The true story of Lizzie Borden, the woman who murdered her parents and got away with it
Lizzie Borden's story has been chronicled numerous times on screen, with Chloë Sevigny the latest to tackle the infamous murders she is believed to have committed
'Lizzie,' a biographical thriller film that chronicles the true story of Lizzie Borden — who was accused and acquitted of the ax murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892 — is set to release on Friday. Leading star Chloë Sevigny, who plays Lizzie in her pet project movie, was reportedly enamored by the tale when an artist friend of hers, someone the actress described as "esoteric" and "witchy", dressed up as the infamous 19th-century woman for Halloween.
Its current iteration is a long way off from how Sevigny originally envisioned the project. She had worked with screenwriter Bryce Kass to quickly put together a film, only to later turn it into a miniseries to get an approval from HBO. But the network would dawdle on its production, and by the time they gave it the green light, the premiere of TV movie 'The Chronicles of Lizzie Borden' in 2014 meant that they pulled the plug on Sevigny's dream.
But the 43-year-old refused to give up on the venture, partnering with Tom Hanks' production company, Playtone, and retrieving the script from HBO so she could see her vision play out on the big screen. After Pieter Van Hees could no longer direct due to scheduling conflicts, 'The Boy' director Craig William Macneill was brought onboard, and Kristen Stewart was cast in the co-starring role of maid Bridget Sullivan. The dream finally became a reality seven years later, with 'Lizzie' getting its world premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this January 19.
The official description for the thriller reads, "As an unmarried woman of 32, Lizzie (Sevigny) is a social outcast trapped under her austere, domineering father’s control. When Bridget Sullivan (Stewart), a young maid desperate for work, comes to live with the family, Lizzie finds in her a kindred spirit, and a chance intimacy that blossoms into a wicked plan, and a dark, unsettling end."
However, it's a story that has been played out across big and small screens on numerous occasions in the past. The earliest portrayal was probably 1948's ballet 'Fall River Legend' with 'New Faces of 1952', a Broadway musical with a number titled 'Lizzie Borden' that depicts the crimes. There is also ABC's 1975 TV film 'The Legend of Lizzie Borden,' starring the likes of Elizabeth Montgomery as Borden and Fionnula Flanagan as Bridget and 1980 play 'Blood Relations' starring Tony nominee Alison Fraser. But the question is, why this morbid fascination?
While the prosecution could never prove her guilt, the fact that Lizzie committed the murders of her father and step-mother are quite possibly one of the worst kept secrets in history. That, in combination with how the crime played out at the time, the sophistication involved to do so and get away with it, and her motives behind committing the killings have proven irresistible to filmmakers.
Lizzie was born in 1860 to Sarah Anthony and Andrew Borden and would grow up in modest surroundings despite her father's affluence — he had prospered in the manufacture and sales of textiles and was a successful property developer. Her relationship with Andrew was amicable until her birth mother's death, following which her father married Abby Gray. She testified that she called her stepmother "Mrs. Borden" and that the pair shared an icy relationship because of Lizzie's belief that she had married into the family only for the wealth.
In the lead up to the murders, the tension between Lizzie and her parents had reportedly been palpable, aggravated by an incident that happened to be shown in the trailer for Sevigny's film as well. Lizzie had recently built a roost for the pigeons that frequented their home, only for Andrew to kill multiple birds in the barn with a hatchet because he believed they were attracting local children to hunt them. While the validity of the claim has been disputed, Lizzie was supposedly extremely upset with her father's actions.
For several days before the murders, a violent illness was apparently passing around the family possibly as a result of spoiled mutton and had brought upon a somber mood. The tension mounted as Lizzie grew disillusioned over Andrew's gifts of real estate to various branches of her stepmother's family, aggravated further when Abby's sister received a house.
The straw that broke the camel's back, as speculated by numerous historians, was the visit of Lizzie's uncle, and deceased mother's brother, John Vinnicum Morse the night before the murders. He allegedly discussed property matters with Andrew, possibly pushing Lizzie over the edge.
According to forensic investigators, Abby was murdered the morning after Morse's arrival as she went to clean the house's guest room. She was said to be facing her killer at the time of the attack and was struck on the side of the head with a hatchet, causing her to turn and fall face down on the floor. The culprit then struck her multiple times, delivering 17 more blows to the back of the head and killing her.
Authorities believe Andrew was killed after returning from his morning walk the same day. According to a testimony from Bridget, she heard Lizzie calling for help at 11:10 a.m. when she was resting on the third floor of the house after cleaning the windows. The father was found by investigators slumped on the couch in the downstairs sitting room, dead after being struck with a "hatchet-like weapon" 10 or 11 times. One of his eyeballs had been clearly split in two as well, indicating he had been sleeping when he was attacked, with the still bleeding wounds suggesting the attack was recent.
While Lizzie was the primary suspect, there was little in the way of evidence tying her to the crime. Officers who interviewed her suggested they disliked her attitude and that she appeared too "calm and poised" in the face of the murders. But despite the possibility of her being the culprit, the police did not conduct a thorough search of her room because of Lizzie's admittance that she "wasn't feeling too well".
When they searched the basement, they found two hatchets, two axes, and a hatchet-head with a broken handle. The last of these was suspected to be the murder weapon, with the break in the handle fresh and the dust and ash on the head appearing to have been deliberately applied to make it look as though it had been in the basement for some time.
The fact that Lizzie had tried purchasing prussic acid/hydrogen cyanide the day before the murders — she was refused because she did not have a prescription — as well as the mysterious illness that was traveling around the household, made investigators test the family's milk and Andrew's and Abby's stomachs tested for poison. None was found.
One of the theories that proclaimed Lizzie's innocence was centered around the fact that she had no blood on her after the slaying. If she was indeed the killer, she would have had to kill Abby, change and hide her bloodstained clothes, go downstairs, talk to Bridget for 30 minutes, kill her father, change once again, hide her clothes and the murder weapon, and then sound the alarm about the attack. This timeline proved improbable because her father's cheapness meant the house had no indoor plumbing and it would have been impossible for Lizzie to have washed off the blood that fast. Why was she not covered in blood, and where were the clothes?
However, the theory does not hold up to scrutiny. The police apparently never bothered to check her for bloodstains and family friend, Alice, said she entered the kitchen the day after the murder to find Lizzie tearing up a dress. Lizzie told her she was planning to burn it because it was covered in paint. It was later speculated that this may have been the dress she was wearing on the day she killed her parents.
The court trial was a farce. Despite Lizzie's erratic behavior, inconsistencies and repeated changes in her story, and the damning testimonies from other witnesses, prosecutors Hosea M. Knowlton and future Supreme Court Justice William H. Moody failed to build an airtight case. A lack of physical evidence proved damaging as well, with presiding Associate Justice Justin Dewey siding with the defense before sending the jury for deliberation. They would take all of one and a half hours to acquit Lizzie of the murders and upon exiting the courthouse, she told gathered reporters she was "the happiest woman in the world".
Despite the court proclaiming her innocence, she would remain the primary suspect in the eyes of many. One theory states she may have committed the crime in a "fugue state", while another claims she was physically and sexually abused by her father, which drove her to commit parricide. Others say she killed Andrew and Abby after they reacted in disgust to her lesbian relationship with Bridget — which appears to be central to Sevigny's 'Lizzie' — or that Bridget or John Morse may have been responsible. It has also been attributed to someone who hated Andrew — his frugality had crossed over to his business dealings and had apparently earned him a lot of enemies — though that line of reasoning does not explain Abby's murder.
The case and Lizzie's acquittal was a cause of controversy not just in Massachusetts, but throughout the United States. After her release from prison, where she was held during the trial, she chose to stay in Fall River, despite being shunned by other residents. What caused further uproar was that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts elected to not charge anyone else with the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, and there is still speculation about the case to this day. As for Lizzie, she lived out the rest of her life in Fall River before passing away from pneumonia at the age of 66.
It remains to be seen how Sevigny's feature portrays an event that still remains in American pop culture mythology in the 21st century, though the initial reviews suggest it does not disappoint. "A chilling reimagination of the Lizzie Borden murder," wrote Sara Stewart for the New York Post. "Crackles with tension," said Karen M. Peterson for the Awards Circuit while Scott Menzel for We Live Entertainment promised, "The ending will leave you speechless."
'Lizzie' is scheduled to premiere on September 14, 2018, and will be distributed by Saban Films and Roadside Attractions.
Watch the official trailer for 'Lizzie' here: