A piece on Smithsonian.com reminds us that today is the anniversary of the acquittal of Lizzie Borden in the case of the murder of her father and stepmother. The article focuses on how she was largely a pariah in her neighborhood after the trial and for the rest of her life. It is a good short read, so check it out.
You should also check out this essay from last year on We’re History, discussing the little-known fact that in the years after the murder, Lizzie funded an animal rescue shelter, which still reaps financial benefits from the money she left the organization. (I am convinced that one of the things that set her off is that she had a pigeon roost her father hated, leading him to decapitate the animals. Nice guy. That’s enough to piss off any animal lover).
The case is a good window into Gilded Age America. As Steven Cromack points out, “the prosecutors and defense attorneys, representative of the wealthiest Americans, argued over whether wealthy, good-natured, upstanding people are capable of bad behavior. The poor watched bitterly as a rich woman seemed literally to get away with murder. For the nativist residents of Fall River, Lizzie’s actions were the result of immigration, as well as changing demographics and gender norms: Mr. Borden had bought a home in the wrong section of the rapidly changing town and thus, in Lizzie’s eyes, relinquished the family’s status. Feminists would use the trial as a rallying cry for representative juries.”
I visited the Borden house a few years ago with friends because I had long been fascinated by the case. This is due largely to an HBO show called Whodunit: The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries (anyone else remember it?) way back in 1979. I was just a kid only starting to get interested in history and the case fascinated me, inspiring a trip to the school library to find more about it. Tracking down info about this infamous true crime event was one of my earliest experiences at doing historical research, and was provoked by an HBO show. Ah, just another example of how pop cultural depictions of history can have an inspiring impact. I have no doubt that many of you have similar stories.
Anyway, while on a trip to New England a few years back, I convinced my friends to drive down from Boston to Fall River, Massachusetts, to check out the site of the murder (it was an easy sell). Unfortunately, we arrived in the late afternoon just as their last tour of the day was leaving.
I was in the final stages of my book’s publication, and discussing some urgent business with my publisher on the telephone just as we arrived. I was only on the phone for a few minutes in the car, but this prevented us from being able to depart with the tour. Despite being only a few minutes late, we were told that we could not join in.
I would not let it go at that, passionately explaining how I had always been interested in the case, that this was the only day of our trip we could do the tour, we were up from Alabama and had driven all the way from Boston, and would likely never be back in Fall River ever again. The young woman was rather rude, saying that I “must have a crystal ball” and could read the future since I was so sure I’d never be back (can you believe that?). Finally, someone apparently of higher rank came out and said that of course we could join the tour.
We were let in a side door, and instead of just discreetly slipping us in, the employee made a point of interrupting the tour, bringing up the alleged crystal ball, (I kid you not) and asking the guide if we could join in. The most frustrating thing of all was discovering the guide only had two people on his tour (there were four of us). I can tell you from my years as a park ranger, guides are more than happy to have folks added to a tour when there are such few people on it to begin with. (Oh, those one or two person tours. Yuck). He gladly welcomed us.
(For years I have been itching to publicly criticize this treatment, so thanks for letting me vent. In retrospect, however, perhaps it was appropriate that we were treated rudely by a young woman at the Borden house!)
The good news is that our guide had just entered the room in which Lizzie’s father was murdered and was only just then discussing it. So we missed nothing but details about the history of the house prior to the murder. The sofa in the room is not the original one on which Mr. Borden was found (but a perfect replica). We were welcome to sit on it, leading one of my friends to playfully recreate the hatchet murder crime scene. A bit macabre for me. I couldn’t even bring myself to have a seat.
We were then led upstairs, and I can tell you this was the first moment when the house really started to freak me out. There is a palpable sense of dread and sadness lingering over it and it became oppressive when walking into the bedroom in which Mrs. Borden was found with her face basically pancaked into the floor with an axe. The guide vividly described the brutal murder while standing in the spot where the body was found. I was taken aback when he told me I was likely standing exactly where the murderer delivered the first of eighteen blows.
Freaky. Get me out of here!
The rest of the tour included Mr. Borden’s bedroom, where someone had stolen money from him a year before the murder (a crime the old man accused Lizzie of committing). We also saw the maid’s bedroom. She was outside washing windows during the murders, later testifying that she heard Lizzie laughing upstairs at around 10:30 AM on the day of the butcherings (Mrs. Borden was killed at around 9:30 AM, and Mr. Borden at about 11 AM). However, many speculate that the maid was in on it, or at least the cover up. Honestly, her room (which is in the attic) felt almost as creepy as the murder rooms. We wrapped up the tour in the kitchen where Lizzie was seen burning a blue dress days after the murder.
Our guide did a good job of covering the details of the crime and the evidence (or lack of) presented in the trial. It is often argued that Lizzie was acquitted due to the gender and class dynamics of the Gilded Age, but in fairness, the prosecution’s case was built largely on circumstantial evidence.
But come on, she did it.
(If you are really interested, read her inquest testimony: she’s clearly lying her butt off, but the whole thing was deemed inadmissible in the trial).
Sadly, the employees (at least when we were there) are not exactly professional historians, and I got the sense the place is being run by folks focused on capitalizing on tourists who are more interested in the supernatural than in history. A quick view of their website seems to confirm this assessment, which is a shame.
Further, the gift shop peddles such things as Lizzie Borden bobbleheads (complete with a hatchet in her hand), mugs with the crime scene photos on them, and hatchet keychains.
Still, the house is a treasure trove, and as powerful an experience as it is to visit, I have to wonder how much better served it would be with professional historians interpreting events within the context of what they reveal about the Gilded Age and our fascination with violent true crime.
The Borden home is also now a Bed and Breakfast, and I have no doubt people love getting to sleep in the bedroom where Mrs. Borden was found. As for me, I was creeped out just by my 45 minute tour.
But if you are ever near Fall River, Massachusetts, do yourself a favor and travel down to see the place. Just don’t expect high quality historical interpretation, and for goodness sakes, make sure you are on time for the tour (the last one leaves at three!)
If not, you better have a crystal ball proving you will never be back that way again.