Lizzie — Lizzie Borden was a 32-year old unmarried woman still living at home when her father and stepmother were brutally murdered in their home at Fall River, Massachusetts on a brutally hot morning of August, 1892. Lizzie was tried but acquitted for the murders.
Here’s how obsessed I am with Lizzie Borden: I’ve got her meatloaf recipe!
Yes, that Lizzie Borden. The 40 whacks to her mother and 41 whacks to her father Lizzie Borden. She was a real person — a 32-year-old spinster still living at home — and those brutal murders really did take place in Fall River, Massachusetts, on August 4, 1892. But the case is so bizarre and so convoluted that if you read up on it to any degree, I dare say you’ll find yourself obsessed — just like me — about whether Lizzie was the culprit or not. More on that in a minute.
Perhaps the most tell-tale sign of my obsession is the fact that I’ve actually traveled — twice — to the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, which is now a bed-and-breakfast furnished almost exactly how it appeared in 1892. Not only can you spend the night there, but you can also take tours outlining what happened that day. You can also take night-time ghost hunts in an attempt to make contact with the spirits of the unhappy Borden family. I’ve done all three.
First, the ghost hunt. Even though we were laden with all manner of equipment (including sensors that would light up and beep if a spirit was close by), relatively little happened on the night I wandered the rooms trying to conjure up paranormal activity.
Other ghost hunters have hit the jackpot, however, especially in the extremely haunted room once occupied by Bridget, the family’s Irish maid. Tour guides arrived for work in the morning to find the overnight renters of that room huddled in their cars, no longer able to cope with what was happening upstairs. The house’s previous owner once decided to spend a night in Bridget’s room only to find that a rocking chair that had been across the room when she fell asleep was sitting next to her bed when she awoke. Plus, it was rocking!
I highly recommend the fascinating daytime tours of the house. You’ll get a comprehensive overview of what happened that fateful day, and you’ll also see the very places the murders took place, including the upstairs guest room where Lizzie’s mother — or stepmother as she’d have been quick to remind you — was struck down while making up a bed. You’ll also see a replica of the couch where Mr. Borden lay down to take a lunchtime nap and — well, you know what happened then.
Our spirited guide, Louise, led us from room to room regaling us with Borden anecdotes. She certainly didn’t pull any punches in her descriptions, however. Louise forcefully demonstrated how Mrs. Borden’s murder likely took place, with the killer standing astride her prone body while he (or she) hacked from above. She invited us to consider how much noise the hefty 200-pound body of Abby Borden would have made as it fell to the floor — she told us that when tour guides tried it themselves, the entire house shook.
Since the house also operates as a bed and breakfast, the upstairs bedrooms are rented out to overnight guests. And since “macabre” is my middle name, I just had to stay in the room where Mrs. Borden was slain. If you ever visit, you’ll be struck with how cozy it looks, filled with Victorian bric-a-brac and furnishings, including the bed with the towering wooden headboard and a matching dresser, both of which featured prominently in the famous murder photographs, since Mrs. Borden’s body was found lying between them. The night I stayed there, the bedspread was an appropriately blood-red chenille.
Hearing of my plans, my friends all clucked their tongues, wondering how anyone could stay in such a place. Myself, I didn’t start getting the heebie-jeebies until I actually arrived. I figured I was in for a sleepless night, with all the stories about the night-time antics of the house’s spirits dancing through my head.
I needn’t have worried. To my astonishment, I fell asleep the instant my head hit the pillow, and I awoke at dawn after a full eight hours of sleep. This never happens — I’m a very restless sleeper who always wakes up several times during the course of a night. What’s more, I’d had one happy dream after another, many focusing on reunions with long-lost friends. I slept so soundly that the entire Borden family could have danced around my bed all night long or even climbed under the covers with me for all I knew. To this day I am still mortified: What kind of scoundrel sleeps so blissfully in such a setting?
Other Lizzie-related places in Fall River include the cemetery where she lies buried beside the parents she supposedly murdered and Maplecroft, the Victorian mansion where she spent her final years. At the Fall River Historical Society, there’s an entire room of Lizzie memorabilia, including a bloody pillow sham and a hair piece that flew off Mrs. Borden’s head as she was being struck. The Historical Society is where I got Lizzie’s meatloaf recipe, which sounds so incredibly dry and bland I will surely never try making it.
But as I mentioned, I’m not at all certain Lizzie did the deed. She was acquitted, yes, partly due to a lack of solid evidence, but many people still think she’s really the only person who the finger of blame can be pointed at. By her own admission, she was on the premises when the murders took place, claiming to have been in the dining room ironing handkerchiefs while her stepmother was being struck down and out in the backyard barn looking for fishing gear when her father met his Maker. Everyone else in the household had solid alibis — Lizzie’s sister Emma was out of town visiting friends, Bridget the maid was outside washing windows, and the family guest of the night before, Lizzie’s maternal uncle, was out conducting business around town.
Plus, Lizzie did have a motive. She and her sister loathed their stepmother so intensely they refused to call her anything but “Mrs. Borden.” Her wealthy father had infuriated Lizzie and Emma when he transferred a piece of property to someone in his wife’s family. Perhaps the sisters were fearful they were losing their inheritance?
And yet, when Lizzie called for help after supposedly discovering her father’s body, first responders arrived so quickly they observed that Mr. Borden had been so freshly murdered there was still blood oozing from his head wounds. They also noticed that Lizzie didn’t have a drop of blood on her clothing, face, or hair.
And that’s why I’ve always thought someone other than Lizzie had to have been the murderer. Both of the victims had portions of their skulls caved in, and the killer kept striking well past the point where the deed was done. Whoever carried out such brutal murders would surely have been covered in blood. Lizzie was not, and as quickly as she called for help, she wouldn’t have had time to wash up and change clothes. Also, a thorough search by the police failed to find any bloody clothing or the murder weapon itself. To this day, that weapon has never been found.
And so, for a lack of anything but circumstantial evidence, there are two things we’ll never know for certain: (1) Did Lizzie do it? And (2) If not, who did? Perhaps a third person crept into the house while Lizzie and Bridget were otherwise occupied, but it strains credulity to think no one saw that happening. And if Lizzie was somehow “in on it” but didn’t actually do the killing, why didn’t she clear the premises and give herself an alibi?
Phil Devitt, another tour guide at the house, summed it all up: “People usually leave the house with more questions than when they walked in. That’s a sign we’ve done our job. Even with all the facts of what we know happened, we can’t piece together an answer that’s going to satisfy everyone. That’s the frustration that lies behind the Lizzie Borden story. But it’s also the allure.”