More than a century after the famous ax murder, Fall River remains a popular tourist destination — especially around Halloween.
FALL RIVER, Mass. — In its heyday in the second half of the 19th century, Fall River was the leading textile producer in the United States, second in the world only to Manchester, England, a boomtown with dozens of mills.
The mills are long gone, and today Fall River has a growing tourism industry. The big draw is Battleship Cove, home to the world’s largest collection of retired warships. But thousands more visitors flock to Fall River because it was the setting for one of America’s most enduring mysteries: the Lizzie Borden killings.
“The Lizzie Borden house attracts about 50 to 300 visitors a day on average,” according to Robert A. Mellion, president, CEO and general counsel for the Fall River Chamber of Commerce. “On average they anticipate about 54,000 visitors annually. Consequently, its economic impact is tangible.” And it’s especially apropos at Halloween time.
The facts of the Borden case are these: On the morning of Aug. 4, 1892, businessman Andrew Borden and wife, Abby, were hacked to death with an ax in their home on Second Street. Suspicion fell on Lizzie, Andrew’s daughter by his first marriage, one of only two other people home at the time (the other was the family maid, Bridget Sullivan, who was washing windows outside when the killings took place). Lizzie was charged; after a sensational trial that attracted national attention, she was acquitted. No one else was ever charged, and Lizzie, who went by Lizbeth in her later years, lived out her days in Fall River.
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In the 123 years since the slayings, there has been a stream of books, articles, plays and movies on the case. Lizzie has even been featured on a couple of episodes of “The Simpsons.” She and the slayings have become part of American folklore, making Fall River a destination.
Lizzie Borden enthusiasts have several stops. The family home where the killings occurred is now the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum; the home she bought and moved to after her acquittal still stands; the family burial plot at Oak Grove Cemetery, where Lizzie, her sister, parents and other relatives rest is accessible; and the Fall River Historical Society has an artifact-filled room devoted to the case.
“My experience has been pretty much anywhere I go, I say ‘Fall River’ and the immediate response is, ‘Oh, Lizzie Borden.’ So we see large numbers of people who know the case,” said Michael Martins, curator of the historical society and co-author, with Dennis A. Binette, of “Parallel Lives: A Social History of Lizzie A. Borden and Her Fall River” (Fall River Historical Society).
Lizzie’s life (1860-1927) roughly corresponded to Fall River’s glory years, and the book is a scholarly treatment of those times and her case. Martins and Binette do not judge whether Borden was guilty. Instead they provide more than 1,100 pages of facts, rare photos and letters (some she wrote from jail), notes, cards and diary entries, all excellent background material — much never seen before — for anyone interested in the case.
“Most of what people know about Lizzie Borden, the common held beliefs, are legends, innuendo or outright lies,” Martins said. “It’s easy to disprove some of these lies with basic research. The woman who descended through history does not resemble the real Lizzie Borden.”
If you’re looking for the real Lizzie, here are the stops to make in Fall River:
Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum (www.lizzie-borden.com): Located at 230 Second St. (it was 92 Second St. until Fall River renumbered its streets in 1896), this is where the killings occurred. Visitors can take one of the hourly tours or, if they want to do it up right, stay the night (there are six bedrooms and two suites, priced between $200 and $250). For a more memorable stay, you can rent the entire house — it has room for 20 guests — for $1,500.
“If you really want to experience it fully, you have to spend the night,” said Rick Bertoldo, who has been giving tours since 2012. “It’s fun, especially when there are a lot of people.”
Tours include the parlor, dining room (complete with copies of the slaying photos and reproductions of the Bordens’ crushed skulls), the sitting room where Andrew died, the guest room where Abby met her end, bedrooms, kitchen and more.
Out back is a gift shop, in a reproduction of the Borden barn, which was built in 2005 (the original was torn down in 1929). In addition to souvenirs, there is a collection of artifacts excavated from the barn outhouse — bottles, a metal pot, a spoon, other household items, fragments of dishes and a doll with a broken leg.
Lee-ann Wilber is the B&B’s manager. She bought it 11 years ago from Martha McGinn, who had inherited it and opened it as a B&B in 1996.
Wilber stayed at the house with a friend in 2003. “The house went up for sale later that fall,” she said. The friend “called me at work and said, ‘Guess what’s for sale?’ ”
An old print shop was attached to the structure — she had it removed — and she began renovations.
“I knew of Lizzie growing up in the area. I’ve always been interested in unsolved crimes, mysteries, American history. This place was a package all rolled into one.”
Maplecroft: After the acquittal, Lizzie and Emma moved to The Highlands, a more upscale section of Fall River. Stories of Lizzie longing to live on the Hill, as it is also called, in a grand lifestyle persist, and she did buy a house at 306 French St. that she christened Maplecroft. But that shouldn’t be tied to the slayings, Martins said.
“There’s evidence Andrew Borden was planning to move to The Hill. … The fact that his daughter settled there makes absolute sense. But the house they purchased is a well-appointed house. There are much grander homes. She went to an upper-middle-class home on The Hill.”
Maplecroft was the scene of many a party thrown by Lizzie. Her funeral also was held there.
The 14-room Victorian was sold late last year. It’s still privately owned, and sightseers are asked to respect that fact and stick to the sidewalk.
Fall River Historical Society(www.lizzieborden.org): Less than a mile from Maplecroft at 451 Rock St. sits the Andrew Robeson mansion, home to the Fall River Historical Society and the repository for a must-see collection of Borden-related items.
“Any extant trial exhibits, photographic evidence, trial transcripts, it’s all part of the historical society’s collection,” said curator Martins. “And every year we’ve been able to make some fairly significant discoveries.”
Among the items: original notes from Borden family attorney Andrew Jennings, a member of Lizzie’s defense team; Abby Borden’s hairpiece that she was wearing when killed; a pillow sham with specks of Abby’s blood, as well as a silk scarf she was wearing when she died; locks of Andrew and Abby Borden’s hair; lab tags from trial evidence; original notes from some of the investigating officers; several photos of Lizzie, as well as a jeweled watch and chain that she left to the daughter of a friend. Also on display is Lizzie’s meatloaf recipe.
A suggestion: Allow enough time to take the full mansion tour; beyond the Borden display, it’s a spectacular building with a rich history.
Oak Grove Cemetary: With its majestic arched stone entry, historic Oak Grove is home to politicians, judges, philanthropists and the Borden family. Lizzie (“Lizbeth” on her headstone), Andrew, Abby, Emma and Sarah (Andrew’s first wife and Lizzie’s mother) are all in the family plot. Finding it is easy. Once inside the arch, just follow the yellow arrows conveniently painted on the asphalt path.
IF YOU GO
Fall River is about 50 miles south of Boston. It’s an easy drive. The city is also served by Peter Pan Bus Lines (www.peterpanbus.com).