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Commentary - Sensational trials are not new: Meet Lizzie Borden

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 26, 2013: When you think of nursery rhymes you think of fun little poems that children recite, like Humpty Dumpty or Jack Be Nimble. But my favorite nursery rhyme has a very dark side. I am referring to the one about Lizzie Borden.

It goes like this:

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

As a result of this little ditty, Miss Borden is remembered to this day as the woman who brutally murdered her parents with an axe in August 1892. But the jingle isn’t completely accurate. First, the parents were killed with a hatchet not an axe. Second, it wasn’t her mother that was killed but her step-mother and, third, they didn’t receive a combined 81 whacks. Mr. Borden was struck 10 times while his wife was given 19 blows. Eighty-one whacks would have been overkill (sorry). And most important, 120 years ago this month a jury of 12 men found Lizzie innocent of the murders.

But did she get away with murder?

Here is what happened.

Lizzie Borden, 32, lived in Fall River, Mass., with her older sister, Emma, and her father and step-mother. Her father, Andrew Jackson Borden, was a successful businessman who owned a great deal of commercial property. He was also the president of a local bank. But despite his wealth Andrew Borden was very frugal. The family did not live in the nicer section of town, which Lizzie may have resented. Instead Mr. Borden opted for a modest home nearer to the industrial area of the city.

To the people of Fall River, there didn’t seem to be anything unusual about the family and certainly nothing sinister about any of them. But that changed dramatically, on the morning of Aug. 4, 1892.

That morning the maid, Bridget Sullivan, heard Lizzie cry, “Maggie, come quick! Father is dead. Somebody came in and killed him” (their previous maid was named Maggie and I guess the family found it easier to continue calling their maids by that name). Bridget, aka Maggie, found Mr. Borden lying on the couch in the parlor with his face nearly chopped in half. Soon after, Mrs. Borden was found in the upstairs guest bedroom with her head smashed to bits.

At first the police suspected that an intruder had broken into the home and committed the dastardly deed. But it seemed implausible that someone could break into the house during the day, kill Mrs. Borden (the autopsy showed she had been killed first) wait for Mr. Borden to get home, kill him and then sneak back out without being seen. Andrew Borden may not have been the most likable man in town but there were no known suspects that would have wanted to murder both him and his wife.

Soon, the police began to suspect Lizzie. She and Maggie were the only other people home when the murders occurred, and Maggie didn’t have a motive. An inquest into the murders was held and Lizzie’s testimony was confused and often contradictory.

On Aug. 11 Lizzie Borden was arrested and charged with parricide (murdering one’s parents).

Lizzie had several motives. First, she and her sister hated their step-mother. Lizzie had stopped calling her “mother” and had begun referring to her as “Mrs. Borden.” When a dressmaker had referred to Mrs. Borden as Lizzie’s mother, Lizzie roared “Don’t call her mother; we hate her; she’s a mean spiteful thing.”

Second, she was angry with her father. In May 1892, Mr. Borden had gone out to the barn and killed his daughter’s pet pigeons, which he believed were attracting intruders.

The third motive was money. It’s always about the money. Both Lizzie and Emma were upset with their father for transferring property and stock to his wife and other relatives. This was money they hoped to inherit.

Evidence also pointed to Lizzie as the killer. She had asserted that she was in the barn looking for fishing equipment when her father was murdered, but the investigation showed no footsteps in the dust where she claimed she had been. The police also discovered that the accused had tried to buy a deadly poison, hydrogen cyanide, from a drug store on the day before the murders. The clerk wouldn’t sell it to her. The police then learned from one of Miss Borden’s friends that she had burned a dress days after the murder claiming that it had paint on it (red paint, no doubt).

The trial, which began on June 5, 1893, was one of the most sensational in American history. The courtroom was packed. Even Mr. and Mrs. Borden attended -- well, their skulls did. Their heads, removed during the autopsy, were shown in court as evidence.

The problem for the prosecution was that their evidence was all circumstantial. They had no physical evidence. No one saw Lizzie do it; they had no bloody clothes; and it was unclear if the hatchet head they found in the basement was the murder weapon. But one of the biggest problems that the prosecution faced was that the suspect was a … girl.

While many people thought she was guilty, many others just couldn’t believe a woman could have hacked her parents to death. A reporter for the Concord Patriot wrote that the crime “not only required a fiend’s heart but a giant’s strength and to believe that it could have been committed by a physically weak woman … is to set aside as to no value all that experience and observation have taught us.” The Fall River Herald, also believing that a female was not capable such an act wrote that, “cruelty and the shedding of blood for blood’s sake are a man’s prerogative.”

As it turned out, the best asset the defense had were three judges who presided over the trial. They would not allow the testimony of the drug store clerk. And the panel refused to admit Miss Borden’s inquest testimony, concluding that she was taken to the inquest without counsel and without being informed of her Fifth Amendment rights. One of the judges said that at the inquest “she stood alone, a defenseless woman.”

Justice Dewey, in his instructions to the jury, reminded them of the presumption of innocence, which was increased by the defendant’s Christian character. He also pointed out the folly of depending on circumstantial evidence alone. I don’t think her defense attorney could have put it any better.

On June 20, 1893, the 12-man jury, after deliberating for a little over an hour, found Lizzie Borden NOT GUILTY. Emma and Lizzie inherited their father’s fortune and moved to the upscale section of the city, where they lived for many years with a host of servants to take care of them.

Both Lizzie and Emma died in June 1927 and were buried beside their father and step-mother. That must have made the step-mother roll over in her grave.

The home where the murders took place is now the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast. You can stay in Lizzie’s room for $225 a night or in the guest room where her mother was murdered for $250 a night, but keep in mind that that room is haunted. They also have a gift shop where you can buy a Lizzie Borden bobble head ($21.95) or a Lizzie Borden anger management coffee cup ($5.95).

Although about 50 people ended up confessing to the double murder, no one else was tried for the crime and it remains unsolved. Personally, I believe Lizzie Borden got away with murder.

John C. Wade, Wildwood, is a chief financial officer, amateur historian and self-proclaimed expert on the U.S. presidents. Wade is on a number of not-for-profit boards in St. Louis including the World Affairs Council and Meds & Foods for Kids. He is a Churchill Fellow and on the board of governors of the National Churchill Museum.

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