I hesitate to invoke the rhyme because it's been so overused (and is so tasteless) but it really is the best and most succinct summary of the events of August 4, 1892:
Lizzie Borden took an ax,
Gave her mother forty whacks,
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Lizzie Borden, acquitted of murdering her (step)mother and father with a hatchet, was found guilty in the court of public opinion. Schoolchildren taunted her with the rhyme as she continued living in the small town of Fall River, Massachusetts (albeit in a much nice home, purchased with the funds she and her sister inherited upon their wealthy father’s death). They rang her doorbell at all hours and ran, screaming, before she could open it. They threw rocks at her windows.
Perhaps worse—since children’s thoughtless cruelty is a given—carriage drivers would meet the train coming in to Fall River and charge a fee to drive past Lizzie’s home, park outside, and loudly narrate the details of the crimes, which she surely heard through her walls.
Those details were horrific, such that her 1893 trial was considered the first “trial of the century.” Every major newspaper sent a reporter to sit in the crowded New Bedford courthouse and jot down each nuance of emotion that crossed her face.
The back of Abby Borden’s skull bore 19 blows, evidence of uncontrollable rage. It came out through forensics that she must have faced her attacker and known her fate: one poignant blow was on her forehead. Mrs. Borden had been killed first in an upstairs room and lay cooling for several hours until her husband Andrew came home from his morning tasks and lay down for a nap on the sitting room couch. The murderer attacked him while he slept.
His skull showed 10 or 11 cuts, roughly half of his wife’s, but proof that the killer was still furious hours later. Both skulls were displayed in court to show jurors the reality of that anger. They had been rendered down to bone by a doctor who boiled them, according to the later report of his young son who was upset at the morbid activity in his own kitchen. The Borden corpses had been secretly beheaded, without the daughters’ permission, during a second autopsy at a cemetery holding structure. The first had been performed in the Borden home’s dining room. Lizzie fainted in court when tissue covering the skulls drifted to the floor, prematurely revealing their placement in the doctor’s satchel. A juror was overcome by the crime scene photographs that testimony paused while peers tried to revive him. The facts of the case—and the murders of the elderly couple—proved uneasy to talk about.
What was Lizzie so upset about, if she was indeed the killer? Reputedly, her father’s miserliness, his spending money on his wife’s family, and probably general indignation that she would spend life as a spinster trapped in that house. Her oldest sister hadn’t married, and suitors were few and far between for Lizzie. It didn’t help that that August was insanely hot in an era before air-conditioning, that she had her period in an era before ibuprofen, and that a hated uncle showed up for a visit while her sister was away visiting friends.
Whatever the motive, the intervening 125 years have spawned dozens of books, several movies (including one to be released this year, with indie-movie goddess Chloe Sevigny playing Lizzie, and Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame playing the Irish maid Bridget Sullivan), and an incredible volume of speculation. Similar to O.J. Simpson, who is to be released on probation, Lizzie Borden faced a nation that suspected the jurors had been hoodwinked.
Visit the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River today and you’ll see crime scene reenactments, tours of the home and hear authors talk about the case. Its mystery endures.
Erika Mailman is the author of The Murderer’s Maid: a Lizzie Borden Novel, which looks at the case from the point of view of Bridget Sullivan, the only other person in the house that day besides Lizzie and her parents.