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The enduring fascination with accused ax murderer Lizzie Borden

The case of Lizzie Borden, accused of brutally murdering her father and step-mother with an ax, has remained a source of fascination for more than 125 years. A new book examines the trial of Lizzie Borden, the historical context of this brutal crime, and how it continues to be reimagined. Megan Thompson recently spoke with Cara Robertson, the author of "The Trial of Lizzie Borden."

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    If you know anything about Lizzie Borden, it may be this: Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.

    It's a skipping-rope rhyme that has kept an infamous double murder in the public consciousness since 1892. The case and the enigmatic figure at the center of it – Lizzie herself – remain sources of fascination and intrigue.

    A new book examines how the prosecution of Lizzie Borden became the trial of the 19th century — and how her case continues to be reimagined more than 125 years later. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson has the story.

    And a quick warning: this murder mystery does includes some graphic images.

  • Cara Robertson:

    This is most likely the weapon that killed the Bordens.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Cara Robertson is taking us through some of the Borden-alia, as it's known, housed at the Historical Society in Fall River, Massachusetts. 32-year-old Lizzie Borden was accused of using this hatchet to kill her father and stepmother in August of 1892.

  • Cara Robertson:

    It is about the right size for most of the wounds on the Borden's skulls.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Prosecutors at Borden's trial had a medical expert demonstrate how the hatchet fit into the skulls, a scene that was depicted on the front page of the Boston Globe in June 1893.

  • Cara Robertson:

    One juror became so nauseated that he passed out.

  • Megan Thompson:

    It was the original "trial of the century" according to Robertson, an attorney and former Supreme Court clerk. She's the author of "The Trial of Lizzie Borden," which began as her undergraduate thesis and is the culmination of more than 20 years of research.

  • Cara Robertson:

    Any kind of murder would have been disturbing enough particularly of an elderly couple in an otherwise quiet home. But in this case the Borden's were hacked to death.

  • Megan Thompson:

    The murders took place in broad daylight in Fall River, a then-prosperous mill town, south of Boston. Lizzie's father, Andrew Borden, was a wealthy real estate owner, and Abby Borden was his second wife.

    At the time of the murders, only Lizzie Borden and a housemaid were known to be on the property. But Lizzie was not immediately arrested, Robertson says, because of rigid beliefs about class, race, and religion – and about women and criminality.

  • Cara Robertson:

    You know she was native born. She was active in her church. She was from a good family. Or what was called a good family. And so there seemed to be no way according to their understanding of what women were capable of for her to have done something so violent. The police were looking for a depraved outsider, preferably with a foreign accent.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Lizzie Borden, unmarried and living in her father's house, might not have had an obvious motive at first. But, Robertson says, there were disputes about money and where the family lived. The modest borden house was located in a middle-class neighborhood near the commercial heart of Fall River.

    Andrew Borden had a fair amount of money and Lizzie thought that they should be living up on the hill not down here in the flats.

  • Cara Robertson:

    Right. Lizzie Borden would have preferred to live in the Hill District with people like more socially-elevated Borden cousins.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Robertson says there was bad blood between the stepmother and Lizzie and her sister, who lived here too. At the time of the murders, the family was barely on speaking terms.

  • Cara Robertson:

    Well, superficially the Borden's looked like a normal household. But beneath the surface It was a household of suffocating tension and the site of its own mini cold war

  • Megan Thompson:

    Today, it's a bed and breakfast, where guests can play amateur sleuth, and it's a draw for those fascinated by the mystery.

  • Cara Robertson:

    This is the room in which Andrew Borden was murdered. And this is a replica of the sofa on which he was found.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Lizzie told the authorities that she found her father's body in the downstairs living room around 11am and that she had been out in the barn when the murder happened.

  • Cara Robertson:

    There is a sense that if they can actually see the rooms in which Lizzie Borden and her family lived that somehow they'll have insight into the murderers and have an understanding of whether or not she in fact was the killer.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Abby Borden was killed an hour and a half before Andrew, but found afterwards in an upstairs guest room. Lizzie was home at the time, but claimed to hear and see nothing. She even walked past the room where the body was on her way downstairs. These steps are now a key location for visitors testing Borden's claim.

  • Cara Robertson:

    So from this step you can see underneath the bed. It was a point of contention as to whether or not Lizzie Borden would have been able to see Mrs. Borden's body on the other side of the bed.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Guests can sleep right next to where Abby Borden was killed. And some have even tried to reenact her body falling to the ground, to see if the noise would have been heard downstairs.

  • Cara Robertson:

    As you can see from the rooms and the proximity of one room to another it it does raise the question of how someone could have fallen, particularly after such a violent attack and that that sound not have been heard throughout the house.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Lizzie Borden was ultimately indicted and her trial began almost a year later. It made headlines around the country and the courthouse in nearby New Bedford was swamped with press and crowds trying to get in to watch. The spectacle was fueled by the gory details, but also by Lizzie Borden's demeanor. She was described as a "human sphinx."

  • Cara Robertson:

    Lizzie Borden had an a rare self-possession and that was something that that cut both ways so that on the one hand it seemed to embody dignified womanhood that perhaps this is how someone who has been charged with something just so horrible and knows her own innocence would behave. But there was something disturbing about that same self-possession to people who thought that she had killed her father and stepmother and it seemed unwomanly that she should have been crying more she should have fainted more.

  • Megan Thompson:

    After a 13 day trial, the jury spent less than two hours deliberating before delivering the verdict: not guilty. Robertson says the acquittal was not a surprise; the evidence against borden at the trial was mostly circumstantial.

    Borden returned to Fall River, where she promptly bought this house in The Hills, where she had always wanted to live. she never spoke publicly about the case and died at 66. But the crime and trial have lived on – in dozens of books, an opera, a ballet, on television, and in movies.

    Lizzie Borden Took an Ax film: You are a murderer!

  • Megan Thompson:

    Why is this case so enduring? Why are we still so interested in it?

  • Cara Robertson:

    It's a little bit like a locked room mystery from the Gilded Age as written by Sophocles. And particularly the idea that a daughter could kill a father and kill him in such a brutal and personal way is something that still troubles us and does not have a parallel in the rest of American history.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And over the years, new theories about the crime have been put forward, too.

  • Cara Robertson:

    In the 90s, it was suddenly thought that Lizzie Borden might be a victim of incest and that that would explain both why she did it and also the very brutality of the crimes.

  • Megan Thompson:

    The most recent is found in 2018's "Lizzie," a #metoo movement-era depiction that imagines an abusive father and an intimate relationship between lizzie and the housemaid.

  • Cara Robertson:

    The Lizzie movie piles on the motivations, the murders become a desperate act of a woman to free herself from patriarchal authority.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So the assumption in a lot of these theories is that yes she did in fact do it but she had a reason to?

  • Cara Robertson:

    Right. What's interesting to me about those other possible explanations is that they tend to reveal more about the moments in which they are formulated than they do about the essential facts or the truth of the mystery

  • Megan Thompson:

    You've been studying this case for the better part of 20 years. What do you think? Did Lizzie Borden do it?

  • Cara Robertson:

    As you can imagine I'm asked that quite a lot. I end up pretty much where I started which is which is it is difficult to see how anyone else could have done it. We'll never know. But I am still interested in why we find it so troubling why that's such why that's such a hard answer to accept.

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