Over 130 years since the Fall River murders, and Lizzie Borden is still a household name. The axe murders of Fall River and the subsequent fallout sent shockwaves through the US that resonate even today.
It was a story of wealth and privilege, offering a tantalising glimpse behind the veil of high society. It’s no wonder therefore that people still gravitate to the story. And that people are still divided over one question. Did she do it?
Please note that this article contains themes which some of our audience may find distressing.
The Fall River Murders
On 4 August 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Both had been brutally hacked to death within a couple of hours of each other.
It was a brazen and mystifying crime. Nobody heard or saw anything, despite the fact that it happened on a bustling street during the daytime. What’s more, there was no apparent motive. Yes, the Bordens were wealthy, but they lived modestly and there were no signs of robbery.
It was Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie, who found her father. She shouted up to the third floor where the housekeeper, Bridget Sullivan was resting, oblivious to the horrors below. The family physician was away, so Lizzie sent her to fetch a doctor from further afield.
Shocked and appalled, residents of the affluent textile mill town rushed to the house where they viewed the gruesome scene.
With the public and media demanding answers, police were under pressure to find the culprit. Within a week, they had their prime suspect in custody. It was none other than Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie Borden.
On the surface, Lizzie Andrew Borden was a most unlikely murderer. A Sunday school teacher at her church and from an upstanding family, she was 32 and unmarried at the time of the murders. Both Lizzie and sister Emily lived at home with their father and stepmother, although Emily was away on the day of the attack.
So why was Lizzie under suspicion? For one thing, she was at home when the crimes occurred. For another, she provided an ever-shifting account of the events that day. But was that enough to indict her for such heinous acts?
The Lizzie Borden Trial
It was at trial that a broader picture began to emerge. It was said that Lizzie was weary of the family’s modest lifestyle. She wanted a bigger house at a more respectable address. She wanted independence and wealth. And both her father and stepmother were in the way of these aspirations.
In terms of evidence, there was the fact that Lizzie sent for a doctor from further afield when there were two others significantly closer at hand. There was also a dress that Lizzie had burned just before her arrest. While she claimed it had been stained with paint, the prosecution argued it had in fact been blood. Added to all this was the relationship between Lizzie and her stepmother, which was portrayed as strained.
All of this evidence was magnified by a frenzied media and a divided public. There were staunch supporters on both sides, with issues of class, gender and nationalism all playing a role. These elements combined into a storm of point and counterpoint, and the trial captured the nation’s imagination.
In the end however, despite the best efforts of the prosecution and the determination of an armchair audience, there simply wasn’t enough evidence to convict. No murder weapon was ever found. Nothing conclusively tied Lizzie to definitive guilt.
On 20 June 1893, Lizzie Borden was acquitted. She lived the rest of her life as a free woman.
Getting Away with Murder?
Even today, there is a body of opinion which argues that Lizzie Borden got away with murder. But whatever one’s conclusion, what is clear is that her case had a lasting effect on American culture. Even today, children know the rhyme she inspired:
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.