Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Who hasn't heard the most chilling double dutch rhyme of all time? Yet not many people know that in fact, Lizzie was found innocent of the murders of her parents. The debate of her guilt rages on even today. Even fewer people know that Lizzie was also a closet lesbian and a rather greedy victim of silver spoon syndrome. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, let's go back in time to late 19th century Northeastern America, to the booming shipping coast of Massachusetts ..
Andrew Borden is a proud man. He is the richest man in Fall River, a respected landowner and banker. He had been married once before to Sara Morse, and had three children (although the middle daughter Alice died at the age of two.) The youngest one he named Lizzie Andrew Borden, in homage to himself and his deceased mother. After Sara died, the widower Borden met Abby Gray, a pleasant spinster to whom he immediately felt a common bond. They are married in 1865. Lizzie is 5 years old.
Lizzie is afforded many specialties as one of the wealthier youths in the area - she graduates high school and spends many of her free days working at the library and reading books. In 1887, her father buys a house on nearby Ferry Street and allows Lizzie and her old sister Emma to live there. Rumors spread that the girls had been demanding more money, and that their penny pinching father had refused. Still, Andrew has enough money to send Lizzie to Europe in the summer of 1890 on a 6-country tour.
Now began the first of many twists to the case. Lizzie, upon returning from Europe, switches rooms with Emma, taking the larger one. In June of 1891, while Lizzie, Emma, and new maidservant Bridget Sullivan are at the Borden parents' home, a robber walks into the house and steals various novelties. Although the loss is minimal in dollar value, the doors are equipped with locks shortly afterwards.
John Morse, Sara's brother, visits the house frequently in the fall of 1891. At the same time, Lizzie begins seeing a young man in the neighborhood named Charles Anthony. By August of 1892, Lizzie is sick and tired of being controlled financially by her father and stepmother.
On August 3, John Morse is visiting the family again. Dr. Seabury Bowen, the family doctor and neighbor, tries to visit Borden about an unpaid bill. He is told Andrew is out, and he leaves in a huff. Later that afternoon, both Andrew and Abby complain of sick feelings. Lizzie is sent off to the drugstore to buy medicine. When she sees her high school friend Eli Bince working at the counter, she asks him for a substantial quantity of prussic acid. Eli, knowing this is rat poison, asks her what's the reason for it, and she instead changes her mind when he insists on a prescription note. Later that night, dinner is served, and everyone retires. Bridget slips in from a late-night rendezvous with an unknown suitor.
The next morning, breakfast is served as usual. It is over 100 degrees outside. John Morse departs afterward, led out the door by Bridget, who is feeling ill. Lizzie goes upstairs to freshen up, and returns to find her father has gone down to the bank. It is 9 o'clock in the morning. Sometime between then and 9:30, Abby goes upstairs to change the sheets in their guest bedroom. She is attacked here.
Contrary to the poem, she only received eighteen blows from the axe. Her face is literally crushed to a pulp by the sheer force of the blows. Her skull is split in 6 places. Both of her shoulders are dislocated, and she is disemboweled by a sweeping vertical blow to her front side. Mercifully, the autopsy suggests she is dead by the first or second blow.
Mr. Borden is seen walking home at 10:40. He is let in by Bridget. At this precise moment, a laugh emerges from up the stairs. A soft gasping giggle by none other than Lizzie herself. She comes downstairs, helps her father out of his boots and sits him comfortably in his favorite chair. She tells him that Abby has received word a neighbor was ill and has gone to help. She also tells Bridget there is a sale of cheap cotton downtown. Bridget ignores the tip and goes to her bedroom upstairs. Andrew Borden begins to doze.
Again, the poem exaggerates: Andrew is dispatched with ten swift chops, the first completely cutting an eyeball in half and crushing his skull. Blood splatters on three walls of the room. Later, splinters found at the scene suggest the carnage was only stopped because the murderous axe handle broke.
At 11:15, Lizzie cries out to Bridget: "Come quickly, father is hurt!" The alarm quickly spreads to the local constabulary, who come to investigate. Bridget announces that she is going to head to Mrs. Whitehead's house (Abby's sister) to see if she is there. Lizzie says she heard her stepmother come in the house and go upstairs. Bridget and Adelaide Churchill, a neighbor, go slowly up the stairs to investigate. Before they reach the top, they spy the dead Mrs. Borden on the bedroom floor.
Right away, suspicion falls on three main characters: Lizzie Borden, Bridget Sullivan, and John Morse. All three offer alibis, but Lizzie's proves hard to check out. She claims that she spent half an hour examining lead sinkers for fishing in a box in the hayloft of the family barn. In 100 degree weather, this area would easily be 120 degrees. When a policeman goes to investigate, he finds no footprints in the heavily dusted loft. As he leaves, he notices his own shoes have made several distinguishable prints.
Lizzie also denies trying to buy prussic acid, or even leaving the house at all on August 3. Two contrary witnesses put her in the drugstore. Also, Lizzie had gone to see her friend Alice Russell on the 3rd and told her that something "terrible and strange" was going to happen to her father. Also, The note that Lizzie said Abby had received informing her of her sick friend never materializes. Finally, on August 7, Russell catches Lizzie burning a dress in the family oven. When she reports this to the judge overseeing the inquest of the murders, he orders Lizzie arrested and charged with the crimes.
The murders and the trial become a gradual media circus. Lizzie, despite the evidence of guilt against her, is an otherwise upstanding citizen in the town of Fall River: treasurer of the local temperance union, board member of the Samaritan hospital, and assistant librarian, she has many friends in high places who offer to testify for her as character witnesses.
The trial itself begins with one of those stories that one can only believe because the truth is stranger than fiction: while delivering his opening statement, District Attorney William Moody (a future Supreme Court justice) forcefully throws a dress onto a table. The force blows over a thin veil of tissue paper on the desk - revealing the shattered and fleshless skulls of Abby and Andrew Borden.
Lizzie slumps in a dead faint.
As the case progresses, two important developments arise: first, Lizzie's testimony regarding her alibi during the inquest before her trial is discarded; and secondly, Eli Bince's testimony and the entire prussic acid storyline are thrown out as irrelevant.
With no alibi to discredit, and Lizzie pleading the 5th, the prosecution has little else to do but mention circumstantial evidence: Lizzie's dissatisfaction with her parents, an alleged change in her father's will, and the obvious motive - money - are all covered.
The trial lasts two weeks in all. Emma returns from out of town to speak on her sister's behalf, and the defense brings out several witnesses, including Bridget Sullivan, who admit to having seen a strange young man around the Borden premises in the weeks leading up to the murders.
The jury deliberates for less than an hour, and on July 19, 1893, Lizzie is found innocent of the murders.
So What Really Happened?
Ok, enough of this history mumbo-jumbo. Did she or did she not kill her parents?
Well, the simple answer is: yes. The burnt dress, the outright lie about the note, the broken alibi, the prussic acid, the means, the motive, and the opportunity all point to a guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Tired of her father's penny-pinching (and allegedly soon to be removed from his will), Lizzie simply snapped and rashly murdered her parents. Many other social theorists of today point to Lizzie's obvious thirst for knowledge and culture as a potential sign of anguish: women in that period were expected to shut up and look pretty.
Many other suspects have been brought up over the years: Lizzie's new boyfriend Charles Anthony (the strange young man?); Bridget Sullivan; and even Dr. Bowen, who before the murders had shown little interest in the Borden family affairs, but spent over 48 hours at the house upon hearing the news. The strength of the blows suggested a muscular person; Lizzie barely weighed 100 pounds. And in 19th century New England, it was simply inconceivable that a prim young lass such as this could commit such heinous crimes.
The Rest Of The Story
After the murders, Emma and Lizzie moved into a new 13-room mansion in the upper class neighborhood of Fall River. Lizzie changed the name of the house to Maplecroft, and her own to "Lizbeth." In 1904, she began having a relationship with a regional actress named Nance O'Neill. Emma moved out in disgust. Two years later, Lizbeth was alone in the house again. She began taking care of birds and squirrels in the neighborhood, and was seldom seen in public.
Lizzie died on June 1, 1927 due to complications from gall bladder surgery. In 1965, Jack Beeson wrote an opera about the saga, appropriately entitled "Lizzie Borden." In the opera, the murders (thankfully!) take place offstage, and no implicit accusations are made. (Thanks to Ouroboros for bringing this little gem to my attention.) In 1994, C-SPAN revisited the Lizzie Borden case, holding a mock trial on the air with a prosecutor, a defense, and all of the original witnesses. Lizzie was again found innocent after a 26 day affair.
There's no evidence of guilt,
That should make your spirit wilt,
Many do not think that you
Chopped your father's head in two,
It's so hard a thing to do,
You have borne up under all,
With a mighty show of gall,
But because your nerve is stout
Does not prove beyond a doubt
That you knocked the old folks out,
- http://www.lizzieandrewborden.com/ - includes GRUESOME pictures of crime scene.