Archive for April 8th, 2010

Sometimes, the interesting thing about cemeteries is knowing the what the tombstone doesn’t say.  In the summer of 2001 as part of a college course, I visited Fall River, Massachusetts, and stayed overnight in the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast and Museum. (Apologies to those who would like photographs – the roll of film containing the Lizzie Borden house and cemetery plot photos disappeared. )  For those unfamiliar with the story, in 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their home at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew’s eldest daughter Emma Borden was visiting friends at the time, and his youngest daughter Lizzie was tried for the murders.

Even before the murders, all was not sweetness and light in the Borden household.  Andrew’s first wife Sarah died in 1863,  and Emma considered caring for young Lizzie to be her duty to her deceased mother.  When Andrew remarried Abby, Lizzie had two competing mother figures in her sister and stepmother, and testimony at the  trial indicated that Emma had won that conflict.  Exacerbating those tensions was Andrew’s control over family finances and property – at the time of the murder, Andrew was dividing up family property in ways that Emma and Lizzie were unlikely to appreciate.  Some scholars of the case have also implied that Andrew could have been abusive to Lizzie.  Just before the murders, the entire family had come down with a mysterious illness that Mrs. Borden had feared was malicious poisoning, but the doctor attributed it to simply food poisoning. And then one hot summer day, August 4, 1892, Andrew was struck down with so many hatchet swings as he lay on a couch in the parlor.  Lizzie found (or “found” him) and called for the maid, Bridget Sullivan.  Soon after, Bridget found Abby Borden bludgeoned in the guest room just to the left at the top of the main staircase.

Suspicion immediately fell on Lizzie, and she was arrested 7 days later.  Lizzie Borden was acquitted  for the murder of her father and stepmother, but the court of public opinion judged her differently. Even though a number of other suspects for the Borden murders have been suggested over the years, Lizzie has always been primary, because it simply seems impossible that she could have been in the house and not been aware of her stepmother and father being killed with a hatchet.  Many residents of Fall River were convinced that Lizzie had gotten away with murder.  One worker at the Bed and Breakfast and Museum said that his grandmother used to cross the street to walk on the other sidewalk if she saw Lizzie Borden coming towards her.  Plenty of people I meet still know the childhood jump-rope rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe, Gave her mother forty whacks When she saw what she had done Gave her father forty-one.

(The pedants among us will now note that the likely murder weapon was a hatchet rather than an axe.  And it was her stepmother.  And both combined weren’t hit 40 times.)

But neither Lizzie nor or Emma left Fall River.  They bought a bigger house called Maplecroft in the ritzier section of town and then had their own falling out in 1905.  Although Emma retained ownership of half the house, the two sisters lived apart.  But when they died just 9 days apart in 1927, Lizzie and Emma were buried up in the family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery. And to this day, the family is all together again in the cemetery.  Lizzie, Emma, and their sister Alice who died a toddler are buried their with their father, mother, and stepmother in a comfortable little family plot.  Their small, uniform individual footstones sit in a neat row in front of the family monument, belying the chaos and strife that marked their lives and deaths.

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