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The trial of Lizzie Borden shows the effect that public opinion can have on the life of an accused person, regardless of the outcome of a fair trial.
Lizzie Borden was born July 19, 1860. She was a plain, outspoken woman who lived with her father, stepmother, and sister in a house on Second Street in Fall River, a small industrial city located in southeastern Massachusetts.
According to local rumors, the Borden family was not noted for its harmonious relationships. Andrew Borden was a quiet, unpleasant man who had two daughters, Lizzie and Emma, by a previous marriage, and who had married his present wife in 1865. Neither Lizzie nor Emma favored the union and animosity existed among the three Borden women.
On August 4, 1892, the residents of Fall River were shocked and frightened by the brutal ax murders of Andrew Borden and his wife. The killings were committed at the Borden home in daylight. Emma Borden was out of town, but Lizzie discovered her father's body on the couch in the living room; she immediately sent a servant, Bridget, for help. Upon their return, Bridget and a neighbor found the body of Lizzie's stepmother in an upstairs bedroom.
The town was in an uproar and the newspapers seized the opportunity to sensationalize an already lurid story. Lizzie became the prime suspect, and throughout Fall River, speculation spread about her actions on that fatal day, suggesting that Lizzie attacked her stepmother and afterward carefully cleaned the ax and changed her clothes. She then did her normal housework until her father returned from town to take a nap on the couch. While he slept, Lizzie killed him, and again cleaned the ax and her clothing. Chemical tests did not provide any substantial evidence because the alleged murder weapon, the ax, was cleaned so thoroughly.
The story of the murders was embellished with continued fragmented reports of Lizzie's behavior. One source claimed that Lizzie was devoid of any emotion when the corpses were found; another witnessed Lizzie in the act of burning a dress shortly after the murders were committed; still another stated that the suspect had attempted to purchase poison as recently as one day before the killings. The condemning public showed Lizzie no mercy, and some unknown rhymer composed a grotesque verse relating the events. The still familiar rhyme reads as follows:
Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.
An inquest was held five days after the discovery of the murders, and Lizzie was subsequently arrested. The trial began in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in June 1893, and lasted thirteen days. Those days were filled with contradictory accounts of the crime, but the main point of contention concerned Lizzie's assertion that she was in the barn at the time the murders were committed, between 11:00 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. An ice cream vendor corroborated Lizzie's story by testifying that he had seen the defendant leaving the barn at the aforementioned time. The defense attorney argued brilliantly on his client's behalf—the evidence was mostly circumstantial—and the jury found Lizzie Borden not guilty of the murder of her parents.
Lizzie Borden was acquitted by the jury but not by the public. After her death on June 1, 1927, in Fall River, she was still not exonerated in the public mind; she is famous only in connection with the bloody events of August 4, 1892.
Hoffman, Paul Dennis. 2000. Yesterday in Old Fall River: A Lizzie Borden Companion. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press.
Masterton, William L. 2000. Lizzie Didn't Do It! Boston: Branden.
Ortiz, Catalina. 1997. "Defense Has the Edge: New Trial, Same Verdict: Lizzie Borden 'No Murderer.'" Chicago Daily Law Bulletin 143 (September 17).
Robertson, Cara W. 1996. "Representing "Miss Lizzie": Cultural Convictions in the Trial of Lizzie Borden." Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 8 (summer): 351–416.