The morning after Andrew Borden and his wife Abby were hacked to death at their home on Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, in August 1892, 1,500 people gathered outside, drawn to news of a gruesome crime in their home quiet city.
The case would be more exciting: Andrew Borden’s 32-year-old daughter Lisbeth A. Borden, known as Lizzie, would be tried for the murders. She was acquitted in 1893. For more than a century, her story has inspired dramas on stage and screen, countless books, an opera and a ballet. And the appeal of unsolved crime continues to attract people to the Borden house to this day.
Now the house, a bed and breakfast and museum, is going up for sale for $ 2 million. Suzanne St. John, the real estate agent, said the price explains its historical value and what had been a booming business before the coronavirus pandemic.
That the Borden case continues to spark the public imagination reflects the horror of the crime as well as the identity of the accused. A middle-class, respected New England woman appeared to be an unlikely murderer, making Borden’s 1893 trial a national media sensation.
“It’s pretty much all-American criminal history,” said Cara Robertson, who wrote a non-fiction book about the trial in 2019. “It’s a case with many mythical characteristics of that one family in this house, seemingly quite isolated and self-responsible, and then violence breaks out.”
“Lizzie Borden took an ax …” (actually a hatchet).
On the morning of August 4, 1892, Borden, a Sunday school teacher, called a neighbor who saw her standing behind the screened side door of the house. “Somebody killed father,” she said.
The neighbor found Andrew Borden hacked to death in his living room, apparently with a hatchet. (According to popular tradition, the Borden were killed with an ax, but according to Ms. Robertson’s book, The Lizzie Borden Trial: A True Story, medical experts determined that an ax with a shorter handle and longer blade was almost certainly the murder weapon .) Abby Borden’s body was soon discovered in a similar condition in an upstairs guest room.
According to Ms. Robertson, it was this neighbor, Adelaide Churchill, who first thought of asking Lizzie Borden, “Where were you?” Borden said she was in the barn looking for a piece of iron to make a sinker for a fishing line.
The timing of the murders made the possibility of an intruder unlikely. An outsider should have taken Borden and her maid Bridget Sullivan more than an hour and a half to commit the crimes, Ms. Robertson said.
Investigators turned to others first: Sullivan, an Irish immigrant, and an uncle who had visited the house that morning. But the uncle had an airtight alibi, and Borden’s own report took the maid to another place in the house at the time of the murders.
“You think of Lizzie Borden, someone who meets all the criteria for respectable middle-class femininity,” said Ms. Robertson. She was the daughter of a successful businessman who did community service in her community. “There is nothing about her that says crime in the way it was conventionally understood.”
But Borden’s cool demeanor and conflicting stories soon aroused suspicion.
“There was not the slightest hint of excitement, no sign of sadness or grief, no wailing of the heart, no comment on the horror of the crime, and no expression of the desire that the criminal be caught,” wrote Officer Phil Harrington in his Notes according to Mrs. Robertson’s book.
It soon emerged that Borden had tried to buy prussic acid, a fast-acting poison, the day before the murders.
She was arrested a week after the murders. The New York Times reported that when the jury pronounced their verdict after a two-week trial in June 1893, Borden, who had been in prison for nearly a year, wept “such tears she hadn’t shed in months.” Borden’s friends and supporters in the courtroom that day cheered the verdict.
Her case inspired books, dramas, an opera, and a ballet.
The acquittal did not diminish interest in the trial or the murders, or in Borden himself. The story has inspired books, podcasts, television shows and films.
She has portrayed several prominent actresses. Lillian Gish starred in a piece called “Nine Pine Street” in the 1930s. Christina Ricci played her in a lifetime movie and later in a series about her life before the murders. The 2018 film “Lizzie” played Chloë Sevigny as Borden and Kristen Stewart as Sullivan. The Times said the film presented a feminist view of the crimes as a “cathartic response to years of oppression” from Borden’s “stingy father.”
A 1948 ballet, Fall River Legend, painted Borden “as a victim, imprisoned and maddened, in part by small-town society and paucity,” wrote a Times critic. Flashbacks were used to emphasize Borden’s longing for her dead mother versus the stepmother she was replacing.
The story made her operatic debut at the New York Opera in 1965 with Jack Beeson’s “Lizzie Borden,” which fictionalized aspects of the story, making Borden the oldest rather than the youngest child, and making her sister a love interest.
And of course there is the enduring skipping rope rhyme known to generations of school children: “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 blows. When she saw what she had done, she gave 41 to her father. ”(It was found that her stepmother was beaten 19 times with the hatchet and her father was beaten 10 times.)
The enigmatic character of Lizzie Borden has made her a popular figure. “It’s a cipher onto which each generation projects its own worries and fears,” said Ms. Robertson.
Sarah Miller, who wrote a middle-class book on Borden, said she was drawn to the “huge gap between what people believe about Lizzie Borden and what is factually known and proven”.
“We mostly see her as that blood-splattered Halloween bobble head,” Ms. Miller said. Believing Borden was wrongly demonized by the press, she said the picture contradicts the kindness she showed to people she knew.
Some authors have proposed alternative theories. A 1961 book by Edward Radin, now out of print, shows Sullivan, the maid, as the most likely suspect.
A notorious crime is now a business.
According to Ms. St. John, the real estate agent, that dark past didn’t deter buyers from interested in the Murderhouse or Maplecroft, a much larger house on the Fall River where Borden lived until her death in 1927 and continues to this day is used as a family house. It’s also available for $ 890,000.
Business at the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast and Museum was booming before the pandemic dampened tourism. Attracted by its macabre history, more than 18,000 people visited the inn in 2019, Ms. St. John said.
Notorious crime scenes have become an integral part of so-called “dark” tourism in the last few decades. Ms. Robertson said amateurs are visiting the Borden house to test their pet theories: would anyone hear a body fall down on the second floor?
Richard Behrens was an enthusiast who was more interested in facts than ghost stories. He created “The Lizzie Borden Podcast” and connected online with others interested in the case. They met annually to visit the house in Borden, said his wife Anna Behrens. Her husband died in 2017. The podcast, which is still available, reached 65,000 listeners in January.
When Ms. Miller was there to research her book, she overheard people in the next room trying to conjure Borden with an ouija board. “I wonder,” she said, “if people somehow think they’re going to find something that no one else has found, that somehow they can solve it.”