Eli Bence: A Tragedy in Three Acts

The Borden Curse #3

The earnest face of Smith’s pharmacy clerk, Eli Bence, is known to all who study the Borden case. Bence would identify Lizzie by voice and sight as the lady who entered his store on the morning of August 3, 1892, asking for ten cents’ worth of Prussic acid for the removal of moths in a sealskin cape. Bence’s testimony would be allowed at the Preliminary but lucky for the Defense, dismissed as being too remote in time at the 1893 trial. One has to wonder how Bence felt about that. His evidence was very damaging, but not allowed to be considered by the jury.

By 1894, one year after Lizzie’s acquittal, Eli and his English wife,Sarah (Hayhurst) had moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts where Eli set up a neighborhood apothecary at the corner of 4th and Russell Streets. His young son, Roy, was now five years old as the couple settled down to married life away from the aftermath of Lizzie Borden, Fall River, and her acquittal. 119 Fourth Street (now Purchase Street) is a large, rambling Victorian house in what was an upper middle class neighborhood of similar homes. The apothecary was a first floor walk up steep stairs from the street. The little family lived at 74 Willis Street, in a lovely neighborhood further north in the city. The house is still standing. In 1898 the family moved to 103 School Street, just a short walk to the apothecary store for Eli. That house is no longer standing but was in another charming residential neighborhood. But happiness was once again – elusive. Sarah died just two weeks before Christmas in 1899 leaving a grieving Eli and an inconsolable 10 year old son.

Joy again entered Eli’s life in 1903 when he married Annie C. Maxfield, a school teacher at New Bedford High School and in 1901 a principal at a small country school in Acushnet. Annie’s father had a thriving plumbing business, C.P. Maxfield’s, on Bridge Street in Fairhaven.

By 1904 the family appear in the Pittsfield, Massachusetts directory as living at #20 Hamlin Street with Eli employed at 75 North Street. By 1907 Eli has set himself up in his own business, an apothecary at 49 North and the Morton Block. The family moves to 23 Howard Street in 1908 with new baby girl, Priscilla born in 1907 and Roy who, like his father and uncles, went to work at age 15 helping in his father’s store.

Tragedy would strike yet again with the death of Eli’s precious daughter Priscilla in 1909. In 1910, at the age of 37, Annie presented Eli with Maxfield Hudson Bence, named for her father, and Eli’s mother. With business prospering, Eli moved his family to #64 Commonwealth Avenue in 1913 and life was good. Eli had risen to the top of his profession and was held in the highest esteem by his colleagues as a pharmacist, revered by his community and active in the Masons and many civic organizations.

Bence around the time of the Borden Trial

While driving with Annie one May morning in 1915, Eli suddenly became ill, and after a brief illness, succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage and died at home at the age of fifty, leaving Annie and Maxfield, aged 5, and Roy, now 26 and newly married (July 3, 1914) to Minetta Welton Steel to mourn. The front page of the New Bedford Standard-Times printed Eli Bence’s obituary on the day of his death, and as always, the Lizzie Borden trial and Eli’s testimony about the Prussic acid was told . Annie lived on until 1923 in Pittsfield until she joined her husband and daughter Priscilla in Riverside Cemetery in Fairhaven, dying also at the young age of 50. Maxfield was left an orphan of 13.


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