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Faces From The Past’xiv

July 2024
3min read

Seventy-one years after the murders, doubt persists, and if you were to ask, “Was she guilty?” the chances are a good twenty-to-one that the answer would be affirmative. The law may protect a defendant from double jeopardy, but it cannot prevent the public from passing judgment. What might be called the public’s “case” against the rather plain young woman began long before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts brought her to trial. It commenced, in fact, the day after the bodies of her father and stepmother were found. Rumor and half-truth spread like wildfire, feeding on the smouldering flames of fear, creating almost overnight a legend that has never disappeared. The story, as it began to build during those first hours, went something like this: On the hot, humid morning of August 4, 1892, in an angular frame house on Second Street, in Fall River, Massachusetts, Mrs. Andrew Borden was brutally hacked to death by someone wielding a hatchet or an axe. Somewhat later, in another room of the house, her husband was similarly dispatched. The news that a respectable couple had been murdered in their own home in broad daylight brought the town’s normal activities to a standstill; two hours after the crime was discovered, thousands of hot, angry people were milling about in Second Street, muttering, questioning, venturing opinions, wondering where the mad killer would strike next, who the next victim would be. Before nightfall the town’s newspapers had taken over the case, describing the murder scenes in all their gory detail and hinting broadly at suspects.

Now, almost any news about Andrew Borden would have been enough to make the mill town sit up and take notice; he was a silent, sour man who had made money as an undertaker and as exclusive agent for Crane’s Patent Casket Burial Cases, who was now an extremely well-to-do banker and real estate owner. It was common gossip that neither ol his daughters, Emma or Lizzie, got on well with their stepmother, whom Borden had married twenty-seven years earlier. But Emma, it seemed, was out of town when the murders were committed. Lizzie had found her father’s body on the sitting-room couch and sent the hired girl, Bridget, lor help; a little later Bridget and a neighbor discovered Mrs. Borden in the upstairs guest room, lying face down in a pool of blood. So suspicion soon fastened upon the thirty-two-year-old Liz/ic, a slight, ordinary-looking girl with brown hair and a habit of saying just what was in her mind.

First Lizzie had killed her stepmother, townsfolk said; then, after cleaning her hands and clothes, she had busied herself about the house for an hour and a half, sewing, ironing, reading a magazine, waiting for her father to return from downtown. After he came in, stretched out on the couch, and dozed off, she attacked him with the same weapon she had used on Mrs. Borden. Again she removed the blood from her clothes and from the axe (all within the space of ten minutes, and so effectively that later chemical tests revealed no trace of it), then called for help. Someone said she never shed a tear when the bodies were discovered; the maid Bridget was said to have heard her laugh coldly when her father entered the house; there was talk that she had tried to buy poison the day before the murders; someone said she was seen burninsr a dress afterward.

Five days after the crime an inquest was held; two days later Lizzie Borden was arrested and held without bail pending trial. Meanwhile the wildest theories and rumors gained currency. But most damning of all was the verse—those unforgettable four lines of doggerel, sung to the tune of “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,” which condemned her forever in the public mind, no matter what any court might decide:

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

In June, 1893, the trial opened in New Bedford, and for thirteen days the jury heard a great deal of conflicting testimony (much of it highly embarrassing to the prosecution), and witnessed a brilliant performance by the defense attorney. One of the most telling accusations made by the prosecution was that Lizzie had not been in the barn behind the house between 11:00 and 11:15 on the fatal morning, as she claimed—that she had, in fact, been bludgeoning her father to death at that very moment. A sensation of the trial was a surprise witness for the defense, an ice-cream peddler who maintained stoutly and credibly that he had seen a woman, dressed as Lizxie purportedly was, emerging from the barn just when she said she had.

When the trial ended, the jurors were out for a little more than an hour before bringing in a verdict of “Not Guilty.” Spectators in the courtroom applauded, and an editorial writer for the New York S;m summed up the trial: “A chain of circumstantial evidence is strong only if it is strong in every necessary link … The chain tested at New Bedford the past twelve days was proved fragile indeed, not merely at one place, but in almost every link.”

Legally, the defendant was acquitted. Theoretically, her ordeal was over. But the public considered her guilty—guilty by innuendo, if nothing else. Not even her death in 1927 ended the trial of Lizzie Borden. Books and plays were written about her, eventually there were movies, a television show, a ballet. Finally, Edward D. Radin came to her defense with a fine book, Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story , that argues her innocence convincingly while revealing the falsehoods behind the legend. There the matter might rest at last, were it not for the cruel verse: “Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks …”

—Richard M. Ketchum

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