History of the Lizzie Borden Case and Trial
The Fall River Murders of 1892 are unsolved crimes that occupy an iconic status in the annals of American history. However, the murders are most recognizable by the name "Lizzie Borden". All one has to do is speak that name, and images of a Victorian-American woman swinging a bloody axe over her dead parents is evoked. These images are fueled by the familiar bit of doggerel that we all learned when we were young: "Lizzie Borden took an axe/ Gave her mother forty whacks/ When she saw what she had done / She gave her father forty-one."
For many, this rhyme is the only source of information that they have about either the murders or the woman known as Lizzie Borden; but there are fundamental errors in the rhyme's every line. For one, Abby Durfee Gray Borden, the woman murdered in Fall River, Massachusetts on August 4th, 1892, was Lizzie's step-mother, not her mother; and she was attacked with a hatchet, not an axe; and the blows were struck nineteen times, not forty. It was indeed her father, Andrew Jackson Borden, who was stricken next, but it may have been an hour to ninety minutes later, and in Andrew's case, he was hit ten times in the head, and not forty-one. To cap everything off, Lizzie Borden, the youngest daughter of Andrew and the woman who was arrested and tried for the murders, was acquitted, not convicted. Accordingly, the basic premise of the doggerel, that Lizzie had committed the murders, is unsound as well.
While it is a sad comment on our interest in historical accuracy that the only source of information most people have about the murders is wrong on so many points, the widespread misconceptions are also a testament to the enduring hold that the story has on our collective imagination. Many people can recite the rhyme in their heads, even though they cannot remember where they first heard it. Over the 117 years that have passed since the tragic events in Fall River, the story has been told and retold -- in the form of books, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as in movies, theater, graphic novels, television, opera and even ballet. Lizzie Borden is also alive on the Internet, comprising the subject of many web sites, blogs, YouTube videos, and downloadable historic documents. Her image on a book cover, or her name in the book's title, virtually guarantees sales, and politicians even occasionally joke about her during sessions of Congress.
Many people aspire to get physically close to Lizzie, visiting her grave in Oak Grove Cemetery and the various places where she lived. The house where the murders were committed is now a popular bed and breakfast; the owners boast of strong paranormal activity, and ensure that your stay there as a guest will be all the more exciting and dangerous. You can even spend the night in Lizzie Borden's bedroom, or, if you dare, the guest room where the step-mother was found dead. Or perhaps attend a séance in the sitting room where the father was found slaughtered and directly ask the old man a few incriminating questions.
Avid book collectors regularly comb E-Bay and other on-line sources of rare books, hoping to snag an actual book from Lizzie's personal library, one signed with her own hand and stamped with the seal of Maplecroft, her final home in Fall River. With this acquisition, they can boast of having a piece of Lizzie in their own book collection.
Clearly, Lizzie Borden is not only an American icon but big business. And yet a visit to Barnes and Noble or Borders in search of her may be disappointing. Many of the excellent books on the subject have gone out-of-print, and are only available at auctions at prohibitive prices. Some of the more sensational titles, although rife with controversial errors and outrageous theories, are more easily found than those the books that are graced with accurate detail and historical dignity. Most of the documentaries that are made for television focus on the ghost stories and often are characterized by shoddy scholarship and sensationalist journalism.
There are, however, some excellent publications and blogs to be found. A visit to the Fall River Historical Societies Gift Shop will guarantee a crop of worthwhile books. The Society is also in the midst of releasing a major study entitled "Parallel Lives" which will illuminate Lizzie Borden as a woman in history, placing her in the specific social context in which she lived, that being 19th Century Fall River, Massachusetts and its distinct Victorian American culture. But Lizzie, alas, is not strongly present at the average library or shopping mall anchor store; and, barring a release of a big-budget Hollywood movie, she may very well remain obscured to those who prefer only the jump-rope jingle, the catchy doggerel, over studied history.
Considering Lizzie's acquittal, it is significant that the murders have been labeled with the name "Lizzie Borden" to identify them. We do not label the John F. Kennedy Assassination as "Lee Harvey Oswald", but instead call it by the name of the person who was killed; the same holds true of Abraham Lincoln's Assassination; and "Jack the Ripper" refers in a generic way to the killer who was never caught. To call this case "Lizzie Borden" is to acknowledge that it is Lizzie who seizes our imagination, and not the man and the woman who were murdered. Accounts of the case focus on Lizzie Borden's character and the possibility of her guilt; it is Lizzie who is at the heart of the story.
But the case is rife with fascinating and colorful people, and plays out against the backdrop of an endlessly-fascinating city. The story of Lizzie Borden can really be absorbed into the larger story of Fall River, and the patricidal hatchet-wielding woman who races into our minds to strike her parents dead can be joined with many others: textile mill tycoons, bankers, lawyers and court justices, widows and housewives, aging spinsters, undertakers and medical examiners, family physicians and forensic specialists, police men and city marshals, mayors and ex-governors, horse traders and street peddlers, Hollywood actresses, church ministers and journalists, private detectives, and mill workers. The cast is as varied as James Joyce's "Ulysses", and indeed, the dramatic story of Lizzie and her city of Fall River is as worthy of such a volume as was Leo Bloom and his city of Dublin.
Once one begins to study Lizzie, one falls into a fully-realized and rich world, romanticized more vividly by its remoteness in time. The murders occurred just at the cusp of a century where America would undergo changes more rapidly and technologically-accelerated than ever before. Lizzie lived long enough to see wonders such as the airplane and talking pictures, dying in 1927 at the age of sixty-seven. Her father, who had been born into a world where the first textile mills were just being erected on the river Quequechan in the City of Fall River, would have found Al Jolson speaking from the movie screen, perhaps even the very idea of motion pictures, veritable science fiction, something supernatural. Andrew Borden, after all, the man who, to his dying day, refused to install electricity or a telephone in his house, died twelve years before the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk. In the Lizzie Borden story we see an old America of horse-drawn buggies, Victorian dresses and oil lamps, about to give way to an America of radio, movies and the image of Lizzie Borden riding in the rear seat of a 1920's Packard, the lonely spinster from Maplecroft, ever identified as the notorious murderer of her parents, isolated and betrayed by a city that had spurned her even though she was one of their own.
In this web site, we'll be examining many aspects of Lizzie Borden, Fall River, and the murders of 1892. Feel free to click about; each section examines another piece of the puzzle.