The play is based on the case of Lizzie Borden. On August 4, 1892, Borden's father's body was "discovered" by Lizzie in a downstairs room of the family home. Soon, the Bordens' maid, Sullivan, discovered the body of Borden's stepmother. The subsequent investigation and trial of Lizzie set a precedent for media coverage.
On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie reported to Bridget Sullivan, the Irish maid, her discovery of the bloody body of her father sprawled on the sofa in the sitting room, and instructed her to fetch the family physician, Dr. Bowen. When the doctor and the police arrived, they also found the body of Abby Borden upstairs, her head similarly crushed by multiple axe blows. Bridget Sullivan testified that she had been in her own attic room, resting from cleaning windows on a very hot day. She had neither heard nor seen anything unusual. Lizzie claimed that she had been in the barn, although the undisturbed dust on the barn floor seemed to indicate otherwise. Emma was out of town visiting friends. Four axes were discovered in the basement, one without a handle, and the head covered in ashes. No evidence of blood was found on Lizzie's clothes, although her friend, Miss Russell, did discover her burning a dress three days later, which she claimed had been stained with paint. At the inquest, it was also revealed that Lizzie had bought prussic acid from a local pharmacy the day before, and that Abby and Andrew Borden had been ill that morning. Lizzie was arrested for murder and the trial date set for June 5, 1893. The trial lasted fourteen days, and caused a national sensation: it was the first public trial in the United States to be covered extensively by the media. Popular opinion was split on the innocence or guilt of Lizzie Borden, with strong support coming from feminists and animal rights advocates.
Lizzie Borden was acquitted—her lawyers having persuaded the jury that the evidence was circumstantial. She continued to live in Fall River in a fashionable Victorian mansion located on "The Hill" with her sister. However, she continued a life of social circumscription, even more limited than before the murders, since she was understandably shunned by the community. She did travel regularly, however, maintaining a relationship with a young Boston actress named Nance O'Neil, which provoked yet more rumours, and resulting in Emma finding her own place to live. She died in 1927 and was buried in the Borden family plot.