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Yankee Mystery Files

Did Lizzie Borden Really Take an Ax and Give Her Mother 40 Whacks?

by Edgar Allen Beem

Yankee Classic: August 1992

Photo Credit: Alyson Horrocks

Oak Grove Cemetery sits atop the hill city of Fall River, Massachusetts, like a stony crown. Inconspicuous in this diadem of the dead stands a granite obelisk marked BORDEN, but then there are a host of Bordens among the dead of Fall River. Surrounding the tall memorial stone, however, are low stone markers designating individual graves. Upon one of them is the name LISBETH, and beneath this stone lie the remains of Fall River's most infamous native — Lizzie Borden.

There are six bodies laid out in the Borden family plot — Lizzie, her sisters Emma and Alice, her mother Sarah, her father Andrew, and her stepmother Abby. Lizzie's feet are at the heads of her father and stepmother or where their heads would be if someone hadn't butchered them both with an ax on the scorching hot morning of Thursday, August 4, 1892.

Lizzie Borden was arrested and tried for these brutal murders, but popular history forgets that she was acquitted. The violent deaths of Andrew and Abby Borden remain unsolved, and a century after the bloody event, the Borden murders have passed out of the annals of crime into the realm of folklore. Buried here at Oak Grove is the dark heart of an American myth.

Fifty years ago Robert Flynn used to cut through Oak Grove Cemetery on his way to high school football games and stop by the unquiet Borden grave, wondering what really happened. The son and grandson of Irish-American textile workers who labored in the Fall River cotton mills, he was raised believing that Lizzie Borden had gotten away with murder. Indeed, the judgment on Lizzie tended to follow class lines with the Irish and Portuguese working people of the city convinced of her guilt, while the Yankee proprietors on the hill kept their own counsel.

"It was always very hush-hush," says Flynn. "It was never talked about in school. Only in the last couple of years have things opened up a bit."

And Flynn has been one of those who has helped open things up. Since retiring as an oil company executive, he has assembled one of the foremost collections of Bordeniana in the country, the arcane treasures of which are housed in the basement den of his Portland, Maine, home. He owns a scrapbook of the Borden case kept by a reporter who covered the trial in 1893 and a rare century-old first edition of Fall River Globe police reporter Edwin H. Porter's The Fall River Tragedy.

Many believe that when Porter's book came out, Lizzie Borden bought up all but a handful of copies. So rarely do copies appear that Flynn searched for ten years before finding one for $350 in 1985. Flynn then republished it in a facsimile edition under his own King Philip Publishing Company imprint, named for Flynn's boyhood Fall River street.

Since reissuing the Porter book, Flynn has also reprinted a curious little 1893 monograph entitled The Mystery Unveiled and a 1941 treatise The Borden Murder Mystery: In Defense of Lizzie Borden by Arthur S. Phillips. Phillips was a member of Lizzie Borden's defense team and the last living participant in the Borden trial.

For the Borden centennial, Flynn has used his own extensive collection to publish The Borden Murders: An Annotated Bibliography, a sourcebook listing 228 books, plays, films, recordings, operas, ballets, essays, and articles about the case. Here one finds the 1961 hit song, "You Can't Chop Your Papa Up in Massachusetts," by the Chad Mitchell Trio alongside Agnes De Mille's 1948 Fall River Legend, a ballet that concluded with Lizzie being hanged.

Please Note: This article was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Reader Comments

Comment from on September 27, 2012

You can visit the Lizzie Borden House. It is a bed and breakfast now, and a really fun tour.

Comment from on September 27, 2012

Here's the link to the Lizzie Borden B&B.

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