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Women rarely kill, but when they do, they defy deeply-rooted cultural perceptions of femininity


Why we’re fascinated by Lizzie Borden and other female murderers

By Brigit Katz on August 5, 2015

Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.

So goes the (somewhat misleading) schoolyard rhyme about one of the most infamous female murderers in American history. On August 4, 1892, a well-to-do man named Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abby, were found dead in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Abby had been struck 18 times with an axe; Andrew received 11 blows. Suspicion immediately fell upon Andrew’s 32-year-old daughter Lizzie, who was home at the time.

Lizzie’s behavior after the murders certainly did not inspire confidence. Her testimony was inconsistent, and she was spotted burning a dress that she claimed had been ruined by paint. Testimony from people who knew the Bordens also revealed that their family life had been very tense: Lizzie and her sister Emma had never cared for their stepmother, and the sisters had reportedly been growing very frustrated by their wealthy father’s stinginess. This evidence was largely circumstantial, and a jury ultimately acquitted Lizzie after an extraordinarily high-profile trial. But popular consensus—both at the time of the murders and in the decades afterwards—deemed Lizzie a bonafide murderess.

Tuesday marked the 123rd anniversary of the murders, and—predictably—the Internet was filled with posts that gleefully commemorated the unfortunate occasion (see this onethis one, and this one, for example). There is no denying that Lizzie has become a pop culture icon in her own, weird right. Interpretations of her story have been adapted for the stage, film, and—most recently—for a Lifetime television series starring Christina Ricci. True Lizzie enthusiasts can even book a stay at the Lizzie Borden bed and breakfast, where for a cool $250, you can take a snooze in the room where Abby Borden was hacked to death.

Many people have killed in the years since the Borden murders, and yet an enduring fascination with Lizzie Borden remains. And so, of course, the question must be asked: why on earth are we so obsessed with Lizzie?

In some respects, the answer is simple and could be applied to many murder cases that have captivated the macabre side of our cultural consciousness: mystery and brutality.  The Borden murders are marked by an ever-enticing whodunit air. Though it seems more than likely that Lizzie was the culprit, there was never any forensic evidence tying her to the case, and she never confessed to the crime. But even if we do implicate Lizzie in the murders, the case remains shrouded in mystery. A child’s murder of his or her parents—particularly when the crime is as gruesome as the Borden killings—never fails to incite public interest because it is just so difficult to comprehend.

“Although it is not uncommon, someone killing their parents (or family members) remains persistently shocking,” explains forensic psychologist Paul G. Mattiuzzi. “It is hard to believe that someone would kill their parents out of greed, so we are immediately curious about what form of passion or irrationality might be involved.”

Yet there is also a gendered element to our fascination with Lizzie Borden, and with all female killers. The most well-known male murderers have killed multiple times (think Charles Manson and Ted Bundy), but women do not have to be quite so prolific to reach astronomic levels of infamy (think Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony). This may be due, in part, to the fact that women murderers are statistically quite rare. In 2013, for example, 64.3 percent of murders in the United States were perpetrated by men, while only 7.7 percent were committed by women (the remaining percentage accounts for murders that have not been solved).

But there is more to public interest in female killers than the pure novelty of them. According to Dr. Lizzie Seal, criminologist and author of Women, Murder and Femininity: Gender Representations of Women Who Kill, women murderers inspire shock because they transgress deeply ingrained notions of appropriate female behavior.

“Female killers violate cultural assumptions about womanhood,” Seal explains. “The accepted ‘standard’ of womanhood is nurturance, care and conformity—[although] actual women are frequently not like this—so when women kill they deviate from this.” 

Such stereotypes were undoubtedly more pervasive in 19th century America than they are today, which may very well explain why Lizzie Borden became a media sensation. Prior to the crime that branded her—whether fairly or not—as a homicidal axe murderer, Lizzie led a perfectly respectable life. She was unmarried, and resided in her parents’ home. She attended church and taught at a local Sunday school. She behaved, in other words, in a manner befitting a small-town, well-to-do spinster.

To a certain extent, Lizzie’s conformity to feminine stereotypes worked in her favor. Lizzie’s defense counsel never missed an opportunity to point out that she lived an “honorable, spotless life” and thus made for an unlikely murderer. “Quite frankly, I think the reason she got off is because all the people who were the principles in the trial were really good friends of the family, and did just about everything they possibly could—especially the judge—to get a not-guilty verdict,” says A. Cheree Carlson, a communications professor at Arizona State University who has written about the Lizzie Borden trial. “And of course that meant using her womanhood.”

But the clash between Lizzie’s humdrum existence and the bloody homicide she was accused of committing made her a lurid sensation, even after she was acquitted. “I think the fascination [with Lizzie stemmed from] the gap between her position as respectable woman and unassuming spinster, and the very violent, bloody crime of which she was accused,” says Seal. “The story of a white, upper middle class lady who might also have been an axe murderer retains appeal because of this contradiction.”