Looking back through history, there are very few infamous characters that have become the subject of children’s nursery rhymes, yet the story of Lizzie Borden was one that struck such a chord with the general public, that it produced a little poem.
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Despite the popularity of the Lizzie Borden case, it’s astounding how many of the details, as well as the final outcome, have become muddled over the years, to the point where it seems that very few people believe the details of the rhyme, rather than the recorded facts.
August 4, 1892 was a typically sweltering late summer day in Fall River Massachusetts, and after a particularly tiring round of outside window washing, Bridget Sullivan, one of the Borden family maids, was resting in her room when her reverie was broken by Lizzie, who was wailing that her father had been murdered. Andrew Borden had indeed been slaughtered; a violent series of blows to the head that left him virtually unrecognizable. As authorities searched the Borden home for signs of an intruder, a neighbor of the Borden’s named Adelaide Churchill, who had come to comfort the young Lizzie, discovered the dead and mutilated body of Abby Borden, the mother, on the second floor. It was this discovery that gave the already mysterious case an even stranger turn. The body of Abby Borden had turned cold, whereas Andrew’s was still warm, which led authorities to surmise that 90 minutes or so had passed between each murder.
The town of Fall River was in shock; stunned at the savagery of the crime, which only escalated as details of the condition that the bodies were discovered in were leaked out. Initial investigations had police looking for a disgruntled Portuguese worker, who it was believed had gone to Andrew Borden to collect money he was owed, only to be sent away and told to return later. Signs seemed to indicate that it had been a tall individual, attacking from behind, who had struck down Abby, but authorities were concerned by the lack of any signs of struggle surrounding the bodies. They were also somewhat baffled by the fact that very little blood, other than that which was present on the bodies, appeared around the crime scene.
While the police focused their attention on searching for the “tall man”, once local newspaper shone the light of possibility upon 33-year old Lizzie, after it was discovered that she had attempted to purchase prussic acid, a deadly poison, from a local drug store the day before the murders, not to mention the fact that her relationship with her stepmother Abby was known to be very strained at best. As police began to turn their attention to Lizzie, they quickly realized that many of her recollection of the events of that fateful day seemed somewhat off. She had claimed to know nothing of her Abby’s whereabouts on the morning of the murders, claiming that she was preparing beds in an upstairs bedroom, and when it came to where she was when Andrew was slain, she had stated that she was in a barn loft looking for fishing equipment for upwards of 20 minutes. This was despite the fact that no footprint were discovered on the dusty floor, and that the blistering heat of the day would have made spending that much time in the sweltering building virtually impossible. There were two additional items which drove the final nails in Lizzie’s coffin, and led to her indictment of August 9th. The first came from a physician who claimed that the wounds were an almost positive sign that a woman, unconscious of what she was doing, was behind the hacking. The most damning piece of evidence came from family friend Alice Mitchell who claimed to have seen Lizzie burning a blue dress in the kitchen fire, and with previous testimony that she had been seen wearing a blue dress on the morning of the murders, the just had no choice but to indict, despite Lizzie’s claims that the dress was covered in old paint.
The trial began with a bang on June 5, 1893, when lead prosecutor Thomas Moody, in a seeming attempt to instantly sway the 12 man jury, threw a blue dress on the prosecution table, with the skulls of the slain Borden’s spilling out from underneath the fabric. His histrionics threw the courtroom into bedlam and caused Lizzie to faint from the shock of the sight. One the court was back under control, Moody explained how Lizzie was the only one with the opportunity to commit the heinous crime, displaying the axe head of the murder weapon as he spoke.
Most of the prosecution’s witnesses were brought forward to testify about Lizzie’s whereabouts, as well as her state of mind, on both the day before and the day of the murders. The most damning of those witnesses was the maid, Bridget Sullivan, who told the court that Lizzie was the only person she saw around the family home on the day of the murders, and further damage was done by Alice Russell who claimed that Lizzie had visited her on the evening before the crime, and spend the whole time talking about her unease, and how she felt that something bad was going to happen to her family, especially Andrew Borden, whom Lizzie felt treated others terribly. The prosecution also pointed to the rather shaky testimony given by Lizzie, as well as the burning of the blue “paint spoiled” dress.
All of those points were skillfully countered by defense attorney George Robinson, who seemed to have a valid, reasonable explanation for everything the prosecution threw at Lizzie. He questioned why someone who had just committed murder would burn evidence in plain view of guests, and perhaps more importantly, convinced Dr. Seabury Bowen to admit that the morphine he has used to treat Lizzie for shock, could very well have led to her being confused when it came time to recount her events of the day. A double blow for the prosecution came when the judge refused to allow Lizzie’s odd inquest testimony, on the grounds that it was a statement of denial rather than guilt, and was given with no attorney present. The judge also disallowed the tale of the prussic acid, as the uses for the solution could not be verified.
The prosecution rested on June 14th, and when the defense went to work, they did so sparingly. Very few witnesses were called, and those that were, dealt blow after blow to the prosecutions take on the events. Witnesses claimed to have seen a tall man loitering around the Borden home on the day of the murder, and two workers testified that they had been working in the loft barn two days earlier, placing in severe doubt that the lack of footprints meant that Lizzie had not been there on the day. The star witness was Emma Borden, Lizzie’s sister, who told of the wonderful relationship that her sister had with the senior Borden, and that things were not as frosty between Abby and Lizzie, as so many were asserting. They also pointed to the lack of blood, and to how the prosecution had failed to tie the murder weapon to Lizzie in any way.
The jury needed only 90 minutes to return with a verdict of not guilty, and to allow Lizzie to return to the family home a free woman. The general public, and the newspapers of the time, seemed to unanimously fall on the side of the judgment, with the overall feeling being that justice had been served. That’s what makes the modern skewing of the facts so odd; the rhyme tells of 81 axe blows, when in reality there were only 29, and ask anyone about Lizzie Borden today, you will find very few that are aware she was acquitted of the crime. Most people today would certainly classify her as an Evil Lady, but when checking the true historical record, that label has to be cast into doubt. Was she a female serial killer?