The Rarity of Porter’s The Fall River Tragedy

02 Mar

I’m re-posting this blog entry from September 2007 because this evening I noted an eBay seller has an original Porter listed for a “Buy it Now” price of $6,000! (Note:  Seller dropped price to $3,000 on March 3rd) Only an idiot would pay that much given that antiquarian booksellers have a few available right now for less than a thousand bucks. An easy Google search will prove this out.

Check out the eBay Seller’s listing here.

More interesting to me, however, is that the Seller did a literal cut and paste from my words below. The whole point of my post is that the book is NOT AS RARE as it has been professed to be and thus, this may very well be the reason the eBay Seller did not cite my blog or provide the URL to this particular entry. Otherwise, the potential bidder/buyer would be well – less inclined to pay that much. “BUYER BEWARE!”. As a matter of fact, I’m going to offer up one of my four original Porters in my “Collectibles for Sale” page….so just be patient. 🙂

The more important books on the Borden case reveal an evolution of author-to-author citations as to the rarity of Edwin H. Porter’s book (the first edition), The Fall River Tragedy, Press of J. D. Munroe, 1893. It appears the legend begins in 1967 with Victoria Lincoln because even in his 1937 Trial Essay, Edmund Pearson’s “bible”, there is no mention. Since Pearson believed in Lizzie’s guilt I’d think he would have mentioned it. Edward D. Radin – who proposed that Bridget did it – made a point of NOT mentioning it.

William Masterton’s Lizzie Didn’t Do It, and Muriel Arnold’s Hands of Time had no reference to the rarity of Porter’s book. Nor did Angela Carter. (BTW, I think Muriel’s Ward 4 and Neighborhood sketches in the front of her book are far better and more encompassing than others that have been published). There are scads of reference to the “rarity”, i.e., “Lizzie bought out….” in numerous compendium books – too many to cite here. I didn’t bother with the fictional accounts of the Borden case (Hunter, Engstrom, Satterthwait) because golly gee, who the hell cares. So here are the more obvious citations to be found:

1967 – Private Disgrace – Victoria Lincoln p27 – “…bought off the printer had the books destroyed”

1967 – Private Disgrace – Lincoln p304 -“The town was further irked when Lizzie bought up The Fall River Tragedy and nobody had a chance to read it. Everyone wanted to. As I told you at the start of our story, I had to wait for the pleasure forty years before I found the first copy that I had ever seen, in the Library of Congress.”

1968 – Untold Story – Edward Radin p16The Fall River Tragedy, by Edwin H. Porter, a Fall River police reporter, who stoutly defended Fall River police for arresting Lizzie Borden. This book, published in Fall River, had a limited sale and circulation. ”

1974 – Goodbye Lizzie Borden – Sullivan p142 -“…virtually all copies were purchased and destroyed by Lizzie.”

1984 – Lizzie – Frank Spiering p36 – His footnote:”The Fall River Tragedy by Edwin H. Porter, printed privately in 1893, was the first book published about the murders. Only four copies are known to exist. A copy which was originally in the Library of Congress has vanished, one is kept at the State House in Boston, one is in the archives of the Fall River Historical Society and one is in my possession. Lizzie bought off the printer and had all the other copies destroyed before they reached the bookshops.”

1991 – Legend of Lizzie Borden – Arnold Brown p89-90 -“It is not known how many copies of The Fall River Tragedy were printed, but it had to be several hundred if not several thousand. Fifty years ago only two copies were known to exist, and one other copy was rumored. Mrs. Brigham at the Fall River Historical Society has reported that four copies are now held by the society, and she knows of one other held privately. Even the copy that should be held by the Library of Congress is missing. The overwhelming majority of the press run simply disappeared the day it was published. Miss Lizzie, the legend says, acting on the advice of Andrew Jennings, bought up and destroyed every copy she could. If Lizzie did not do that, someone did.”

1992 – Forty Whacks – David Kent xiv -“Knowledge of what Porter had done was unwittingly obscured when Lizzie, learning of the publication, was rumored to have bought up all but about 25 subscription copies and had them destroyed. Thus, only a few ever saw what Porter had written and were unaware of his distortions. But scholars ferreted out the half-dozen copies held in public libraries and other institutions and these became the sourcebooks for all research. Fortunately for historians, Porter’s book was rescued from limbo in 1985 and reprinted by King Philip Publishing Company of Portland, Maine. ”

At the 1992 Lizzie Borden Centennial Conference held at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Patterson Smith of New Jersey gave a presentation on this very topic. He stated that Porter’s book is not that “rare” after all, as many were sold on subscription – perhaps over 500. I, myself, have handled at least 20 of these first editions in the past 25 years and have 4 original Porters in my collection, but one of my collector associates actually has FIVE in his collection!

Of the four original Porters I have, one has hand-written notes from a minister who knew Lizzie and Emma and he wrote periodically about seeing them from time to time, i.e., at the Swansea farm with “the horses”, the rumors around town, when they parted, when Lizzie died, etc. His marginal notes and the two pages of typewritten notes inside the book, only enhance its value, IMHO. My fourth and most recent copy was purchased in Fall River just this past August from a private party to whom I was introduced.

In 1992, I took one of my Porters to the Conference and sold it for over $1,000 right there to an eager buyer, who I long have suspected was a shill for Patterson Smith because he was peeking around the corner of the building at the time. Too funny! Perhaps he “financed” the eager buyer?

In the last several years, I’ve noted at least 6 original Porter’s sold on eBay (not counting those I’ve sold on eBay myself). In addition, just this past year two of my close friends have obtained copies for less than $300 from booksellers, and another person I know traded several rare true crime books with a noted author for his copy of an original Porter.

Obviously, the dollar value of any book is only worth what a buyer is willing to pay. But as to the rarity of “an original Porter”, this long, literary legend of Lizzie (nice alliteration, eh?) is simply that – a legend. 🙂


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4 responses to “The Rarity of Porter’s The Fall River Tragedy

  1. john alves

    July 11, 2009 at 10:36 AM

    I have a first edition of the Trial Of Lizzie
    Borden by Edmund Pearson and wonder of it’s
    value. Do you know?

    Thank You,

  2. Suzan Bradbury

    July 24, 2009 at 11:14 AM

    I’m curious to know what a 1893 copy of “the Fall River Tragedy-A History of the Borden Murders” by Edwin H Porter is worth if signed by Rufus B. Hilliard, who was the chief of police in Fall River at the time of the murder.
    My husband’s great grandfather was Rufus Hilliard.

    We also have a 1893 copy of “The Mystery Unveiled: The Truth about the borden Tragedy” by Todd Lunday. Is there any value to this book?

    • phayemuss

      July 24, 2009 at 1:20 PM

      Hi Susan. Watch for my reply in a private email back to you. BTW, I have in my collection some personal property that belonged to Rufus Hilliard. I’ll tell you about them.

  3. Lance D. Gill

    September 15, 2010 at 8:26 PM

    I agree wholeheartedly with your premise that the Porter book is not as rare as one might think. I’ve have had five copies in the past 10 years of which I still own 4. It would be quite interesting to tally the number of copies out there, wouldn’t it? There’s a reason for the phrase “A fool and his money are soon parted.” For those of us looking to sell these, thank God for fools!


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