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ONE OF the most notorious crimes in American history has never been completely resolved. It has, however, given rise to a skipping-rope rhyme, a folk legend, a bevy of books, both non-fiction and otherwise, a ballet, an opera, a film, a heavy metal band, a TV movie—and a bed and breakfast in Fall River, Massachusetts.
It also encouraged wife Dottie and me onto another collectible binge.
Lizzie Borden took an axe/And gave her mother forty whacks./When she saw what she had done,/She gave her father forty-one.
Or did she?
On August 4, 1892, Andrew Jackson Borden and his wife Abby Durfee Gray Borden were found hacked to death by hatchet in their Fall River, Massachusetts, home. Andrew was napping on the sofa in the first floor sitting room. Abby had been doing housework in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Everyone in the family had been ill; a mutton stew, already several days old, had been left on the stove in a stiflingly hot house.
According to the family maid, Lizzie discovered her father. “Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Someone came in and killed him.” Abby, Lizzie’s stepmother, was later discovered upstairs behind a bed. A hatchet head with broken handle was found in the basement.
Police thought Lizzie’s reactions were strange and contradictory. At the inquest four days later, she continued to act erratically, possibly traceable to morphine prescribed to calm her nerves.
Had Lizzie helped her father into his slippers for his nap?
Note Andrew’s boots in the murder photo.
Had Lizzie been eating pears in the barn loft? In that stifling heat?
The trial, which took place the following June, 1893, raised other questions. A few days after the murders, Lizzie burned a dress in the stove. Why? Do you suppose she finally tossed out that mutton? Was the broken hatchet really the murder weapon?
After deliberating an hour and a half, the jury acquitted Lizzie.
After the acquittal, Lizzie started calling herself Lizbeth. She and her sister Emma established new digs, Maplecroft, in a posh part of town. There, they hired live-in maids, a housekeeper and a coachman.
It had been ruled that Abby died first, thus passing her considerable estate momentarily to Andrew and hence to his children. A subsequent court ruling settled claims of Abby’s kin.
Fall River society didn’t think much of the acquittal and ostracized Lizbeth. Emma and she had a falling out about her relationship with actress (and real dish) Nance O’Neil.
Lizbeth A. Borden died of pneumonia, age 66, in 1927. Emma died nine days later. With distribution of the estate in 1933, the Fall River Animal Rescue League received $30,000, a sizable sum now and particularly so during the Great Depression.
So, in that sense, the story ends happy.
Another nugget of Borden lore:
When choreographer Agnes de Mille sought to create the ballet Fall River Legend, composer Morton Gould told her, “I can write hanging music, but not acquittal music.” Agnes, who believed in Lizzie’s guilt, researched the matter and found that a dead person cannot be libeled. Thus, Fall River Legend concludes with Lizzie facing the gallows. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014