America’s Favorite Cold Case: Lizzie Borden

History Travel

Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done she gave her father forty-one.

Well, not exactly.

We don’t actually know whether or not Lizzie was a murderess and it is the general consensus that the murder weapon was most likely a hatchet, a much smaller and easily wielded (and concealed) tool than an axe. Also Abby Borden was her step mother (not her mother) and she received only 19 whacks while her father received 11.

The Borden House

Much has been made of the Borden home at 92 2nd Street in Fall River, Massachusetts. It’s a hotbed for ghost chasers and dark tourism because the home is now a B&B. Behind the home is a curio shop that sells tickets to the tours, bobble-head, hatchet-wielding Lizzies, bloody hatchet keychains, and any number of books or trinkets on the subject of the gruesome murder which had taken place in the quiet green house huddled against the street. On a television behind the giftshop counter The Legend of Lizzie Borden ( a 1975 TV movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery) is playing on repeat.

It’s an unassuming home, not particularly ornate and definitely not reflecting that Andrew Borden had been the modern equivalent of a millionaire in Fall River. Instead, it’s a perfectly sturdy, three-story rectangle which is perched so close to the front walk as to have no yard at all.

The Massachusetts heat is well over 85 degrees on my visit in July but, added with the humidity, the air inside and out is near miserable. There is a large church compound across the street, but there is little indication that this area used to be the heart of Fall River. Now it seems industrial if not a bit forgotten.

The house is actually under 3,000 square feet and the rooms are small. Walking into a charming foyer you are greeted with the pleasantness of a steep staircase and Victorian-flowered wallpaper, carpet, and furniture of all color and variety that make the spaces close in amid the heat and humidity (probably not much different than that fateful day in August). The rooms are stacked, one behind another, with at least one, if not two, adjoining doors so that the first floor is a maze of tiny rooms each opening into the others in a kind of labyrinth of intimate spaces. The sitting room alone has four ways to enter it.

Despite the dizzying sensation of so much mismatched floral, the house seems charming and the unknowing visitor would sense no more had happened here than families going about their daily lives for a couple hundred years. I can see from the foyer the fateful couch where Andrew Borden was found with his eyeball cleaved in two. Of course it’s not the real couch. Very few things in the house actually belonged to the Bordens because Lizzie and her sister Emma took all the family furnishings when they moved, but great efforts have gone into recreating the furnishings to their similar, if not near-exact, state and positions within the house.

Outline of the Murders

The day before the murders at 1:30 pm Uncle John (John Morse) unexpectedly arrives at the Borden house and is put up in the guest bedroom at the front of the house.

August 4, 1892    THE MORNING OF THE MURDERS:

• 6:15               Bridget (the Borden’s maid) goes downstairs to the cellar to get coal and wood to start fire in kitchen stove.

• 6:20               Uncle John goes downstairs to the sitting room.

• 6:30               Abby comes downstairs.

• 6:40-6:50      Andrew comes downstairs.

• 7:00               Andrew, Abby, and Uncle John have breakfast in the dining room while Lizzie is still upstairs. 

• 7:45-8:45       Uncle John and Andrew talk in the sitting room. Abby sits with them a short while before beginning to dust.

• 8:45-9:00      Uncle John leaves for the Post Office and to visit family.                                  

• 8:45-9:00      Abby tells Bridget to wash the windows inside and out.

• 8:45-8:50      Lizzie comes down and enters the kitchen.

• 9:00               Andrew leaves the house to go about his day.

• 9:00               Abby goes upstairs to clean the guest room.

• 9:00-10:00    Abby dies in the guest room from 19 blows to the head with a sharp instrument.

Crime scene photograph of Abby Borden after being bludgeoned to death in the upstairs guest bedroom in which Uncle John was staying.

• 9:30               Bridget gets a brush from the cellar for washing the windows.

• 9:30               Lizzie appears at the back door as Bridget goes toward the barn and tells Lizzie she doesn’t need to lock the (back) door.

• 9:30-10:20    Bridget washes the outside windows and stops to talk to the “Kelly girl” at south fence.

• 10:00-10:30 Mrs. Churchill sees Bridget outside washing the northeastern windows. 

• 10:20             Bridget re-enters the house from the side door and begins to wash the inside windows.

• 10:30-10:40 Andrew Borden returns home and can’t get in the side door (because it is locked) so he moves around to the front door.

• 10:30-10:40 Bridget hears Lizzie laugh on the stairs when she cusses as she fumbles with the locks to let Andrew inside through the front door.

• 10:35-10:45 Bridget sees Lizzie go into the dining room and speak to her father.

• 10:45-10:55 Lizzie puts her ironing board on the dining room table to iron handkerchiefs as Bridget finishes the last window in the dining room.

• 10:45-10:55 Lizzie asks Bridget in the kitchen if she’s going out. Lizzie tells Bridget that Abby has received a note from a sick friend and has gone to visit the friend. Lizzie also tells Bridget about a sale on fabric at Sargeant’s. Bridget says she doesn’t have money to pay for new fabric and Lizzie offers to loan or give her the money, but Bridget tells Lizzie she isn’t feeling well enough to go.

• 10:55–10:58 Bridget goes up to her room and lies down on her bed.              

• 10:55-11:00 Andrew Borden dies from blows to the head with a sharp instrument.

Crime scene photograph of Andrew Borden

• 11:00            Bridget hears the City Hall clock chime at 11:00.

• 11:10(ish)     Lizzie yells for Bridget to come down because she has discovered the body of her father.   “Maggie, come quickly! Someone has hurt father!”

Haunted House

Some people find the downstairs sitting room where Andrew died to be the most haunted room in the house. I didn’t find it to be that exactly. As you move around the house, even with the tour, you half expect the crazed ghost of Lizzie Borden to jump out at you wielding a hatchet. There is forever a procession of ghost hunters and looky-loos staying at the house or traipsing through the heat on an afternoon tour.

And that’s just what the house seems to me, a gaudy Victorian filled with giggling tourists making chopping motions with their arms and posing menacingly for selfies with the prop hatchet left on the couch where Andrew died. In short, it seems a good-humored tourist trap along the Massachusetts coast so filled with early American history.

But real people died here and, as we moved up to the second story of the house where Abby Borden was murdered, there’s something palpable I can somehow feel. It feels like a heaviness and it is not altogether exciting so much as tragic. I stand and stare at the space between the bed and the dresser where Abby died and it suddenly seems awful. The air here seems denser, more humid, and hangs suffocating and thickly in stillness even over the joking tourists who have moved on to the next room.

Abby Borden knew her attacker. There were no signs of struggle. She had been facing, perhaps even talking to, her killer when she was struck once in the head. The impact left her reeling and swung her around so that she fell on the floor facedown. Then her murderer stood over her and delivered the next 18 blows. And as I stand in the heavy heat of the second floor there seems nothing about this that is funny or entertaining and I’m left with the feeling that touring this house is somehow wrong.

I imagine that once the tourists pass through, the house goes quiet again. The lace curtains remain unmoving and the replicas of Andrew and Abby’s cracked skulls stare from behind the glass of an antique china cabinet in silence of the house.

The house has a feel, perhaps some kind of imprint of all that has taken place here, that I haven’t encountered on my travels. The very heaviness of the air seems to speak to the burden of its walls and what its history holds.

For tour times and information visit the website.

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Missi Jarrar
Missi Jarrar is a writer, editor, and content creator based on the west coast of the United States. She holds a BFA in creative writing from Portland State University and has worked as an editor at Alembic (the biannual magazine now known as Letter & Line) and the award winning Alchemy Literary Magazine.
http://missijarrar.com