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.
Well, not exactly. In total, Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden, were struck a combined thirty times. The double murder took place on August 4, 1892, in the Borden’s home, in Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew was found on the couch in the sitting room, and Abby’s body was discovered on the floor of the upstairs master bedroom. According to the historical records of the coroner, each of the Bordens was dead after being struck with the first blow. The rhyme, while morbidly catchy, is also, historically inaccurate when it comes to the murder weapon. The Bordens, were killed with a hatchet, not an axe. Lizzie and the housekeeper were the only people present when the bodies were discovered. That, and the fact that she had a poor relationship with her stepmother, was what led the authorities, shortly after the murders, to make her the prime suspect. The trial which followed, due to the gruesome nature of the crimes that had been committed, attracted national attention.
The television movie “Lizzie Borden Took An Ax” premiered on Lifetime Movie Channel on January 25, 2014. The ninety-one minute film was directed by Nick Gomez, who has primarily worked in television and cable on shows such as “Dexter” and “True Blood,” among many other series. Stephen Kay (General Hospital) wrote the screenplay, which contains a number of omitted historical facts, which is fine. The movie is meant to be viewed as a guilty pleasure, and not a period piece that has to strictly adhere to historical accuracy. Comprised of the genres of crime, drama, mystery and thriller, the movie also features a modern soundtrack.
Christina Ricci (Sleepy Hollow) portrays Sunday school teacher, turned infamous alleged killer, Lizzie Borden. Ricci presents her character to the viewer as a manipulative and calculating person who likes getting her way. Her polite mannerisms, doe eyed looks, and smiles, mask the vile veneer of her true nature. Andrew Borden (Stephen McHattie) is a wealthy, but frugal man, who makes his family eat stew that has already gone bad, rather than spend the money on fresh food. The film hints that his frugality might not be the worst of his character traits, suggesting that a relationship of incest might have existed between Andrew and Lizzie. Playing Emma Borden is Clea Du Vall (Argo), Lizzie’s older sister, who remains fiercely loyal to her sibling, but at the same time, is conflicted as to her thoughts regarding what truly happened to her father and Abby (Sara Botsford). Billy Campbell (The Killing) takes the role of Andrew Jennings, Lizzie’s lawyer, who is steadfast in his belief that it is inconceivable that a woman could have committed the brutal murders. Prolific character actor Gregg Henry (The Following), who does an excellent job portraying the prosecuting attorney Hosea Knowlton, of course, holds the opposite view. (As an aside, Lizzie Borden had more than just Andrew Jennings representing her at trial. In fact, the lead defense attorney, was the former Governor of Massachusetts, George Robinson, who as it turned out, had appointed to the bench, Justice Justin Dewey, one of the three men who sat in judgment on Lizzie’s case.)
After her parents’ funeral Lizzie is questioned by the prosecuting attorney. At one point, he asks her to bring him a dress that she wore on the day of the murder. The dress is of particular importance, because the original investigating officer, Marshall Hilliard (Shawn Doyle), noticed a small spot on the bottom of the dress that might or might not have been blood. Agreeing to bring the dress in question, she goes outside in the middle of the night, and burns it in the backyard of the house. Afterwards, Lizzie is subsequently placed under arrest, and detained in a women’s prison until her trial. (As an aside, again, as with her legal representation, among numerous other aspects of the case, the dress was actually burned inside the Borden home in the kitchen stove, and Lizzie was not wearing it when the police arrived, she had already changed her clothing.)
The second half of the film primarily concerns itself with Lizzie’s trial and the aftermath. Even though I knew that the jury would find Lizzie not guilty, which I don’t think is a spoiler to anyone who is reading this, I was still entertained. I liked certain stylistic choices Gomez utilized in presenting the story to the viewer, both the murders of the Bordens, which were shown via flashback, and the trial itself. The real Lizzie Borden, even though becoming a wealthy woman after she and Emma inherited their father’s estate, opted to spend the remainder of her life in Fall River. The sisters purchased a new home, where they lived together for twelve years before they had a falling out, for reasons that have never been made known.
Was Lizzie Borden guilty of murder? If she was, why did she commit the crime? Did she want her father’s money, afraid that if he died, his estate would go to Abby? Why did she opt to stay in her home town, where many of the residents held the view that she had gotten away with murder? What was the reason she and Emma had a falling out and never spoke again? Did Emma perhaps learn the truth of what really took place, as the movie speculates she did. The film does not provide the answers to any of those questions, but does give the viewer some entertaining scenarios as to what might have happened.