Did she do it? Anybody who knew for sure—like Lizzie Borden herself—is long dead.
Lizzie Borden was the only person charged in the murders of her parents, a gory domestic violence case that has never been resolved. And although she was acquitted, on this day in 1893, the town where she remained for the rest of her life didn’t believe she was innocent.
There’s a children’s rhyme that starts “Lizzie Borden took an axe”–you see where this is going. There are documentaries examining the case, a rock opera and even a Lifetime series. Borden, writes Stacy Conradt for Mental Floss, had been at the center of the “trial of the century.” Her jurors (“12 heavily mustachioed men”) let her off, but she chose to stay in her home town of Fall River, Massachusetts, where she became a pariah. Her mysterious story has been the subject of speculation ever since.
The story of Lizzie Borden’s murder charge has a lot of moving parts, but at its root is that her family had money. That was one of the big motives given for why Borden might have killed her father, Andrew Borden, and her stepmother, Abby Borden, writes Cheryl Eddy for Gizmodo. “Though Andrew was a wealthy businessman, he was notoriously frugal, which caused friction in the household,” Eddy writes. There were other factors: both Lizzie Borden and her sister Emma still lived at home, but were in their 30s, and they didn’t like their father or his wife very much.
“With the despised Andrew and Abby out of the way, Lizzie and Emma stood to inherit an estate which, adjusted for inflation, was worth around seven million dollars,” Eddy writes. Money and independence in one fell stroke, or actually about 30 strokes in total, as the coroner found.
Borden had behaved suspiciously in the days leading up to the murders, which took place in August 1892. and it seemed unlikely that she couldn’t have overheard the brutal crime, as she was home. (Emma was away from home, which gave her an alibi.) But the in the end, it was impossible to directly link Borden to the murders and the jury reached its verdict in just 90 minutes. When the verdict was announced, writes historian Douglas O. Linder, “Lizzie let out a yell, sank into her chair, rested her hands on a courtroom rail, put her face in her hands, and then let out a second cry of joy.”
Newspapers, and the public, just couldn't let the case go. Some speculated that she could have done it while in some kind of fugue state, or—in one dramatic case, that she had done it naked. Other people thought she couldn’t have possibly done it, writes Linder, because she was an upper-middle class white woman, a group that was perceived as “respectable.” In the absence of any kind of decisive proof, rumors flew.
Even though she bought a ritzy new house in a wealthy area and in 1905 changed “Lizzie” to “Lizbeth,” Conradt writes, people were not ready to let her murder charge go. “People refused to sit near her at church,” Conradt writes. “And children, probably daring each other to tempt the murderess, would ring her doorbell in the middle of the night and pelt her house with gravel and eggs.”
Somewhere in the decade after Borden’s acquittal, the Borden rhyme surfaced, writes The Providence Journal: “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.”
Perhaps if another suspect had been brought forward, the people of Fall River wouldn’t have treated Borden as they did. But nobody else was ever charged for the murders, which remain officially unsolved.