“Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.”
August 4, 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts, about fifty miles outside of Boston, Andrew and Abby Borden are brutally hacked to death with an axe. Mrs. Borden takes nineteen blows to the back of the head and Mr. Borden is struck ten or eleven times. Lizzie Borden, daughter of the two victims, does not “properly” mourn their loss and almost immediately becomes the prime suspect. Her trial rocks the nation and challenges preconceived notions about murder and a woman’s capacity for it.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie retrace the steps of the investigation to see whether Lizzie killed her parents, or if she was victim of the misogyny and prejudices typical of her time.
After calling out to her family’s live-in maid and her father, Lizzie Borden hears creaking floorboards and then a sudden thud. She stumbles across her father’s dead body, gasps and exclaims that someone came in and killed him. The maid, Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, comes running down the stairs and screams.
Lizzie urges the maid to get the police but Bridget is more concerned about the whereabouts of Mrs. Borden. She tells Bridget she heard her stepmother return and head upstairs. Bridget goes to look but finds Mrs. Borden dead.
Again, Lizzie yells at Bridget, whom she calls “Maggie” (the name of her predecessor), to get the police and she finally obeys. As Bridget runs from the house, Lizzie warns any potentially lingering murderers that she has a gun and is not afraid to use it.
When the police arrive, Bridget finds she needs to keep Lizzie out of their way. Lizzie questions the officers about the state of their bodies and what happened to them.
In a flashback, Lizzie and her sister Emma sing together in church. Despite being raised in a deeply religious household, Lizzie holds her stepmother in contempt and will only call her “Mrs. Borden.” On one occasion, when Abby and their father are late to a meal, Lizzie claims she is starving and presses Emma into eating without them.
Before Andrew and Abby Borden are murdered, Lizzie questions Bridget whether she overheard her father talking about the house he gifted her stepmother. She is convinced Abby married her father for his wealth and is upset he didn’t gift the house to his daughters.
Eventually, Mr. Borden gives in and sells their childhood home to them for a dollar. However, their mutual resentment for their stepmother persists and Abby returns the sentiment in full. While Lizzie and Emma talk about a local man named Trevor, Abby comes into the room and treats the two grown women like children – ordering Lizzie to her room and Emma to finish the chores. In further punishment, Lizzie’s father spanks her when he returns home.
Andrew Borden is not much liked outside his home either. His frugality and shady business dealings contribute to much of his wealth and earn him plenty of enemies in town.
If Andrew was indeed killed by someone outside his family, it does not dim Lizzie’s suspicious behavior twenty-four hours prior to his murder. While grocery shopping, Lizzie asks the shopkeeper for “prussic acid,” now known as hydrogen cyanide. She claims the chemical compound is for a science experiment, but he still refuses to sell it to her.
Months prior, Andrew Borden slaughters the roost of pet pigeons Lizzie loved and cared for with a hatchet. Upset, Lizzie and Emma leave to travel and escape their father. A few days after they return, the family shares a meal together and falls violently ill.
Abby is convinced that one of Andrew’s enemies in town poisoned them all, and within the week, she and her husband are brutally hacked to death.
Investigators find Lizzie’s matter-of-fact attitude and lack of fainting and hysterics to be suspicious in the wake of her father and stepmother’s murders. Her testimony is also wildly inconsistent. She tells investigators that she was in the loft of her family’s barn eating pears during the murders, but they find no evidence on the dusty floors that she had been there.
Alice Russell, a family friend, stays with Lizzie and Emma after the murders to comfort them.
Early in the morning, after Lizzie is formally named a suspect, Alice finds the Borden sister burning a dress in the stove. Lizzie tells Alice that she spilt paint on it and couldn’t remove the stains.
Police try to force Lizzie to confess, but she repeatedly proclaims her innocence.
On next week’s episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories, Carter and Wenndy will further discuss the Borden case – was Lizzie a cunning mastermind or just an unlucky woman unable to keep her story straight and meet the expectations of a mourning daughter?