Juliana Gray

Lizzie Borden and the Forty Whacks:
Notes on a Rhyme

Lizzie1 Borden2 took3 an axe4

  1. Lizzie Andrew Borden was her full given name. Not Elizabeth, not Elspeth or Eliza. As Angela Carter writes in her masterful short story “The Fall River Axe Murders,” her father was “a miser in everything,” and so “cropped off half her name before he gave it to her.” His name, Andrew, he gave to his daughter whole. Of her three names, Lizzie owned only half that was entirely her own. In the years after her 1893 trial and acquittal, she used the name Lizbeth, and this single name is engraved on her tombstone, which rests at the foot of the ten-foot granite monument to her murdered father.
  2. I won’t bore you with the Borden family history; for that, you can read Wikipedia, or better yet, Angela Carter. But I know several people who claim to be related to Lizzie Borden, proud to be descended from the blood of a supposed murderess. Though Lizzie was ostracized after her acquittal and seems to have lived a mostly lonely life in her mansion in Fall River, Massachusetts, connection with her is now a cause to brag. The wife of one friend proudly kept her Borden name, and staunchly defends her however-many-great-aunt’s innocence.
  3. Yes, she took. In their awkwardly designed house on Second Street, she took her sister Emma’s bedroom, the larger of the two girls’ rooms upstairs, leaving Emma with the smaller room accessible only by passing through Lizzie’s. As she neared thirty years of age, Lizzie took the money that would have been her dowry and went on a grand tour of Europe. In her travel guidebook, she took notes on the art galleries, museums, and cosmopolitan cities that she and the other young spinsters visited, saving up details to sustain her back in her father’s cramped house. After the trial, she and Emma took their inheritance and bought a 14-room mansion on the Hill, a more fashionable neighborhood. Lizzie then took a trip with friends to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the same world’s fair at which serial killer H.H. Holmes is said to have stalked the victims he lured back to his so-called murder castle. It is tempting, almost irresistible, to imagine Borden and Holmes crossing paths as they explored the White City, marveling at the moving picture exhibition and the life-sized reproductions of Columbus’s three ships, perhaps riding the Ferris wheel.
  4. The difference between an axe and a hatchet is size: axes are about twice as big as hatchets, weighing two to four pounds with a two- to three-foot handle. A hand-held hatchet, used for chopping kindling or other smaller pieces of wood, may weigh as little as one pound with a 12- to 18-inch handle. The weapon that killed Abby Durfee Borden and Andrew Borden inflicted gashes as long as four inches, and was used with enough force to crush parts of their skulls, consistent with either axe or hatchet. But the close quarters of the Borden house and the positioning of the killer indicate the use of the smaller weapon. Whoever killed Abby Borden most likely attacked her from behind, then straddled her as she lay face-down on the floor, lifting the weapon above their head and striking Abby repeatedly. If you can imagine doing this at all, imagine the difficulty of repeatedly lifting and swinging a heavy, long-handled axe, its head clotted with gore. Andrew’s killer peeked out from the dining room, leaned into the sitting room where the family patriarch was napping on a sofa, and chopped at his face. Despite much discussion at the trial of the “handleless hatchet” found in the Borden’s cellar, the murder weapon has never been identified. So why do we persist in thinking the killer used an axe, rather than the smaller, easier-to-conceal, but equally deadly weapon? Because almost nothing rhymes with “hatchet.”

Gave5 her mother6 forty7 whacks8

  1. Yes, she gave. Like other ladies of her social class, she gave her time before the murders to charities including the Christian Endeavor Society, the Ladies’ Fruit and Flower Mission, the Good Samaritan Charity Hospital, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She gave Sunday school lessons to working-class children, and may have tutored a Chinese immigrant man who attended her church. Lizzie Borden died in 1927, and in her will, she enumerated over twenty heirs. She bequeathed her servants thousands of dollars and left sums of money and various pieces of jewelry to friends and former schoolmates. In the lonely years following the trial, her fondness for animals led her to become a behind-the-scenes benefactor of the Fall River Animal Rescue League, which cared for old and abused draft horses. In her will, she bequeathed the Animal Rescue League a fortune of $30,000.
  2. Sarah Anthony Borden died when her daughters Emma and Lizzie were just twelve and three years old. On her mother’s deathbed, Emma promised that she would always watch over “baby Lizzie.” Three years later, Andrew Borden married Abby Durfee Gray, a stout 37-year-old woman who took over the management of his household and the upbringing of his daughters. Although Lizzie was too young to remember Sarah, she never considered Abby her mother, and she and Emma referred to her as Mrs. Borden. Relations between the older and younger Borden women were chilly; perhaps the girls resented Abby as a rival for their father’s attention, and they certainly resented their father giving members of Abby’s family some valuable pieces of real estate. Emma and Lizzie avoided dining or sharing household chores with their stepmother whenever possible. As far as I know, I am not related to Abby Durfee Gray Borden. A few years ago, a friend and I visited the Borden house, which is now a bed and breakfast. The price of an overnight stay included a “ghost tour” of the house, and our guide described many sightings of Abby’s apparition in the bedroom she and her husband had shared. My friend and I stayed in Abby and Andrew’s suite, not in hopes of seeing ghosts, but because it had a private bathroom. I slept in Abby’s former dressing room, but I did not see or sense Abby’s presence.
  3. Abby Borden, age 64, received nineteen blows, most of them to the back of her head. Although her body was the second one discovered, she was killed first, probably between 9:00 and 9:30 in the morning of August 4, 1892. Emma was visiting friends out of town, and Andrew had left the house to visit some banks. The three resident women – Abby, Lizzie, and the maid Bridget Sullivan – spent their morning performing separate chores inside and outside the house. Abby was upstairs, making up the guest bedroom, when she was attacked from behind; her body lay on the floor for over two hours, and was discovered only after Andrew’s body was found butchered in the downstairs sitting room. During the trial, the prosecution tried to cast doubt on Lizzie’s story that she did not know where her stepmother was that morning or that Lizzie thought she had gone out to visit a sick friend, but given the tense relations between the two women, it is not hard to believe that Lizzie was simply avoiding her as usual. The prosecution also questioned the likelihood of Abby’s body lying undiscovered for so long, especially as the stairs to Lizzie’s bedroom would have taken her right past the guest room’s open door. However, a heavy wooden bed stood between the doorway and Abby’s body, and would have blocked a casual passerby’s line of sight. During our tour of the Borden house bed & breakfast, our guide stretched out on the floor where Abby’s corpse had lain, and challenged us to stand on the stairs where Lizzie would have walked on her way to her own room. Sure enough, the bed almost completely concealed his body playing dead.
  4. Here we see the reason behind this little verse’s staying power: the rhyme. This bit of doggerel first began to be chanted by the children of Fall River before Lizzie’s 1893 trial, and despite its staggering inaccuracies, it has lingered. Even now, over 130 years after the murders, my college students can recite these four lines because the meter and rhyme have lodged so firmly within their brains. The voiceless velar fricative of /k/ combined with the voiceless alveolar fricative of /s/ in “axe/whacks” is particularly memorable in its violent, chopping sound.

When9 she10 saw11 what she12 had done13

  1. The timeline of the Borden murders, the when and where, is the point that makes this crime most perplexing. Andrew left the house around 9 am; Abby was killed within the next forty-five minutes, as Bridget cleared away the breakfast dishes and washed windows outside the house and Lizzie ironed handkerchiefs in the kitchen. Bridget and Lizzie spoke to each other outside around 9:30. Andrew returned home around 10:30 or 10:40; Bridget later testified that as she fumbled with the front door locks to admit him, she heard Lizzie laughing on the stairs. Andrew spoke to his daughter, went upstairs – a different set of stairs than the one leading to the guest room where his wife lay slaughtered – to his bedroom for a few minutes, then around 10:45 lay down to rest on the sitting room sofa. Bridget, who had been nauseated that morning and had doubtless not found her health improved by washing windows in the August heat, also lay down to rest in her attic room. Lizzie testified that she went to the barn to look for sinkers for a possible fishing trip; she may have lingered in the barn or the yard, eating a pear from the trees growing there. Around 11:10, Lizzie called out to Bridget: “Help! Someone has murdered Father!” How could Lizzie have hacked her stepmother to death, then cleaned every trace of gore from her clothing, face and hair, within the maximum space of an hour? How could she have again committed a brutal, bloody murder, cleaned away all evidence from her person, concealed the murder weapon, and then called for help within a mere twenty-five minutes? Alternatively, how could an unknown assailant have sneaked into the Borden home, murdered Abby, concealed himself for up to an hour, murdered Andrew within the narrow window of opportunity, and then slipped away unseen? As Bill James writes in his book Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence, “it is almost impossible to see how Lizzie could have committed the crime,” but at the same time, “it is very, very difficult to understand how anyone else could have committed the crime.”
  2. She, at the time of the murders, was a thirty-two year-old woman from a wealthy family. She was not beautiful, with a rather plain face and heavy jaw, but her gray eyes shone with an intensity apparent even in the black-and-white photographs of the era. Suspicion did not, at first, fall on her, and police performed only a cursory search of the lady’s bedroom and belongings on the day of the murders. Police first arrested (and almost immediately released) a Portuguese immigrant, one of the usual suspects in 19th century Fall River; later, they began to wonder about Miss Borden, who seemed too “cool,” insufficiently tearful, insufficiently ladylike. At her trial, newspapers noted Lizzie’s appearance (her “becoming costume of black brocaded stuff” and “pretty shade hat,” as well as the enameled pansy pin she wore at her throat). She carried small bouquets of flowers and kept her eyes lowered demurely. District attorney Andrew Knowlton acknowledged the difficulty of accepting Lizzie’s guilt: “The woman we are trying is a Christian, it is hard to consider a woman guilty of such a crime, but the greatest criminals of the world have been women, and we must face this trial as men.” Lizzie’s defense attorney George Robinson countered by addressing jurors as if they were chivalric knights whose duty it was to protect “this girl,” his client. Robinson said, “Lizzie Andrew Borden, from the day we opened this trial until this hour, has been in your charge, gentlemen. This is the oath you took … Now that is your duty. She is not a horse, she is not a house, she is not the property of anybody, but she is a free, intelligent, thinking woman, and she is in your charge.” True, there was almost no physical evidence pointing to Lizzie’s guilt, and what evidence the prosecution was able to muster was scant and circumstantial, but the most compelling argument in Lizzie’s favor is that she was simply too feminine and too upper-class – no coarse Irish maid or Portuguese laundress, but a refined Victorian lady – to have committed the crime.
  3. She saw her father’s face, hacked open, split and seeping like a watermelon. Within minutes of Lizzie’s cry to Bridget, the house was crowded with police and neighbors, including Andrew’s physician Seabury Warren Bowen; Dr. Bowen’s first act was to cover Andrew’s body with a sheet, so that no one else would have to see what had been done to him. Eventually it occurred to Lizzie and her friends that no one knew the whereabouts of Abby Borden, and Lizzie asked Bridget and her neighbor Mrs. Churchill to look upstairs. She must have known, or at least suspected, what they would see. Police photographed both corpses; anyone can see those blessedly blurry images online. Three days after the murders, Abby and Andrew were interred in Oak Grove cemetery, but they did not rest in peace; almost immediately after the mourners had departed, their bodies were removed, reautopsied, and the heads of both corpses removed. Lizzie and her sister Emma were not informed of this violation. At Lizzie’s trial almost a year later, prosecution attorneys dramatically revealed the two skulls; at the sight of these stark fragments, Lizzie swooned. Was her faint a performance? Was it genuine shock, a reopening of trauma? Was it both? When I stayed at the Borden house B&B, replicas of the skulls were displayed in the dining room, where guests were served a replica of Abby and Andrew’s final breakfast of johnnycakes. The replica skulls in the glass-doored cabinet bore deep gashes, with jagged holes hacked into the bone. In the B&B gift shop – yes, of course there was a gift shop, located in the reproduction of the barn beside the house, where you can buy bumper stickers and t-shirts and axe earrings and magnets and bags of Axed Lizzie Borden Blend coffee (“It’s to die for!”) – I bought a black coffee mug. When hot liquid is poured into the mug, photographs of Abby and Andrew’s skulls appear on the ceramic. It’s not dishwasher-safe, so I don’t use it often; it’s a shadow at the back of a cabinet.
  4. Lizzie’s gender again came under scrutiny in regards to one of the few pieces of physical evidence against her: a tiny spot of blood “the size of a good pin head” on one of her petticoats. At the inquest, a heavily sedated Lizzie was repeatedly questioned about this blood spot, and she said it might have come from a flea bite. Later accounts of the Borden story have suggested that “having fleas” was a euphemism for her menstrual cycle, but this sounds profoundly weird. Would a Victorian lady rather admit to having vermin than to having her period? Perhaps – certainly the squeamishness of male witnesses and questioners regarding menstruation is apparent in transcripts from the inquest and the trial – but it seems unlikely, and I have not been able to find corroboration for this euphemism in other contemporary sources. Still, when police searched the Second Street house on the day of the murders and discovered a bucket of bloody cloths in the basement, Lizzie indicated that they had been soiled during her cycle, and the police did not investigate the contents of the bucket any further.
  5. The most suspicious thing she did, three days after the murders, was burn a dress. Lizzie’s friend Alice Russell was visiting the Second Street house, and she testified at the trial that Lizzie said, “I am going to burn this old thing up; it is covered with paint.” Alice watched as Lizzie ripped up the dress and stuffed it, bit by bit, into the stove. This sounds damning, and the prosecution heavily implied that the dress must have been the one Lizzie wore when she slaughtered her parents, but they refrained from directly asking Alice if she witnessed any bloodstains. Emma testified that Lizzie did indeed have a dress which had been stained by paint, and that Emma had advised her to destroy it. (In the otherwise dry trial and inquest transcripts, the only truly funny moments are those in which the male witnesses and attorneys struggle to understand the differences among the different designs and fabrics of the various blue dresses owned by the Borden sisters.) It does seem odd that in a house where every secondhand item or bit of trash was reused – old newspapers cut up for use in the basement’s water closet, clothes repurposed as cleaning rags, leftover stew reheated and re-served until every member of the house was retching – that Lizzie would be so profligate as to outright destroy something she didn’t want. One might almost see it as an act of liberation.

She gave14 her father15 forty-one.16, 17

  1. She gave lavish parties at Maplecroft, as she and Emma named their new mansion on the Hill. Their decision to stay in Fall River seems defiant; having inherited equal shares of their father’s fortune, the sisters could have moved to another city where they would not have been stared at in the street and gossiped about in church, where children would not have composed jump rope rhymes about them. But they stayed, and they spent. Their new house was huge and beautiful, with indoor plumbing (Andrew Borden had seen no point in spending money on something as frivolous as flush toilets), ornate furniture, and a telephone. The sisters lived together at Maplecroft for twelve years, though Lizzie made frequent trips to New York City, Boston, and Providence to attend the theater. She made friends among the actors she met, and filled the house on French Street with music and dancing in their honor, especially for an actress named Nance O’Neil, who was sometimes hailed as “the American Bernhardt.” Eventually the frequent presence of these disreputable people became too much for Emma, and she moved to Providence in 1905, later settling in New Hampshire. To be honest, Emma Borden sounds like an uptight bore; yet she remained loyal to her sister throughout the trial and the years of ostracization that followed. What, then, could have so scandalized her that she would leave “baby Lizzie” and barely speak to her for the next twenty-two years? Some speculate that Lizzie and Nance O’Neil were lovers. The actress, who had played tragic figures like Lady Macbeth and Hedda Gabler to great acclaim, shared a close relationship with Lizzie for about two years, but that bond, too, was eventually broken. Ten years after her relationship with Lizzie ended, O’Neil married another actor. Lizzie never married. In 1913 Emma told the Boston Sunday Herald, “The happenings at the French Street house that caused me to leave I must refuse to talk about. I did not go until conditions became absolutely unbearable.” Despite the many gifts Lizzie left to friends and servants in her will, she left nothing – not a ring, a book, or a stick of furniture – to her sister.
  2. I think we have heard just about enough about Andrew Jackson Borden already. He was a skinflint, a bully, a tyrant over his cramped castle and the four women who lived there. Just two details will suffice to round out his portrait. One is that the single item of jewelry he ever wore was not a wedding band, but a ring given to him by Lizzie. The photograph of his butchered corpse does not clearly show the ring on his little finger, but he was wearing it that day and was buried with it at Oak Grove Cemetery. Second, on the day of the murders, after Andrew had completed his errands at the local banks and was strolling home for a nap, he stopped to pick up a broken lock he found in the street. He brought it home, set it on the mantel, spoke briefly to his daughter, and stretched his long legs upon the sofa, perhaps planning as he settled into his final sleep how he might repurpose this bit of trash at one of his rental properties, thereby saving himself a few pennies.
  3. Andrew Borden, age 70, received ten or eleven blows, primarily to his face. In the Borden House bed & breakfast, a replica of the sofa where Andrew was killed sits in the parlor; I sat on it, posing for a picture, but did not sprawl out in imitation of Andrew’s death pose, as a Google search shows that others have. My friend slept in Andrew and Abby’s former bedroom. They did not report any signs of his spirit.
  4. This little quatrain was sung by the children of Fall River during Lizzie Borden’s trial and in the following 34 years that she lived in Fall River. As Lizzie spent her father’s money on travel, cars, theater tickets, and parties, the children threw rotten eggs at the front door of Maplecroft. Lizzie doted on her Boston terriers, and scattered seed down the sleeves of her dress so that birds and squirrels would light on her to feed; the children dared each other to ring her doorbell on Halloween. When she died in 1927 at age 66, those children, now adults with their own children, chanted this rhyme. The poem has a little-known second stanza: “Andrew Borden now is dead/ Lizzie hit him on the head./ Up in heaven he will sing,/ on the gallows she will swing.” That verse is wrong, too.

Juliana Gray is the author of three poetry collections, including Honeymoon Palsy (Measure Press 2017). Her nonfiction has appeared in The Hopkins Review, CutBank, and elsewhere, and her humor writing appears irregularly in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.