Lizzie Andrew Borden stood trial in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for the ax murders of her father and stepmother. This first of many American trials of the century began on June 5, 1893. Lurid details included allegations of poison and rotten mutton, an ax head of dubious suspicion, and the accused fainting at the sight of the Bordens’ skulls when the prosecution presented them as evidence. On June 20, it took the jury ninety minutes to acquit Lizzie. She went on to live a relatively quiet, if ostracized, life in Fall River, Massachusetts, before pop culture appropriated her name and/or life for an opera, a heavy metal band, and countless TV shows and movies.
In The Crimes of Womanhood, A. Cheree Carlson places Lizzie beside Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, and other women to study the powerful influence ideas of femininity brought to courtrooms in the nineteenth- and early twentieth century. It’s an innovative study, one that clearly shows how women had to walk a very narrow line, since the same womanly virtues that were expected of them—passivity, frailty, and purity—could be turned against them at any time. Carlson shows how these riveting trials reflected the attitudes of their broad audiences, indicating which forms of knowledge are easily manipulated and allowing us to analyze how the public and press argued about the verdict.