Skip to main content

Lizzie Borden's Forty Whacks to Infamy

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.


“Lizzie Borden took an axe,

And gave her mother forty whacks,

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.”

— Anonymous newspaper pitch and skip-rope rhyme.

A Blood-Curdling Scream

It was a scream that alerted Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan that something went horribly wrong on a hot August day in 1892. It was the type of scream that pulled the family house maid for the Bordons from a nap, and thrust her into a calamity within an affluent household in Fall River, Massachusetts.

“Maggie! Come down!” she stated she heard after a scream that could best be described as blood-curdling.

That yell came from the family’s youngest daughter, Lizzie.

“Come down quick; Father’s dead! Somebody came in and killed him!” Lizzie reportedly yelled, again.

Maggie stated to investigators and in trial that she jumped out of bed and rushed to Lizzie’s aid. To her horror, Maggie found Lizzie Borden standing near the hacked and bloodied body of her father, Andrew Borden (who was sprawled across his favorite couch).

The family maid wasted no time calling the police. They immediately arrived at the Borden estate and began the investigation.

Their arrival didn’t go unnoticed. Adelaide Churchill, a neighbor, headed to the residence to console Lizzie and Abby Borden, the step-mother, who was unusually not present in the living room where the murder took place.


According to investigators on the scene, Churchill went upstairs to the bedroom to find Abby. Moments later, the neighbor screamed. The officers rushed up the stairs to the bedroom. There, they discovered Abby's hacked and bloodied body.

It wasn't long before the rest of the town of Fall River got the news of the vicious double-murder. Immediately, residents feared a deranged killer was stalking their community.

Yet, when all the evidence was gathered, everything pointed to one suspect: Lizzie Borden.

Thus began the legend of Lizzie Borden, the New England spinster who was accused of murdering her father and step-mother with a hatchet. The murders were heinous. But the outage of it would continue during and after her trial. It was the kind of stuff that drew the attention of a nation. Also, it would create an American icon in criminology that would endure for more than a century.

A Media Sensation

As mentioned, it didn't take long for the residents of Fall River to hear of the crime. Many flocked to the house, worried, dismayed and looking for answers. Murders, especially one this brutal, simply didn't happen in neighborhoods such as Fall River.

Not long, local press got word of the story. Soon, major newspapers got wind of it. Not long after the murder, the story went nationwide.

A big part of it is that it played on the interests people had at the time:

  • Members of a wealthy family that seemingly had it all were victims;
  • Gory details of the murder; and
  • it was a genuine mystery.
Scroll to Continue

In terms of details of the murder made popular in the public’s eye, a reporter from the town's local newspaper, Fall River Herald, can be thanked for that. He described at length the condition of the bodies. He mentioned Andrew Borden’s face as “sickening.” Also, he wrote: “the left eye had been dug out…the face was hacked to pieces and blood had covered the man’s shirt.”

While the photos did reveal a gory scene, the reporter’s description may have been exaggerated. However, exaggerations were not uncommon in this case. More salacious the details, the better the newspapers sold.


Hungry for such lured details, other newspapers from the east coast of the United States headed for the New England town. They too spared no ink getting the depiction of the crime in print.

Next, there were reports of a supposed suspect -- one that fit the stereotypes of the time. In the early days of the investigation, the newspaper reported, a “Portuguese laborer” or a “tall man” may have been responsible for the murders.

It was known that the laborer had visited a few days earlier asking for money, which Andrew didn’t have. But what made him fearful were two things:

  • he was tall and mysterious – possibly an outsider – and
  • He was a foreigner.

In turn-of-the century America, immigrants from non-English or Germanic countries were often viewed with distrust, misunderstanding and disdain. The Portuguese laborer was a perfect foil for this crime.

Investigation Leads to Lizzie

Despite speculations from the country’s top newspapers, evidence of a Portuguese laborer never materialized. However, a suspect was starting to emerge. Investigators were beginning to turn their focus on Lizzie.

The clues investigators had at the time indicated the murder was an inside job and that Lizzie was the most likely suspect. Their evidence were:

  • the lack of a weapon and the concentration of blood and blood trails within the house;
  • Indications that it had to be someone within the Borden household.
  • The oldest daughter, Emma, had an alibi; but
  • Lizzie, on the other hand, didn’t.

Maggie concurred about the dress. She reported that Lizzie was wearing it on the morning of the murders. That was enough for the grand jury to indict.

Another clue to Lizzie’s guilt was her inability to know exactly where her step-mother was that morning. Also, the investigators were not convinced of her story that during the fifteen minutes when her father was being murdered in the living room, she was in the backyard barn getting sinkers for an upcoming fishing trip (some accounts claim she was getting pears). The officers never found any footprints on the dusty floor where those sinkers were supposed to be.

On August 9, five days after the murder, Lizzie, Maggie, and a house guest were questioned at police headquarters. The interview added more suspicions. She gave the police contradictory answers and appeared to have changed her story.

That was enough for the police investigators. Two days later, Police Chief Hilliard arrested Lizzie.

The Trial Begins and the Legend Continues

The crime took on a life of its own. The incredulous public was in shock. Headlines throughout the country ran with the concept that a dainty young woman was responsible for the slaughter of her parents. How could this be? Women in high society were not your typical murderer.

The next day, Lizzie entered a plea of “Not Guilty” to the charge of murder. On August 22, she was arraigned by Judge Josiah Blaisdell who pronounced her “probably guilty”. The next phase in the legend was beginning.

In November, the grand jury met and heard damning evidence from witnesses including a family friend, Alice Russell, who had been visiting the Borden sisters in the days following the murders. She testified that Lizzie was burning a blue dress in a kitchen fire. When asked why she was doing it, Lizzie said the dress was covered with “old paint.”

Maggie concurred about the dress. She reported that Lizzie was wearing it on the morning of the murders. That was enough for the grand jury to indict.

By this time, Lizzie (who was beginning to go by the name of Lizbeth) had become a philanthropist giving upwards of $30,000 to a local animal shelter

Lizzie’s fate before the court appeared to be sealed. The evidence was stacked against her. However, Lizzie managed to hire a high-powered defense team that included Andrew Jennings and George Robinson (the former governor of Massachusetts). As the saying goes, they were the best lawyers money can buy. And that money went to good use.

Witnesses for the state had testified to Lizzie’s guilt. Yet, in the case of Maggie, some of them ended up recanting past remarks, or agreeing to possible theories of the defense. In one case, a family doctor who had prescribed morphine to Lizzie said the drug may have contributed to her contradictory statements during police examination.

A seed of doubt was planted; and before long it sprouted. In one case, evidence that she bought poison a few days before the murders or the rumors of tension between the girls and the parents were either squashed or not allowed in court. In the end, the prosecution only had circumstantial evidence and no murder weapon. As a result, the jury acquitted her on June 20, 1893.

Life After the Verdict

Lizzie didn’t escape the court of public opinion. Newspapers such as the New York Times ridiculed the verdict in scathing editorials. Family friends and citizens of Fall River steered clear of her. She was ostracized in her neighborhood and was forced to take refuge with her older sister Emma.

Eventually, even Emma distanced herself from Lizzie in 1905. By this time, Lizzie (who was beginning to go by the name of Lizbeth) had become a philanthropist giving upwards of $30,000 to a local animal shelter. She’d live the rest of her life as a spinster until her death in 1927 (Ironically, she’s buried by her parents).

Today, Lizzie’s name still lingers in Fall River. The Borden home is now a bed and breakfast inn and the mansion she lived her remaining days in, Maplecroft, is privately owned. The Borden home and Maplecroft are occasionally open for tours.

Either way, Lizzie Borden’s trial was a sensation on many levels. It involved brutal murders, an unusual suspect, and a travesty of the law that may have let a killer go free.

Even to this day, Lizzie's trial is speculated and researched by professional and amateur investigators. Some search for evidence to either convict or exonerate her more than 130 years after the murder.

It has spawned numerous stories and speculations that continue to this day. In addition, it has created a legend in which some of the details are exaggerated or are mere fiction. Most notably, the 40 whacks that was supposedly needed by the killer. It was actually 19 and 11 strikes.

Guilty or Innocent?


Work Cited

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Dean Traylor


Keith Abt from The Garden State on October 19, 2014:

I just saw the movie "Lizzie Borden Took An Ax" about this case a few nights ago. Cool stuff.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on October 19, 2014:

Very interesting. I had heard of the case before but never knew the facts. Intriguing stuff. Thanks for sharing.

Related Articles