Gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
Gave her father forty-one
You've probably heard this schoolyard rhyme at some point in your life. Actually, Lizzie Borden's (step)mother was hacked nineteen times and her father eleven. Also, Lizzie was acquitted of murdering her parents, but Convicted by Public Opinion. And the murder weapon was probably a hatchet rather than an axe. Other than that, the rhyme is very accurate.
In the late 19th century, Lizzie Andrew Borden (July 19, 1860 June 1, 1927) was a grown woman living with her elder sister Emma, her father Andrew, and her stepmother Abby in Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew was a successful banker, but lived well below his means. Normally, a woman of Lizzie's age and class would be married by now, but her father's miserly ways stifled her social life and severely limited her marriage prospects. Lizzie also had a difficult relationship with Abby, whom she regarded as a Wicked Stepmother and would only refer to as "Mrs. Borden".
On the morning of August 4, 1892, Abby Borden was hacked to death in an upstairs room of the Borden house. Later, Andrew returned home from his morning walk and fell asleep on the sofa, where the murderer hacked him to death too. The horrific incident quickly became a national scandal. When the murder happened, Emma had been visiting friends in Fairhaven and the only people known to have been in the vicinity of the house at the time were Lizzie and housekeeper Bridget Sullivan. The housekeeper had no apparent motive, so Lizzie emerged as the primary suspect. The public was enthralled. To Victorian sensibilities, the idea of a woman committing such a violent, physical crime was shocking. After all, everyone knows the Proper Lady only murders with poison.
To those who believe Lizzie was guilty, the trial was a farce and totally stacked in favor of the defense. It's alleged that she played the part of the good Victorian lady to the hilt, properly swooning at the sight of her parents' skulls and eliciting sympathy from the all-male jury. In any case, she was acquitted, but was never able to shake the reputation of being a murderer. It didn't help that the murder was never solved and no one else was ever tried for it.
For what it's worth, neither Lizzie, nor Emma, ever committed another crime on that level. After the trial, she and her sister moved in together and Lizzie became close to the theater scene. Thanks to their substantial inheritance, Lizzie, now going by Lizbeth, would frequently patron various actresses. This, plus the fact neither sister ever married, led some scholars to believe both were lesbians, though there was never any solid evidence of that. Sadly, in 1905 the two had a falling out during a party Lizzie threw for actress Nance O'Neil and Emma moved away, never to see her sister again. In 1927, both sisters died, only nine days apart.
Over the years, Lizzie Borden has become Shrouded in Myth and has been featured in various works of media. In fiction, she's usually portrayed as being guilty. In more pulpy or comedic works, she's typically a Card-Carrying Villain, an over-the-top Halloween character with her trusty hatchet ever-ready for a new murder spree. In more serious depictions, she tends to be played as a Sympathetic Murderer, which necessarily involves portraying Andrew and Abby as Abusive Parents who deserved it. There are also various fantasy works that put a Beethoven Was an Alien Spy spin on Lizzie's story, often providing a supernatural justification for her actions, effectively side-stepping the real-life issues of the case. Whatever the truth is, there is certainly no shortage of theories.
A common trope in fictional depictions is to portray Lizzie as having committed the murders in the nude so that she wouldn't get incriminating blood stains on her clothes. Incidentally, the real Lizzie is known to have burned one of her dresses shortly after the murders. At her trial, she claimed that she burned the dress because it was stained with paint, but the prosecution obviously suspected that it was stained with something else. You'd think that if you were going to portray Lizzie as guilty, you'd just go with the prosecution's actual story, but fiction clearly prefers the explanation that involves nudity because of course it does. Not only does it promise to draw in more viewers, it's something that can be played for all kinds of symbolism. Plus, it makes the story that much more lurid.
Lock it! Latch it!
Here come Lizzie, with a brand-new hatchet!
Lizzie Borden in fiction
- The manga Dolls Fall paints Lizzie Borden as guilty and adds a supernatural reason to her act. This then serves as the backstory to the events in the present of the manga.
- A storyline in Avengers West Coast #98-100 (September-November, 1993), features an Archived Army scenario. Lizzie serves as an agent of the Hell Lord Satannish. Codenamed "Axe of Violence", she has light red skin, her right hand is replaced by a double-headed axe, and she carries two other double-headed axes used as throwing weapons.
- One of the stories in the seventh Halloween Unspectacular features her ghost, who is summoned by Cosmo after Timmy wishes to meet the ghost of a historical person and forgets to specify who. She then summons more ghosts, throws Timmy out of his house, and turns it into an M.C. Escher-esque Eldritch Location that occasionally screams at passerby.
- The Legend of Lizzie Borden, a 1975 Made-for-TV Movie in which Lizzie is played by Elizabeth Montgomery. It's the first notable work to posit that she committed the murders in the nude, which would be copied by many later adaptations. Incidentally, Elizabeth Montgomery and Lizzie Borden are sixth cousins once removed (but Elizabeth didn't know this and it was only discovered after her death).
- The Curse of Lizzie Borden, a 2006 low-budget Slasher Movie in which a modern-day woman is possessed by the spirit of Lizzie Borden. Two years later, it was followed by The Curse of Lizzie Borden 2: Prom Night.
- 2013's Lizzie Borden's Revenge, another low-budget slasher set in the present day, features Lizzie's ghost tormenting a sorority.
- Lizzie Borden Took An Ax, a 2014 TV movie starring Christina Ricci as Lizzie Borden. In 2015, it was followed by The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, a Mini Series also starring Ricci.
- Lizzie, a 2018 psychological thriller starring Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie Borden and Kristen Stewart as the family's maid Bridget Sullivan, noteworthy for portraying them as a lesbian couple.
- The rhyming quatrain at the top of this page probably deserves its own listing here. It's so iconic that it'll be referenced in pretty much any fictional work about the Lizzie Borden case. If the fictional work in question is a movie, expect it to be delivered by Creepy Children Singing. The origins of this rhyme are as mysterious as the murders themselves. It was first recorded in print in 1907, but it is probably older. Most sources believe it came about sometime in the early 1890s, when the Lizzie Borden case was sufficiently topical, but the question of who actually wrote it is a mystery for the ages. Incidentally, Theodore Roosevelt is said to have gotten a real kick out of this rhyme.
- "Lizzie Borden Took an Ax" is the title of a Robert Bloch story about the case.
- According to The Borden Dispatches, Lizzie killed her parents because they were possessed by an Eldritch Abomination.
- In Avram Davidson's story "The Deed of the Deft-Footed Dragon", Lizzie Borden is the only local person to help an elderly Chinese immigrant struggling to make sense of life in the new unfamiliar world that is America. He decides to do something to repay her; trouble is, he's really not clear on what kind of thing would be appropriate, and as a retired Triad hitman his default method of helping out his friends is taking up a hatchet and dealing with whoever happens to be giving them grief. The rest is history.
- Hercule Poirot:
- In After the Funeral, when Susan says the murderer must be a certain type of person, to attack an old lady with a hatchet, Mr Entwhistle quotes the rhyme. Susan protests that Borden was acquitted, and he concedes the point.
- Lily Gamboll, one of the four "tragic women of murder" who could be connected to the death of Mrs McGinty in Mrs McGinty's Dead appears to be loosely inspired by Lizzie Borden, except she killed her aunt with a cleaver. (The others may also be based on historic figures, one seems to be based on Ethel Neave, the other woman in the Dr Crippen case.)
- Lizzie is referenced in And Then There Were None, though not by name — however, it is unmistakably her crime that gets mentioned by one of the characters, seeing as it's described as a young American woman hacking her father and stepmother to death with a hatchet.
- A novel See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt focuses on the Bordens, displaying Lizzie as somewhat emotionally stunted and weird, but not evil.
- John Saul's In The Dark of the Night doesn't feature Lizzie herself, but her hatchet is one of the artifacts found in the shack by Eric and his friends.
- The Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "The Older Sister" is set a year after the case. It's revealed that it was Emma who committed the murders and Lizzie was covering for her.
- In the episode "I've Got You Under My Skin", Wesley claims Lizzie performed her crime because she was being possessed by an Ethros Demon.
- Season 4 references the case - when Jasmine possessing Cordelia commits a murder, they wonder why they found no bloody clothes. Wesley exclaims "Lizzie Borden", and they theorize the murderer must have done so naked.
- The Lizzie Borden house is investigated on Ghost Adventures. It's implied that Lizzie's father was sexually abusing her.
- The Supernatural episode "Thin Lizzie" starts with an ax murder at a Lizzie Borden museum/inn in Fall River that initially looks like it could be committed by her ghost. As it turns out this is a hoax, and the ancient being known as Amara is responsible.
- She has been profiled in a segment of the Investigation Discovery series Deadly Women, which has the decency to acknowledge her acquittal and the doubts about her guilt.
- She's also the subject of an episode of The Dead Files.
- Her compact mirror shows up in Warehouse 13. It's an Artifact of Doom that forces whoever looks into it to murder their loved ones with an axe that appears out of nowhere while also reciting a limerick of what Lizzie did.
- In a crossover episode of Ally McBeal and The Practice, the defendant is a woman accused of killing her husband. Her psychiatrist testified that, under hypnosis, she claimed to be the reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. Many times during the crossover, the lawyers discuss reincarnation and the details of Lizzie's life and her own trial. In the end, it turns out that it was the psychiatrist who committed the murder, having fallen in love with his patient. He may have even planted the idea in her head that she was Lizzie in a past life so that she'd think she was the murderer.
- In The Man Who Came to Dinner, Mr. Stanley's sister isn't Lizzie Borden.
- Agnes de Mille's ballet Fall River Legend, which rewrites history by having Lizzie found guilty.
- There's a rock musical called Lizzie which features an all-female cast — Lizzie, her sister Emma, the housekeeper Bridget (nicknamed "Maggie"), and the neighbor, Alice. Here, Lizzie is portrayed as a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds; she's a closeted lesbian in a world that will never accept that, more than a little mentally unstable, and is being sexually abused by her father, to boot. Alice is also portrayed as harboring a childhood crush for Lizzie.
- Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights:
- The scarezone Horrorwood 1994-95 featured The Lizzie Borden Band and Axe Corps, two groups of women one carrying instruments (led by Lizzie herself), the other one carrying axes.
- The haunted house Universal's House of Horror had Lizzie as one of many wax statues who were brought to life by a lightning strike.
- Lizzie is one of the Living Dead Dolls characters, making her first appearance in Series 2.
- CarnEvil: Evil Marie was clearly based on Lizzie, being a Victorian woman with a battle-axe.
- The Simpsons:
- In Histeria!, she is portrayed as Ax-Crazy and refers to herself as the "O.J. of 1892".
- Lizzie Borden is among the wax figures in Gravity Falls episode "Head-Hunters". Ironically, she wasn't the one to attempt ax-murder.
- An episode of The Venture Bros. makes reference to #21 and #24 having an argument over who would win in a fight between Lizzie Borden and Anne Frank.
- Lizzie Borden appears in Time Squad as part of a Legion of Doom formed by Alfred Nobel in the episode Nobel Peace Surprise. She is once again very inaccurately portrayed as a Card-Carrying Villain who does things For the Evulz. The other members of the crew were Black Bart, Jack the Ripper, Rasputin, and Mrs. O'Leary's cow.