We've all been there: we did something really stupid and now we’ve been caught. Own
up and face the music? Or create an outlandish excuse and brave it out? Sprung in the
worst possible way – by the law – these people decided to go to the dark side and spin a
wild tale. Amazingly, sometimes it worked. And sometimes it didn’t…
Liar, lyre, Rome on fire
According to some historians, the original dodgy alibi dates back to ancient Rome in
64BC, when a massive, days-long fire devastated the city. We remember it today with
the saying ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ – inspired by the ego-maniacal Emperor Nero
who, in the worst disaster response in history, put on a solo show instead of doing
anything to save his city.
Conveniently, Nero had been holidaying on the seaside when the fire broke out
(allegedly lit by his own henchmen), and returned only when it threatened his
residence, whereupon he donned a costume, grabbed his lyre (it wasn’t a fiddle) and hit
the stage, singing an epic poem about the mythical burning of Troy. Nero fancied himself
as a great singer and no one in the audience dared to question him, while around them,
Rome burned to the ground.
Lizzie Borden: Queen of dubious alibis
You could write a book about Lizzie Borden. In fact, many have. While she was acquitted
of the axe murders of her father and stepmother in New England in 1892, nowadays the
weight of evidence against her seems pretty compelling.
Lizzie was the only other person at home when her stepmother died from 18 blows to
the head with a hatchet. Ouch. An hour or so later, with their maid home but taking a
nap and Lizzie’s dad back from a walk, he was killed by 10 blows from a hatchet.
Lizzie said she’d gone off to make sinkers for fishing line in the barn loft. Lizzie said
she’d wandered off and eaten four pears. Lizzie said she heard a groan from the house.
Lizzie said she entered the house not realizing anything was wrong. Lizzie said she’d
gone to visit a sick friend. She said she’d gone to get iron or tin to fix a window. She said
she was in the kitchen when her father got home. No. She was doing ironing in another
room. No, wait…
At the trial – one of the most famous in US history – she was found not guilty and lived
out her days in the same small town. A cloud of suspicion was never far from her.
An American defense
Famed architect of the ‘gilded age’ Stanford White designed opulent houses for society
Americans with surnames like Astor and Vanderbilt. He also designed the original
Madison Square Garden. It was while attending a show there in 1906 that he was shot
dead by railroad heir Harry K Thaw. White’s designs, as it turns out, had also extended
to Thaw’s wife, chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit. Nesbit and the architect had a relationship
before she met Thaw. But Thaw’s jealousy raged.
At the trial, Thaw admitted firing the fatal shot, but pleaded not guilty on account of
‘Dementia Americana’, described by his lawyer as “the species of insanity which makes
every American man believe … the honor of his wife is sacred.” And he got off – sort of –
spending the next five years in a hospital for the criminally insane.
‘I was researching a film role’
When Winona Ryder was arrested in 2001 for nicking over $5000 worth of clothes and
accessories from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverley Hills, she claimed she was doing
research for a future film role. She was later found guilty of grand theft and vandalism,
though she dodged jail time.
No shoplifting caper film ever materialised, though happily Winona has found a new
burst of fame with her (non-theft- related) role in the hit series Stranger Things.