Lizzie Borden took an axe
Gave her father 40 whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
Gave her mother 41.
Now that that’s out of the way, I must point out that most of the details in this famous poem are wrong.
Abby Borden was killed at least an hour before her husband, not long after 9:30 on the morning of August 4, 1892; she was last seen alive going up to the guest room of her home in Fall River, Massachusetts, to put fresh pillowcases on the bed. Her husband Andrew was murdered around 11:00 that same morning. Although both were struck multiple times with an axe or hatchet, the number of blows in each case was much less than 40/1.
And even though general opinion over the last century is that Lizzie Borden is the most likely person to have killed her stepmother and father, she was acquitted at her trial.
The Legend of Lizzie Borden was a made-for-TV movie that first aired ABC early in 1975 as a vehicle for Elizabeth Montgomery. In the years following Bewitched, Montgomery chose to play a series of serious and critically acclaimed roles in controversial dramas–in this case, America’s most well-known probable axe murderer.*
The movie begins with the town hall clock striking 11:00. Mrs. Churchill, the Bordens’ neighbor, observes something odd going on next door: the Bordens’ maid Bridget Sullivan (a very early role for Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan) dashes across the street to Dr. Bowen’s house then, finding no one at home, runs back again to report this to someone unseen within the side entrance to the Borden house. A woman’s voice sends Bridget off again, running to fetch “Miss Russell”.
Curious, Mrs. Churchill approaches the screen door at the side of the house to find Lizzie standing just inside. She makes a tentative feint at conversation before asking if something is wrong.
Lizzie’s reply is cool, detached, and astonishing. “Oh, Mrs. Churchill–do come in. Someone has killed Father.”
Perhaps more astonishing, Mrs. Churchill does go into the house with Lizzie to see the body of Mr. Borden lying on the sofa in the back parlor as if he were taking a nap, except that his head is covered in blood. This movie was considered extremely graphic for television for its time, but images of the late Mr. Borden are shown only quickly and obliquely. We don’t get a good look at his wounds–which were grotesque. Witnesses said that his face was unrecognizable.
After the opening credits, which are rather like those of Cheers with old-timey illustrations of people riding pennyfarthing bicycles, and photographs of women in bustles and men with handlebar mustaches, we return to the Borden house. Mrs. Churchill and Lizzie’s friend Alice Russell are fussing over her in the front parlour. Dr. Bowen has arrived by this time. They are all wondering where Mrs. Borden is. Lizzie says that her stepmother received a note about someone being sick and went out, but she thinks that she heard Abby come back.
Bridget is asked to go upstairs to check. The maid refuses, afraid that the murderer might still be lurking in one of the rooms. Mrs. Churchill says that she’ll go with her. The two women get about halfway up the front staircase before Bridget stops and draws back in horror.
From this point on the stairs, a person could look straight across the second floor landing; with the guest room door left open, Bridget can see into the room, under the bed, to the body lying on the floor on the other side.
Once Mrs. Churchill has seen this as well, they go back to the parlor to report that, yes, Mrs. Borden is up there.
Since I’ve just read a couple of books about the Borden case, I can pick out details here and there that have been changed, but overall this movie impresses me by how closely it follows accounts of the events of that day from witness testimony at both the trial and inquest. Sometimes it even uses the actual words of the people involved.
Although it’s placed along a curved avenue rather than a straight street, and there are California-looking hills rising behind it, the layout of the Borden house itself is accurately depicted. It was a peculiar house in that there were no corridors; one passed from one room into the next, both upstairs and down. The upper floor of the house was divided into two sections with the one door between them locked and blocked by furniture on both sides. Lizzie’s and her elder sister Emma’s rooms and the guest room were at the front of the house, accessible by the front stair. Mr. and Mrs. Bordens’ bedroom and the maid’s room up in the attic could be reached only by the back stairs off the kitchen.
One member of the family who was at the Borden house on the day of the murders–but not present at the time of the murders–has been removed entirely from this movie version: Emma’s and Lizzie’s uncle John Vinnicum Morse, brother of Mr. Borden’s first wife. He was staying in the guest room, which was why Mrs. Borden was up there changing the pillowcases when she was killed. Morse was for a time suspected of the murders, but cleared by the police once they confirmed that he’d been calling on other relatives elsewhere in town during the crucial hours of that morning. Since he had little involvement with the investigation afterwards, I suppose this version of events thought it was better not to include him at all.
Emma Borden (Katherine Helmond, later Jessica Tate on Soap) was away visiting friends in another town, but rushes home once she receives the news.
At the first moment they have alone, she asks her sister bluntly, “Did you kill Father?”
Lizzie says no, and that’s enough for Emma to give her a hug.
That evening, Emma gives her sister an injection of a sedative at Dr. Bowen’s direction to help her sleep. Lizzie insists that she wants to think. She must think: Who could have killed Father?
I’ve no idea if it’s how the Borden sisters actually spoke to each other, or if it’s a script choice, but it’s interesting that in both these conversations Lizzie and Emma speak only of their father. It’s as if their stepmother hadn’t been murdered too, or as if Abby Borden had never existed.
Much has been made of Lizzie’s expressed hostility toward her stepmother in light of Abby’s brutal murder, but Emma was also known to resent Abby; being a teenager at time of her father’s remarriage, she was in a stronger emotional position for it. Both sisters rarely ate their meals with the elder Bordens and, according to Bridget, neither even so much as looked in on Mrs. Borden when she was ill. It was lucky that Emma was far from home on that day or else she might have fallen under suspicion too. Her own dislike of Abby may have given her an additional reason to stand by her sister regardless of her suspicions… although suspicions about Lizzie continued to haunt Emma.
Later on in the night after the house is quiet, Lizzie gets out of bed and goes downstairs.
It may seem unbelievably grisly, but the bodies of Andrew and Abby have been left lying on the dining-room table beneath blood-stained sheets. In fact, Dr. Bowen and the police surgeon performed a preliminary autopsy there in the dining room that afternoon. (The not-appearing-in-this film Uncle John Morse, incredibly, spent the night after the murder sleeping in that guest room).
Lizzie lifts the sheet from her father’s face to gaze at him and places a kiss on his undamaged lips.
At the funeral, neighbor-ladies cluck disapprovingly that Lizzie is wearing a dark blue dress instead of black. A town marshal discreetly takes the undertaker aside and tells him that, after the family has left the cemetery, the Bordens’ bodies are not to be buried but instead placed in a holding mausoleum for further autopsy. The heads are to be removed.
The inquest features the statements of Bridget and Lizzie–the only two people besides the victims who were in or near the house at the time of the murders. This gives the movie an opportunity to show the events of that morning in flashback, although most are from Lizzie’s point of view even when Bridget is speaking.
District Attorney Hosea Knowlton (Ed Flanders, Dr. Westphall on St. Elsewhere) questions them both as well as the other witnesses.
Bridget begins by stating that she is 26 years old and has worked for the Bordens for a little more than 2 years. She also mentions that Lizzie and Emma called her Maggie, which was the name of the maidservant before her.
On the sweltering morning of August 4, Bridget woke with a sick headache. The Bordens had all been unwell to some degree the day before. Lizzie attributed this to an unidentified malicious person poisoning their milk, but the true cause was probably the unrefrigerated days-old mutton broth the family had been eating.
Mr. Borden (Fritz Weaver) rejects Bridget’s offer of johnny-cakes for breakfast and insists that she heat the mutton broth up again. “Waste not, want not.” It looks disgusting; I think there are dead flies stuck to the sides of the pot. Lizzie looks amused when Bridget runs out into the yard to be sick, but as her father and stepmother dive into this nauseating last meal, she pushes her own bowl away and has nothing but a cup of coffee.
After breakfast, says Bridget, Mr. Borden went out to see to business in town. Mrs. Borden instructed her to wash the ground floor windows of the house.
Abby Borden then went upstairs with her pillowcases, never to be seen alive again.
Bridget spent the morning washing windows, first outside then in, stopping only for a chat with the neighbor’s maidservant and to get fresh water four or five times via the pump in the barn behind the house. She was working in the front parlor when Mr. Borden returned. He was unable to enter the house through the front door, since the big bolt on it had been drawn from the inside. While Bridget was struggling with the bolt, she heard Lizzie laugh and turned to see her standing on the front staircase.
When Mr. Borden asks where his wife is, Lizzie replies that Abby went out in response to a note. The two go into the back parlor; while they talk, we can see that the clock on the mantelpiece shows the time as twenty minutes before 11 am. He lies down on the sofa to take a nap.
Lizzie tells Bridget about a sale of dress goods at a local store (to try and get Bridget out of the house?) but Bridget wasn’t feeling up to shopping that day. Lizzie then says that the maid can finish up the windows after lunch and suggests that Bridget lie down until noon. Bridget gratefully agrees and goes up to her own little room in the attic.
“I lay down without taking off any of my clothing,” she states. She heard the town clock striking 11:00 but doesn’t think she fell asleep at all. Perhaps 5 or 10 minutes passed before she heard Lizzie shouting up the back stairs to her that Mr. Borden had been murdered.
Knowlton asks if Bridget witnessed any quarrels between members of the Borden family. Bridget fudges her reply, but another flashback shows us that there was at least one recent quarrel involving all the Bordens.
Even though the scene is entirely fictional, it covers the issues going on within the family. The argument is over money and Mr. Borden’s skinflint reluctance to spend much of it, but old hostilities between Lizzie and her stepmother also arise. Lizzie wanted for them to move out of this small and shabby old house into someplace nicer in the fashionable part of town, someplace that has indoor plumbing. At 32, she wants to do more than spend the rest of her life sitting in this dump. Both sisters want more money than they’re currently getting from their father. Mrs. Borden says that if it were up to her stepdaughters, they’d have it all and if she were left a widow dependent on their generosity, she’d be thrown out to starve. Lizzie replies with a nasty crack about Abby living off her body fat for months.
Things are about to get ugly when Mr. Borden puts a stop to it, reminding Lizzie how close they used to be. He alludes to the ring he wears, a birthday present from Lizzie when she was a little girl. We also see that later in a hazy, silent flashback.
When Bridget has completed her statement, it’s Lizzie’s turn.
Lizzie Borden’s inquest statement is the only statement she ever made on the subject. You can read a transcript of it here and this scene uses a lot of it.
After verifying that she was “so christened” Lizzie Andrew Borden, not Elizabeth, she responds to Knowlton’s questions. She sounds distracted, vague, and contradicts herself on matters of fact–for example, saying that she was downstairs in the kitchen when her father came home, then that she was up in her room. It’s this contradiction that Mr. Knowlton focuses his attention on.
Lizzie’s story about Abby receiving a note and her alibi about being up in the loft of the barn looking for lead to make fishing sinkers at the time her father was murdered are also deemed unsatisfactory. The judge overseeing the inquest concludes that while he would like nothing better than to let Lizzie go home, under the circumstances he has to recommend that she be arrested and held for trial.
Lizzie is taken to jail, where she has a breathless panic attack when her lawyer tells her that she might be hanged if convicted. Dr. Bowen has been giving her morphine as a sedative since the day of the murders, and ups the dosage now.
Meanwhile, Mr. Knowlton, who will act as the state prosecutor, discusses the prospects of winning the case with his wife (Bonnie Bartlett, also on St. Elsewhere). He’s certain that Lizzie is guilty, but Mrs. Knowlton points out that it won’t be easy convincing a jury of that. Lizzie Borden is a Sunday School teacher involved with the Young Woman’s Christian Temperance League and other church organizations. She already has the public support of local clergy (two ministers in real life; this movie cuts it down to one). In spite of her differences with her father and stepmother, she doesn’t seem like the type of person who would go after someone with a hatchet.
The trial wasn’t held until the following June. By this time, public support for Lizzie has increased, especially among church groups and the feminist movement.
During her months in jail, Lizzie has made her cell as comfortable as possible with furnishings from home, wall hangings, and one of those standing screens women used to change clothes behind. She’s taken great care to prepare her wardrobe for the first day of the trial, and gets mad at Emma for bringing her the wrong gloves.
Lizzie was not called to the stand at her own trial and, after some discussion between the lawyers and three presiding judges, her testimony from the inquest was not admitted as evidence.
A key point in the trial occurs when Miss Russell apologetically comes forward to add something to her existing statement: A few days after the murders, while Miss Russell was staying at the Borden house and there were policemen on duty outside, Lizzie burned an old dress in the kitchen range in front her friend and her sister. We see this scene in flashback.
When Miss Russell points out that this was the worst thing she could have done–that the police have been asking about Lizzie’s dresses–the sisters both realize that she’s right. Lizzie asks why her friend didn’t try to stop her.
Several witnesses, including Miss Russell, who saw Lizzie mere minutes after her father was killed testified that they saw no sign of blood on her hands, face, or clothing.** This was always a point in Lizzie’s favor, since the assumption is that the person wielding the axe or hatchet must surely have been spattered. The counter theory was that she must have been wearing something else at the time of the murders and quickly changed afterwards.
Lizzie hears her friend’s testimony with composure. She tells her lawyer that, being a Christian woman, Alice Russell could only tell the truth about the incident.
When Emma Borden testifies for the defense, she confirms that Lizzie did burn a dress, but tells a story about how the dress was ruined soon after it was made when Lizzie brushed the skirt against a freshly painted wall.
The other person who doesn’t consider the dress burning incident very important is Mr. Knowlton. At home that evening, he confides to his wife that Lizzie’s too clever to do something that obviously stupid in front of witnesses. He believes that the burned dress wasn’t what she was wearing during the murders, although whatever she was wearing hasn’t yet been found. He wonders what she could have been wearing.
Another high point occurs when one of the medical experts for the prosecution brings in Mr. Borden’s actual skull and demonstrates how one of the exhibit axe blades found at the Borden house fits into the fatal wound.
This did cause a sensation when it really happened in court, but the movie makes it a little more so by having Lizzie rise from her seat as the blade is wielded, then falling into a faint. Mr. Knowlton takes note of this with a certain amount of satisfaction.
The trial scenes are interspersed with more flashbacks, most of them fictional.
One concerns Emma and Lizzie listening through the wall between Lizzie’s room and the elder Bordens’ a few days before the murders. Mr. Borden was intending to change his will to favor his wife over his daughters. I haven’t read anything to support this as a true motive for the murders, but the movie uses it to provide a reason why Lizzie chose such violent means; she had to act quickly once she was unable to obtain poison.
In another scene, Lizzie tries to buy prussic acid (cyanide). When the store clerk refuses to give her any, she shoplifts a small axe. I don’t think the stolen axe is fact-based or even necessary. There were a number of axes and hatchets around the Borden house already and one of these–the famous “broken” one–was most likely the true murder weapon. I believe this was included to tie in with Lizzie’s later reputation as a kleptomaniac / shoplifter. In 1897, she was accused of stealing a painted plate from a store, but paid for it to avoid being charged with theft.
A scene shows Mr. Borden slaughtering the pigeons kept in the barn using an axe. This is based on a real incident. According to Lizzie’s inquest testimony, her father beheaded or broke the necks of several pigeons some weeks before his murder to explain the bloodstains on one of the household axes. But this scene makes it an act of spite; he kills the pigeons not for dinner, but to prevent neighborhood boys from breaking into the barn to steal them, even though Lizzie considers the birds her pets. Symbolically, one pigeon escapes and Lizzie watches it fly away.
One weird little scene shows Lizzie as a child, when her father was an undertaker and worked in the basement of his home. While the point of it is to show that Lizzie stopped calling Abby “Mother” at an early age, it also suggests that Mr. Borden wasn’t above necrophiliac fondling of attractive dead women. He tries to get Lizzie to touch the body of the woman he’s currently working on, but she draws back and screams in horror, accidentally pulling out the tube that’s pumping formaldehyde into the corpse.***
Finally, there is the lengthy flashback that comes just as the foreman of the jury is about to pronounce the verdict, showing how Lizzie might have done it. This sequence was considered highly controversial when the movie first aired, since it adds a touch of sex to the violence: Lizzie avoided getting blood on her clothes by committing both murders in the nude. This wasn’t the first time that this particular theory had been put forward, but it was the first time scenes of it were shown. This being mid-’70s television, Elizabeth Montgomery is shot from the legs down or bare shoulders up, or else concealed by discreetly cast shadows. Nevertheless, it’s a naked woman killing people with an axe.
Flashbacks within this flashback occur while Lizzie commits each murder. These are momentary snippets from the earlier scenes, as if all of Lizzie’s memories of her victims are piling up as she kills them. During the murder of Abby, the scenes are all of their quarrels, but as she murders her father there are more tender memories as well. The editing here is remarkable; the quick cuts used would become commonplace during the ’80s, but are advanced for television at this time.
For me, the most interesting entirely fictional scene in this movie isn’t one involving Lizzie, but a conversation between the Knowltons one evening near the end of the long trial. The opinions given by Mrs. Knowlton express why Lizzie Borden remains fascinating 125 years later:
Mr. Knowlton: “That woman actually believes she can get off scot-free by hiding behind her skirts.”
Mrs. Knowlton: “What else has she? I’m sorry, Hosea. It seems that you men have only yourselves to blame if women hide behind their femininity as a defense. After all, you cast us in this role.”
“You look upon your womanhood as a role, my dear?”
“It’s not always a convenient part to play.”
“I’ve never heard you talk like this. Next you’ll be asking for the vote. I gather you sympathize with this murderess.”
“Certainly not with her deeds, but perhaps with her motives.”
“Her motives? What would you know of her motives?”
“I should think a great deal, Hosea. You have no idea how unbearably heavy these skirts can be at times.”
Lizzie Borden was not the only genteel Victorian-era lady who very probably committed murder, nor was she the only one acquitted in spite of strong evidence against her, but Madeleine Smith and Adelaide Bartlett took the more lady-like route of poison to rid themselves of an unwanted fiance and husband. What would make a New England Sunday-school teacher take an axe to her own father and stepmother? Was the desire for a nice house with plumbing and the quarter of a million dollars she expected to inherit incentive enough to warrant such an act of shocking brutality? Or was there something more, built up by long-suppressed emotions, behind it? Just how heavy were those skirts?
When the jury foreman proclaims her “Not Guilty”, Lizzie falls slightly forward in relief. She leaves the courtroom amid cheers, applause, and congratulations from the people who have supported her during her ordeal. There’s even a brass band playing in the street outside. But Emma Borden slips away without saying a word to her sister.
After a brief response to a reporter’s question–and a glance at a pigeon flying free overhead–Lizzie returns home to find Emma there ahead of her.
One last time, Emma asks, “Lizzie, did you kill Father?”
The camera circles Lizzie as she stands there and doesn’t answer. A text scroll informs us that shortly after her acquittal, Lizzie did fulfill her rather limited ambitions and buy that fashionable house on the hill, where she spent the rest of her life in semi-seclusion.**** She and Emma parted company about 10 years after the murders and never spoke again; they died within days of each other in 1926.
The mystery, the text informs us, remains unsolved. The movie closes with the voices of children chanting that rhyme I quoted above.
*Montgomery didn’t know at the time–nor did I until I started to work on this review–that she and Lizzie Borden were distantly related.
**The witnesses described the dress she was wearing that morning as a cheap, light blue cotton with some sort of darker blue pattern on it, called a “sprig,” “diamond” or “figure” by different people; the movie diverges from these accounts and gives Elizabeth Montgomery something a little more dressy to wear, dark blue with black lace trim.
***When I saw this as a child, I thought that the dead woman on the slab was Lizzie’s mother, but the first Mrs. Borden died when Lizzie was only two.
****One of the things that most interests me about Lizzie Borden is the small scope of her ambitions in contrast to the lengths she went to to achieve them. With what remained of her inheritance after her legal defense had been paid for, she was a rich woman. She could have changed her name and gone to live in Boston, New York, or abroad to avoid the public opinion that turned against her soon after her acquittal and made her a local pariah. But all she wanted was that house on the hill, even if none of the neighbors came to call on her there.