Fall River Axe Murders: Mass Myths and Mysteries


The Borden murder trial—A scene in the court-room before the acquittal - Lizzie Borden, the accused, and her counsel, Ex-Governor Robinson. Illustration in Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, v. 76 (1893 June 29), p. 411. Date 29 June 1893

It is August 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts. Almost every police officer in the town is at an annual clam bake, which is obviously a very great idea for the safety of the town.

Andrew Borden is at work. His wife, Abby Borden, is visiting a friend according to a note found by Lizzie Borden, Andrew’s 32-year-old daughter and Abby’s stepdaughter. Lizzie is at home, ironing downstairs. Her sister, 41-year-old Emma has gone away on a short vacation. Lizzie’s uncle, John Morse, the brother of her late mother, who had come on a surprise visit is away on a day trip to Swansea to see another family member. Their maid, Bridget Sullivan, is outside cleaning the windows.

It is a normal day at 92 Second Street.

Andrew returns home from work early. He finds the door is locked. Bridget, who has since finished cleaning and returned inside, goes to open the door and hears Lizzie laughing from upstairs. Andrew comes inside and falls asleep on the sofa in the living room. Bridget goes upstairs to rest. Lizzie goes down to the basement to wash rags.

Just around 11:10 in the morning, the shouting begins and everything changes. Lizzie Borden walks upstairs and finds her father axed to death on their living room sofa. She calls for their maid who comes down the back staircase from the third floor to find Lizzie.

Bridget seeks out the family doctor to tend to the corpse of Andrew Borden. She and a nearby neighbor, Adelaide Churchill, look around the upstairs of the Borden house. They find that while standing on the front staircase they could see into John Morse’s bedroom, through the space between the bed and the floor. There lies the body of Abby Borden with wounds just like Andrew’s in the guest bedroom estimated to be from about an hour earlier.

Citizens are deputized and evidence is very likely destroyed. John Morse arrives back, and despite the commotion walks around to the backyard where he pulls a pear from a tree and sits to eat it before going inside.

Two days later the funeral was held, an open casket despite the brutal hatchet wounds across both Abby and Andrew’s faces. At the funeral, the mayor warns Lizzie that she looks suspicious in the eyes of the police and should watch her next steps very carefully.

However, she isn’t the only one.

Lizzie Borden

Creator: doddele Copyright: Licence Creative Commons Attribution

She never got along with her stepmother, having called her Mrs. Borden. Nor did she generally agree with her father. He allegedly murdered a flock of pigeons she kept in the backyard barn. Although, no one in the family ever particularly agreed with Andrew Borden. Especially in his aversion to modern technology and flushing toilets despite being one of the wealthiest families in Fall River.

Andrew sold another property to Abby and her sister. Emma and Lizzie were upset that they did not receive anything of monetary value. So Andrew sold them another property. A week before the murders they chose to sell it back to them for dramatically less money.

The day before the murder Lizzie tried to buy prussic acid at the drug store but was refused the sale. Her friend, Alice Russell, also recalled that she visited her that same night saying she feared an enemy of her father might try to kill him.

She insisted she had no idea Abby was in the house, supposedly having received a note that her friend was sick and Abby had gone to visit her. Lizzie is the only one who has ever mentioned the note, and evidence of its existence, physically or by word of mouth, was never found.

Days following the murder, Alice also told the police that she watched Lizzie and Emma burn a dress that had been stained by a dark substance. Alice thought it was blood, but both girls insist it was paint.

Emma Borden

Much of the same motivations as Lizzie, she didn’t get along with Abby either and her relationship with her father was somewhat strained.

She very rarely traveled anywhere. Not so much as leaving the house. And yet, when the murders took place she just so happened to be in Fairhaven, traveling with a friend, and returned when she received a telegram the following morning.

Bridget Sullivan

The Bordens, especially Andrew and Abby, never called her Bridget. Rather, she was known as “Maggie,” which had been the name of the maid before her, and the Bordens couldn’t trouble themselves to learn a new name.

Following the murders and all court proceedings, Bridget disappeared completely. There was no trace of her found in Fall River. Only years later was she found, having come into a great deal of money in Ireland and bought her own ranch. The origins of this money have never been found.

There was also reasonable speculation that she was having an affair with John Morse. Bridget slept in the attic, which was spacious in its own right with three bedrooms. Typically, John slept in a guest bedroom up there as well. However, in the recent trips to the Borden residence Andrew and Abby had him move to the spare bedroom on the second floor instead in disapproval of their relations.

John Morse

Andrew was married to John’s sister for eighteen years but remarried two years after her death of spinal disease. John and Andrew never had an especially close relationship. Certainly not one that justifies John showing up completely unannounced having traveled from an unknown home. Some accounts say he was from Iowa, Minnesota, or Massachusetts. He tended to travel a lot, making homes with various relatives for a few years before moving again.

John was a butcher, meaning he was of sizable stature and strength and had easy access to sharp weapons. For example, a meat cleaver. Andrew was struck 11-13 times and Abby about 18 (despite a popular and rather gory nursery rhyme) meaning at some point their injuries became hard to analyze given the time’s technology. It could have been a hatchet or an axe, but it also could have been another similar object like a butcher knife. One of the main pieces of opposing evidence that disproved Lizzie’s guilt was the force it would take to strike each of them so many times. This would certainly not be a problem for John.

John had gone to Swansea to visit other relatives. On his trip home, he took a street car. While on this streetcar he memorized the cap number of the driver, the trolley car number, the numbers on the sashes of the horses, and the names of six Irish priests also on the trolley.

His indifference to the crime upon returning to the house was incredibly questionable. By then, people were going in and out of the house, the police were beginning to arrive, and all he does is sit in the backyard to eat a pear.

William S. Borden

Some theories speculate that Andrew Borden had an illegitimate son, William. Nothing has fully proven this relationship to be true, but some suggest he tried to get money from his father. Upon being turned down he threatened to extort them and when that didn’t get him the response he wanted he resorted to murder.

The entire basis of William’s job was to axe horses when they could no longer provide their service. Accounts from other residents say he walked around Fall River brandishing his axe, often talking to it like it were his friend.

Despite everything, Lizzie is the only one who is ever a suspect. She is taken into custody, her father’s money earning her a luxurious cell. Her testimonies are inconsistent, but perhaps that can be attributed to the morphine that was constantly being administered. In the end, it is decided that she, being a woman, could not have murdered her father and stepmother in cold blood. She is acquitted and given a framed photo of the jury at her trial, 12 old white men who each signed the back of the photograph.

Lizzie Borden Trial Jury, 1893, Unknown source, O'Neil, New Bedford, Mass

The case goes cold, and despite persistent theories that are still being spun today, no one will ever truly know who killed Andrew and Abby Borden. Except perhaps the ghosts that are rumored to haunt the Borden house to this day.