About a hundred years before the acquittal of O.J. Simpson, another trial of the century transfixed America: that of Lizzie Borden.
Like Simpson, Borden went free on charges of the grisly killing of two people. The ax (or hatchet) murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts, were never officially solved, but Borden remains a famous murderess in the minds of most — in large part because of the enduring children’s rhyme in which she stars:
Lizzie Borden took an ax,
And gave her mother 40 whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father 41.
Although acquitted at trial, Lizzie remains the prime suspect. No one else was ever charged in connection with the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden.
Lizzie Andrew Borden was born in Fall River in 1860. Her mother died when Lizzie was a girl. Her father, Andrew, was wealthy but known for his frugality. He remarried and Lizzie reportedly had a strained relationship with her stepmother, calling her “Mrs. Borden.”
Lizzie, a “spinster,” had a relatively religious upbringing. (She was in her early 30s at the time of the killings.) She taught Sunday school to immigrant children and was involved in several Christian organizations.
The murders occurred after a period of heightened tension in the Borden household, perhaps related to real estate once owned by Lizzie’s real mother.
Abby and Andrew Borden were murdered the morning of Aug. 4, 1892. Abby was killed in an upstairs guest bedroom, suffering at least 19 direct hits with a hatchet-like weapon. Andrew was killed in the downstairs sitting room, struck 10 or 11 times with the bladed weapon. (The famed children’s rhyme’s “whack count” was inconsistent with the truth, and the murder weapon reportedly was a hatchet, not an ax.)
Lizzie, who was home at the time of the killings, gave answers to police questions that were at times strange and contradictory. Her actions after the murders, such as burning a dress, raised further suspicions. She eventually was indicted and the sensational trial took place in nearby New Bedford.
Public sentiment appeared to be on Lizzie’s side: “Everybody, including the police officials, say she’s a remarkable woman, and after her demeanor during the long hours of the trial as it has proceeded, there is no one to dispute the statement,” the New York Times reported.
After deliberating an hour and a half, the jury acquitted Lizzie Borden.
“At the end of the day, it is not clear who committed such evil deeds,” says Katrina Wood, who created the Lizzie Borden musical “Spindle City.” “There were a host of other suspects in and around Fall River who also had deep and abiding gripes and issues with Andrew Borden. He was not a well-liked man.”
Still, Wood says, Lizzie Borden “carried complex burdens” about her family life, “perhaps culminating in one moment of intense and passionate uncontrollable rage.”
Lizzie Borden remained a resident of Fall River until her death. She had become wealthy via inheritance, but was ostracized by Fall River society.
She died in 1927.