Almost every schoolchild in America for generations learned the following ditty: “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.”
Editor's note: On September 14, 2018, a new biographical thriller "Lizzie", starring Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, will be released. The movie's plot is based on the true story of Lizzie Borden, who was accused and acquitted of the ax murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892.
Today we take a look back at Borden's Irish maid who witnessed the murders.
"Lizzie Borden had an axe
She gave her mother 40 whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father 41."
The famous rhyme commemorates the most infamous double murder of the 19th century and it happened in Fall River, MA, on Aug. 4, 1892. In 2014, 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 10:45 am. The Bordens' maid, Bridget Sullivan, testified that she was in her third-floor room, resting from cleaning windows, when just before 11:10 am. 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 August 11, a grand jury began hearing evidence on November 7 and indicted her on December 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 overnight. 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 the 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 a 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 every day.
Next morning I felt a dull headache as I got up. I came down at 6:15, went down cellar for wood, started my fire and went down again for coal. Then I unlocked the back door, took in the milk and put out a pan for the iceman, and a pitcher with some water in it. When I went in again, I hooked the screen door. I worked in the kitchen and dining room, getting breakfast, and didn't go in any other rooms.
Mrs. Borden was the first one I see that morning; she gave me orders about breakfast; it was about half-past six.
Mr. Borden came down in about five minutes; he went into the sitting room and put the key of his bedroom on the shelf. He kept it there. He then came out into the kitchen, put on a dressing coat and went outdoors with a slop pail he had brought downstairs. The screen door was locked until he went out.
I was in the kitchen; the windows of the kitchen look out into the backyard. Mr. Borden emptied the slop pail; then he unlocked the barn door and went into the barn. Then he went to the pear tree, picked up a basket of pears and brought them into the house. He washed up in the kitchen and went into breakfast. When I put the breakfast on the table I saw Mr. Morse. For breakfast, there was some mutton, some broth, and johnnycakes, coffee and cookies. The broth was mutton broth.
After they had their breakfast, I ate mine and commenced to clear things up. Then I see Mr. Borden and Mr. Morse going out by the back door. Mr. Borden let him out, came to the sink and cleaned his teeth at the sink, and took a big bowlful of water and took it up to his room. First, he took the key off the shelf in the sitting room.
Five minutes later Miss Lizzie came through to the kitchen. I was washing the dishes and I asked her what did she want for breakfast. She said she didn't know as she wanted any breakfast, but she guessed she would have something, she guessed she would have some coffee and cookies. She got some coffee, and she was preparing to sit down at the kitchen table. I went out in the backyard. I had a sick headache and I was sick to my stomach. I went out to vomit, and I stayed ten or fifteen minutes.
When I came back, I hooked the screen door again. I didn't see Mr. Borden after he went up to his room. I finished my dishes and took them in the dining room. Mrs. Borden was there; she was dusting the door between the sitting room and dining room. She had no covering on her hair. She said she wanted the windows washed, inside and outside both; she said they are awful dirty.
After that, I didn't see Mrs. Borden anymore until I found her dead upstairs.
I didn't see Miss Lizzie anywhere about. I can't say exactly, but I think this was about nine o'clock. Then I cleaned off my stove, went in the dining room and sitting room, shut the windows I was going to wash, and went down cellar and got a pail for to take some water. I didn't see anybody in the rooms. I got a brush in the kitchen closet, filled my pail and took it outdoors.
As I was outside, Lizzie Borden appeared in the back entry, and says, "Maggie, are you going to wash the windows?" I says, "Yes." I says, "You needn't lock the door; I will be out around here; but you can lock it if you want to; I can get the water in the barn." I went to the barn to get the handle for the brush.
First I washed the sitting-room windows-on the south side of the house-the Kelly side. This was away from the screen door. Before I started washing, Mrs. Kelly's girl appeared and I was talking to her at the fence.
Then I washed the parlor windows: the two front windows. Between times I went to the barn and got some water. I washed the dining-room windows and one parlor window on the side. I went to the barn for water twice while I was on the south side of the house-went round by the rear-and went three or four times more while I was working in front or on the other side of the house. Then I went past the screen door to the barn.
During all that time I did not see anybody come to the house.
Then I got a dipper from the kitchen and clean water from the barn, and commenced to wash the sitting-room windows again by throwing water up on them. When I washed these windows, I did not see anyone in the sitting room, and I did not see anyone in the dining room when I washed those windows. I went round the house rinsing the windows with dippers of water.
Then I put the brush handle away in the barn and got the hand basin and went into the sitting room to wash those windows inside. I hooked the screen door when I came in.
I began to wash the window next to the front door. Had not seen anyone since I saw Lizzie at the screen door. Then I heard like a person at the door was trying to unlock the door but could not; so I went to the front door and unlocked it. The spring lock was locked. I unbolted the door and it was locked with a key; there were three locks. I said "pshaw," and Miss Lizzie laughed, upstairs. Her father was out there on the doorstep. She was upstairs.
She must have been either in the entry or at the top of the stairs, I can't tell which. Mr. Borden and I didn't say a word as he came in. I went back to my window washing; he came into the sitting room and went into the dining room. He had a little parcel in his hand, same as a paper or a book. He sat in a chair at the head of the lounge.
Miss Lizzie came downstairs and came through the front entry into the dining room, I suppose to her father. I heard her ask her father if he had any mail, and they had some talk between them which I didn't understand, but I heard her tell her father that Mrs. Borden had a note and had gone out. The next thing I remember, Mr. Borden took a key off the mantelpiece and went up the back stairs. When he came downstairs again, I was finished in the sitting room, and I took my hand basin and stepladder into the dining room. I began to wash the dining-room windows. Then Miss Lizzie brought an ironing board from the kitchen, put it on the dining-room table and commenced to iron. She said, "Maggie, are you going out this afternoon?" I said, "I don't know; I might and I might not; I don't feel very well" She says, "If you go out be sure and lock the door, for Mrs. Borden has gone out on a sick call, and I might go out, too." Says I, "Miss Lizzie, who is sick?" "I don't know; she had a note this morning; it must be in town."
I finished my two windows; she went on ironing. Then I went in the kitchen, washed out my clothes and hung them behind the stove. Miss Lizzie came out there and said, "There is a cheap sale of dress goods at Sergeant's this afternoon, at eight cents a yard." I don't know that she said "this afternoon", but "today".
And I said, "I am going to have one." Then I went upstairs to my room. I don't remember to have heard a sound of anyone about the house, except those I named.
Then I laid down in the bed. I heard the City Hall bell ring and I looked at my clock and it was eleven o'clock. I wasn't drowsing or sleeping. In my judgment, I think I was there three or four minutes. I don't think I went to sleep at all. I heard no sound; I didn't hear the opening or closing of the screen door. I can hear that from my room if anyone is careless and slams the door. The next thing was that Miss Lizzie hollered, "Maggie, come down!" I said, "What is the matter?" She says, "Come down quick; Father's dead; somebody came in and killed him." This might be ten or fifteen minutes after the clock struck eleven, as far as I can judge.
I run downstairs; I hadn't taken off my shoes or any of my clothing.
Q. What was the usual dress that Miss Lizzie Borden wore mornings? Will you describe it?
MR. ROBINSON. Wait a moment; we object to that.
MR. MOODY. Not as having any tendency to show what she had on that morning.
MR. ROBINSON. I object.
MR. MOODY. I don't care to press it against objection.
The WITNESS. Well, she wore a—
MR. ROBINSON and MR. MOODY. Wait a moment.
Q. I will call your attention, not asking you when it was worn or what part of the time it was worn, to a cotton or calico dress with light blue groundwork and a little figure. Does that bring to your mind the dress I am referring to?
A. No sir; it was not a calico dress she was in the habit of wearing.
Q. I did not ask you about the habit, but—
MR. ROBINSON. That should be stricken out.
MR. MOODY. Certainly.
The CHIEF JUSTICE. Let it be stricken out.
Q. Do you remember a dress of such a color with a figure in it?
A. Yes sir.
Q. Will you describe that dress that I have referred to as well as you can?
A. It was a blue dress with a sprig on it.
Q. What was the color of the blue; what was the shade of the blue?
A. Light blue.
Q. And what was the color of what you have called the sprig on it?
A. It was a darker blue, I think, than what the under part was.
Q. Did it have any light spots or light figures in it?
MR. ROBINSON. This is very leading now
A. I don't remember.
MR. ROBINSON. I would like to have the witness describe the dress; she is competent to do that. Was the last question answered?
MR. ROBINSON. I move that that be stricken out.
MR. KNOWLTON. I object. I contend that the question is not leading.
MR. ROBINSON. I understand he does not propose to go any further with it.
MR. MOODY. I do not.
MR. KNOWLTON. That is all-to negative the fact of a white figure in it.
MR. ROBINSON. Well, we will have no talk about it now. Let it stand as it is.
When I got downstairs, I saw Miss Lizzie, standing with her back to the screen door. I went to go right in the sitting room and she says, "Oh, Maggie, don't go in. I have got to have a doctor quick. Go over. I have got to have the doctor." I went over to Dr. Bowen's right away, and when I came back, I says, "Miss Lizzie, where was you?" I says, "Didn't I leave the screen door hooked?" She says, "I was out in the backyard and heard a groan, and came in and the screen door was wide open." She says, "Go and get Miss Russell. I can't be alone in the house." So I got a hat and shawl and went. I had not found Dr. Bowen when I went to his house, but I told Mrs. Bowen that Mr. Borden was dead.
I went to the house, corner of Borden and Second streets, learned that Miss Russell was not there; went to the cottage next the baker shop on Borden Street, and told Miss Russell. Then I came back to the Borden house.
Mrs. Churchill was in the house and Dr. Bowen. No one else, except Miss Lizzie. She was in the kitchen, and Mrs. Churchill and I went into the dining room, and Dr. Bowen came out from the sitting room and said, "He is murdered; he is murdered." And I says, "Oh, Lizzie, if I knew where Mrs. Whitehead was I would go and see if Mrs. Borden was there and tell her that Mr. Borden was very sick." She says, "Maggie, I am almost positive I heard her coming in. Won't you go upstairs to see?" I said, "I am not going upstairs alone."
I had been upstairs already after sheets for Dr. Bowen. He wanted a sheet, and I asked him to get the keys in the sitting room, and Mrs. Churchill and I went up to Mrs. Borden's room and she got two sheets, I guess. Mrs. Whitehead is Mrs. Borden's sister; she lives in Fall River.
Mrs. Churchill said she would go upstairs with me. As I went upstairs, I saw the body under the bed. I ran right into the room and stood at the foot of the bed. The door of the room was open. I did not stop or make any examination. Mrs. Churchill did not go in the room. We came right down. Miss Lizzie was in the dining room, lying on the lounge; Miss Russell was there.
Q. Up to the time when Miss Lizzie Borden told her father and told you in reference to the note, had you heard anything about it from anyone?
A. No sir, I never did.
Q. Let me ask you if anyone to your knowledge came to that house on the morning of August 4th with a message or a note for Mrs. Borden?
A. No sir, I never seen nobody.
* Originally published in 2014.