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.
Not to be dismissive of the rhyme, but in the interest of accuracy, the facts of the case state, that Lizzie’s stepmother, Abby, 63, and her father, Andrew Borden, 70, were actually struck thirty times with a hatchet, not an axe. Of course, the number of blows received by the Bordens, eleven less than stated in the rhyme, doesn’t diminish for one moment, the heinous violence inflicted upon the couple. The horrific double homicide occurred on Thursday, August 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, and took place inside of the Borden’s home, at 92 Second Street. Andrew Borden’s body was found on the couch in the sitting room, his face, for all intents and purposes, unrecognizable due to the amount of damage it had sustained. Abby’s body was found upstairs in the master bedroom, laying face down, in a pool of blood. (As an aside: The address of the Borden home was changed from 92 Second Street to 230 Second Street in 1896, after Lizzie, and her older sister, Emma Borden, moved into a Queen Anne Victorian mansion, that Lizzie named Maplecroft. Lizzie would live there until her death on June 1, 1927).
Within several days of Abby and Andrew Borden’s murder, thirty-two year old, Mission Chapel Sunday school teacher, Lizzie Borden, was accused and brought to trial for the crime; from the time of her arrest, until the end of the trial, she spent ten months in jail. The two main reasons Lizzie was singled out as the accused, is that she and the Borden’s housekeeper, were the only people at home when the murders took place. Additionally, it was a widely known fact around Fall River society, that Lizzie had a contentious relationship with Abby, and never regarded her as her mother.
The trial, held at the Bristol County Courthouse in New Bedford, Massachusetts, attracted national attention, and put the textile manufacturing town of Fall River on the map. In total, the trial lasted thirteen days; a minimal amount of time for a sensationalized case by today’s standards, but unheard of in 1892, when a trial for murder, perhaps would last a day or two. The length of the trial contrasted with the selection of the jury in the Borden case, which took a mere four hours. During the court proceedings, Lizzie didn’t testify, but did make a brief statement: “I am innocent, I leave it to my counsel to speak for me.” A sentiment that the twelve member, all male jury, agreed with, when after 90 minutes of deliberation, they returned with a not guilty verdict.
From certain things mentioned during the episode, it is not hard to fathom how a not guilty verdict was rendered. The prosecution’s case was built entirely on circumstantial evidence and hearsay. The one piece of physical evidence the prosecution claimed was destroyed by Lizzie, was a dress she burned, that they believed that she wore while committing the murders, and therefore was covered in blood. The police, however, never spotted the dress while searching the Borden’s house. Lizzie claimed during her inquest before trial, that she had burned the dress because it had been ruined by paint. Lizzie’s claim was backed up by her sister, Emma, who testified to it at trial, as well as by a house painter who Mr. Borden had hired, a man who had no familial connection to the defendant, who admitted under oath to accidentally spilling paint on Lizzie’s dress. In addition, Lizzie’s attorney, Andrew Jennings, was an experienced trial lawyer, and his co-counsel, George Robinson, was the former Governor of Massachusetts, and has been referred to by historians as an image maker. He allegedly told Lizzie exactly how to dress and act throughout the different phases of the trial. Assisting the lead prosecuting attorney Hosea Knowlton, was the ambitious and intelligent, but inexperienced, William Henry Moody; who, even though, at the time, he was the District Attorney of Essex County, Massachusetts, had up until the Borden trial, never tried a case for murder.
Did Lizzie Borden murder her father and stepmother? If she did, what was her motivation for carrying out the crime? The History’s Mysteries episode doesn’t offer any concrete proof on the subject, because as of the writing of this post, no iron clad evidence exists against any person or persons. The episode does, however, include an interesting overview of the history of the Borden family, as well as providing a number of theories that have been speculated upon as to Lizzie’s guilt or innocence, and the reasoning behind why she may have committed the murders. The theory I found the most fascinating pertains to a statement given by a retired nurse, Ruby Cameron.
Cameron had been Lizzie’s nurse in 1926, while Lizzie was convalescing after a gallbladder operation. In the January 2, 1985 edition of the local Ellsworth, Maine newspaper, “The Ellsworth American,” there was an article, in which Ruby Cameron, stated that Lizzie confessed to her as to exactly what happened the day of the murders. According to Cameron, Lizzie told her that her boyfriend, David Anthony, a man who Andrew Borden vehemently disapproved of, murdered Abby. Afterwards, he instructed Lizzie to go outside, and wait in the Borden family barn. He told her he would hide in the hallway closet, until Andrew returned home, at which time he would kill him. According to accounts, Ruby Cameron was not the sort of person prone to wild storytelling; people have stated that she conducted herself throughout her life in a dignified and responsible manner, and she showed no signs of senility while relaying the confession that she claims Lizzie told her.
The History’s Mysteries episode: “The Strange Case of Lizzie Borden,” presented by Arthur Kent, first aired in 2005 on the History Channel. The episode contains a number of photographs, including pictures of the crime scene and the murdered bodies. There is also video footage that shows the actual newspapers that were published in 1892, as well as the caricatures drawn by courtroom artists. Furthermore, commentary throughout the episode is provided by, but not limited to: The Curator of the Fall River Historical Society, Michael Martins; psychotherapist, Eva Stern; legal historian, Cara Robertson; and author, Roger Lane. The house where the Borden murders took place has been turned into a bed and breakfast, as well as a museum. The most requested room by overnight guests seeking a macabre thrill, is the upstairs bedroom where Abby was murdered. If you don’t have the time or interest to travel to Fall River, Massachusetts for a firsthand experience, there are a number of documentaries available on the subject on-line.