Lizzie Borden took an ax,
and gave her mother 40 whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
she gave her father 41.
It’s been 126 years since Andrew and Abby Borden — Lizzie’s father and stepmother — were murdered in their Fall River, Mass. home.
The brutality of the crime (both were hit over a dozen times with a hatchet) and Lizzie’s “unusually cold demeanor” and contradictory testimony of that fateful morning made the case an instant sensation in the media.
In the subsequent, highly-publicized trial, Lizzie Borden was acquitted after an hour and a half of deliberation by the jury. She left the courthouse “the happiest woman in the world,” as she told the crowd of reporters present.
We’ll never know absolutely whether Lizzie was guilty or innocent, but plenty have theorized she was driven to murder by abuse, or because her relationship with housemaid Bridget was uncovered, or over financial issues.
Dozens of books and films have tackled the story — the newest will be the forthcoming “Lizzie,” starring Chloe Sevigny in the title role with Kristen Stewart as Bridget — and it seems every schoolchild has memorized the infamous rhyme about the crime.
Lizzie Borden’s ubiquitousness is no surprise: we can be downright bloodthirsty when it comes to true crime. The more horrific, the more gruesome, the more shocking the tale the better, it seems.
Just look at how many hundreds of TV series revolve around homicide investigations — how many gritty films are based on actual events. Just as we slow down when passing car accidents, we can’t look away from dramatic reenactments. We can’t get enough crime scene montages.
If you’re a true crime fan, there are thousands of books out there to devour; here are just a few that stand out from the tabloid-heavy crowd.
5. “THE MURDER ROOM: THE HEIRS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES GATHER TO SOLVE THE WORLD’S MOST PERPLEXING COLD CASES” by Michael Capuzzo. They call themselves the Vidocq Society. Forensic investigators William Fleisher, Frank Bender and Richard Walter meet for monthly lunches to tackle cold cases everyone else has abandoned. Their track record is impressive, and it’s heartening to know that, even years later, there are professionals still determined to find justice for the victims.
4. “THUNDERSTRUCK” by Erik Larson. Larson’s best known for “The Devil in the White City,” his runaway bestseller about Chicago and H.H. Holmes, perhaps the most prolific serial killer in American history. But “Thunderstruck” — a story of a “near perfect murder” committed on an ocean liner and Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio, who happened to be on board and collaborated with the investigators — is equally fascinating. Larson delivers an incredible tale worthy of fiction but backed by exhaustive research.
3. “THE MURDER OF THE CENTURY: THE GILDED AGE CRIME THAT SCANDALIZED A CITY & SPARKED THE TABLOID WARS” by Paul Collins. Collins, NPR’s own “literary detective,” lays out a wild tale of a dismembered man, an ill-fated love triangle and a sensational trial with dialogue plucked directly from primary sources. While newspaper tycoons Pulitzer and Hearst vie for the most comprehensive, outrageous coverage of the case, an unlikely trio — a down-on-his-luck cop, a cub reporter and a colorful professor — race to identify the victim and find the killer.
2. “CITY OF DEVILS: THE TWO MEN WHO RULED THE UNDERWORLD OF OLD SHANGHAI” by Paul French. In 1930s Shanghai, American “Lucky” Jack Riley and Jewish “Dapper” Joe Farren were the undisputed shotcallers of vice: Jack owned the slots, Joe the nightclubs. French gives us their parallel personal stories against the background of a country at war and a city often contested by world powers. Few know Shanghai’s history better, and few write in such a vivid, gutpunch manner — you can practically smell the streets. This is one you’ll devour in a single sitting.
1. “I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK: ONE WOMAN’S OBSESSIVE SEARCH FOR THE GOLDEN STATE KILLER” by Michelle McNamara. In a spree that lasted more than 10 years, the Golden State Killer sexually assaulted over 50 people and killed 10. For three decades, the case remained unsolved. Enter Michelle McNamara, who spent years conducting her own research, interviewing victims and following leads generated by her blog, TrueCrimeDiary.com. Sadly, McNamara died tragically young in 2016 while writing “I’ll Be Gone”— but the posthumous release of her book revived interest in the cold case and, just this past April, the Golden State Killer was finally captured. A fitting end to McNamara’s quest – and proof that the pen can bring the guilty to justice.
ANGIE BARRY is a page designer and columnist for The Times. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers pop culture, history and literature, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.