Lizzie Borden’s Irish maid witnessed 19th century's most famous murders

The violent acts of Lizzie Borden were witnessed by her Irish maid.

Almost every schoolchild in America for generations learned the following ditty:

“Lizzie Borden took an axe
and gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father 41”

It commemorates the most infamous double murder of the 19th century and it happened in Fall River, MA, on Aug. 4, 1892. This past weekend a TV movie about the murders attracted huge ratings. It was the OJ and Charles Lindbergh baby trial of its day and an Irish maid was a central figure.

Wealthy businessman Andrew Borden and his wife Abby were murdered by someone unknown, though suspicion fell quickly on his daughter Lizzie, who did not get on with her father’s second wife.

However, in the trial of the century she was cleared. A key witness was Irish maid Bridget Sullivan, part of whose testimony is reproduced here. It also gives an invaluable insight into the lives of Irish domestics at the time.

The facts as they are known are that wealthy Falls River businessman Andrew Borden had breakfast with his wife and made his usual rounds of the bank and post office, returning home about 10:45am. The Bordens' maid, Bridget Sullivan, testified that she was in her third-floor room, resting from cleaning windows, when just before 11:10am. she heard Lizzie call out to her from downstairs, "Maggie, come quick! Father's dead. Somebody came in and killed him." (Sullivan was sometimes called "Maggie", the name of an earlier maid.)

Andrew was slumped on a couch in the downstairs sitting room, struck 10 or 11 times with a hatchet-like weapon. One of his eyeballs had been split cleanly in two, suggesting he had been asleep when attacked. Soon after, as neighbors and doctors tended Lizzie, Sullivan discovered Abby Borden in the upstairs guest bedroom, her skull crushed by 19 blows.

Police found a hatchet in the basement which, though free of blood, was missing most of its handle. Lizzie was arrested on Aug 11, a grand jury began hearing evidence on Nov 7 and indicted her on Dec 2.

She was found not guilty and the murders were never solved.

Bridget eventually moved to Montana and died there aged 66, never again discussing the infamous case. Here is Bridget’s opening testimony:

{There are references in the testimony to people, including herself, feeling sick. Some have speculated that Lizzie tried to poison her parents first through poison in the milk but that did not work.}

“In the household I was sometimes called Maggie, by Miss Emma and Miss Lizzie. I am twenty-six years old, unmarried; have been in this country seven years last May. Was born in Ireland; came first to Newport, Rhode Island. After a year there, went to South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I came to Fall River four years ago; went to work for Mrs. Reed. Had been working for Mr. Borden two years and nine months at the time of his death. There was no other domestic servant, but a man from the farm used to come and do chores; his first name was Alfred; I don't know his other name.

They used to keep a horse in the barn until about a year before Mr. Borden died. After the horse went they didn't use the barn for anything.

My work was washing, ironing and cooking and sweeping. I did not have the care of any of the bedchambers except my own. My room was in the third story, right over Mr. Borden's, and his was over the kitchen.

Q. Who did the chamber work in Mr. Borden's room and Mrs. Borden's?

A. I don't know. Themselves did it. I don't know which of them.

Q. Who took care of the rooms belonging to the daughters?

A. Themselves took care of them, as far as I know.

I remember Mr. Morse (brother of Borden’s first wife) coming to the house sometimes, and staying over night. I saw him after dinner on the Wednesday before the deaths. Mrs. Borden got dinner for him; I washed the dishes. I did not go out that afternoon; I guess I was ironing. Monday was regular washing day. I dried the clothes on Tuesday, that week. Did the washing down cellar in the washroom. I locked the cellar door after I hung out the clothes.

There was no change in that door, down to the time of the murders; so far as I know it stayed bolted. There was more or less traffic on Second Street-folks, carriages and teams. I went up to my room Wednesday afternoon, say about quarter to five. I left the screen door hooked. Mr. and Mrs. Borden were sick on Wednesday morning. I was well until Thursday, when I got up with a headache. When I went to the front door on Wednesday to let Dr. Bowen in, the door was spring-locked; when I went out to my friend's on Third St. that evening, I left the back door locked. I let myself in with a key. The back door had two spring locks and a bolt; I locked all of them when I came in, and hooked the screen door, too. I went to the ice chest, took a glass of milk and went to bed.

The milk was left at the door every morning at five or half-past. I washed a can every day and left it on the doorstep at night; the milkman took that can and left a full one, so there was an exchange of cans everyday.