Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Lizzie Borden: Villain or Victim?

 By Sherri Stewart

“Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.”

How many little girls have chanted this song while skipping rope on the sidewalk? Like so many of our popular nursery rhymes, the graphic meaning of the song is not as important as the rhythm and rhyme to children. But what if Lizzie didn’t kill her parents? What if she were wrongfully accused? What if the police in their eagerness to solve this most heinous and publicized case didn’t do a thorough investigation?

The very day Covid-19 closed down the country’s businesses—March 17, 2020—my son and I had traveled to Fall River, Massachusetts, to do research on Lizzie’s story for a book I was writing. We were given the last private tour of Lizzie’s house, and the guide gave us more than our money’s worth, perhaps because he didn’t know if he’d ever work again!

I walked into the dark green house, expecting to be disgusted at a thirty-two year old spinster who killed her father and her stepmother in such a brutal way. I walked out of the house pitying Lizzie Borden, fully convinced that she was innocent of the crimes. Here are the facts:

1. Lizzie’s and Emma’s father, John Borden, was a wealthy furniture maker who refused to spend a penny of his money (9 million in today’s economy). Their house had no indoor plumbing, although that was a common feature for houses at the time. John Borden was not a pleasant man and had made many enemies.

2. John Borden married Abby three years after Lizzie’s mother died. Lizzie was only three when Abby became her stepmother. Lizzie’s sister, Emma, was twelve years old when her father married Abby. Emma resented her stepmother for taking her mother’s place and resented her father for being such a tightwad.

3. Lizzie was a compliant child and adult. She was involved in church activities and taught Sunday school.

4. John Morse, Lizzie’s mother’s brother, had slept in the attic the night before the murders. Emma and her Uncle John shared a disdain for the man and his second wife. Morse was a butcher by trade and always carried a meat cleaver with him. It’s possible the two men argued the night before over Morse losing money in their shared livestock venture. 

5. Though a hatchet was left at the scene of the crime, the police didn’t check for fingerprints, although it was a commonplace procedure in Europe then. Police didn’t trust fingerprinting at the time, but they had the means to use it, and it became common practice at the start of the twentieth century.

6. At the time of the crime, Lizzie was home, her sister was visiting a friend fifteen miles away, and the maid, Maggie, was there along with the two parents. Lizzie was charged with the crime because the maid said Lizzie had burned her dress in the back yard.

7. Lizzie’s story changed as did the uncle’s and the maid’s. But ultimately, Lizzie was acquitted of the crime. Nonetheless, she lived most of her life in Falls River under a pall of guilt.

The fact that Lizzie was a compliant Sunday school teacher with no memory of her mother doesn’t characterize a resentful spinster, but her sister and her mother’s brother may have possessed enough rage to conspire and frame Lizzie for the crime.

Sherri Stewart loves a clean novel, sprinkled with romance and a strong message that challenges her faith. She spends her working hours with books—either editing others’ manuscripts or writing her own. Her passion is traveling to the settings of her books and sampling the food. She loves the Netherlands, and she’s still learning Dutch, although she doesn’t need to since everyone speaks perfect English. A recent widow, Sherri lives in Orlando with her lazy dog, Lily. She shares recipes, tidbits of the book’s locations, and pix in her newsletter. Subscribe at http://eepurl.com/gZ-mv9

A Song for Her Enemies https://amzn.to/2YJBkRn


  1. Thanks for the post! This was quite interesting. I wonder why forensics hasn't been used now to try to prove or disprove Lizzie's role in this murder.

  2. I have heard similar theories, but not Uncle John.
    Read your book and loved it!

  3. I always thought this was such an interesting story and read a lot about her for research. Always made me wonder about her and who really committed the crime. Thanks for more input about her and her family.

  4. It was a dreary day in Falls River.