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Sylvia Bassett Knowlton

Sylvia Bassett Knowlton 1852-1937

Portrait painted in 1930 (courtesy Sippican Historical Society)

The portrayal of Mrs. Hosea Knowlton in the 1975 film version of the Borden case starring Elizabeth Montgomery was far from the mark of the actual Mrs. Sophia Knowlton.  Bonnie Bartlett, who played Sylvia Knowlton in the film bemoans the heaviness of a “woman’s skirts” in a man’s world of 1892 and plays a domestic and submisive woman in the mindset of the period.

Bonnie Bartlett

The real Mrs. Knowlton, born in 1852 in New Bedford, became a teacher after graduating from Bridgewater Normal School. She taught in Westport, Massachusetts (a short distance from Fall River) before her marriage in 1873 to Knowlton.  Knowlton’s New Bedford law practice broadened her circle of acquaintances to that city where she became an energetic organizer in public endeavors and president of the New Bedford Women’s Club where she once introduced Winston Churchill as a guest speaker.  At the time of the trial, she and Hosea had a summer rental in Marion at 294 Front Street.  In 1900, the couple built a summer house at283 Front Street, where he died in December of 1902; known as Knowlton House, the building now serves as a dormitory for Tabor Academy. Daggett House (275 Front Street), also a Tabor dorm, was built in 1913 as a permanent residence for the then-widowed Mrs. Knowlton.

She is buried in New Bedford.  Hosea Knowlton’s remains were cremated in Boston and scattered over the fishing harbor in Marion.

3 Comments

  • Beverly

    Wow, I never would have known about this unless you all did the work to find it. I’m always interested in reading about the real people who appear as characters in Hollywood productions. Movies and tv are full of stereotyped characters and I’ve gotten a lot of wrong information about real people from them. When we think about the “mindset of the period” that you’re writing, above, I think that our understanding of it is formed more by the mindset of the entertainment industry which uses all kinds of literary conceits to draw us into the story and mold our perception of the events and the protagonist. Just opining 😉

    I remember Bonnie Bartlett from Little House on the Prairie, btw, but totally forgot that she was in the film. In hindsight, I was probably a little too young to watch the Montgomery film as I had many mixed feelings about the content. In my childhood, and maybe yours also, there was little to nothing available about Lizzie Borden except the doggerel and a photo of her that some of us discovered in the Library, instead of doing homework. I’m sure that the movie resurrected a few things that lead us to today.

    This is what I wonder: Is it possible that the film became the lift off point of the strange theories, specifically the pigeons were her psycho pet family and Andrew killed them so she killed Andrew; the incest thing; the pregnancy thing, etc?

    • Shelley

      Yes indeed- The Legend of Lizzie Borden spawned a lot of misinformation. Andrew Borden was not a mortician and did not embalm people in his cellar. Abby Borden was not a mean, soup-slurping monster. There has never been any proof or documentation that Andrew Borden molested his daughters or that Lizzie had a hidden pregnancy. When questioned about the pigeons, Lizzie casually mentioned that the necks had been twisted, not heads chopped off and they were not particular pets of hers. Apparently they were cooked and eaten like chicken. Hollywood has had a field day with what is already an intriguing mystery, given just the facts. Unfortunately people believe what they see on screen, it gets repeated, posted on social media and is accepted as truth. Once out there, it is hard to undo the damage. People can be very stubborn about what they want to believe and the film and entertainment industry wants to make money, get attention and sensationalize for ratings. Look what happened in Cameron’s TITANIC in 1997. Real life is always more exciting than anything that can be made up.

  • Jo Anne Giovino

    I remember our visit to Marion quite well. There were some unexpected surprises along the way.
    Marion is a beautiful New England sea town with charm and history. Well worth the trip .

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