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Lizzie Borden: Did She or Didn't She?

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Lizzie Borden on trial, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly
I will believe till eternity, or possibly beyond it, that Lizzie Borden did it with her little hatchet...
–   Dorothy Parker

Why start with that quote? Why not with the jingle that will not die? The one that goes, 'Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks...'? For one thing, that piece of doggerel would only have persisted because it was set to the tune of 'Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay!', an insidious earworm. For another, it wasn't an axe, it was a hatchet. Abby Borden wasn't Lizzie's mother. And finally, the question of whether she did or she didn't still haunts historical sleuths. Not only was the Borden case the crime of this or any other century for Fall River, but it remains unsolved to this day.

We'll never know whether 'Lizzie Borden did it with her little hatchet.' But we really, really want to. Oh, yes: and there are major issues of gender relations and women's rights involved.

The Bordens

Lizzie Andrew Borden (1860-1927) was a New England spinster (unmarried woman) who lived in Fall River, Massachusetts, with her father Andrew, her stepmother, whom she called 'Mrs Borden', and her older sister Emma. The household was completed by a maid-of-all-work, Bridget Sullivan, who was born in Ireland. The girls called Bridget 'Maggie', for some reason.

Andrew Borden was a rich man. In cash-poor 1890s America, he had an estate worth half a million dollars. He also owned properties. He had started out as a casket maker, branched out into furniture for the living, and become a property developer and mill owner. Andrew was not well-liked. He was what they called in New England a 'skinflint' – a miserly man who hated to spend money. To the dismay of his unmarried daughters, he refused to move to a better part of town. He also refused to install indoor plumbing. In 1892, everybody else of their station in life had indoor plumbing.

Lizzie didn't get along with Mrs Borden. Mrs Borden wasn't her mother. Lizzie's mother had died when she was a toddler, and she'd been more or less raised by her sister Emma, who was ten years older. Lizzie was a determined woman who knew how to get her way when she felt she needed to. For instance, the year before, she had gone to Europe by using money her mother left her. Lizzie was deeply dissatisfied with her penurious lifestyle. She and Emma were also unhappy with the fact that their stepmother had cajoled their 70-year-old father into giving her and her relatives some of his property. It was not a happy household, no matter what loyal Bridget Sullivan later said on the witness stand.

Still, Lizzie had a good reputation in Fall River. The family attended the Central Congregational Church, a respectable religious venue. Lizzie taught Sunday School to Chinese immigrant children whose parents ran the local laundries. She was active in the church's charitable organisations, such as the Ladies' Fruit and Flower Mission. She was a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. All of which made it difficult for anybody to believe that she was responsible for the horrific events of 4 August, 1892.

The Murders

On 4 August, there were five people in the Borden house that we know of. Emma had gone out of town to visit friends, but John Morse, Emma and Lizzie's uncle (their late mother's brother), was visiting. At 8.48am, Morse left on business, planning to return at lunchtime. At 9.00am, Andrew Borden went for a walk. Abby, Mrs Borden, went upstairs to make beds. Bridget went outside to wash windows. Nobody knows for sure what Lizzie was doing: she says she went to the barn to look for sinkers for fishing poles and lingered to eat some pears that were stored in the barn. Investigators doubted this, because it was very hot in the barn that day.

While Mrs Borden was making the bed in the guest room, someone killed her by hitting her head with a hatchet. Eighteen times. This was sometime between 9.30 and 10.30 in the morning. As no one (besides the killer) was aware of this, her body wasn't discovered until later.

In the meantime, Andrew Borden came home from his walk. The family had the habit of locking their doors when they went in or out, and the front door was locked. When Borden tried to open the door with his key, it was jammed. He knocked, and Bridget, now inside, opened the door. She later said she heard Lizzie laughing from the top of the stairs. This was significant: the door to the guest room was open, and anybody standing at the top of the stairs would have seen a prone body in that room.

Lizzie later denied that she had been upstairs. She also claimed that she wasn't worried about where her stepmother was because she had 'had a note' to visit a sick neighbour. The note was never found.

Andrew Borden decided to have a lie-down before the midday meal. It was excessively hot. Lizzie helped him to get comfortable on the sitting room sofa. She said later that she helped him take off his boots, but crime scene photos show him wearing them. Then Lizzie told Bridget that there was a sale at the department store: she could go if she wanted to get a bargain. Bridget said no, because it was too hot: she'd go and lie down before making the noon meal. So she went to her third-floor1 bedroom. We should probably point out that this wouldn't have involved her passing the guest room on the first upstairs floor: houses of that era had servants' staircases.

Around 11.10, Lizzie woke Bridget by calling, 'Maggie, come quick! Father's dead. Somebody came in and killed him.' She ran downstairs to find Andrew Borden dead. His head had been struck ten or eleven times with a hatchet. The wounds were still bleeding: the attack was very recent.

Bridget ran for the doctor, who lived across the street. He said Mr Borden had died at about 11.00am.

It wasn't until they went upstairs that they found Mrs Borden's body. She had been dead for about 90 minutes.

The Trial

Lizzie was arrested and put on trial. Her answers had been contradictory and unsatisfactory. There wasn't any evidence to indicate an intruder. On the other hand, nobody could find a murder weapon, other than a suspicious axe-head that might, or might not, have been used before its handle was broken off. People found Lizzie's composure unsettling. Opinions were divided: did she or didn't she? And if so, how? While the case was being prepared, Lizzie spent months in the local lockup, while news people swarmed to Fall River.

The prosecution's team included a future Supreme Court justice. The defence, provided with plenty of Borden money, had its own dream team: among others, Lizzie was defended by a former Massachusetts governor. The trial was well-attended. The prosecution suffered immediate setbacks: five days before the trial, there was another axe murder in Fall River. The killer turned out not to have been in town at the time of the Borden murder, but it was still a distraction. Worse, the judge threw out the evidence from the coroner's inquest – which had been very damning to Lizzie Borden. Her confused testimony had seemed to incriminate her and been the basis for this trial.

Still, the prosecution brought a fairly strong circumstantial case. Lizzie was shown to have tried to buy prussic acid, a poison. She'd told the pharmacist she thought it could be used for dry cleaning. He told her it couldn't. At one point, Mrs Borden had told the doctor she thought they'd been poisoned. But the doctor told them that if they insisted on eating spoiled, leftover food in hot weather, gastric upsets would happen without hostile intervention.

The prosecution presented the narrative of a deeply unhappy family. Andrew Borden killed Lizzie's pet pigeons. With a hatchet. The defence pointed out that the only piece of jewellery worn by Borden was a ring – given to him by Lizzie. The jury, twelve men, retired to consider.

The jury stayed out for an hour and a half. Later they said this was out of politeness because they'd decided pretty quickly to find Lizzie Not Guilty. Lizzie went home among much rejoicing and press coverage. She and her sister were now wealthy women, free to move to a nicer neighbourhood and to entertain. Which they did.

Why Was Lizzie Borden Acquitted?

Much ink has been spilt, and many pixels inconvenienced, on the subject of why Lizzie Borden was acquitted. There's a strong belief among scholars – and rehashing the Borden murders is practically a cottage industry – that if Lizzie Borden had been a man, she would have been convicted.

But she wasn't a man: she was a woman in the 1890s. Women were fighting for their civil rights. Some theorists, both women and men, were arguing that women were morally superior to men, although other leading figures, such as Ida Tarbell, disagreed. Beleaguered men were countering with the incredible theory that women were 'less evolved' than men, which led to the conclusion that cold-blooded, well-thought-out murder wasn't within their capability. This kind of debate definitely influenced popular thinking about gender in the 1890s. Whatever was going on in the male jury's more-or-less evolved 19th-Century minds, they couldn't believe Lizzie Borden could have done all that on her own, a nice Sunday School teacher like that. So they acquitted her.

Lizzie Borden Today

If you should ever go to Fall River, Massachusetts, you can take the tour of the Borden House because of course there's a museum. It's also a bed and breakfast. Yes, you can stay in the murder rooms. You can look for ghosts. There are artefacts. Enjoy.

Want a more scholarly approach? Check out the Lizzie Borden Society, which also publishes the Lizzie Borden Quarterly. We are not making this up.

A dramatisation of the Lizzie Borden story that has stood the test of time is the 1975 made-for-television movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden, starring Elizabeth Montgomery. Ms Montgomery didn't know it at the time, but she was herself a sixth cousin (once removed) of Lizzie Borden.

1American reckoning, which calls the ground floor the 'first floor'. Europeans would say the servant's room was on the second floor.

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