The Enduring, Ghoulish Legend of Lizzie Borden

How and why Borden became a pop culture "monster."

Posted Aug 31, 2015

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Source: wikimedia

Lizzie Andrew Borden was accused, tried and found not guilty of the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother in the town of Fall River, Massachusetts. The case became a popular culture phenomenon in the late nineteenth century U.S. due to massive exposure in tabloid newspapers, books and magazines.

Following her release from jail at the conclusion of the trial, Borden chose to remain in Fall River for the remainder of her life, despite facing significant ostracism and persecution by the community. Speculation about the gruesome axe murders continues today—more than one hundred years after their commission—because the case was never solved, and Borden herself remains an enduring icon and symbol of evil despite her acquittal in criminal court.

Lizzie Borden was born on July 19, 1860, in Fall River, Massachusetts, to Sarah and Andrew Borden. Lizzie had a sister, Emma, who was nine years older than her. Sarah Borden died soon after giving birth to Lizzie. Andrew Borden got remarried to Abby Durfee Gray three years following the death of Sarah.

The Borden family was quite well off due to Andrew’s success in the fields of manufacturing and real estate development. As a result, he was able to support his wife and two daughters, and employ servants to keep their home in fine style. Both Emma and her younger sister lived with their father and stepmother into adulthood.

The relationship between the Borden sisters and their stepmother, Abby Borden, was not particularly close; in fact, the sisters resented their stepmother. They greeted her as "Mrs. Borden" and secretly worried that Abby and her biological family sought to steal their father's wealth. Emma was protective of her younger sister, Lizzie, and, together, the two sisters helped to manage the rental properties and manufacturing business owned by Andrew Borden.

Lizzie was 32-years-old when the killings of her father and stepmother occurred. On the morning of August 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were viciously murdered and mutilated in their Fall River home. Lizzie Borden was at home at the time of the axe murders and she claimed to have discovered her father’s lifeless body in the living room.

Andrew had apparently been attacked and killed while he was sleeping on the sofa. Lizzie led the family’s maid, Bridget, who was also in the home at the time of the murders, to her father's dead body. A subsequent search of the home by the two women led to the discovery of the body of Abby Borden in an upstairs bedroom. Similar to her husband, Abby Borden had also been viciously hacked and mutilated with an axe.

After viewing her dead father and stepmother with Bridget, Lizzie called the local authorities and summoned them to the crime scene. Upon arriving at the Borden home, the police immediately suspected that Lizzie had committed the murders but she was not taken into custody at that time. Emma was out of town when the murders occurred and was never a suspect. One week following the murders of her father and stepmother Lizzie was arrested.

During the week between the murders and her arrest, Lizzie burned a dress that she claimed was stained with paint. The police suspected, and the prosecutor later alleged in court, that the dress was actually stained with the blood of her parents rather than paint, and that Lizzie had burned the dress in order to cover up the murders.

Lizzie was formally charged on December 2, 1892. Her trial began the following June in nearby New Bedford and it received massive, nationwide print media coverage due to the extremely gruesome nature of the crimes combined with the fact that a young, upper class, white woman was being tried for the brutal murders of her own parents. Lizzie did not take the stand in her own defense and the judge would not admit her pre-arrest inquest testimony into evidence.

The oral testimony provided by experts and other witnesses was inconclusive and did not persuade the jury of Lizzie’s guilt. On June 20, 1893, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the two murders. No one else was ever charged with the crimes.

Although she had been acquitted of the murders, Lizzie was considered guilty by many of her neighbors and never enjoyed acceptance in the community following her trial. Her public reputation was further tarnished when she was accused of shoplifting in 1897.

Lizzie died of pneumonia in Fall River, Massachusetts, on June 1, 1927. She planned her own funeral in advance and even prepared a list of those to be invited to it. When the guests arrived, they were abruptly told that the funeral had taken place the night before. Lizzie was buried with the rest of the Borden family at Oak Grove Cemetery in Fall River.

On her grave stone it simply says, "Lisbeth Andrew Borden." On the day that Lizzie died, her sister Emma, who had been living a reclusive life in New Market, New Hampshire, fell and broke her hip. She died just twelve days later.

It is fair to say that the story of Lizzie Borden has taken on mythical proportions over the years. Despite her acquittal in criminal court for the murders of her father and stepmother, Lizzie has always been considered guilty by the public as a result of ghoulish media and cultural representations of her.

For example, her assumed guilt was memorialized in a popular skipping-rope rhyme sung by children to the tune of the nineteenth century song Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.

Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.

Folklore says that the rhyme was written by an anonymous news reporter and used as a marketing tool to sell newspapers during Lizzie’s trial. Whatever the true origin of the rhyme, it has remained an element of U.S. culture to this very day.

In addition, the Lizzie Borden case has been the subject of countless true crime books and feature films, including the recent Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, a U.S. television movie that premiered on the Lifetime Television Network on January 25, 2014 with Christina Ricci in the title role. Her story has also been a guiding inspiration for many novels, plays, operas, ballets, songs, poems, jokes, games, puzzles, horror films and television series. The actual house in which Lizzie grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, is operated as a bed and breakfast museum under the name Lizzie Borden House.

More than one hundred years of inaccurate and sensationalized atrocity tales about Lizzie Borden by the news and entertainment media have distorted the reality of her life and completely obscured her innocence. Unrelenting media scrutiny and harassment throughout her lifetime made Lizzie a social outcast or pariah and her fictionalized depictions in the media over the years since her death have made her a cultural symbol of evil.

Indeed, the grotesque exaggeration of her story has transformed Lizzie Borden from a human being into a cartoonish caricature similar to the “wicked witch of the west” in the classic film The Wizard of Oz. Indeed, Lizzie Borden has become a popular culture oddity. She is now interchangeable with both real life killers and fictional killers in the minds of the public due to her inaccurate representation by the mass media since the nineteenth century. Media stereotyping and hyperbole mixed with outright fiction have altered the truth about Lizzie Borden and corrupted her legacy despite her acquittal for the murders of her parents.

In a contemporary context, the exact same argument can be made about Casey Anthony who has been transformed into a modern day symbol of evil and made a pariah despite her acquittal for the murder of her young daughter in 2011. It is important to recognize that inaccuracies, atrocity tales, stereotyping and labeling by the media can destroy the lives of women such as Lizzie Borden and Casey Anthony, despite their acquittals. Moreover, those same atrocity tales, inaccuracies and stereotypes harm the public by obscuring the truth about real murderers and their victims.

I examine the public’s intense fascination with notorious and deadly serial killers, including David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) and Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) with whom I personally corresponded, in my best-selling book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers. 

Dr. Scott Bonn is a criminologist, professor and TV analyst. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website docbonn.com