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McWHIRR’S DEPT. STORE – WHERE LIZZIE WENT A-THIEVING

RECYCLED FROM JULY 27, 2014  and FROM ORIGINAL IN 2008

Mea Culpa Notice:  I was in error. McWhirr’s Dept Store, as shown here was not inside the Cherry & Webb Building.   It was a separate structure subsequently torn down and another building in its place.  The Cherry & Webb building, however still stands as indicated below.

In Lizzie’s day this was McWhirr’s Department Store, an upscale department store where anybody who was anybody shopped. Shown in this photograph, the name “McWhirr” can be made out on the top of the white building in the background.

The Cherry and Webb Building (so stated on the front of the building) is located at 139 South Main and is now the UMASS-Dartmouth Professional and Continuing Education Center a learning center for professionals, night students and other students. On the ground floor is the Café Arpeggio. Bristol Community College has recently leased space for special courses for special needs. Baker Books, once there on the ground floor in April 2007, gone by August 2007. Darnit.

Previously “one of the city’s most underutilized downtown structures”, Mayor Lambert is credited with its current public use.When I spoke to security, building maintenance technicians, administrators and students, one of the things I learned is that this facility is being used to assist with GED education for a number of the nearly 900 employees who lost their jobs by the closing of Quaker Fabric. I also learned that the only interior “original” to this building is the grand staircase shown below.

There was a time when the building was known to all Fall Riverites as “McWhirr’s”. Imagine Lizzie in her blue India silk bengaline inside this store moving about amongst the crowd. Imagine Lizzie taking a five fingered discount of oh, say, a pansy broach and sliding it up inside her so conveniently fitted gloved hand. Then, with a casual grace and the deportment of “a Borden” strolling towards this staircase and ascending to the second floor.

Without batting an eye nor turning her head to see if she’s being followed, she would maintain a steady but lady-like gait as she faked interest in nearby displays of hats, porcelain figurines, and petite carved bottles of French perfume. With a skill only acquired from experience, she would be diligently aware of any store employee watching her from a near distance.

Her heart beating to the exhiliarating thrill of this familiar challenge and satisfied no one was following, she would turn back to the stairway and begin her descent, one lady-like step at a time. Below her she would survey the vast array of glass table top and standing shelved display cases, filled with products from near and abroad. Men, women and children busy shopping, strolling and admiring all the goods. Busy store clerks packaging purchases and preparing sales slips. Busy, busy, busy. She would survey it all, calmly determined in her objective.

One gloved hand on the railing, the other modestly angled upright, her fashionable cloth purse looped over it. Posture perfect, a lady of some stature, she would have looked straight ahead, a seemingly blank stare masking a steeled will. She would descend, slowly, each step measured with her resolve and comforted in the fact her broach not the least bit detected as it nestled securely inside her modestly priced but exquisitely stitched leather glove.

Pausing at the bottom step, brazenly she would hold up that gloved hand with its secret deposit and there she would act as if only adjusting the fitting. Only a moment, but pause enough to quickly ascertain once more with a quick scan if any authoritative and watchful eyes were upon her. They are not. Only a fresh-face counter girl who looks directly at her and says: “Good morning, Miss Borden”. She would respond with a tilt of the head, a forced, kindly smile, and she would begin her walk towards the front door. A slight turn to the left and she would be on her path, curving here, curving there passing the cases, dodging a small child, brushing skirts against other ladies. Closer, each step closer. The front door now in sight.

Only 32 paces,…. now 20, and the heartbeat accelerates,….. now 12, and the breathing more pronounced…..now 9, and a slightly fevered brow…..now 7 and a quivering chin….the uniformed doorman sees her approach… now 2 steps, two steps only as the doorman pulls upon the door and tips his hat…the step across the threshold…, now daylight. No arm upon hers. No hand upon her shoulder. Big exhale. The quivering chin ceases to quiver, the pulse rate subsides, the fevered brow cools in the bright sun. A liberating wave of relief engulfs her. She feels…. a profound sense of…..special achievement by way of genetic entitlement.

Actually, considering the fashions of the day, forget the broach. She could have concealed a Virginia ham under those skirts. And many of the “ladies who went a-thieving”, in fact, did just that. But not at McWhirr’s.

 

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116th Anniversary Weekend of Borden Murders

Tour Guide Kathleen describes discovery of the murders to visitors at the Borden house on July 31, 2008. (FRHN video)

How fortuitious that the fatal fourth of August falls on a Monday this year – 116 years later from the 1892 Borden murders that made Lizzie Borden an enduring fascination. This week day date allows for a long preceding weekend for the local media, particularly the Fall River Herald News, to do what it has continuously done from that very day (when it was known as the Fall River Globe), i.e., fill its paper with remembrances of the case and its iconic female enigma, Lizzie Borden. It is The Big Weekend for the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast and the Fall River Historical Society.

Also, more vehicles will pass through the beautiful entrance of Oak Grove Cemetery and follow the arrows painted on the pavement leading to the Borden family plot than any other weekend of the year. And traffic on French Street, already congested with insufficient curbside parking, will be heavily traversed with the “lookie-loos” getting a gander where Lizzie lived the rest of her life – the once stately abode she named “Maplecroft”.  Lizzie died in the add-on bedroom over the veranda she had built as seen in this photo.

So it’s no surprise that the papers are full of Lizzie. It’s that time of year. Always has been, and (as long as the case remains one of the great murder mysteries) it always will be. The anniversary draws more tourists to Fall River and thats good business for the City and its tourist attractions. We can also look forward to the annual re-enactments and (don’t hold your breath) the opening of the Salem “Lizzie Borden Museum”. Come Tuesday, August 5, 2008, the local and regional papers will be still be full of Lizzie.

Yep, one long weekend. A virtual Lizzie bonanza for the media looking to increase viewership, radio listeners and on-site visitors! Free publicity all around. Especially for a town long suffering in its economic development that could use an infusion of revenue. No wonder they love her. Go, Fall River! Go! 🙂

On Monday, August 4th, I’ll post an updated Timelime of events the day before and the day of the murders.

 

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