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Origins: Lizzie Borden

Contemporary newspaper sketch of Lizzie Borden in court

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

The second children’s rhyme I’ve covered that celebrates an alleged murderess, ‘Lizzie Borden’, tells the story of a brutal parricide in the form of a skipping rhyme.

The facts of the case are few and contradictory. What is known is that just after 11am on the morning of August 4, 1892 Abby Borden and her husband AJ were found battered to death in their home. The coroner counted 31 blows between them. It did not take long for suspicion to fall upon AJ’s youngest surviving daughter, Lizzie. Rumours abound as to Lizzie’s possible motive for the crime. A close friend to the Borden family thought the rationale was financial:

“What do you think was the motive for the crime?” asked the reporter. ‘Money, unquestionably money,’ replied Mr. Harrington. ‘If Mr. Borden died, he would have left something over $500,000, and all I will say is that, in my opinion, that furnishes the only motive, and a sufficient one, for the double murder.

Fall River Daily Herald,   Aug 6th 1892

others preferred to think the crime was motivated by Lizzie’s affair with actress Nance O’Neill, or that Lizzie entered a psychogenic fuguewhen she menstruated and committed the crime in this state. Still others blamed the murders on ‘an unkindly feeling’ between the defendant and her step-mother Abby:

Mr. Borden had seen fit to do some benefaction for a relative of Mrs. Borden, and in consequence of that fact the daughters thought that something should be done for them by way of pecuniary provision as an offset. The details of what happened at that time are […] by no means important. It is significant, however, that enough of feeling had been created by the discussion which arose to cause a change in the relations between the prisoner and Mrs. Borden. Up to that time she had addressed her stepmother as “Mother”. From that time she substantially ceased to do so.

Court transcripts vol. I p. 50

The motive, like the murderer, is impossible to pin down;  Bridget Sullivan, a maid in the Borden household, John Morse, a ‘well-t0-do western land owner‘ and Lizzie’s uncle, and even a hired-assassin were also suggested as possible perpetrators. Lizzie came to trial on 5th June 1893. She was acquitted.

Today Fall River profits from a Lizzie-centric tourist industry and the Borden name has gained significant value. Just interest in the Borden cold case has continued (LizzieAndrewBorden.com is an excellent resource for those interested in the case), the rhyme has been subsumed into popular culture, passed as a playground rhyme through the generations in North America, eventually crossing seas and entering the common consciousness of the English speaking world. It’s interesting to note that the Borden case has all the hallmarks of campfire folklore, and has indeed  has developed paranormal myths of its own.

Only 32 years after the Lizzie’s sensational aquittal the rhyme was well known enough to be included in Edmund Lester Pearson’s true crime book Studies in Murder, with the comment that it is

one of those jingles which are never forgotten. Who invented it, nobody knows but everyone heard it.

p.69

It is true that nobody quite knows the origin of the rhyme. Suggestions have been made that the rhyme was penned by a local journalist reporting the Borden case as it happened, or that it was the call of newspaper sellers on the streets. I cannot find any evidence to support this claim.

Here’s an eerie modern rendering of the rhyme by taintedink.com

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