Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks ... or did she? (Spoiler alert: Not quite.) Everyone knows the old rhyme and the horrifying murders that inspired it, but to this day, no one really knows what happened on that fateful morning at the Borden House. After Lizzie’s acquittal, the murders were never officially solved; experts still debate whether the culprit was Lizzie, the maid, the uncle, someone who had business dealings with Andrew Borden, or a completely random attacker.
Well over a century later, plenty of people are still fascinated by Lizzie’s legend—but how much of it is true? Here are the facts behind the whacks.
1. Lizzie Borden didn’t give anyone “forty whacks.”
First, a little Borden background: In 1892, the year of the murders, 32-year-old Lizzie Borden and her older sister Emma lived in a house on Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, with their father, Andrew, and stepmother, Abby. (Their biological mother, Sarah Borden, had died when Lizzie was 2 years old.)
The sisters lived relatively quiet lives, attending church regularly and helping their father with his business. Neither ever married. Although there were reports of mild discontent in the household—for example, the sisters didn’t get along with their stepmother, and were frustrated by the fact that their wealthy father wouldn't move them to a more well-to-do part of town (among other things)—there was nothing to foreshadow the horror that would come to pass.
On August 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found murdered in the home, the victims of multiple blows from a weapon. But while the attacks were horrific—there’s no disputing that the number of times the murderer “whacked” each victim was excessive—neither of them was hit 40 times, as the rhyme goes. (“Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.”)
The facts are that Abby Borden suffered something like 18 blows and Andrew Borden was dealt 11; in addition, contemporary accounts distinguish between hatchets and axes, and say the murder weapon was likely a hatchet.
2. The Bordens’ actual skulls appeared in the courtroom during Lizzie’s trial.
Aside from the Bordens’ maid, Bridget, Lizzie was the only one in the home when her parents were found dead; that, coupled with her odd behavior after the murders, caused authorities to believe she had done the deed. She was arrested on August 11.
The trial, which began in June 1893, made headlines around the U.S. On the second day, Borden fainted when the District Attorney brought out the Bordens' skulls during his opening remarks. Later in the trial, the prosecution demonstrated for the jury how a hatchet blade found in the basement fit neatly into the holes in the smashed-up skulls, though they never explicitly said that the implement was the murder weapon (which most Borden scholars today doubt it was).
3. After she was acquitted, Lizzie Borden and her sister inherited a fortune.
You might think the sisters would be eager to get out of town after the trial, but they stayed put, and even purchased a 14-room mansion (which was eventually named Maplecroft) on French Street in Fall River’s best neighborhood. But Lizzie couldn’t pick up again as if nothing had happened; she was essentially shunned by society and mostly kept to herself.
4. Borden changed her name from Lizzie to Lizbeth.
Perhaps wanting to distance herself from the whole sordid affair, or wanting to appear more sophisticated to match her newfound wealth, Borden changed her name in 1905. Most locals still called her Lizzie, but it was “Lizbeth” that was inscribed on her tombstone.
5. Lizzie Borden had a relationship with a famous actress.
With her fortune, Borden regularly went to the theatre in New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., and socialized with newfound friends who were no doubt intrigued by her notoriety. One new acquaintance was Nance O’Neil, an actress so talented that critics called her “the American Bernhardt.” The inseparable duo was rumored to have been romantically involved; eventually, Emma Borden moved out of their home and refused to speak to her sister for the rest of her life over “the happenings at the French Street house.”
6. Lizzie Borden was eventually buried with Abby and Andrew.
Almost two years after the murders, Lizzie and Emma purchased a 9-foot family headstone made of blue granite for a whopping $2124 (more than $60,000 today.) When the stone was being installed, the Borden sisters came to the cemetery to inspect it, “They alighted to view the work, Lizzie glancing at the stone, and immediately reentered the carriage,” The Fall River Daily Herald reported. “Emma viewed it critically, gave directions to the workman, and soon rejoined her sister in the carriage, leaving the cemetery at once.”
When estranged sisters Emma and Lizzie died just nine days apart in 1927, they were buried in the family plot with Andrew, Abby, their mother Sarah, and a third sister named Alice who had died as an infant.
7. In her will, Lizzie Borden left a large sum of money to a surprising beneficiary.
Upon her death in 1927, Lizzie bequeathed funds to the local Animal Rescue League. This was probably surprising to some Fall River residents, because even during the trial there were rumors that young Lizzie had been cruel to animals. A woman from a neighboring town told specific stories about how Lizzie killed kittens and robins simply because she liked to hold funerals. There’s no evidence of any of this, but it’s an irrefutable fact that she made sure to care for animals in her will, which read: “To the Animal Rescue League of said Fall River the sum of thirty thousand dollars, also my shares of stock in the Stevens Manufacturing Company. I have been fond of animals and their need is great and there are so few who care for them.” The Fall River ARL continues to financially benefit from those shares even today.
8. Elizabeth Montgomery, who would later play Lizzie Borden, was also related to her.
The most infamous chapter of Lizzie Borden’s life has been well represented on stage and screen. One of the most popular adaptations was the 1975 made-for-TV series The Legend of Lizzie Borden, starring Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery. Genealogy Magazine was later able to trace family lineage to show that Elizabeth was actually Lizzie’s sixth cousin, once removed. Their common ancestor was a 17th-century Massachusetts citizen named John Luther.
9. Christina Ricci played a reimagined version of Lizzie Borden.
In 2014, Christina Ricci played Lizzie in the Lifetime movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax that was followed by The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, an eight-episode series that imagined what Lizzie’s life would have been like if she did, in fact, commit the murders—and then went on to commit a whole lot more.
10. The infamous Borden House was recently sold—and history buffs are worried.
Since 2004, the home has operated as a bed and breakfast, allowing patrons to stay in the very bedroom where Abby Borden met her grisly end. But a few months ago, the house on Second Street in Fall River was sold to Lance Zaal, an entrepreneur who owns a company called U.S. Ghost Adventures. His plans include hosting hatchet-throwing contests in the parking lot, murder mystery events, and paranormal teams. All of this, of course, has history buffs concerned about preserving the site. Only time will tell if authenticity will get the axe.
11. The Lizzie Borden rock opera could be coming to a theatre near you.
Lizzie: The Musical has been in production since 2009. According to its website, the musical is “set to a blistering rock score with a sound owing less to Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber than to Bikini Kill, the Runaways, and Heart,” and explores the secrets that were coming to a head in the Borden household before the murders. It continues to be performed by both professional and amateur companies across the country, so if you’re a Lizzie fan, beware: Her axe could be swinging in your town soon.