You've heard it said many times before -
"Lizzie Borden took an Axe,
She gave her mother forty wacks,
When she seen what she had done,
She gave her father forty one!"
The heat rippled in waves across the small Massachusetts town of Fall River early in the afternoon of August 4th. As the police walked through the house at 92 Second Street, they set eyes upon its owner, Andrew Borden. He lay across the couch - looking rather sloppy as he apparently slept. As they stepped closer, the wounds from ten hatchet blows to his head became obvious. He was indeed in the deepest of sleep.
They warily stepped through the parlor and continued up the stairs, and as they reached the top of the flight they could see through an open door directly ahead of them another body sprawled on the floor. They walked into the guest bedroom to find the corpse of Mr. Borden's 2nd wife, Abbie Durfee Borden - her face a mockery. Deformed by 20 ferocious blows to the face and head.
Even on this hot day in 1892, chills ran through the men.
The stage had been set for one of America's most famous criminal trials. A trial in which culture, status, and the vanity of prejudiced, puritan men would collide over the bloody bodies of two innocent human beings. Murdered, it was alleged, by a woman whose name would soon become infamous for all time - Lizzie Borden.
The slaughter soon made headlines around the country. "Patricide!" they all cried - the most terrible of crimes. But did Lizzie Borden, the 33 year old "spinster" actually commit these heinous acts? The daughter of a wealthy, respectable family? In a small, respectable town? Could it be?
The prosecution tried hard to convince the jury of 12 men that she had both the means - and the motive. They played up the notion of a deep and growing resentment towards her father and step-mother. Perhaps because he had re-married? And coupled with this was his fixation with calling her his "child" in a manner that perhaps bespoke of some closer, and darker, relationship with his daughter. Was all of this merely rumor? Innuendo?
And wasn't there resentment, anguish and on-going arguments behind the closed doors of the Borden residence?
But why so many years after the marriage? Was Lizzie just waiting for the right moment as her resentment grew and festered? Was it her belief that her father's will had been changed, leaving most of the money to Abbie? Or was she completely innocent - the terrible crimes instead committed by a passing stranger.
But Lizzie's statements were contradictory - and somewhat bizarre. She claimed that her step-mother received a note to attend to a sick friend, and therefore thought she was out of the house. There was never a note found, though agressively sought - and Mrs. Borden certainly was not in haste to visit a sick friend if there was - she was instead hanging curtains in the guest room at the time of her death.
Lizzie repeatedly tried to coax young Brigette Sullivan, the servant, to leave the house just before the time of the murders. She even said she could remember nothing as a result of a fainting spell brought on by temporal lobe epilepsy, which only struck during her menstrual cycle.
She also said she had been in the attic for a considerable period of time - the prosecution thought this highly unlikely in the incredible heat, and clothed as she was in the tight Victorian restraints and clothing of the day. There was also a layer of dust on the floorboards - clearly undisturbed for some time.
The doors had been latched from the inside by Miss Sullivan. How could a passing stranger re-attach them after he had left the house?
The day before the murders themselves her step-mother had called the doctor, claiming she and her husband, and even Brigette had been poisoned. The doctor dismissed the notion. But that very day, Lizzie was at the pharmacy trying to buy poison - prussic acid - but the chemist refused without a prescription. She was seen by customers who so testified. But the spinster kept changing her story. First she said she had gone out, but not to that specific pharmacy - then claimed she had never left the house at all that day.
Lizzie confessed to a friend on August 3rd that she thought something terrible might happen to her father - but could offer no rational explaination for her "feelings" that someone might kill him!
But because of a flawed legal system, and some very peculiar judgements, this testimony (from the grand jury) was deemed irrelevant and therefore inadmissible during the murder trial!
Three days after the murders she was caught by a friend burning a dress she said had paint on it (I wonder what color it might have been?) - in fact it was this very act that got her charged with the murders. But what of the blood in the wash buckets? Menstrual blood it was claimed - and not brought up or even noted as evidence. And what of the broken handled axe? Was she trying to dispose of the murder weapon?
Brigette claimed to have heard nothing at all that fateful day. Claimed there was never any tension in the household. All was rosy. She repeated this during the trial and soon after found the money necessary to head back to Ireland for a spell. A payoff for being quiet? Or the act of a generous benefactor sympathetic to the tragedy she had become attached to? Or both?
With crucial, damning evidence withheld the jury returned a verdict of innocent in less than one hour. But even if it had been presented, would she have been convicted? The prosecution was sloppy - astonishingly so with such good, though circumstantial evidence at hand. But it seemed almost beyond belief that such a thing could happen. If it could happen to these people - affluent, honored - and by a dutiful daughter who taught Sunday school - then what might befall others? How could a "woman" commit such an act? Their perceptions of reality might have crumbled. After all this was the late 19th century - women had a finite, though definitive place in society. This was not the middle ages after all - or even 17th century Salem. Woman weren't witches - but loving daughters, wives, mothers, sisters. Complacent. Domesticated. Proper. Anything else was too dangerous to contemplate. All was safe in America. It had to be.
Lizzie and her sister Emma retired to a luxurious life, inheriting close to half a million dollars - an enormous sum in the closing days of the 19th century. They purchased a large house in a good (or better) part of town - and seemed content together - till Lizzie took to "entertaining" a young actress who caught her attention.
Lizzie Borden finally died in 1927. Emma soon after. Brigette had returned from Ireland and settled in Montana, outliving them all, dying in 1948. There were claims of her near-death "almost" confession, but it came to nothing. Did Brigette do the killings? Unlikely. Did she help cover up the tragedy? Probably. But we will never know for sure.
The house on Second Street is now a bed & breakfast, and the story of Lizzie has been presented (somewhat disguised) in the play 9 Pine Street, which had originally starred Lillian Gish. Miss Gish even tried to get the retired and despondent D.W. Griffith to direct a feature film version for Paramount Pictures in the 1940's. Preston Sturges was to produce. The once great director, now bitter and resentful, destroyed this golden opportunity with his erratic behavior.
A television film was made in the 1970's starring Elizabeth Montgomery - it tried to maintain a middle of the road point of view, with depictions of what "might have happened" and is highly entertaining - as only a good murder mystery can be.