Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one
The question of whether or not Lizzie Borden killed her father and stepmother is one that has intrigued me since I first heard that poem. There’s something so sinister and personal about hacking people to death, although apparently Lizzie did try to buy poison (prussic acid) the day before, reportedly to clean a cape. The pharmacist refused her request, so perhaps using an axe (technically, a hatchet) was her only option.
Providing she’s the one who killed them, that is, and the evidence would suggest she was. The only two people in the house that day, other than the victims, were Lizzie and a maid, who was outside washing windows when the stepmother was killed. The Bordens tended to keep their doors locked, and there were no signs of forced entry. Presumably at least one door was unlocked, so the maid could get back inside the house, but she saw no one loitering nearby that day.
Add to that the fact that Lizzie’s father had gone for a walk when his wife was killed. If someone had broken into the house to kill them both, he would have had to hide there to await the father’s return or else leave for a while and then come back without being seen by the maid or Lizzie either time. Neither idea is very plausible.
In addition, a few days later, a witness saw Lizzie burning a dress, the one she might have been wearing the day of the murders. She claimed it had been stained with paint, but in those days, clothes were rarely destroyed, even stained ones. Rather, they were passed down to servants or turned into rags.
I mentioned at the beginning that a hatchet was an unusual weapon for the crime, but perhaps it was fitting after all. A few months before the murders, pigeons had made a home in the family barn and Lizzie even made a coop for them. Shortly after, Lizzie’s father killed the birds, something that greatly upset Lizzie, because he felt the neighborhood boys would try and break into the barn to get at the pigeons. His weapon of choice? A hatchet. Perhaps Lizzie was getting a little payback.
Lizzie has always maintained her innocence. If she didn’t kill her parents, then who did? Could it have been the maid? Some theorize that she snapped after being forced to wash windows on a scorching day while still recovering from the stomach flu. Or perhaps Lizzie’s sister, Emma, wanted to speed up her inheritance. The father was said to be quite miserly. Maybe Emma was tired of his frugal ways. She was out of town at the time of the murders, but she was staying a mere fifteen miles away. Or it could have been Lizzie’s illegitimate half-brother, who tried to extort money from the father but was rebuffed. Yet another possible suspect was Lizzie’s uncle, who stayed in the house the night before the murders. He was reported to have an air-tight alibi for the next day, but some people still suspected he was involved.
We’ll likely never know for sure who killed the Bordens, but the mystery surrounding the case continues to draw interest. The home where the murders occurred has been turned into a bed and breakfast (in fact, a recent episode of Supernatural took place there), and there are several books and TV movies centered on the crime.
It really shouldn’t be a surprise. People love a good real-life murder mystery, especially one that involves a hatchet.