American alleged murderess Lizzie Borden (1860-1927) is claimed to have murdered her father and stepmother at the family's home in Fall River, Massachusetts, on August 4, 1892.
The crime, gruesome and undoubtedly sensational, spawned a trial that became a landmark in the annals of American crime and in the development of the American mass media. Borden's possible involvement in the murders was one of the first celebrated cases investigated with the help of modern forensic methods, and the trial brought the idea of the expert witness to the forefront in American jurisprudence. The murders remain one of history's great unsolved mysteries; Borden was acquitted of the crime, and debate over who killed Andrew J. Borden and Abby Durfee Gray Borden generated a vein of publishing activity that has proven enduringly profitable. That debate continues to this day, with modern writers attempting to explain the case by reference to child sexual abuse and other factors whose importance has only recently been clarified. “Lizzie Borden took an ax/ And gave her mother forty whacks,” runs a nursery rhyme nearly universally known among Americans. “When she saw what she had done/ She gave her father forty-one.” But the truth of the matter remains unknown.
Raised in Skinflint Household
Lizzie Andrew Borden (christened Lizzie, not Elizabeth), was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, on July 19, 1860, and lived in that city all her life. She was distantly related to the dairy-producing Borden family. Her mother, Sarah, died in 1862, whereupon her father, Andrew Borden, wed the never-married 38-year-old Abby Durfee Gray. Lizzie's older sister, Emma, did not accept her new stepmother, referring to her disrespectfully as Abby, and the tension soon transferred itself to Lizzie. There were other sources of tension in the household as well: though Andrew Borden was a wealthy man who had invested successfully in banks, cotton farms, and real estate, he was a miser who sold eggs from a basket to his business associates and refused to install running water in the family's Second Street home. Lizzie grew up with a slop pail and chamber pot in her bedroom— a fact that would prove significant in her eventual trial.
Neither Lizzie nor Emma Borden ever married. Lizzie graduated from a public high school in Fall River, and became involved with a variety of organizations consistent with the image expected of a young woman from a well-off family in a small New England city. She was a member in good standing of Central Congregational Church, where she taught Sunday school. Serving as secretary-treasurer of the Christian Endeavor Society, she was also active in the proProhibition Women's Christian Temperance Union and in the antipoverty Fruit and Flower League. Both Lizzie and Emma lived at home, and in outward appearance Lizzie was an admirable and always composed young woman devoted to good works.
At home, though, the family dynamics steadily worsened. In 1887 Andrew Borden, who had wide real estate holdings, transferred ownership of a rental home he owned to Abby. The two daughters insisted that they should receive gifts of equal value. Andrew agreed, giving each daughter a $1,500 house, but the situation continued to fester. For Lizzie, everything given to Abby represented a diminution in her own inheritance, for the two sisters had never gotten along with their stepmother. Lizzie and Emma began to call Abby “Mrs. Borden” and to refuse to participate in family dinners—the household staff had to lay out two sets of place settings for each meal. In 1891 jewelry and cash disappeared from Andrew and Abby's master bedroom; the family went through the motions of a police investigation, although it was clear that Lizzie was the culprit.
After that, tensions began an increase toward the breaking point. “ Everybody quietly bought lots of locks,” noted Florence King in an article the National Review. “To supplement the key locks, there were bolts, hooks, chains, and padlocks.” Abby locked and bolted the door that ran between her bedroom and Lizzie's (the labyrinthine house, today a bed-and-breakfast, had few hallways). Lizzie did the same, and escalated the conflict by pushing a writing desk up against the door. Andrew in turn bought a massive lock, but left the key on the living room mantelpiece, in effect daring Lizzie to steal it. Yet a facade of harmony was maintained at all times. Bridget Sullivan, the family's new Irish maid, later testified at Lizzie's trial that she never heard raised voices in the Borden household.
Tried to Purchase Poison
The summer of 1892 was a hot one (although the temperature during Lizzie Borden's fateful week has been a matter of dispute among researchers), and at the end of July both Borden sisters left Fall River: Emma went to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, while Lizzie went with some friends to a beach house on Buzzards Bay on the Massachusetts coast. While there, she tried to buy prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) from a pharmacy, claiming that she wanted to use it to kill bugs that had infested a fur coat. Such behavior in midsummer attracted attention, and the druggist told her that the poison would be available only with a doctor's prescription.
Back in Fall River, Lizzie got wind of another major property transfer on Andrew's part: this time a farm was being put in his wife's name, and John Morse, the brother of Andrew's first wife, was to be installed as caretaker. Lizzie told a friend named Alice Russell that her father's ruthless business ways had left him with many enemies, and that she had a feeling something terrible was about to happen to him. Several members of the household, including Lizzie, became ill on the evening of August 3, and Andrew raised the possibility that they had been poisoned. On August 4, Andrew, Abby, and John Morse sat down to a breakfast of mutton soup, sliced mutton, pancakes, bananas, pears, cookies, and coffee, after which Morse and Andrew Borden departed. Abby sent Bridget outside to wash windows in the summer heat. Andrew returned home at about 10:40 a.m. for lunch.
Shortly after that, Bridget, whom Lizzie called Maggie, was resting after her exertions with the windows. “Maggie! Come down quick! Father's dead,” she heard Lizzie cry out (according to her often-reproduced court testimony). “Somebody came in and killed him.” Andrew had been hit, not 41 but 11 times with a heavy object, apparently an ax, and his head was mangled almost beyond recognition, with an eye and a tooth both split in two. Soon a neighbor made another gruesome discovery: the body of Abby was in an upstairs bedroom, in similar condition. Police summoned to the scene found no sign of forced entry. They concluded that Abby had been killed about an hour and a half before Andrew, a determination that has also been disputed. Questioned as to her whereabouts, Lizzie, who had no blood on her clothing or body, said that she had been in the barn behind the house, looking for lead weights to use as part of an upcoming fishing expedition.
The initial suspect was a Portuguese-born laborer who had wrangled with Andrew Borden over payment for a job and had visited the Borden home on the morning of the murders. Three days later, according to Russell's testimony before a grand jury in November, Lizzie burned a blue cotton dress in the kitchen stove, claiming she had ruined it by brushing up against some fresh paint. Police were skeptical of Lizzie's story, inasmuch as it would have required a killer other than Lizzie to remain inside the house or in the near vicinity for nearly two hours without being noticed, and a week later, after police remained unsatisfied with her answers to several questions at an inquest, she was arrested and charged with the double homicide. She awaited trial in jail for almost a year as police searched for a murder weapon and other evidence, and while prosecutors built a case against her.
Benefited from Well-Known Defender
The Borden murders were among America's first crimes to play out under the glare of the mass media. The case was covered extensively by New York's strenuously competing newspapers, and Lizzie Borden granted interviews in which she tried to influence public opinion. To forestall the impression that she seemed emotionless in the face of her parents' deaths, she told the New York Recorder (as quoted by King), “They say I don't show any grief. Certainly I don't in public. I never did reveal my feelings and I cannot change my nature now.” When her trial finally began, on June 5, 1893, Borden had a celebrity attorney in her corner: former Massachusetts governor George Robinson. One of the prosecutors, Frank Moody, was a future U.S. attorney general.
The case against Borden seemed strong, but it was entirely circumstantial. No witness could testify to direct knowledge of her involvement, and no murder weapon was ever definitively located. An ax head, found without its handle in the Borden home's basement, was linked by an expert witness, a Harvard University professor, who testified that it matched the wounds inflicted on Andrew and Abby. No blood was found on the blade. It seemed possible that Borden, who was menstruating at the time of the murders, could have cleaned it off (and also cleaned her own hands and face) with one of the cloths that women of the time used as sanitary napkins; blood is much easier to remove from metal than from fabric. The cloth she used would then have blended in with those she had already accumulated over the course of her menstrual period when all were thrown in a bucket.
The all-male jury began its deliberations on June 20, and after an hour and a half it returned with a verdict of not guilty. Newspapers of the time generally praised the verdict and the painstaking cross-examinations that led to it, but a preponderance of later evaluations has concluded that Borden was the murderess. The view is far from unanimous, however, with other studies advancing Morse as the culprit; or other townspeople; or an illegitimate son of Andrew Borden; or that perhaps Bridget Sullivan, angered at having to wash windows on the hottest day of the year, did the deed. Lizzie's possible motive has also been dissected, with a group of modern commentators suggesting that the killing might not have been linked to money. Brown University psychiatry professor Eileen McNamara argued that incest could have played a role; it would explain both the family's fixation on locked doors and the extreme violence of the attacks—the first few ax blows were sufficient to kill each of the Bordens, but whoever killed them continued to swing the ax long past the point of death. “When an offspring kills a parent, there is usually a pattern of psychological, physical or sexual abuse,” psychologist Steven Kane told Jo Ann Tooley of U.S. News & World Report.
Lizzie Borden, using the new name of Lizbeth, continued to live in Fall River after the trial's conclusion. She and Emma bought a substantial hilltop house they called Maplecroft; they were ostracized by many Fall River citizens, but opened their home to artists and traveling actors. Lizzie may have carried on a lesbian relationship with an actress named Nance O'Neill; a letter she wrote to O'Neill (quoted by King) read, “I dreamed of you the other night but I do not dare to put my dreams on paper.” Author Evan Hunter has advanced the theory that the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget Sullivan was sexual, and that the murders resulted from Abby's discovery of the situation. Emma moved out of Maplecroft in 1905, and Lizzie lived there alone until her death from pneumonia on June 1, 1927. She left $30,000 in cash to the Animal Rescue League. An enormous variety of popular cultural treatments of Lizzie Borden remained unabated as of 2007, when New York actress Jill Dalton premiered her onewoman show, Lizzie Borden Live.
Kent, David, ed., with Robert A. Flynn, The Lizzie Borden Sourcebook, Branden Publishing Co., 1992.
Masterton, William L., Lizzie Didn't Do It!, Branden Publishing Co., 2000.
Outlaws, Mobsters & Crooks: From the Old West to the Internet. Vol. 5. U*X*L, 2002.
Spiering, Frank, Lizzie, Random House, 1984.
Contemporary Review, December 1992.
National Review, August 17, 1992.
U.S. News & World Report, August 3, 1992.
“The Trial of Lizzie Borden,” Famous Trials, http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/LizzieBorden/bordenhome.html (January 29, 2008).
Born July 19, 1860 (Fall River, Massachusetts)
Died June 2, 1927 (Fall River, Massachusetts)
Lizzie Borden was accused in the gruesome double homicide of her father and stepmother in 1892. The violent nature of the murders and the gender of the accused killer made the case a national sensation. The trial had all the elements of a media drama, ensuring the high profile case a place in American legal legend and folklore. Most people in the late nineteenth century could not accept that a woman from a socially prominent family might be capable of such a crime. The matter was settled in the court of public opinion long before it ever went to trial. Numerous books, plays, and movies have been devoted to the murders. More than a century after the Borden trial, the case remains one of the most notorious in American history.
"Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one."
A children's rhyme
Fall River home
Lizbeth Andrew "Lizzie" Borden was born in 1860 to Sarah Anthony Morse and Andrew Jackson Borden, a decade after her sister Emma. Lizzie's mother died when Lizzie was two years old and her father married Abby Durfee Gray two years later. The family lived in a house on 92 Second Street in Fall
River, Massachusetts. Fall River was a country town that had grown into an industrial city by the 1890s.
Lizzie's father had started his career as a fish peddler but worked his way up in the community until he was a successful businessman and landlord. Although wealthy, Andrew Borden kept the modest house on Second Street he had purchased with his first wife. He did not even add the modern comforts of plumbing and electric or gas lighting as they became available. Originally built as a two family home, the narrow two and a half story house used two sets of stairs to get to the upstairs bedrooms. The Bordens used stairs off the kitchen and Lizzie, Emma, and any guests used stairs off the front entrance. After a daytime robbery of jewelry and cash, her stepmother and father suspected Lizzie, who had a history of shoplifting. They installed a series of locks and bars throughout the house. By the time Lizzie was in her early twenties, the tension between the girls and their stepmother had grown. The addition of further locks separated both home and family.
On August 4, 1892, Lizzie's uncle, John Morse, was in Fall River on business and he and Lizzie's father left the house early that morning. Lizzie's stepmother Abby was cleaning the second-floor guest room at around nine-thirty in the morning when she was struck from behind with a sharp instrument. The weapon, most likely a hatchet, hit her head and back nineteen times in all.
Andrew returned home over an hour later, found the doors locked from within, and rang the doorbell impatiently. Bridget "Maggie" Sullivan, the family maid, rushed to unbolt the door and let him in. Lizzie descended the stairs by the front entrance and greeted her father, telling him Abby had received a message and was not at home.
Andrew took the kitchen stairs to his bedroom before returning to the living room for his customary noon nap on the sofa. Minutes later the same weapon used on Abby delivered nearly a dozen blows to the man's face. Lizzie found her father and screamed for Maggie to come help. She then sent Maggie across the street to get family friend and physician Dr. Seabury Bowen.
When Dr. Bowen arrived, he confirmed Andrew Borden was dead and noted there had been no sign of a struggle. When the question of informing Mrs. Borden of the murder was raised, Lizzie said she thought she had heard Abby come in earlier. A check of the house revealed Abby's body upstairs and the police were notified of both murders.
A good daughter
Within a week it became evident that Lizzie Borden was a suspect in the murder of her father and stepmother. An inquest was held in which Lizzie contradicted herself and other
witnesses repeatedly. The town began to gossip about the family's problems, which were confirmed by a statement from Andrew's sister and brother-in-law, the Harringtons. They said money was a key issue of bitterness within the family. They believed intense jealousy was created when the usually stingy Andrew Borden gave gifts of property to Abby's family.
Lizzie was arrested on August 11 and entered a plea of not guilty the next day. When a preliminary hearing was held on August 22 the judge ruled probable cause existed to try Lizzie for murder. In November her case went before the Bristol County grand jury (a panel of citizens who determine if enough evidence exists to warrant a trial), who voted to indict (formally charge a person suspected of committing a crime) and Lizzie was formally charged with murder on December 2, 1892.
William H. Moody
William H. Moody (1853–1917) graduated from Harvard College in 1876 and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1878. He practiced law in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and soon became interested in politics. Moody was appointed U.S. district attorney for the state's Eastern District in 1890. This led to his being a part of the team prosecuting the high profile Lizzie Borden murder case in 1893. Although Borden was acquitted, Moody's courtroom skills were recognized by leading Republicans of the day. He eventually served in Congress and the cabinet before being elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court as an associate justice.
President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–09) named Moody secretary of the navy in 1902. In this position he was responsible for the build up and readiness of the naval fleet. In 1904 Moody was appointed U.S. attorney general, where he became one of Roosevelt's closest advisors on domestic issues.
In 1906 Roosevelt nominated Moody to the Supreme Court of the United States, and Moody was sworn in on December 17, 1906. He developed a crippling form of rheumatism (disease affecting muscles, nerves, and joints) and was forced to retire from the Court four years later after a full life of public service.
The Borden trial was the media sensation of the year when it began June 5, 1893, at the New Bedford Court House in Massachusetts. Newspaper coverage surpassed that given to the Chicago World's Fair, which was going on at the same time. Most newspapers thought Lizzie was innocent and they publicly condemned the judicial system for putting her through such an ordeal after suffering such a personal loss.
The town of Fall River, however, was divided. Those in Lizzie's social circle defended her innocence while many in the working class were convinced of her guilt. George D. Robinson, a popular former Massachusetts governor who had served three terms in the state capital, headed Lizzie's defense team. The prosecutorial team was impressive and included the district attorney for the state's Eastern District, William H. Moody (see sidebar).
Her day in court
Moody gave a persuasive opening argument. He emphasized the resentments inside the Borden home as well as the vast inheritance Lizzie and Emma stood to gain. He noted motive and opportunity and stressed the absence of forced entry or burglary in the tightly secured home. Moody questioned Lizzie's alibi of being alone in the barn for the crucial few minutes when Andrew was attacked.
The other suspects considered in the case had other people to verify their whereabouts. Since Abby had died more than an hour before Andrew, Lizzie's story about Abby's leaving and returning home seemed to be a blatant lie. The state's case was strengthened when it was discovered Lizzie had destroyed the dress she was wearing the day of the murders. She was seen burning the dress in the kitchen wood stove three days later, claiming it was covered with paint. Also, witnesses testified that the day before the murders Lizzie visited a drug store in Fall River, where she attempted to purchase a poison, prussic acid. She explained that she needed the acid to clean a sealskin cape. The druggist refused to sell the prussic acid. Dr. Bowen, who had been called to the house August 3, said Abby and Andrew complained of stomach sickness and Abby suggested they had been poisoned.
The defense team managed to get Lizzie's contradictory testimony to investigators excluded from the trial. Her attorneys pointed to a lack of blood evidence and to Lizzie's prominent position in the community. They also succeeded in excluding testimony that Lizzie had tried to purchase a deadly poison the day before the murders.
The defense was helped by contradictory testimony about the murder weapon, and the media continued its favorable press toward Lizzie. The defense and the media both stressed that a murder this brutal and violent could not have been done by a gentle lady such as Lizzie. One day in court even, during discussion of the brutality of the murders, Lizzie fainted—the defense said due to her frail nature. When the jury went to deliberations on June 20 little doubt existed as to what the outcome would be. Massachusetts law at the time said that premeditated murder was a capital offense, condemning the offender to the gallows for hanging. The jury met for one hour before returning with a not guilty verdict.
The courtroom erupted in wild cheering and thousands of well-wishers gathered to congratulate Lizzie on her acquittal. She soon took advantage of her newfound wealth to travel. She and Emma purchased a new home they called "Maplecroft." Not long after the trial, doubt began to grow in Fall River. People questioned whether Lizzie, now going by Lizbeth, had gotten away with murder.
By 1915 she was totally shunned by her community and estranged from her sister Emma, her most loyal defender. Lizzie Borden died in 1927 at the age of sixty-seven, from complications of pneumonia. She was buried, at her request, next to her father in the family plot at Oak Grove Cemetery in Fall River.
For More Information
Hixson, Walter L. Murder, Culture and Injustice: Four Sensational Cases inAmerican History. Akron, OH: The University of Akron Press, 2001.
Porter, Edwin H. The Fall River Tragedy: A History of the Borden Murders. Portland, ME: King Philip Publishing Company, 1985.
The Supreme Court of the United States: Its Beginnings and Its Justices—1790–1991. Washington, DC: Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution, 1992.
"The Trial of Lizzie Borden: A Chronology." University of Missouri.http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/LizzieBorden/bordenchrono.html (accessed on August 15, 2004).
Nationality: American. Born: Detroit, 3 February 1958. Education: B.F.A., Wellesley College. Career: 1973–75—after college graduation, wrote art criticism for several journals before deciding on a career in film; 1988—directed Monsters television series. Address: c/o Weissman and Wolff, 9665 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90212, U.S.A.
Films as Director:
Born in Flames (+ pr)
Working Girls (+ pr, sc)
Love Crimes (+pr)
"Let's Talk about Sex" segment of Erotique (+sc)
"Bad Girl" episode of Alex Mack (for TV)
By BORDEN: articles—
"Lizzie Borden: Artist and Art Critic," interview with Ariel Bock, Marion Cajori, and Kathleen Mooney, in Interviews with Womenin the Arts (New York), Part 1, 1974.
"An Interview with Filmmaker Lizzie Borden," interview with Anne Friedberg, in Women and Performance (New York), 1984.
"Labor Relations," interview with Lynne Jackson, in Cineaste (New York), 1987.
"Interview with Lizzie Borden," interview with Scott MacDonald, in Feminist Studies (New York), Summer, 1989.
On BORDEN: books—
Todd, Janet, Women and Film, New York, 1988.
MacDonald, Scott, A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with IndependentFilmmakers, Berkeley, California, 1992.
Cole, Janis, and Holly Dale, Calling the Shots: Profiles of WomenFilmmakers, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 1993.
On BORDEN: articles—
Maslin, Janet, "Born in Flames: Radical Feminist Ideas," in NewYork Times, 10 November 1983.
Hall, Carla, "Shadows & Art at the Fringe: Lizzie Borden and Her Unconventional Working Girls," in Washington Post, 22 March 1987.
Maslin, Janet, "Trying to Set a Trap for a Serial Rapist," in New YorkTimes, 26 January 1992.
Thomas, Kevin, "Erotique: Sexy Tales from Three Female Filmmakers," in Los Angeles Times, 20 January 1995.
* * *
While growing up in Detroit, Linda Elizabeth Borden got used to being called "Lizzie" by her friends, in reference to the alleged axmurderer of nineteenth-century Massachusetts. When, as a young adult, she decided on a career in film, Borden concluded that adopting the infamous nickname would help her to be noticed. She need not have worried—Lizzie Borden's efforts as a screenwriter, producer, and director have brought her considerable attention, and no small amount of acclaim.
Borden's first film was Born in Flames, which was, literally, years in the making. For a novice filmmaker like Borden, raising money posed a serious problem, and her best efforts resulted in her film being made on a shoestring budget of only $30,000. Born in Flames was finally finished in 1983, with Borden serving as director, producer, and screenwriter—although the script was revised in collaboration with the actors (nonprofessionals all) who appeared in the film.
Born in Flames takes place in the near future, ten years after a socialist revolution has swept America. But what was promised to be a utopia of gender equality and inclusion has started to revert to the old formula of male supremacy. In response, groups of women come together to resist the new brand of oppression. Although the women learn to work together, the film does not homogenize them by ignoring differences in race, class, or sexual orientation. The rebel women do not achieve unity by sublimating their differences, but by acknowledging them and forging cooperation in the heat of their own passions. Born in Flames became an immediate feminist classic, although not all feminists appreciated the implicit criticisms (such as elitism and insensitivity) that Borden levels at the women's movement through her film.
Three years later saw the release of Working Girls, Borden's unsentimental look at prostitution. Shot in pseudo-documentary style, the film follows one group of "working girls" as they put in a long (18 hours) shift at the Midtown Manhattan condo that serves as a bordello. One might expect a feminist's film about prostitution to be a strident denunciation of the "profession" and the exploitative patriarchy that evokes it, but Borden's message is more complex. While working on the script, she spent considerable time with members of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), an organization of current and former prostitutes who lobby on behalf of the oldest profession and its practitioners. These contacts influenced Borden's perspective in a major way.
Borden does not glamorize prostitution—her film is not remotely like Pretty Woman—but neither is it a feminist jeremiad. The title that Borden chose is revealing. Working Girls portrays prostitution as a job—often tedious, sometimes depressing, occasionally interesting or funny. The main character, Molly, has a degree from Yale and is a lesbian in her private life. The other "girls" in the film also fail to conform to Hollywood stereotypes.
Lizzie Borden's next film, Love Crimes, was both her most "mainstream," and, for many critics, her least successful. Miramax Films gave Borden a bigger budget (about $7 million) than she had ever worked with before, but also took away much of Borden's control over the final product. The studio even cut out the ending that Borden shot, and substituted its own.
The plot of Love Crimes concerns a female assistant district attorney (played by Sean Young) who goes after a male photographer who pressures unsuspecting young women into posing for sexually explicit photos, then uses the pictures as leverage to extort sexual favors. After her sister falls victim to this ploy, Young's character goes under cover to trap this rapist, but finds herself responding sexually to the man's personality.
The film raises interesting questions about pornography, voyeurism, and sexual dominance/submission, but ultimately answers none of them. In the end, the film proved too "kinky" for mainstream audiences, but too conventional for Borden's usual fans.
Her next project after Love Crimes was "Let's Talk about Sex," a segment of the 1994 anthology film Erotique, which finds a female phone-sex operator developing a fascination for her most regular customer; she eventually decides to extend the relationship beyond the telephone. More recently, Borden has directed television episodes for such pay-TV venues as Showtime and the Playboy Channel.
The trial of Lizzie Borden shows the effect that public opinion can have on the life of an accused person, regardless of the outcome of a fair trial.
Lizzie Borden was born July 19, 1860. She was a plain, outspoken woman who lived with her father, stepmother, and sister in a house on Second Street in Fall River, a small industrial city located in southeastern Massachusetts.
According to local rumors, the Borden family was not noted for its harmonious relationships. Andrew Borden was a quiet, unpleasant man who had two daughters, Lizzie and Emma, by a previous marriage, and who had married his present wife in 1865. Neither Lizzie nor Emma favored the union and animosity existed among the three Borden women.
On August 4, 1892, the residents of Fall River were shocked and frightened by the brutal ax murders of Andrew Borden and his wife. The killings were committed at the Borden home in daylight. Emma Borden was out of town, but Lizzie discovered her father's body on the couch in the living room; she immediately sent a servant, Bridget, for help. Upon their return, Bridget and a neighbor found the body of Lizzie's stepmother in an upstairs bedroom.
The town was in an uproar and the newspapers seized the opportunity to sensationalize an already lurid story. Lizzie became the prime suspect, and throughout Fall River, speculation spread about her actions on that fatal day, suggesting that Lizzie attacked her stepmother and afterward carefully cleaned the ax and changed her clothes. She then did her normal housework until her father returned from town to take a nap on the couch. While he slept, Lizzie killed him, and again cleaned the ax and her clothing. Chemical tests did not provide any substantial evidence because the alleged murder weapon, the ax, was cleaned so thoroughly.
The story of the murders was embellished with continued fragmented reports of Lizzie's behavior. One source claimed that Lizzie was devoid of any emotion when the corpses were found; another witnessed Lizzie in the act of burning a dress shortly after the murders were committed; still another stated that the suspect had attempted to purchase poison as recently as one day before the killings. The condemning public showed Lizzie no mercy, and some unknown rhymer composed a grotesque verse relating the events. The still familiar rhyme reads as follows:
Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.
An inquest was held five days after the discovery of the murders, and Lizzie was subsequently arrested. The trial began in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in June 1893, and lasted thirteen days. Those days were filled with contradictory
accounts of the crime, but the main point of contention concerned Lizzie's assertion that she was in the barn at the time the murders were committed, between 11:00 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. An ice cream vendor corroborated Lizzie's story by testifying that he had seen the defendant leaving the barn at the aforementioned time. The defense attorney argued brilliantly on his client's behalf—the evidence was mostly circumstantial—and the jury found Lizzie Borden not guilty of the murder of her parents.
Lizzie Borden was acquitted by the jury but not by the public. After her death on June 1, 1927, in Fall River, she was still not exonerated in the public mind; she is famous only in connection with the bloody events of August 4, 1892.
Hoffman, Paul Dennis. 2000. Yesterday in Old Fall River: A Lizzie Borden Companion. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press.
Masterton, William L. 2000. Lizzie Didn't Do It! Boston: Branden.
Ortiz, Catalina. 1997. "Defense Has the Edge: New Trial, Same Verdict: Lizzie Borden 'No Murderer.'" Chicago Daily Law Bulletin 143 (September 17).
Robertson, Cara W. 1996. "Representing "Miss Lizzie": Cultural Convictions in the Trial of Lizzie Borden." Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 8 (summer): 351–416.