Lizzie Borden House: Come for the Ax Murders, Stay for the Cookies
Touring the house where Lizzie Borden is rumored to have murdered her parents, you get a front row seat for the crime but also an intimate look at 19th-century American life.
Visiting the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum in Fall River, Massachusetts, I had only a vague idea of what I was in for. I knew it was the scene of one of the grizzliest double homicides in American history: a man and wife bludgeoned to death, most likely by their own daughter. I knew that the 1892 murders and subsequent trial had spellbound the whole country and gone on to became one of the goriest staples of American folklore. And I knew the famous rhyme: Lizzie Borden took an axe / And gave her mother forty whacks. / When she saw what she had done / She gave her father forty-one.
I called at noon to make reservations for the last tour of the day.
“No need, honey, just come to the barn behind the house and get a ticket at 3.” The audible boredom in the smoker’s rasp on the other end of the line made me wonder if the house’s heyday might have passed, that Lizzie Borden was no longer much of a draw in the age of O.J. and the Menendez brothers.
Sure enough, when my boyfriend and I showed up at 2:45 p.m., we were the only ones there. All I can say about that is, shed your ennui and get in line, because the Borden home is still relevant for several reasons, starting with its physical reality that leads you viscerally, claustrophobically, one furnished room at a time, back to an era when wallpaper was fashionable, furniture wasn’t built with comfort in mind, and hallways were but a twinkle in an architect’s eye. It’s a real education not just about how people died but how they lived as well. As a bonus, the house is supposedly haunted by the occupants who made it famous.
The tour began in the gift shop (Lizzie books and bobble heads), where on display in a glass case under the cash register were broken plates, saucers, and various housewares recovered from the outhouse. (I was the dumbass who asked what everybody else in the barn—the clerk, his tattooed girlfriend, and my boyfriend—already knew, but in case the reader isn’t privy: In Victorian times, they disposed of broken ceramics and bone china by throwing it in the outhouse potty.)
The boxy, lovingly restored Greek Revival clapboard at 92 Second St. offers an eerily voyeuristic peek into a family, their home, and the mystery surrounding why, on Aug. 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were abruptly, horribly murdered, presumably by their 32-year-old daughter Lizzie. The violence was so swift and vicious and incomprehensible that, even today, online forums ponder and rehash this murder and try to exonerate Lizzie, not because of any preponderance of evidence, but because there is no compelling resolution. It’s just one rabbit hole after another.
Knowing that much, I knew I needed a tour guide. Ours had a wide gait, like she rode a lot of horses or motorcycles, and she had a sandpaper voice to match. In short, she was perfect.
Stamping out her cigarette, she motioned for us to follow. As we rounded the corner from the barn to the house, we chit chatted more about the haunting than the murder.
“Oh, yeah, she’s here,” said our guide. “They all are. I use a dowsing rod to talk to her. And she says she didn’t do it.” I stumbled over the dowsing rod. Aren’t those for searching out water, not spirits? But I didn’t press it, because this was a tour, not a deep dive, and because it was just weird enough to make me want to hear more.
“What do the others say?” I asked.
“That she did.”
“Do you believe her?”
“No.” She chuffed. No kidding—she snorted and scoffed at the same time. That’s a chuff, right?
With an almost curtsy and a flourish of her arm, our guide opens the double doors into a cramped foyer at the bottom of the main staircase. At its base stands a period radiator so impressive that I commented on it. Turns out, the radiator is emblematic of a contentious thread that ran through the family’s fights—so contentious that in the welter of arguments for and against Lizzie’s guilt, control of the family’s wealth is often offered as a motive.
What we know for sure is that Andrew Borden certainly did not spend his fortune freely, at least not on home improvement. He seemed to be a guy who, when weighing wants and needs, put everything in the needs column, leaving a lot to be desired, especially by the three adult women in the house. And installing a toilet or two or gas light or running water would have caused him no belt-tightening at all. His fortune from the textile business and property holdings, in today’s money, was more than $7.5 million.
The guide had hardly started her spiel before it became obvious that details surrounding the deaths of Abby and Andrew Borden are numerous but hazy and often conflicting.
At least no one disputes that five people lived in the house—Andrew and Abby Borden (Lizzie’s stepmother), Lizzie and her older sister, Emma, and Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, the housemaid they called “Maggie,” because the previous maid’s name had been Maggie and apparently the family decided that the name came with the position.
On the day of the murders, Emma was visiting friends out of town. John Vinnicum Morse, Lizzie’s maternal uncle, had stayed overnight and was expected to stay for several days. Everyone in the house had been violently ill for most of a week, possibly from some spoiled mutton, although Abby Borden suspected poisoning—just the day before, Lizzie had tried unsuccessfully to buy prussic acid.
The morning of the murder, Uncle John left the house a little before 9 a.m. and Andrew left for a walk a few minutes later. He returned around 10 a.m., but found himself locked out. When Bridget, who had been washing windows downstairs, tried to let him in, she had trouble with the the front door lock and let out an expletive. According to what she said later, after she cursed, she heard Lizzie giggling on the second floor, where Abby’s body was later discovered (Lizzie denied ever being upstairs). After letting Andrew Borden in, Bridget retreated to her room on the third—and most miserable—floor of the house, where there was little ventilation for the trapped August heat. Overcome with “summer sickness,” or with food poisoning, she threw up in her chamber pot and went to bed.
Our guide glossed over the whole summer sickness business, but I was hung up on the image of washing windows and vomiting for a good while before I could even get to the horror of what Bridget may have later witnessed (or as some theorize, done). While the maid napped in the converted attic, Lizzie was on the first floor taking off Andrew’s shoes to get him comfortable on the couch—or so she said later. Again, I had trouble keeping up with the spiel because I was so fixated on the image of Andrew taking his morning walk and everybody doing chores in 90-degree heat, all while ill enough to wonder if they had been poisoned.
The murders are somewhat hard to map with regard to where each person was at any given moment. Around 10 a.m., Bridget is unlocking the front door. Lizzie is giggling upstairs (where Abby is most likely dead already). After letting Andrew in, Bridget goes to the third floor. About the same time, Lizzie comes downstairs, ostensibly to tend to Andrew in the sitting room, the room where he died. The two women could have easily avoided passing each other as they ascended and descended the stairs, because there were two staircases on opposite sides of the house.
Stepping into the living room off the foyer, we were waved to a settee. The room has been restored to a close approximation of how the Borden’s lived and decorated, and there were photographs to prove it: striped florals, needlepoint, lace, draperies, marble-top tables, and table lamps—it looked like an old maid’s dream. It was the perfect opening room, the room before getting into the ones where all hell broke loose.
From there we moved to the dining room—restored, like the living room, to what is depicted in the photographs. On the morning of the murders, Lizzie, according to one statement, was pressing handkerchiefs on the dining table with a flat iron she heated on the stove in the adjacent kitchen. The tour guide raised a black, flat iron as she described the scene. She also handed us one of Lizzie’s glaring factual inconsistencies: When asked where she was when her father returned from his walk, Lizzie said she was in the kitchen reading a magazine. Bridget maintains she heard her giggling upstairs. Who is telling the truth? Were the women in cahoots?
At this point, the guide fast forwarded to the aftermath, when the bodies of Andrew and Abby lay upon cooling boards on top of the same dining room table where Lizzie said she’d been ironing. The boards were long stretchers made of wood caning and perforated to keep the bodies cool when they’re on ice and to allow fluids to drain rather than to pool under them. She pointed to a cooling board propped in the corner of the dining room: “And how do we know these were used for the bodies?” She grabbed the photo, and we took the bait, saying, “Because it’s in the photo.”
The dining was by far the most interesting room, with its troubling fusion of domesticity and tragedy. Everything before and after the murders happened here, with a dining table that held hankies and then bodies, all in the space of a few hours.
As we moved from the dining room to the sitting room (the house lacks hallways; all the rooms, upstairs and down, flow into each other), the guide stopped to show us the camera in the ceiling overlooking the dining room.
“Andrew didn’t like it when we had those installed, so he cut the power. Even iPhones didn’t work. The electrician said there was no reason for the outage. We knew it was Andrew. We asked him to turn the electricity back on, and he did.” Despite the guide’s repeated references to ghostly activity, nothing about the place felt especially spooky. To me, it was an old house with a sad story. The paranormal activity, if it exists, seemed cartoonish, like spirits bickering about the same old shit in the afterlife.
The sitting room, one of the kill rooms, was where Andrew Borden’s body was found. Like the other rooms, this one has been restored to match old photographs of the house. These photos, though, show not just tables and chairs but a crime scene: Andrew’s body is slumped on the couch with his feet resting on the floor. Most photos of the first crime scene are cropped tightly on Andrew’s body, but some reveal eerie crests of blood arcing on the walls, produced by blows so savage that they left his face destroyed. Looking at one photo through a magnifying glass, I could see his eyeball halved and hanging from the socket.
In the sitting room, our guide pointed out another one of Lizzie’s inconsistencies. She said she had removed her father’s shoes and made him comfortable on the couch after Bridget unlocked the door. In the photograph, however, Andrew is wearing his shoes. If ever eyebrows did raise, now would be the time.
Another weird item in the room was a key on the mantle. This key unlocked Andrew and Abby’s master bedroom, and Andrew kept the key on him always, because Lizzie was a kleptomaniac. So why was the key out on the mantle?
Both this murder and the one upstairs were acts of rage. And sustained rage at that: The double murders occurred between 9 a.m. and 11:10 a.m., when Lizzie called up to the maid, “Maggie, come quick. Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.” The time span, coupled with the sustained viciousness of the slaughter (11 and 19 whacks to their respective heads and faces), would seem to rule out spontaneity. Two bouts of overkill with as much as and hour and a half between kills and not a lucid moment or a break in a fugue state? Bizarre. But the circumstances raise a larger question: Why would a woman who was widely considered a little weird and eccentric but never violent, neither before nor after the murders, suddenly erupt in an act so vicious that it horrifies us even now? Did Lizzie indeed just freak out and butcher her parents one day and then get on with her life?
Emma was ruled out as a suspect because she was nowhere in the vicinity and had to be notified by telegram. Uncle John wasn’t suspected, because, as he was returning to Fall River on the street car that day, six priests riding the same streetcar later agreed they had seen him. Uncle John also offered up the conductor’s badge number as evidence that he had ridden the street car, a strange thing to memorize for no reason other than needing an alibi, but the six priests were really all he needed.
As we headed from one murder scene to the next, our tour was reaching its crescendo. Our senses and emotions heightened, we were mentally right where we needed to be as we climbed the staircase to the second floor. The staircase is open on one side, so midway up, I was eye level with the floor of the second story. The guide told me to stop and look left, and from that vantage point, I had a direct view under the bed in the room where Abby was killed. This was exactly how her corpse was discovered.
Abby died in the guest room where Uncle John spent the night (and so can you, if that’s your thing, because the B&B part of the name is no joke). Our guide led us the spot between the bed and the dresser where Abby had met her assailant. At Lizzie’s trial, two doctors confirmed that Abby was killed first, as her blood was coagulating, her stomach had not fully digested its contents, and she was cold to the touch. When the doctors reached Andrew, he was still warm, still bleeding red, and had digested his food.
By the time we reached Lizzie’s and Emma’s rooms, we were being fed less murder and more family dynamics. And more tales of the paranormal. As I trailed behind our guide, I began smelling flowers.
“Smell that?” she asked.
“Yeah, smells like shampoo,” I said.
“Yep. Emma’s here. She was very house proud. ‘Hi, Emma.’” She nodded, as though she’d conjured Emma for us. Maybe she thought the tour was at a lull, maybe she thought we needed a boost from a perfume bottle or a can of Glade somebody hustled up the backstairs before we entered the bedroom. Maybe every museum has its juiced exhibit.
The problem with the Borden case is that there was no physical evidence tying Lizzie to the crime, just proximity and the old money motive. Lizzie was high on morphine to calm her when she was initially questioned. Her answers were inconsistent with later versions, so there was no fixed narrative, no steps to retrace, not even a bloody murder weapon. A hatchet was found, but the only blood on it wasn’t human.
I asked my boyfriend, who is in law enforcement, for his opinion. Listening to his response, I realized we had taken the same tour, but what we each processed differed greatly. I was more like a juror. Where are the bloody footprints, weapons, and clothing? (Lizzie was caught burning her dress, but said she had spilled paint on it. We cannot know if it was the bloody dress or not—it’s just more strange behavior from a strange woman.) The brutality required to crush two skulls is personal. What had been building in Lizzie to explode in such a possessed way? As gross and inconvenient as layers of clothing would have been for a 19th century woman when doing chores—ironing on a hot day, or using a chamberpot when you knew your skinflint father could afford to install indoor plumbing—such unpleasantness was the norm and surely not reason enough to murder somebody.
From a law enforcement officer’s perspective, the gruesome nature of the crime seems extraordinary even in 2018. And the fact that no confessions were ever coerced was hard for him to fathom, because, whether true or not, a confession would have been a huge win for the local chief, while no conviction would be a stain upon the record of any law officer.
After Lizzie’s acquittal, the family fortune fell right into Emma and Lizzie’s greedy hands. The sisters spent a portion of their inheritance on a grand home in a posh enclave of Fall River, and there they lived with servants and indoor plumbing until 1905, when Emma abruptly left the mansion, and the two sisters never spoke again. They died nine days apart in 1927. So in the end, Lizzie got what she wanted, didn’t kill anybody else, and lived as a recluse well into old age.
After visiting Bridget’s room (Bridget wound up married and living in Montana), we are told children can be heard laughing (who were the children in the story?). Then we were shown the dress Elizabeth Montgomery wore in the 1975 film The Legend of Lizzie Borden. After marveling at how slight she was, we followed the smell of chocolate chip cookies downstairs and back to reality, to a joltingly modern kitchen, or almost modern: It shares space with a wood burning stove—a prop to point to when the question arises as to whether the dress Lizzie was burning was the one she wore the day of the murders. There was nothing paranormal about the cookies, though. They were being baked for the guests who would soon be checking into the B&B that night. We decided not to stay.