My father always was uneasy with my interest in natural disasters, e.g. Pompeii, The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and of course the sinking of the Andrea Doria and as well as story of the people who were forced to become cannibals in the Andes to survive after a plane crash in 1972. He thought I was a bit of a ghoulish child. This was followed by my children thinking I was a bit odd, and then of course, my FHB’s eye rolling which is often linked to my telling him that I have always had a fascination with the story of Lizzie Borden. I invited him to join me to take a tour today, and he politely, with only a momentary eye roll, declined my offer even though we could both get senior discounts! I know that was not a natural disaster. In fact it was probably more of an unnatural disaster.
This is the summer of my delving into slices of history, that include my reading Moby Dick (which is going very well, thanks for asking), as well as looking into local history, and the story of Lizzie Borden, which took place in Fall River, Massachusetts. This is only about twelve miles down the road from home, and New Bedford plays a prominent role in the crime that took place on August 4, 1892. The thirteen day trial took place in New Bedford. When I was a child I had read quite a few books on the subject, and saw the TV movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery of “Bewitched” fame as Lizzie. The house where it was alleged that she killed her stepmother and her father with an axe, is now a bed and breakfast and has tours 363 days a week. I knew the poem about the forty whacks that her stepmother was given and the forty one her father got. Of course I learned today that was a gross exaggeration as Abby got 19 whacks and Andrew “only” ten or eleven. I couldn’t resist. Who doesn’t love a good mystery? The facts remain cloudy and yet the story intrigues many, as she was tried and acquitted and went on and lived (in a different house) until she died in 1927 nine days before the death of her older sister, Emma, who was nine years older than Lizzie. Cue the creepy organ music.
I joined a motley group of tourists with a common goal….to see the scene of the crime and hear the story of the first crime in the United States that used crime scene photography. The first crime scene that had photography, was two years earlier in London and involved Jack the Ripper. Just sharing some cocktail party fun facts. On a scale of one to ten, my interest and knowledge is probably about a three and a half. I was astonished to find that I was surrounded by some folks who possibly had PhDs in Lizzie Borden, and had travelled from all across the country and from outside the US, who had more than an obsession with this particular chain of events. I was a rank amateur in this group. The story itself was dwarfed by the knowledge that these folks shared. It was like a convention. There was constant speculation and intrigue among the visitors. The guide was a veritable font of Lizzie Borden facts. He stated with total certainty that the house was haunted. This was followed by the expected “Oohs” and “Aaahs”. There were copies of the medical examiner reports and replicas of the skulls of Andrew and Abby Borden, the deceased father and stepmother. There were photographs of the bodies after they were found. It was a veritable treasure trove of guts and gore. We heard the stories of jealousy and frugality and the twist on the wicked stepmother theme. We learned that Abby was the intended victim but that Lizzie had to do her father in, because he came home and would have figured out that Lizzie had murdered his second wife. I just loved writing “had to ‘do him in’!”!
The gift shop had the movie running in a loop while you waited for the tour and the folks in my group certainly increased the revenue of the B & B substantially with the number of rubber axes that they sold, tshirts that said “I axed you a question!” and a mug that said “I took Anger Management Classes from Lizzie Borden”.
The tour took a very long hour with the recognition on my part that sometimes the mystique is merely a story shrouded in kitsch. I left quietly and considered what I had imagined before walking through this house. We are all voyeurs when it comes to other people’s business and that a good story can be pretty profitable and can probably endure for another 125 years. The people who know what really happened probably never knew what hit them! Sleep well.