Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Legend of Lizzie Borden

"Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty–one."


If you're over 25, you surely remember the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

But you would have to be over 125 to remember the Lizzie Borden murder trial.

On this day in 1892, Lizzie Borden's father and stepmother were found murdered in their Fall River, Mass., home. Andrew Borden's daughter, Lizzie, was the only person ever charged with the crimes. Although she was acquitted of the charges, she has been held responsible for more than a century, unofficially convicted by the media of the day.

Officially, it remains an unsolved mystery.

A hatchet that was found in the basement was presumed to be the murder weapon. It was clean and missing most of its handle. An expert in forensics asserted that there was not enough time to clean the hatchet after the murders were committed.

The hatchet evidence was rendered even more inconclusive because the police had no faith in the emerging technology of fingerprinting so no fingerprints were taken from the hatchet. And, of course, a century before the O.J. Simpson case, no one had heard of DNA evidence.

The police also found no blood–stained clothing in the house. A 1975 TV movie on the case starring Elizabeth Montgomery (ironically, Borden's sixth cousin once removed) suggested that a possible reason for such a lack of finding was that Borden could have removed her clothes before attacking her stepmother in an upstairs bedroom and her father in a downstairs sitting room, washing off the blood after each attack.

The sequence of the attacks is not clear. Lizzie Borden and the maid, Bridget Sullivan, were the only other people in the house, and the maid may have been outside, cleaning the windows as she had been instructed to do.

What is known is that Lizzie's father returned to the house shortly before 11 a.m., and Lizzie found his body about half an hour later. While Lizzie was being tended to, the maid discovered the body of Lizzie's stepmother.

In the years since the murders, several plausible suspects have emerged. It has been theorized, for example, that Sullivan committed the crimes. She was angry, so the theory went, at being ordered to clean the outside windows on a hot day, one day after the entire household had suffered from food poisoning.

Another theory put the blame on a supposedly illegitimate half–brother to Lizzie who allegedly tried and failed to extort money from their father.

Whether she was to blame for the killings or not, Lizzie Borden lived for nearly 35 years after the deaths of her father and stepmother, dying of pneumonia at the age of 66 in 1927. Her sister, Emma, from whom she had been estranged for more than two decades, died nine days later.

Visitors to Fall River can visit the house where the murders took place. It is now a bed and breakfast so visitors can spend the night there if they wish.

Oh, and by the way ...

That stuff about giving her mother 40 whacks and giving her father 41 is an exaggeration, a little poetic license used to sell newspapers. It was determined that Mrs. Borden was struck 18 or 19 times and Mr. Borden was struck 11 times.


otin said...

Wow, You really dig up the details, you are very thorough! I really don't go to the chat thing much anymore, and I know that I have not commented in a while, that is bad on my part! I do not forget your site, it is one of my first that I read. How have you been doing? any luck on the Job front? How is the other thing that we discussed? You can email me at Otin43@gmail.com!

Liz G said...

LIZZIE BORDEN, the new rock musical in NYC, was created to explore the American legend that surrounds this accused murderer. The "forty whacks" rhyme is one of the few stories that is still passed down primarily by word of mouth -- most Americans will know the rhyme, even if they don't know the real story, but Europeans almost universally have never heard of Lizzie. Our version assumes her guilt but also sees her as a kind of heroine, and we tell her story as a rock and roll fable that is uniquely American.