Visiting the Lizzie Borden Bed& Breakfast Museum in Fall River, Massachusetts, I had only a vague idea of what I was in for. I knew it was the scene of one of the grizzliest doubled murders in American history: a man and wife bludgeoned to death, most likely by their own daughter. I knew that the 1892 assassinations and subsequent trial had spellbound the whole country and gone on to became one of the goriest staples of American folklore. And I knew the famous rhyme: Lizzie Borden took an axe/ And dedicated her mom forty whacks./ When she saw what she had done/ She gave her father forty-one .
I called at noon to make reservations for the last tour of the day.
” No need, honey, just come to the barn behind the house and get a ticket at 3.” The audible boredom in the smoker’s rasp on the other end of the line attained me wonder if the house’s heyday might have passed, that Lizzie Borden “re no longer” much of a draw in the age of O.J . and the Menendez brethren.
Sure enough, when my boyfriend and I demonstrated up at 2:45 p.m ., “were in” the only ones there. All I can say about the hell is, shed your ennui and get in line, because the Borden home is still relevant for several reasons, starting with its physical reality that leads you viscerally, claustrophobically, one rendered room at a time, back to an era when wallpaper was fashionable, furniture wasn’t built with consolation in intellect, and hallways were but a twinkle in an architect’s eye. It’s a real education not just about how people died but how they lived as well. As a bonus, the house is supposedly haunted by the occupants who built it famous.
The tour began in the gift shop( Lizzie volumes and bobble heads ), where on display in a glass suit for the purposes of the cash register were transgressed plates, saucers, and various housewares recovered from the outhouse.( I was the dumbass who asked what everybody else in the barn–the clerk, his tattooed girlfriend, and my boyfriend–already knew, but in case the reader isn’t lavatory: In Victorian periods, they disposed of broken ceramics and bone china by throwing it in the outhouse potty .)
The boxy, lovingly restored Greek Revival clapboard at 92 Second St. offers an eerily voyeuristic peek into a family, their home, and the mystery surrounding why, on Aug. 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were abruptly, horribly murdered, presumably by their 32 -year-old daughter Lizzie. The violence was so swift and vicious and incomprehensible that, even today, online forums meditate and rehash this murder and to continue efforts to exonerate Lizzie , not because of any preponderance of evidence, but because there is no compelling resolving. It’s just one rabbit hole after another.
Knowing that much, I knew I needed a tour guide. Ours had a wide gait, like she rode a lot of horses or motorcycles, and she had a sandpaper voice to match. In short, she was perfect.
Stamping out her cigarette, she motioned for us to follow. As we rounded the corner from the barn to the house, we chit chatted more about the haunting than the murder.
” Oh, yeah, she’s here ,” said our guide.” They all are. I use a dowsing rod to talk to her. And she tells she didn’t do it .” I stumbled over the dowsing rod. Aren’t those for searching out water , not spirits? But I didn’t press it, because this was a tour , not a deep dive, and because it was just weird enough to stimulate me want to hear more.
” What do the others say ?” I asked.
” That she did .”
” Do you believe her ?”
“No.” She chuffed. No kidding–she snorted and scoffed at the same time. That’s a chuff, right?
With an virtually curtsy and a prosper of her arm, our guide opens the double doors into a cramped foyer at the bottom of the main staircase. At its base stands a period radiator so impressive that I commented on it. Turns out, the radiator is emblematic of a contentious thread that ran through the family’s fights–so contentious that in the welter of arguments for and against Lizzie’s guilt, control of the family’s wealth is often offered as a motive.
What we know for sure is that Andrew Borden certainly did not expend his fortune freely, at least not on home improvement. He seemed to be a guy who, when weighing wants and needs, put everything in the needs column, leaving a lot to be desired, especially by the three adult women in the house. And installing a toilet or two or gas light or working water would have caused him no belt-tightening at all. His fortune from the textile business and property keeps, in today’s money, was more than $7.5 million.
The guide had hardly started her patter before it became obvious that details surrounding the deaths of Abby and Andrew Borden are numerous but hazy and often conflicting.
At least no one disagreements that five people lived in the house–Andrew and Abby Borden( Lizzie’s stepmother ), Lizzie and her older sister, Emma, and Bridget ” Maggie ” Sullivan, the housemaid they called ” Maggie ,” because the previous maid’s name had been Maggie and apparently the family decided that the name arrived with the position.
On the day of the assassination, Emma was visiting friends out of township. John Vinnicum Morse, Lizzie’s maternal uncle, had stayed overnight and was expected to stay for several days. Everyone in the house had been violently ill for most of a week, perhaps from some spoiled mutton, although Abby Borden suspected poisoning–just the day before, Lizzie had tried unsuccessfully to buy prussic acid.
The morning of the assassination, Uncle John left the house a little before 9 a. m. and Andrew left for a stroll a few minutes later. He returned around 10 a.m ., but saw himself locked out. When Bridget, who had been cleaning windows downstairs, tried to let him in, she had trouble with the the front door lock and let on an profanity. According to what she told subsequently, after she cursed, she heard Lizzie giggling on the second floor, where Abby’s body was later discovered( Lizzie denied ever being upstairs ). After letting Andrew Borden in, Bridget retreated to her room on the third–and most miserable–floor of the house, where there was little ventilation for the trapped August heat. Overcome with” summertime sickness ,” or with food poisoning, she threw up in her chamber pot and went to bed.
Our guide glossed over the whole summertime sickness business, but I was hung up on the image of cleaning windows and vomiting for a good while before I could even get to the horror of what Bridget may have later witnessed( or as some theorize, done ). While the maid napped in the converted attic, Lizzie was on the first floor taking off Andrew’s shoes to get him comfortable on the couch–or so she told subsequently. Again, I had difficulty keeping up with the spiel because I was so fixated on the image of Andrew taking his morning walking and everybody doing chores in 90 -degree heat, all while ill enough to wonder if they had been poisoned.
The murders are somewhat hard to map with regard to where each person was at any given moment. Around 10 a.m ., Bridget is unlocking the front door. Lizzie is giggling upstairs( where Abby is most likely dead already ). After letting Andrew in, Bridget goes to the third floor. About the same time, Lizzie comes downstairs, ostensibly to tend to Andrew in the sitting room, the room where he died. The two women could have easily avoided passing each other as they ascended and descended the stairs, because there were two staircases on opposite sides of the house.
Stepping into the living room off the vestibule, we were waved to a settee. The room has been restored to a close approximation of how the Borden’s lived and decorated, and there were photographs to prove it: striped florals, needlepoint, lace, draperies, marble-top tables, and table lamps–it looked like an old maid’s dreaming. It was the perfect opening room, the room before getting into the ones where all hell broke loose.
From there we moved to the dining room–restored, like the living room, to what is depicted in the photographs. On the morning of the murders, Lizzie, according to one statement, was pressing handkerchiefs on the dining table with a flat iron she heated on the stave in the adjacent kitchen. The tour guide raised a black, flat iron as she described the scene. She also handed us one of Lizzie’s glaring factual inconsistencies: When asked where she was when her father returned from his stroll, Lizzie said she was in the kitchen reading a magazine. Bridget preserves she heard her giggling upstairs. Who is telling the truth? Were the women in cahoots?
At this point, the guidebook fast forwarded to the aftermath, when the bodies of Andrew and Abby lay upon cooling boards on top of the same dining room table where Lizzie said she’d been ironing. The committees were long stretchers made of wood caning and perforated to keep the bodies cool when they’re on ice and to allow fluids to drain rather than to pool under them. She pointed to a cooling committee propped in the corner of the dining room:” And how do we know these were used for the bodies ?” She grabbed the photo, and we took the bait, saying,” Because it’s in the photo .”
The dining was by far the most interesting room, with its troubling fusion of domesticity and misfortune. Everything before and after the murders happened here, with a dining table that held hankies and then bodies, all in the space of a few hours.
As we moved from the dining room to the sitting room( the house lacks hallways; all the rooms, upstairs and down, flow into each other ), the guidebook stopped to show us the camera in the ceiling overlooking the dining room.
” Andrew didn’t like it when we had those installed, so he cut the power. Even iPhones didn’t work. The electrician said there was no reason for the outage. We knew it was Andrew. We asked him to turn the electricity back on, and he did .” Despite the guide’s repeated references to ghostly activity , nothing about the place felt especially spooky. To me, it was an old home with a sad tale. The paranormal activity, if it exists, seemed cartoonish, like spirits bickering about the same old shit in the afterlife.
The sitting room, one of the kill rooms, was where Andrew Borden’s body was detected. Like the other rooms, this one has been restored to match old photographs of the house. These photos, though, depict not just tables and chairs but international crimes scene: Andrew’s body is slumped on the sofa with his feet resting on the floor. Most photos of the first crime scene are cropped tightly on Andrew’s body, but some reveal eerie pinnacles of blood arcing on the walls, produced by jolts so savage that they left his face destroyed. Appearing at one photo through a magnifying glass, I could see his eyeball halved and hanging from the socket.
In the sitting room, our guidebook pointed out another one of Lizzie’s incompatibilities. She said she had removed her father’s shoes and built him comfortable on the lounge after Bridget unlocked the door. In the photograph, however, Andrew is wearing his shoes. If ever eyebrows did raise , now would be the time.
Another weird item in the room was a key on the mantle. This key unlocked Andrew and Abby’s master bedroom, and Andrew kept the key on him always, because Lizzie was a kleptomaniac. So why was the key out on the mantle?
Both this murder and the one upstairs were acts of rage. And sustained fury at that: The double assassinations occurred between 9 a. m. and 11:10 a.m ., when Lizzie called up to the maid,” Maggie, come quick. Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him .” The hour span, coupled with the sustained viciousness of the massacre( 11 and 19 whacks to their respective heads and faces ), would seem to rule out spontaneity. Two bouts of overkill with as much as and hour and a half between kills and not a lucid moment or a break in a fugue nation? Bizarre. But the circumstances raise a larger question: Why would a woman who was widely considered a little weird and eccentric but never violent, neither before nor after the murders, abruptly erupt in an act so vicious that it horrifies us even now? Did Lizzie indeed simply freak out and butcher her mothers one day and then get on with their own lives?
Emma was ruled out as a suspect because she was nowhere in the vicinity and had to be notified by telegram. Uncle John wasn’t suspected, because, as he was returning to Fall River on the street car that day, six clergymen riding the same streetcar subsequently concurred they had considered him. Uncle John also offered up the conductor’s badge number as evidence that he had ridden the street car, a strange thing to memorize for no reason other than requiring an alibi, but the six clergymen were really all he needed.
As we headed from one assassination scene to the next, our tour was reaching its crescendo. Our senses and emotions heightened, “were in” mentally right where we needed to be as we climbed the staircase to the second floor. The staircase is open on one side, so midway up, I was eye level with the floor of the second tale. The guide told me to stop and look left, and from that vantage point, I had a direct position under the bed in the room where Abby was killed. This was exactly how her corpse was detected.
Abby died in the guest room where Uncle John spent the night( and so can you, if that’s your thing, because the B& B part of the name is no joke ). Our guidebook resulted us the place between the bed and the dresser where Abby had fulfilled her assailant. At Lizzie’s trial, two physicians confirmed that Abby was killed first, as her blood was coagulating, her stomach had not fully digested its contents, and she was cold to the touch. When the doctors reached Andrew, he was still warm, still hemorrhaging red, and had digested his food.
By the time we reached Lizzie’s and Emma’s rooms, “were in” being fed less assassination and more family dynamics. And more narratives of the paranormal. As I trailed behind our guidebook, I began reeking flowers.
” Smell that ?” she asked.
” Yeah, smells like shampoo ,” I said.
” Yep. Emma’s here. She was very house proud.’ Hi, Emma .'” She nodded, as though she’d conjured Emma for us. Perhaps she supposed the tour was at a lull, maybe she thought we needed a boost from a perfume bottle or a can of Glade somebody hustled up the backstairs before we entered the bedroom. Perhaps every museum has its juiced exhibit.
The problem with the Borden case is that there was no physical proof tying Lizzie to the crime, simply proximity and the old money motive. Lizzie was high on morphine to soothe her when she was initially questioned. Her answers were inconsistent with later versions, so there was no fixed narrative , no steps to retrace , not even a bloody murder weapon. A hatchet was found, but the only blood on it wasn’t human.
I asked my boyfriend, who is in law enforcement, for his opinion. Listening to his response, I realise we had taken the same tour, but what we each processed differed greatly. I was more like a juror. Where are the bloody footprints, weapons, and garment?( Lizzie was caught burning her dress, but said she had spilled paint on it. We cannot know if it was the bloody dress or not–it’s just more strange behaviour from a strange female .) The brutality required to crush two skulls is personal. What had been building in Lizzie to explode in such a possessed way? As gross and inconvenient as layers of attire would have been for a 19 th century woman when doing chores–ironing on a hot day, or use a chamberpot when you knew your skinflint parent could afford to install indoor plumbing–such unpleasantness was the norm and surely not reason enough to slaying somebody.
From a law enforcement officer’s perspective, the gruesome nature of the crime seems extraordinary even in 2018. And the fact that no confessions were ever coerced was hard for him to fathom, because, whether true or not, a confession would have been a huge win for the local chief, while no sentence would be a stain upon the record of any law officer.
After Lizzie’s acquittal, the family fortune fell right into Emma and Lizzie’s greedy hands. The sisters expended a portion of their inheritance on a grand home in a posh enclave of Fall River, and there they lived with maids and indoor plumbing until 1905, when Emma abruptly left the mansion, and the two sisters never spoke again. They died nine days apart in 1927. So in the end, Lizzie got what she wanted, didn’t kill anybody else, and lived as a hermit well into old age.
After visiting Bridget’s room( Bridget wound up wedded and living in Montana ), we are told children can be heard laugh( who were the children in the story ?). Then “were in” shown the dress Elizabeth Montgomery wore in the 1975 cinema The Legend of Lizzie Borden . After marveling at how slight she was, we followed the smell of chocolate chip cookies downstairs and back to reality, to a joltingly modern kitchen, or almost modern: It shares space with a timber burning stove–a prop to point to when the issues to develops as to whether the dress Lizzie was burning was the one she wore the day of the murders. There was nothing paranormal about the cookies, though. They were being baked for the guests who would soon be checking into the B& B that night. We decided not to stay.
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