...in 1892, a prosperous banker and his wife were hacked to death with a hatchet in their Fall River home. Suspicion immediately focused on the man's unmarried 32-year-old daughter, Lizzie Borden. Basing their case entirely on circumstantial evidence, police indicted her for murder. Newspapers all over the country carried sensationalized, sometimes completely fabricated, stories. When she came to trial the following June, the nation was mesmerized by the spectacle of a Sunday-School-teaching maiden lady charged with committing such gruesome crimes. But the prosecution's case was badly flawed, and after a two-week trial, the jury found Lizzie Borden not guilty. She would never be free from suspicion, however, and lived the rest of her life as a social outcast.
"Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks. And when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41." For over a century, this rhyme has perpetuated the notion of Lizzie Borden as a hatchet-wielding, cold-blooded murderer. Yet it took a jury less than an hour to find the 32-year-old Fall River woman not guilty.
There is no doubt that a horrible crime was committed. Lizzie's father, Andrew, and her stepmother, Abby, were killed in their own home by multiple blows with an axe; their skulls were crushed and mutilated to the point where they were barely recognizable. Astonishingly, given that it was between 9:30 and 11:00 am and that Lizzie and the family maid Bridget were both at home, no one either heard or saw anything amiss.
Within minutes of her father's murder, Lizzie entered the parlor and discovered his body. Distraught, she immediately sent Bridget for a doctor and called in a neighbor who summoned the police. Shortly afterwards, the neighbor discovered Mrs. Borden's body in an upstairs room.
When the police arrived, they questioned Lizzie. She told them that Bridget had been upstairs washing windows and that she had gone to get something from the barn, returning a half-hour later to find her father's mutilated corpse. When the officer asked about her mother, the traumatized Lizzie snapped, "She is not my mother. She is my stepmother." From that moment on, Lizzie Borden was the chief indeed, the only suspect in the case.
According to police, she was a bitter, jealous daughter who hated her stepmother and killed her father to prevent him from changing his will to benefit his wife at the expense of his daughter. When a local druggist said that Lizzie Borden had tried unsuccessfully to purchase poison from him the day before the murders and a neighbor reported that she had seen Lizzie burning a dress several days after the murders, the police decided they had enough evidence to charge her.
The American public was enthralled by the case. Newspapers printed gruesome, often embroidered or patently false stories that transformed a respectable, churchgoing, socially-active young woman into a monstrous fiend. The contrast between the bloodiness of the acts and the genteel setting in which they took place added to the public's fascination.
The prosecution's case began to unravel almost as soon as the trial opened. There was not a spot of blood on the dress Lizzie Borden was wearing when she was found at the blood-spattered murder scene. There were problems with the murder weapon, too, and Andrew Borden's personal attorney had no knowledge that his client had ever made a will.
The defense showed that the burned dress was a faded and paint-stained one that Lizzie's sister had advised her to get rid of; burning was the family's normal method of disposing of trash. The defendant swore under oath that the druggist was mistaken; she had not visited his shop and she had not requested poison from him. The state was unable to produce a convincing motive, a murder weapon, or an explanation for how the young woman could have committed the bloody murders and appeared only moments later wearing a spotless dress.
The verdict was greeted with jubilation in the courthouse, and most newspapers agreed that Lizzie Borden should never have been tried. But the Fall River Police Department announced that it would not pursue other leads; it considered the case closed. The implication was clear: the police believed the murderer had been acquitted.
The question remained: who did kill Andrew and Abby Borden? Doubts and rumors persisted, and the once respectable Miss Borden found herself ostracized by Fall River's polite society. For many years, August 4th gave the more sensational press the chance to sell papers by reviving the unsolved crime and raising questions about the case all over again. With each passing year, the jury's verdict seemed to fade into history. By the time she died in 1927, Lizzie Borden was firmly fixed in popular culture as the perpetrator of one of the nation's most notorious and mysterious crimes.
Forty Whacks: New Evidence in the Life and Legend of Lizzie Borden,, by David Kent (Yankee Books, 1992).
Lizzie Didn't Do It!, by William L. Masterton (Brandon Publishing Company, 2000).