In Lizzie’s Time….a key to Understanding

15 May

Image ©Faye Musselman 2010

Lizzie Borden lived as many years before her Trial as she did after her Trial.  She was born the year the Pony Express started, Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressed the state’s legislature on the subject of women’s suffrage, and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was published.   There were only 33 states in the Union, and public conveyance was mostly by steamship and horse-drawn wagon.  She died the year two-way television was first demonstrated, “The Jazz Singer” premiered, and when the whole world was celebrating Lindberg’s solo flight across the Atlantic to Paris.

At the time of the murders Lizzie Borden was just on the cusp of the inner circle she so much wanted to penetrate. She longed to be accepted and a part of what author Victoria Lincoln referred to as “that highly stratified society.” She was a Borden with impeccable lineage and was acutely aware of what that meant in terms of heritage, reputation, social cache, and perceived entitlement.   She was already well established in the Central Congregational Church and actively partook in all its various departments.  She had gone on the 1890 Grand Tour with the ladies who lived “on the Hill” (and that 19 week tour was a life changing event for her).  After their return in November of 1890, she had continued her good works with the Church, even teaching Sunday school classes.  She had just recently been appointed Secretary to the Women’s Board of the Fall River Hospital.  But in 1893, she was just past the cusp of being considered an eligible “young lady” and was now more suited for chaperoning the dances and parties of the younger set.

Not long after the Trial, and particularly after the Tilden-Thurber shoplifting incident which splashed on the pages of The Providence Journal on February 16, 1897, friends and relations began to withdraw their associations with her.  The loyalty of friends withered but she remained in Fall River and through her travels, passion for animals and the theater developed new friendships which she cherished.  Nonetheless, she still had periods of nervousness and depression.

Her lifelong surrogate mother and loyal supporter, her sister Emma, packed up and left her for good in June of 1905.  Shortly thereafter, actress Nance O’Neil abandoned her (and debts owed) and set sail for a prolonged tour in Australia. Double abandonment.  Double betrayal.  It could be said that when it came to her personally, Lizzie Borden never forgot a kindness nor forgave a betrayal.

For the next twenty two years, Lizzie was left with her servants in her 14- room home “on the Hill”, but she was far from a recluse. Various travel companions made trips abroad with her, and she quietly contributed financially to various organizations and individuals.

Throughout the years after her Trial from her stately perch at “Maplecroft”on French Street,  she read of the appointments to Police Chief of several officers who questioned and testified against her.  She survived so many of those involved in the 1892 investigation of her father and stepmother’s murders and the subsequent Trial in 1893.  Those that died before she did included:  Officers John Minnehan and Philip Harrington (1893);  her chief defense counsel Governor Robinson (1896); Justice Dewey and Judge Blaisdell (1900); District Attorney Hosea Knowlton (1902); Reverend Buck (1904); Chief Justice Mason (1905); Marshal Rufus Hilliard (1912); Eli Bence (1915); Chief Inspector John Fleet (1916); prosecutor William H. Moody, Officers William Medley and Martin Feeney (1917); Dr. Seabury Bowen (1918); defense attorney Melvin O. Adams (1920); Dr. William Dolan (1922); defense attorney Andrew Jennings (1923); police matron Hannah B. Reagan (1924); and neighbor Adelaide Churchill (1926).

She read of the rise and subsequent failures of Fall River mills. She read and lived through calamities both local and national, i.e., the 1905 fire to the A.J. Borden Building, the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in New York in 1911, the 1916 fire in downtown Fall River, and World War I, to name a few.  The post World War I “flappers” and onslaught of the roaring twenties must have seemed distressful to her. The erosion of proper deportment from her day to the explosion of the Jazz Age must have seemed too much change occurring too fast for Lizzie who had said at her Inquest: “I do not do things in a hurry.”  Although said to have been a “brilliant conversationalist”, a more than cursory study of Lizzie renders no surprise to learn she favored Anthony Trollup over F. Scott Fitzgerald.

It has been 118 years since the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden.  It has been 83 years since Lizzie Borden’s death.  Time has not faded this case from memory, appeal or pursuit.  For over a century, theories old and new have surfaced in books, a Centennial Conference, lectures, documentaries, and – in this digital age – blogs and websites.  Literature, the arts and the media combined have left a legacy of this most compelling and baffling crime with the following:

  • 38 full length non-fiction books
  • 12 fiction books
  • Hundreds of Essays & articles in journals & magazines
  • Chapters or mentions in over 80 compendium books
  • 9  Made for Television documentaries
  • Featured episodes in at least two ghost hunting programs
  • Featured episode in The Travel Channel’s “Most Creepy” destinations
  • One feature length film made for T.V.
  • One ballet (Agnes DeMille: Fall River Legend)
  • 3 Musicals
  • 7 Stage Plays & 4 Radio Plays
  • Countless blogs and websites featuring or highlighting Lizzie Borden and the case

Each new generation discovers Lizzie Borden and with each new generation the real Lizzie Andrew Borden fades in substance and texture as the flesh and blood woman of the Victorian era, Edwardian era, and the Jazz Age.  She has morphed into a one-dimensional persona based on an inaccurate quatrain, and depicted as a maniacal murderer wielding a bloody axe.  Almost every caricature drawing or folk art depiction has her portrayed this way.  This is as far away from the truth as was the pear tree and barn to Maplecroft’s piazza.

The site of the crimes is a three-story Greek revival clapboard house on a granite foundation that sits directly behind a newly constructed Superior Court house. The court house is colossal and grotesque in both design and proportion to the remaining structures of “Lizzie’s day”. For nearly one hundred years locals and visitors to Fall River would gawk at where a brutal and notorious crime took place – one of America’s most classic unsolved crimes.  Since 1996, it has operated as the “Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum”, and while great for business but disconcerting to Borden case “purists”, the structure’s historical significance has yielded to the explosive interest in the paranormal.  Since opening up to the public – and often a public who buys into that inaccurate quatrain – 92 Second Street is gaining reputation as a haunted house with things that go bump in the night.

The house is so much more than that because it is iconic to Fall River’s history.  It is where this classic unsolved crime took place, and its interior and exterior structure has remained virtually unchanged.  Furnished as it was in 1892, one can sit, study and learn what it was like for Lizzie living there – the daughter of Andrew Jackson Borden – living there, in that house, on that street, instead of up on “the Hill”.

Each and every one us are the embodiment of our genetic heritage and life’s experiences. Events that occurred affecting our ancestors have a residual affect on us and our families though we don’t often recognize it.  Where we live, how we live, what occurred locally, nationally and world wide, contribute to who we are and how we think and feel.

By studying Lizzie in the context of the world she lived in, where and how she lived and her heritage, we see her through a different lens.  If we look through the lens closely we discover a flesh and blood Lizzie Andrew Borden of 92 Second Street.  Looking closer still we let ourselves be introduced to Miss Lizbeth Borden of Maplecroft.  It is only then that we come to know and  understand her – and sometimes – even embrace her.


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4 responses to “In Lizzie’s Time….a key to Understanding

  1. Health Advisor

    May 17, 2010 at 3:09 AM

    Hi! I see this page by coincidence and I like it.
    I’ll bookmark this page for sure.. Keep up your good working!
    THank U 🙂

  2. OK But

    April 20, 2012 at 11:48 AM

    Interesting but your closed mind regarding the paranormal ruined it for me by the end.

    Just as nobody knows who killed Lizzie’s parents…….nobody knows what happens beyond death. To turn up your nose at the idea of spirits is arrogant and boorish.

    • phayemuss

      April 20, 2012 at 9:30 PM

      I don’t think The House is haunted. I don’t think Lizzie’s ghost resides there. But I DO think it is active and that there has been some paranormal activity. I experienced myself and posted about it several times here and told all about on Spooky Southcoast. Call me close-minded, boorish and arrogant but please get your facts straight. You might enjoy listening to the podcasts I’ve done with Spooky Southcoast available at this blog site. 🙂

  3. phayemuss

    March 18, 2017 at 2:29 AM

    Reblogged this on Tattered Fabric: Fall River's Lizzie Borden and commented:

    Originally posted in May, 2010


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