).
With a permanent collection of Borden material, they are the central repository of material pertaining to the case, and curators, Martins and Dennis Binette, are considered the world’s leading authorities, having studied it for decades.
“We have the largest collection of material that belonged to Lizzie, and or the Borden family members,” says Martins. “We have the largest collection of their correspondence, trial artifacts, the entire file of the prosecuting attorney.
“We’re talking about thousands of documents, manuscripts, letters, diaries, photographs, journals.”
The Historical Society also has possession of the bedspread Abby Borden was fixing when she was murdered. And while it’s not on display, other compelling items include a broken shingling hatchet discovered in the Borden’s basement, thought to be the possible murder weapon (though never proven), and the billy club carried by the marshal that arrested Lizzie.
Regardless of the fervor and nearly circus-like atmosphere that continues to surround the case, Martins said that it’s important to remember that at the heart of it, it’s still about murder.
“People sensationalize this and forget that you’re talking about this brutal, horrible, heinous, vicious crime; these two people were brutally murdered.”
But like anything else that captivates people’s imagination, the Lizzie Borden case lives on in Fall River, no matter how much time has elapsed since it happened.
“It’s part of the city’s history,” says Martins, “Salem has witches, Fall River has Lizzie Borden, so what do you do with it?
“There’s interest, and I think that if it’s portrayed so that people are given accurate information, and it’s not done in a really sensational manner, that’s a good way to approach it.”