Skip to main content

She Couldn’t Have Done It, Even If She Did

July 2024
19min read

Why Lizzie Borden Went Free

During the summer of 1893, Americans riveted their attention on the town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Lizzie Andrew Borden was being tried for the gruesome ax murder of her father and stepmother. All other news paled in comparison, for here, in southeastern Massachusetts, not only a particular woman, but the entire Victorian conception of womanhood, was on trial for its life.

The drama began in August of 1892 at Number 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, the home of Andrew Jackson Borden, whose family coat of arms prophetically bore a lion holding a battle-ax. The household consisted of Andrew, seventy; Abby Gray Borden, sixty-five, his wife; his two daughters, Lizzie Andrew and Emma Lenora, aged thirty-two and forty-two; and Bridget Sullivan, twenty-six, an Irish servant who had been with the family for nearly three years.

Andrew Borden began his business career as an undertaker. It was rumored that he had cut the feet off corpses to make them fit into undersized coffins, but however ill-gotten his initial profits, Borden invested them wisely. By 1892 he was worth nearly half a million dollars, served as a director of several banks and as a board member of three woolen mills, and had built the imposing A. J. Borden Building on Main Street as a testimony to his business acumen. To keep his fortunes increasing, Borden foreclosed, undercut, overcharged, and hoarded without flinching.

Borden’s first wife, Sarah, had died in 1862 after bearing him three daughters, only two of whom survived past infancy. Two years later, he married Abby Gray, a thirty-eight-year-old spinster. Nothing suggests that Abby was anything but kind to the two little girls whose stepmother she became, but they never returned her affection. After her marriage, Abby became a compulsive eater. Only a little over five feet tall, by 1892 she weighed more than two hundred pounds.

Emma, the older daughter, still lived at home at age forty-two. By all accounts, she was dowdy and narrow-minded. Lizzie Borden, ten years younger, also lived at home. Otherwise tightfisted, Andrew Borden doted on his younger daughter: over the years he lavished on Lizzie expensive gifts-a diamond ring, a sealskin cape, even a Grand Tour of Europe. Lizzie worshiped her father in return, and even gave him her high school ring to wear as a token of her affection.

Like her sister, Lizzie had evidently given up hope of marriage, but she led a more active life, centered around good works and the Central Congregational Church, where she taught a Sundayschool class of Chinese children, the sons and daughters of Fall River laundrymen. Though she loathed doing housework, she enthusiastically helped cook the church’s annual Christmas dinner for local newsboys. In addition to being secretarytreasurer of the Christian Endeavor, Lizzie was active in the Ladies’ Fruit and Flower Mission, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Good Samaritan Charity Hospital.

Lizzie’s Christian charity did not extend to her own home. The Borden family was not happy. While Emma tolerated her stepmother, Lizzie openly disliked her. Ill feelings increased in 1887, when Andrew gave Abby a house for the use of her sister. Seeking peace, Andrew gave his daughters a house of greater value to rent out, but they were not placated. A dressmaker later remembered making the mistake of referring to Abby as Lizzie’s “mother,” causing Lizzie to snap, “Don’t call her that to me. She is a mean thing and we hate her.”

Even the house Lizzie lived in vexed her. Its Grant-era furnishings contrasted sharply with her stylish clothes. There was no bath and no electricity, though such conveniences were common elsewhere in town. Beside the water closet in the basement stood a pile of old newspapers for sanitary purposes. No interior space was wasted on hallways. Rooms simply opened into one another, making it difficult for anyone to pass through unnoticed. Lizzie longed to live “on the hill,” Fall River’s most elegant neighborhood and the symbol of the social prominence she craved. While her father’s wealth entitled her to live there, Andrew insisted on living on déclassé Second Street.

On Tuesday, August 2,1892, strange things began to happen in the Borden house. Mr. and Mrs. Borden and Bridget suffered severe vomiting; Lizzie later claimed she felt queasy the next day. Emma, on vacation in Fairhaven, was spared. Over Andrew’s objections, Abby waddled across the street to Dr. Bowen’s to tell him she feared they had been poisoned. When he learned that the previous night’s dinner had been warmed-over fish, the doctor laughingly sent her home.

The next day, Uncle John Morse, brother of the first Mrs. Borden, arrived unexpectedly on business. Like Andrew, Morse was single-minded in his pursuit of wealth, and the two men had remained friends. That evening, Lizzie visited Miss Alice Russell, a friend of Emma’s. Miss Russell later testified that their conversation had been unsettling. Lizzie had spoken of burglary attempts on the Borden home, of threats against her father from unknown enemies. “I feel as if something was hanging over me that I cannot throw off.…,” she said. “Father has so much trouble.…” Though Miss Russell tried to reassure her, Lizzie left on an ominous, but prescient, note: “I am afraid somebody will do something.”

On Thursday morning, August 4, Bridget rose about six and lit the breakfast fire. Around seven, the elder Bordens and their guest sat down to eat in the dining room. Lizzie did not appear downstairs till nine. By then, Mrs. Borden had begun dusting the downstairs and Morse had left the house to visit relatives across town. Lizzie told Bridget she did not feel well enough to eat breakfast, but sat in the kitchen sipping coffee. About twenty after nine, Andrew, too, left the house, setting off downtown to oversee his investments. Perhaps ten minutes later, Abby Borden went upstairs to tidy the guest room, and Bridget went outside to begin washing the downstairs windows. Only Lizzie and Abby remained in the house; Abby was never seen alive again.

Perhaps because of the oppressive heat, Andrew broke his longestablished routine by coming home for lunch at a quarter of eleven, an hour and a half early. Bridget later testified that she had just begun scrubbing the inside of the windows when she heard him struggling with the front-door lock and let him in. Lizzie, by her own admission, was coming down the stairs from the second floor where Abby’s body lay. (At the Borden trial the following year, the prosecution would produce witnesses who testified that Abby’s body, lying on the guest-room floor, was clearly visible from the staircase, while the defense claimed it was almost completely obscured by a bed.) Andrew asked Lizzie about Abby’s whereabouts, according to Bridget, and Lizzie told him that Abby had received a note asking her to attend a sick friend.

Bridget finished her windows and climbed the back stairs to her attic room to rest at about eleven. Andrew lay down on the parlor sofa to nap. On the guest-room floor above him lay Abby’s bleeding corpse. The house was hot and silent. Within minutes, Bridget recalled, she was awakened by Lizzie calling, “Come down quick; father’s dead; somebody came in and killed him.”

Little was left of Andrew’s face. Half an eye hung from its socket. Doctors testified that a single ax blow had killed him; nine others had been gratuitous. Shortly after the police arrived, Bridget and a neighbor ventured upstairs for a sheet to cover the hideous sight, and there they found Abby. Her plump body lay face down in a pool of blood, her head and neck a bloody mass. Those first on the scene noted that Lizzie remained remarkably calm throughout the ordeal. While one woman claimed that there were tears in her eyes, several others testified that Lizzie’s eyes were dry and her hands steady.

News traveled fast from neighbor to neighbor, and even before the evening presses rolled, everyone in Fall River seemed to know of the horrifying incident. A local reporter recalled that “The cry of murder swept through the city like a typhoon … murder committed under the very glare of the midday sun within three minutes walk of the City Hall.…” By the next day, the story was front-page news throughout the country and when, after two days, no crazed ax-wielder was produced, newspapers which had praised the police began to question their competence. Trial transcripts suggest that the police did err on the side of caution. If the victims had not been so prominent, matters would have been simpler. The New York Times appreciated this fact, and on August 6 noted that “The police are acting slowly and carefully in the affair giving way, no doubt, to feelings of sentiment because of the high social standing of the parties involved.” No systematic search of the Borden house was conducted until thirty-two hours after the murders. Out of deference to the bereaved daughters, neither Lizzie nor Emma, who had been summoned home from her vacation, was closely questioned for nearly three days.

Yet, by Saturday, the day of the funerals, the police felt that they had little choice but to arrest Lizzie. She alone, they felt, had had the opportunity to commit the murders. They found it hard to believe that anyone could have passed through the house unseen by Lizzie, who claimed to have been on the first floor while Abby was being murdered above. It also strained credibility to assert, as Lizzie did, that Abby’s 210-pound body had crashed to the floor without a sound. Furthermore, despite a reward offered by the Borden sisters, no sender of the note that Lizzie claimed had called Abby to town could be found.

Lizzie’s own contradictory answers to the first questions put to her by police were highly damaging. When asked her whereabouts when her father was killed, she gave different answers to different interrogators: “In the back yard”; “…in the loft getting a piece of iron for sinkers”; “…up in the loft eating pears.” The closed barn loft would have been so insufferably hot that day that few would have visited it voluntarily, much less lingered to eat pears. Furthermore, an officer who claimed to have been the first to examine the loft after the crimes testified that the dust on the floor was undisturbed by footprints or trailing skirts.

In Lizzie’s favor was the fact that she had been neat and clean when first seen after the murders. The police were certain that the murderer would have been covered with blood. (Medical experts would later examine the trajectories of the spurting blood and argue otherwise, but belief in a blood-drenched killer persisted.)

Though puzzled by Lizzie’s cleanliness, police were certain that they had found the murder weapon. Lying in a box of dusty tools, stored high on a chimney jog in the basement, was a hatchet head. It was neither rusty nor old, though it had been freshly rubbed in ashes, perhaps to make it appear so. Moreover, its wooden handle, from which blood would have been difficult to remove, had been broken off near the head.

When the news broke that Lizzie was under suspicion, newspaper readers were horrified—not over the possibility that Lizzie might have murdered her parents, but that the police would harbor such horrid thoughts. The Boston Globe expressed its readers’ indignation: “The only person that the government can catch is one whose very innocence placed her in its power; the poor, defenseless child, who ought to have claimed by very helplessness their protection.”

Angry letters denouncing the police flooded newspaper offices from New York to Chicago. Editorials appeared castigating the brutish officers who would suspect a grieving daughter of such a crime. Americans were certain that well-brought-up daughters could not commit murder with a hatchet on sunny summer mornings. And their reaction was not entirely without rationale.

Throughout the 1890's, nearly every issue of Forum, Arena, Scribner’s, North American Review, Popular Science Monthly , and Harper’s (one of Lizzie’s favorites) carried at least one article attesting to the gentleness, physical frailty, and docility of the well-bred American woman. Many of these articles were written in response to the growing number of women who were demanding equal rights, and were written with the intention of proving women hopelessly unable to handle the sacred privileges of men. After having read many such articles written by “learned gentlemen"-and antifeminist women—by the summer of 1892, men and women, regardless of how they stood on women’s rights, felt certain that Lizzie Borden could not have hacked her parents to death. Physical and psychological frailties simply made it impossible.

Popular theories about woman’s physiological and psychological make-up took on new importance to followers of the Borden case. After detailed anatomical analysis, scientists confidently declared that the women of their era differed little from their prehistoric sisters. They spoke with assurance of woman’s arrested evolution. The fault, they agreed, lay in her reproductive capacity, which sapped vital powers that in men contributed to ever-improving physique and intellect.

The defects of the female anatomy included sloping shoulders, broad hips, underdeveloped muscles, short arms and legs, and poor coordination. To those who believed Lizzie innocent, evidence was abundant that no short-armed, uncoordinated, weakling of a woman could swing an ax with enough force to crash through hair and bone almost two dozen times.

But there was more to it than that. Having already noted woman’s smaller frame, anatomists should hardly have been surprised to find her skull proportionately smaller than man’s, yet they held up this revelation, too, as further proof of her inferiority. Rather than follow intellectual pursuits, for which they were woefully ill-equipped, women were advised to accept their intended roles as wives and mothers. After all, they were reminded, “Woman is only womanly when she sets herself to man ‘like perfect music unto noble words.’”

Spinsters like Lizzie were, as one author charitably put it, “deplorable accidents,” but they were not wholly useless. The nation’s old maids were urged to devote themselves to Christian charities and to teaching—a “reproductive calling.” Lizzie’s devotion to good works and the church followed this prescription precisely. Compelling indeed was the image of this pious daughter serving steaming bowls of soup to indigent newsboys and diligently trying to bring the gospel to the heathen Chinese of Fall River.

While anatomists studied the size of woman’s skull, psychologists examined its contents. Among the qualities found to be essentially female were spiritual sensitivity, a good memory for minutiae, and a great capacity for “ennobling love.” These positive attributes, however, could not obscure the psychologists’ basic premise: women were illogical, inconsistent, and incapable of independent thought.

It is no accident that these traits bore striking resemblance to those attributed to children. As one psychologist pointed out in Scribner’s: “Women are merely large babies. They are shortsighted, frivolous and occupy an intermediate stage between children and men.…”

Several authors manfully chuckled over woman’s inability to plan and think things through. Clearly the murderer of the Bordens had planned things quite well. Not only had “he” managed to murder two people and elude the police, but “he” had shown remarkable tenacity by hiding for more than an hour after murdering Abby in order to do the same to Andrew.

Woman was considered man’s superior in one area only: the moral sphere. She was thought to possess more “natural refinement,” “diviner instincts,” and stronger “spiritual sensibility” than man. She was inherently gentle, and abhorred cruelty—hardly the virtues of an ax murderer. Woman was also truthful, though some authors attributed her inability to lie to a lack of intelligence rather than to innate goodness. When reporters interviewed Lizzie’s friends, the young women repeatedly mentioned her honesty.

Lizzie benefited greatly from the prevailing stereotypes of feminine delicacy and docility: her cause was also served by the widely accepted stereotype of the female criminal. Ironically, the same periodicals which carried articles about women’s gentle nature also carried enough sordid stories of crimes committed by them to cast considerable doubt on their moral superiority. But writers did not find the situation paradoxical. To them, there were clearly two types of women: the genteel ladies of their own class and those women beneath them. Gentlemen authors believed that the womanly instincts of gentleness and love were the monopoly of upper-class women.

Scientists could hardly charge women of their own class with propensities toward violence without casting doubt on their own good breeding. For lower-class women with whom they had no intimate ties (at least none to which they would admit), the situation was quite different. These writers made it very clear that no woman servant, housekeeper, prostitute, nurse, washerwoman, barmaid, or factory girl could be above suspicion.

Several authors even believed that the female criminal had to look the part. In an article in North American Review , August, 1895, one criminologist thoughtfully provided the following description: “[She] has coarse black hair and a good deal of it.… She has often a long face, a receding forehead, overjutting brows, prominent cheek-bones, an exaggerated frontal angle as seen in monkeys and savage races, and nearly always square jaws.”

She could also be marked by deep wrinkles, a tendency toward baldness, and numerous moles. Other authors noted her long middle fingers, projecting ears, and overlapping teeth. While Lizzie had a massive jaw, her hair was red, her teeth were straight, and her ears flat. Perhaps fortunately for Bridget, a member of the suspect servant class, she was mole-free and brown-haired, and she did not have protruding middle fingers.

Criminal women supposedly exhibited neither the aversion to evil nor the love of mankind which ennobled their upper-class sisters. Among their vices were said to be great cruelty, passionate temper, a craving for revenge, cunning greed, rapacity, contempt for truth, and vulgarity. Such women were thought to be “erotic,” but incapable of devoted love. Certainly the Bordens’ murderer had been exceedingly cruel. But, while Lizzie was admittedly fond of money and volunteered her dislike of her stepmother, few would have called her rapacious or vengeful, and erotic was hardly an adjective one would have applied to the chaste treasurer of the Fruit and Flower Mission.

The ferocity of the criminal woman fascinated many authors. A favorite murderess was Catherine Hayes, who, in 1890, stabbed her husband to death, cut off his head with a penknife, and boiled it. But then, Mrs. Hayes was a mill worker. One writer did admit that murders might be committed by well-bred women; their weapon would be poison, however, rather than a penknife or an ax, because its passivity appealed to their nature.

Lizzie’s attorneys skillfully exploited these two stereotypes—the genteel young woman and the wart-ridden murderess—to their client’s advantage throughout the Borden trial. Even before the case reached court, the press had firmly implanted in the public mind a clear picture of Lizzie as bereaved daughter. The image-making began with the very first—and entirely falsestory about Lizzie printed in the Boston Globe on the day after the murders: “The young woman, with her customary cheery disposition, evidenced her feelings in the tuneful melody from Il Trovatore , her favorite opera, which she was singing as she returned to the house.… One glance into the living room changed her from a buoyant-spirited young woman into a nervous wreck, every fiber of her being palpitating with the fearful effects of that look.…”


In the dozens of articles that followed, Lizzie became the embodiment of genteel young womanhood. A reporter who interviewed her friends found “not one unmaidenly nor a single deliberately unkind act.” Voicing the belief of many, he concluded, “Miss Borden, without a word from herself in her own defense, is a strong argument in her own favor.”

The attributes of womanliness which vindicated Lizzie did not apply to Bridget. A servant, semiliterate, nearly friendless, Catholic and Irish, Bridget was the perfect target for suspicion. To the dismay of many, no evidence or motive ever could be found to implicate her in the deaths of her employers. Nevertheless, the police received dozens of letters urging her arrest. One man wrote demanding that Bridget and “her Confessor”—that is, her priest—be thrown into prison until she admitted her guilt.

The inquest began in Fall River on August 9. Two pharmacists from Smith’s Drug Store testified that Lizzie had been shopping for poison on the afternoon before the murders. She had not asked for arsenic, which was sold over the counter, they said, but for the more lethal prussic acid, claiming she needed it to clean her sealskin cape. On the stand, Lizzie steadfastly denied the pharmacists’ story, even denied knowing where Smith’s Drug Store was, though it had been there for fourteen years on a street not five minutes from the house in which she had lived since childhood.

Lizzie’s own testimony was full of contradictions. Discrepancies in her story might have been explained by hysteria or grief, but she had displayed neither. On August 5, a reporter at the murder scene for the Providence Journal noted: “She wasn’t the least bit scared or worried. Most women would faint at seeing their father dead, for I never saw a more horrible sight.… She is a woman of remarkable nerve and self-control.”

Such self-control seemed unnatural in an age when women were expected to swoon, and many people were alarmed by it. The Reverend Mr. Buck, Lizzie’s minister, reassured her champions that “her calmness is the calmness of innocence.” Her lawyer, Mr. Jennings, sought to explain away her inconsistent answers by noting that “she was having her monthly illness” on the day of the murders, thereby evoking embarrassed nods of understanding.

Public sentiment on Lizzie’s behalf rose to extraordinary heights. In full agreement with their pastor, her church declared her innocent. Ecclesiastical supporters were joined by several noted feminists. Mary Livermore, Susan Fessenden (president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union), and Lucy Stone took up the cudgels on Lizzie’s behalf. Livermore declared her arrest to be another outrage perpetrated by “the tyrant man.” Lizzie became the sacrificial lamb, the simple, warmhearted girl offered up by corrupt police to the altar of a power-hungry district attorney.

Nonetheless, the judge ordered her arrest at the inquest’s end.

Reporters found Lizzie disappointingly composed after the indictment. With no tears to report, they concentrated on her cherry-trimmed hat and the two ministers on whose arms she leaned as she went off to jail in Taunton, the county seat. The horrible cell that awaited her was described in detail. In fact, Lizzie was not confined to a cell, but spent much of her time in the matron’s room. Little mention was made of the flowers that graced the prison’s window sill, or the lace-edged pillow slips brought by Emma, or of the meals which Lizzie had sent over from Taunton’s best hotel.

When the preliminary hearing before Judge Blaisdell began in late November, reporters from more than forty out-of-town newspapers attended. Police held back huge crowds while ladies and gentlemen from Fall River’s elite filed into the courtroom to claim the best seats.

A new piece of evidence, damaging to Lizzie’s cause, was introduced. She had turned over to the police a spotlessly clean, fancy, blue bengaline dress that she swore she had worn on the day of the murders. Women in New England were surprised. No one wore party dresses of bengaline, a partly woolen fabric, around the house in the August heat. While witnesses swore that Lizzie was indeed wearing blue that day, none could swear that this dress was the one they had seen. To confound the problem, Alice Russell reluctantly admitted that she had seen Lizzie burn a blue cotton dress in the kitchen stove three days after the murders. The dress was soiled, she said Lizzie had told her, with brown paint—a color, noted the prosecutor, not unlike that of dried blood.

Except for rubbing her shoe buttons together, Lizzie sat quietly and displayed little interest. On the very last day, however, she broke into sobs as she heard her lawyer declare that no “person could have committed that crime unless his heart was black as hell.” Delighted newspaper artists sketched a tearful Lizzie listening to Mr. Jennings as he asked: “Would it be the stranger, or would it be the one bound to the murdered man by ties of love?… what does it mean when we say the youngest daughter? The last one whose baby fingers have been lovingly entwined about her father’s brow? Is there nothing in the ties of love and affection?”

Judge Blaisdell listened to all the evidence. It was no stranger who sat before him, but the daughter of a family he knew well. Jennings’ image of the twining baby fingers was compelling, but so was the evidence prosecutor Hosea Knowlton produced. The judge finally began to speak: “Suppose for a single moment that a man was standing there. He was found close by that guestchamber which to Mrs. Borden was a chamber of death. Suppose that a man had been found in the vicinity of Mr. Borden and the only account he could give of himself was the unreasonable one that he was out in the barn looking for sinkers, that he was in the yard.… Would there be any question in the minds of men what should be done with such a man?” The judge’s voice broke, but he continued: “… the judgment of the court is that you are probably guilty and you are ordered to wait the action of the Superior Court.”

The trial began in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on June 5, 1893. Reporters from all over the East Coast converged on the town. Every hotel room within miles was reserved. Fences had to be erected around the courthouse to control the crowds.

Lizzie’s newly inherited fortune of several hundred thousand dollars bought her excellent counsel. George Robinson, former governor of the state, was a masterful orator with a politician’s shrewd sense of public opinion: at his suggestion, Lizzie went into mourning for the first time since the murders. Laboring against him were District Attorneys Hosea Knowlton and William Moody (a future U.S. Supreme Court justice), as able as Robinson, but with a distaste for flamboyance. Among the three judges who would hear Lizzie’s case was Justice Justin Dewey, whom Robinson had elevated to the bench while governor.

One hundred and forty-eight men awaited jury selection. It was assumed that all had formed opinions; they were asked only if their minds were still open enough to judge the evidence fairly. The first man called claimed he could never convict a woman of a capital offense and was dismissed. Of the final twelve, the foreman was a real estate broker and sometime politician, two were manufacturers, three were mechanics, and six were farmers with considerable acreage. Not one foreign-sounding name was among them. Nearly all were over fifty: all were good Yankees.

The first blow to the prosecution came when Judge Dewey ruled Lizzie’s damaging inquest testimony inadmissible and barred evidence regarding the alleged attempt to buy poison. While these rulings made Knowlton’s task more difficult, his biggest worry was that jurymen believed, as did the Boston Globe , in the “moral improbability that a woman of refinement and gentle training … could have conceived and executed so bloody a butchery.” As he repeatedly reminded the jury, “We must face this case as men, not gallants.”

Knowlton produced medical experts from Harvard who testified that any average-sized woman could have swung an ax with force enough to commit the murders, and that the trajectory of blood would have been away from the assailant: Lizzie’s tidy appearance minutes after the crimes had no bearing on her guilt or innocence. Robinson blithely discounted their testimony by asking the jurymen whether they put more store in Harvard scientists than in their own New England common sense.


Though Lizzie later professed to be shocked at his bill of $25,000, Robinson was worth every penny. As she sat before the jury, a Sunday-school teacher and loving youngest daughter, the jurymen, nearly all of whom were fathers themselves, heard Robinson conclude: “If the little sparrow does not fall unnoticed, then indeed in God’s great providence, this woman has not been alone in this courtroom.”

The jury was sent off to deliberate with what one reporter called Judge Dewey’s “plea for the innocent.” The other two judges were said to have been stunned by his lack of objectivity. Though Dewey was indeed grateful to Robinson for his judgeship, a more compelling reason for his unswerving belief in Lizzie’s innocence may have been the three daughters he had at home, the eldest of whom was Lizzie’s age.

The jurors who filed out with Dewey’s plea ringing in their ears were bewhiskered, respectable, family men. If they could believe that a gentlewoman could pick up a hatchet such as surely lay in their own basements, and by murdering her parents become an heiress, what could they think next time they looked into their own girls’ eyes?

They returned in one hour. The New York Times reported that Lizzie’s “face became livid, her lips were compressed as she tottered to her feet to hear the verdict!” Before the clerk could finish asking for it, the foreman cried, “Not guilty!” Lizzie dropped to her seat as an enormous cheer went up from the spectators who climbed onto the benches, waving hats and handkerchiefs and weeping.

It would have been difficult for any jury to convict “beyond all reasonable doubt” on the circumstantial evidence presented. However, in the nearby bar to which the jurors dashed, a reporter learned that there had been no debate at all among the twelve. All exhibits were ignored. Their vote had been immediate and unanimous. It was only to avoid the impression that their minds had been made up in advance that they sat and chatted for an hour before returning with their verdict.

The following morning, Americans found reflected in the headlines their own joy that the jury had been so wise. Lizzie and Emma returned to Second Street.

Fall River society, which had defended her throughout her ordeal, fell away thereafter, and Lizzie was left pretty much alone. Undaunted, she determined to have all the things she had missed in her youth. With what some considered indiscreet haste, she bought a large house on the hill and named it Maplecrof t. She also asked to be called Lisbeth and stopped going to the church whose parishioners had defended her so energetically. Matters were not improved when townspeople learned that she had bought and destroyed every available copy of local reporter Edwin Porter’s The Fall River Tragedy , which had included portions of her inquest testimony.

Lizzie sealed her isolation in 1904 by striking up a friendship with Nance O’Neil, a Boston actress. The following year, to her neighbors’ horror, Lizzie gave a party—complete with caterers and potted palms—for Miss O’Neil and her troupe. That night, Emma quietly moved out and never spoke to or saw Lizzie again.

Lizzie continued to live at Maplecroft in increasing isolation. Undoubtedly, she heard the nasty rhyme children began to sing to the tune of “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay!”:

Lizzie Borden took an ax And gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one!

Lizzie Borden died on June 1, 1927, at the age of sixty-six in Fall River. Emma died ten days later in New Hampshire. Few gravestones conceal a puzzle more intricate than that sealed away by the imposing Borden monument in Oak Grove Cemetery. The truth about the events on Second Street lies buried there along with Andrew, Abby, Emma, and Lizzie, but back then, in the summer of 1893, most Americans knew in their hearts that no young lady like Lizzie could have murdered her parents with an ax. Reputable authors in respectable magazines assured them their intuition was correct. They did not even want to think that it could be otherwise.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.