The Upshot

Lizzie Borden: The Amanda Knox of the 1890s

The Upshot

Click image to view more photos of Lizzie Borden. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Click image to view more photos of Lizzie Borden. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

A sensational trial covered by a hungry media. A bloody murder scene that involved a sharp, brutal blade, and then a surprising acquittal of an alleged "killer girl" who captured the nation's attention.

Sounds like the sensational legal scandal that produced the recent acquittal of American-abroad student Amanda Knox for the sexual assault and murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher. But this case happened more than 100 years ago, to one Lizzie Borden.

News of Knox's overturned murder conviction caused Web searches to surge around the expat college student. As a CNN blog put it, there's nothing like the mashup of "sex, violence, and media hysteria" to keep a story alive.

And that was certainly as true in 1892 as it is in 2011. Borden, a young woman in Fall River, Mass., was alleged to have whacked her stepmother and father to death with an axe.

The story goes like this: In August 1892, Lizzie Borden, who was said to have problems with her parents, claimed to have found them beaten to death in their house. She was charged with the murders but then exonerated the following year after a highly publicized trial found nothing more than circumstantial evidence.

The penny press, the Internet of the 1890s, closely followed the case, questioning the defendant's sexuality and sanity (sound familiar?). Books on Borden were also popular, and she quickly became a cultural phenomenon. Her life inspired a ballet by Agnes de Mille, an opera, and a rather jump-rope rhyme: "Lizzie Borden took an axe/And gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done.

"Simpson's" fans may remember Borden's cameo (bearing an ax, natch) in the episode, "Jury of the Damned." And Chloë Sevigny, an actress with a penchant for unconventional roles  in vehicles such as the HBO Mormon plural-marriage series "Big Love," is reported to be developing a project for the cable network around Borden. Sevigny has described the accused murderess as a "countercultural icon."

But that was scarcely how most of Borden's contemporaries viewed her. After the trial ended, the freed woman was still faced widespread stigmatization from the residents of Fall River, where she continued to live until her death in 1927. So far, Amanda Knox, who has been warmly welcomed back to Seattle, Washington, seems to have escaped that same fate, despite lingering questions around the case.

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