by Shelley M. Dziedzic (all rights reserved)
As all the eager researchers who take up the Lizzie Borden case will find, it does not take very long to run into the name of Eli Bence. The earnest face of Bence, with his close-cropped hair and determined mouth, was the man who gave evidence right through the Borden case preliminary about the doings in the corner pharmacy on the day of August 3, 1892. All who are familiar with the case know of his claim that Miss Borden came in Wednesday before noon and asked for ten cents’ worth of Prussic acid, a deadly poison. The lady claimed she had purchased it before with no difficulty at this establishment and it was needed to remove moths from a set of sealskin furs. Without a prescription, the young woman walked away without the desired substance, the entire proceeding observed by two gentlemen in the drug store, Mr. Kilroy and Mr. Hart who claimed it was Andrew Borden’s daughter Lizzie .
After the murders the next day one can only speculate what Bence did next as news of the murder details emerged. Most likely he told his employer, David R. Smith, owner of the pharmacy at the corner of South Main (#135) and Columbia St. about the encounter or possibly even his brother Peter Gaskell Bence, once a Fall River Police patrolman, and wondered what he should do next. Bence did go to the police with his story and was taken to Second St. to identify Lizzie as she paced the kitchen at #92. Bence looked down the long hall from the side door and identified Lizzie by voice and sight as the woman who had been in Smith’s the day before. Luckily, for the defense, this testimony was not allowed at Lizzie’s trial in New Bedford in June of 1893 as it was deemed “too remote in time” from the grisly deeds. In addition no Prussic acid had been found in the stomachs of the victims or in the house on Second St. Thus Eli Bence and his testimony faded away into the mists of time and history. One can only wonder if his testimony might have made any difference in decision to acquit. Lizzie would maintain that she was feeling ill, never left the house during the day until much later in early evening when she went to see Alice Russell, and was not acquainted with the location of D.R. Smith’s apothecary.
Human nature being what it is both now, and in 1892, no doubt D.R. Smith’s pharmacy was a place of curiosity once the news of the Prussic acid emerged. It’s easy to imagine inquisitive shoppers walking by, peering in the window or even going in to make a purchase at the place where Lizzie Borden was said to have tried to buy Prussic acid! David Smith and Eli Bence might have even been sought out to some degree. Much has been written about Bence but who was his employer and what do we know about David R. Smith?
David R. Smith was one of a large family whose parents had come over from Ireland in 1850. His father, Samuel Smith was born in Guilford, Ireland on June 18, 1815, the day of the Battle of Waterloo. His mother, Eliza A. McCleary stayed home to tend to a growing family including Mary, David, Eliza J., Sam Jr., Josephine, William, Hattie, and Margaret. Sam worked as a machinist for the company of Kilburn and Lincoln, which made power looms and other mill equipment and machinery in the city since 1846. The family home was at 683 Second Street.
David knew from a fairly young age that apothecary work would be his career path. He was very fortunate to have been childhood chums with Alice Whitaker whose father, Dr. John Whitaker, (born in England) and brother John Wesley Whitaker had an apothecary down on the corner of Ferry Street and Canal Street. The Whitakers lived at 181 Second Street, and so when David was ready to begin work in earnest, he gained a position in the Whitaker Apothecary on Canal Street corner of Ferry Street., where Lizzie and her family lived until they moved to 92 Second St. in 1872. David was a hard worker and by 1875 he was able to open his own pharmacy in Stafford Square. That business also being very successful, he then moved to 135 South Main at the corner of Columbia Street, a very desirable and high traffic address where he was able to take on assistants and a clerk in the person of Mr. Eli Bence.
In November of 1879 David Smith married old Dr. Whitaker’s daughter Alice, who was a great asset to David’s career and business, and greatly admired in the neighborhood. The couple were happily married for 22 years. The last ten of those years Alice had suffered ill health and preferred to be a homebody at their house at 589 Second Street. Paralytic shock is given as the cause of her death in August, 1902. David, who had enjoyed a comfortable life with Alice, puttering about in his home laboratory inventing a cure for dyspepsia and managing his apothecary on South Main St. was devastated. There were no children to soothe his lonely hours. David had instead sponsored and supported a local baseball team of boys who had many wins on the baseball diamond. Life had been very satisfactory for the Smiths in every way.
At the peak of his success, his brother Sam, also a thriving druggist with an apothecary on North Main, the Smith brothers were well-known and respected in the city. With Alice no longer by his side, David surprisingly wasted little time in procuring the second Mrs. Smith. Miss Ida A. Murphy, of 57 Whipple St. (also the street where Eli Bence lived in 1892) caught the attention of David Smith and according to Miss Murphy and her outspoken mother, started to pay serious court to her daughter with intent for the relationship to culminate in engagement and marriage. Miss Ida, a clerk at the public library, is quoted in 1904 as saying David Smith had been ardently courting her for two years, which would put the time just after the death of his wife Alice, and that he had proposed no fewer than three times to her! After putting David off twice, she had finally consented to become the second Mrs. Smith and had set the date for September, 7, 1904. With her gown selected, her trousseau purchased and the announcement put in the city papers, Miss Ida Murphy was to very soon get the shock of her young life.
There, in black and white in the newspaper for July 12, 1904 was published the announcement of the marriage of David R. Smith to Miss Celia Gesner (twenty-one years his junior)! Miss Gesner was a seamstress, born in Canada, who lived at 1380 Globe St., the daughter of Catherine and Jacob Gesner, her father being a carpenter. This would be Miss Gesner’s first marriage. The ceremony took place at 268 Highland Avenue and was presided over by the Rev. W.J. Martin.
Ida, not believing her eyes must have run to inform her mother of the shocking news. Mrs. Murphy, said to be of a charming disposition as a rule wasted no time in giving an interview to the Globe about the shameful occurrence. Breach of promise was a real thing in 1904 and the Murphy ladies were quick to let the scandal out of the bag. Mrs. Murphy declared David had spent the two years from 1902 – 1904 practically parked in her parlor, taking most of his meals at her table and suggesting perhaps he might board at the Murphy’s address. As only a mother of a jilted bride-to-be could exclaim, Mrs. Murphy declared David Smith was in for a thrashing if she could just get her hands on him and promptly declared him a scoundrel in just those words! It would appear that scoundrel was the nicest word that she had to call him. The furious mother of the bride deemed him a nuisance who had haunted their home and that she had misgivings from the very start about Mr. Smith. No time was wasted in engaging the services of John W. Cummings in drawing up papers for a suit to sue the romantic David Smith who had one bride too many, for breach of promise.
Ida, still in a daze , refused to believe the situation could be true unless she heard it from the marrying minister himself. Revenge was in the air but David Smith went yet a step farther and settled all of his business concerns on his new bride immediately and thus Mrs. Celia Smith became the new owner of Smith’s Pharmacy. David Smith himself maintained his total innocence in the whole affair, pitied poor Miss Murphy who was surely in error, and what with there being no proof of his promise to marry poor Ida, happily went off on his honeymoon with the comely Celia Gesner Smith, his new wife.
It is presumed there was an end to it- the breach of promise suit pressed by Mrs. Murphy was dead in the water as Smith’s new wife held all of the Smith family property and assets and there was nothing financially to be gained.
David R. Smith died on December 2, 1923. Lizzie Borden, who had made his pharmacy famous was alive at Maplecroft. His second wife Celia died in 1966. He is buried between his two wives as is the custom, in Oak Grove Cemetery Plot OG1790. But what happened to his spurned paramour Ida Murphy? In 1925, two years after David’s death, Ida was still working at the library, now living in a nice neighborhood on Madison St. , her outraged mother having died in 1919, her father Jeremiah, a liquor dealer in the city, still living until 1928. The Murphys are buried in Old North Cemetery on North Main St. Ida never married. So closes the curtain on D.R. Smith.
Poor Uncle John Morse- left out the movie yet again. Morse, the brother of Lizzie and Emma’s real mother, went missing in both made-for-TV movies. He had been invited to spend the night before the murders in the guest room where Abby would be murdered the next morning. Morse was an early suspect and was followed by an angry throng the night of the murders when he went to mail a letter. Morse had a very detailed and iron-clad alibi but many still think he knew something about the murders. An eccentric, and ill-clad old bachelor farmer and livestock dealer, he seemed on kindly terms with his niece Emma but not very close to Lizzie. He probably wished until his dying day that he had not stopped by the day before. He is buried in Iowa. Oh, and he once had training as a butcher.
One has to wonder if Eli Bence consulted his half-brother Peter Gaskell Bence in the matter of giving evidence to the Fall River Police Department regarding the attempt by the woman he identified as Lizzie to purchase prussic acid on August 3rd. Peter Bence had received a political appointment to the Fall River Police Department in 1878 and served as a patrolman until 1880. He is pictured above in his policeman’s uniform.
The Bences were a large and close-knit family. In 1892 Peter Bence, a widower, was preparing to marry again to Emma Macomber on August 25th. His first wife, Sarah Jane Ball Bence had died in childbirth at their home at 117 Bay Street in 1890. The house is still standing. The topic of the Borden case, Eli’s evidence, and trial must surely have been a hot topic of discussion within those walls. In 1893 Peter and his new wife moved into 56 Palmer Street, a duplex owned by the Harringtons, where they lived until after his second wife passed away. Peter died in 1919 in Newport where he had been spending his last days with his son.
After leaving the police force, Bence tried his hand at mill work as a weaver, many years as a carpenter and finally in later life, a janitor at the Mount Hope Elementary School. Carpentry was his first love and he did decorative interior woodworking at the B.M.C. Durfee High School and the Granite Block downtown. Boat building was a hobby.
Peter Bence, born in 1849, and his sister Ellen were born in Heaton Norris, Lancashire, England. Ellen died as an infant and Peter immigrated with his father William and stepmother Sarah in 1854. The family were living in Braintree when Eli Bence was born.
Peter and his wives are buried in the family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery, next to his parents. He does not have a marker.
*Photo above and some data courtesy of Ancestry.com and the Bence family descendants
Richard Behrens,author of Lizzie Borden, Girl Detective gave a reading at the Fall River Public Library on August 3rd. Some of the character actors from the Borden house museum’s Pear Essential Players came dressed 1892 style for the occasion.
This year’s cast featured Kathryn Woods as Nellie Drew, budding girl detective and fan of Miss Lizzie’s sleuthing adventures!
Abby Borden (Shelley Dziedzic) on the arm of
Uncle John V. Morse (Joe Radza) at the library (photos by Jack Faria)
click on link to view video : Lizzie Borden, Girl Detective
Those interested in the Borden Case will have a week ahead chock-full of things to see and do. It has been a long time since the conference at Bristol Community College and many who are fascinated with the case and needing a good dose of Bordenalia are heading to Fall River this week to take in as much as possible. Great weather is predicted!
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
1. The Fall River Public Library is hosting a book reading with author Richard Behrens, reading from his new book, Lizzie Borden, Girl Detective beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 3rd. Costumed cast from the annual Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum August 4th performances, The Pear Essential Players, will attend in character with a few words to say about Wednesday, the 4th on Second Street.
2. The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast will have daytime tours on the hour from 11 a.m. -3 p.m. on August 3rd. Don’t miss the gift shop! Advance tickets are on sale for August 4th performances of CSI Lizzie Borden. Richard Behrens will also be autographing his book on the 4th in the gift shop. A drawing will be held at the end of the day for a night’s stay for two at the house. Program GPS devices for 230 Second Street or 230 2nd Street.
3. Oak Grove Cemetery has convenient black arrows on the pavement from the office gate to the Borden plot and is open from early morning until dark. Many other case personalities are buried in the historic Victorian cemetery.
4. The Fall River Historical Society will be open with a special augmented Borden exhibit, featuring some items which are generally not on display all the time This is a must-see on the list for visitors coming to Fall River for the day. The society can be found at the corner of Maple and Rock streets. There is also a great gift shop selling Lizzie Borden merchandise and books.
5. A little drive around the city in the late afternoon might be a great way to end the day. The Andrew Borden Building is still standing on the corner of Anawan St. and South Main, Lizzie’s little school can also be found in the South End on Morgan Street, and Maplecroft is convenient if you plan to see the cemetery as it is only a short drive from Prospect to French Street. There is much beautiful Victorian architecture to be seen on The Hill and some fantastic restaurants in which to sample the local cuisine for dinner at the end of your day.
Tuesday, August 3rd, 6:30-7:30pm
FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC
Author Richard Behrens
will be presenting a reading from his latest book
Lizzie Borden: Girl Detective
PLUS: A visit from The Pear Essential Players
The reenactment group from the Lizzie Borden B&B including :
Marshal Hilliard, Miss Lizzie Borden, Mrs. Churchill, Alice Russell, Abby Borden, Uncle John Morse, Officer Phil Harrington and Miss Nellie Drew (Girl Detective Reporter for the Herald)
Fall River Public Library
104 North Main Street,
Fall River, MA
Main meeting room, basement
Baker’s bread, fish and milk- tainted or tampered with?
On the morning of August 3rd , Abby Borden arose early as usual and breakfasted on pork steak. This seems an unusual choice for a woman who was suffering from nausea and extreme digestive disorder. The night before, Abby and Andrew Borden were up and down to their chamber pot experiencing all the symptoms of food poisoning. Lizzie would say that she too had suffered some discomfort. Fish had been on the menu Tuesday evening. Had the fish “gone off”?
As soon as Dr. Bowen’s office across the street opened, Abby dashed over to find relief. Dr. Bowen listened to her concerns about the “baker’s bread” perhaps being “poisoned”. That would seem to imply Abby was thinking along the lines of food poisoning. She had heard of a case before where cream cakes had gone bad and caused similar symptoms. Food spoilage with resulting salmonella, botulism and “Summer Complaint” were a day–to-day occurrence in the Victorian era. Bowen observed that if the baker’s bread from the market had indeed been spoiled, he would have had far more patients and inquiries, He prescribed castor oil as an emetic, and sent Abby home. Later he would remark that he had some fear she would be sick right in his office, and later crossed the street to check on her and Andrew. Andrew Borden did not wish to be examined and was not pleased his wife had incurred a bill for services rendered by Dr. Bowen and the possibility now of a house call bill. Lizzie was ashamed of his cheapness and went upstairs. Andrew opted to dose himself with Garfield tea.
During the same morning, pharmacist clerk Eli Bence would claim that Lizzie demanded of him 10 cents worth of Prussic acid with which to clean a sealskin fur, claiming she had bought it there at Smith’s before. Lizzie would deny even knowing where Smith’s was located, although it was but a block west and south of her home. The time is placed between 11-11:45 a.m., or about 3-3 1/2 hours after Abby’s dash across the street to Dr. Bowen’s. Is it possible that Abby’s “food-poisoning” might have served as the inspiration for the attempted purchase of Prussic acid only a few hours after Abby’s trip to the doctor? Abby’s subsequent death from deliberate poisoning might easily have been attributed to an acute case of food poisoning, and given Bowen’s testimony of the morning’s events, most likely an autopsy would not have been performed.
No one was able to confirm or witness the the claim that Lizzie herself was actually sick with the same complaint the elderly Bordens suffered. A poisoner is always prudent to say they have also been sick, even to the point of ingesting a minute amount of poison themselves to achieve a mild result.
A most intriguing follow-up to Wednesday’s events occured when Lizzie visited her longtime friend, Alice Russell, Wednesday evening and promoted the story that the family had all been sick, she had fears the milk was being tampered with, and something terrible could happen at any time. “I don’t know that they won’t burn the house down over our heads”. The seed that “father has an enemy” was firmly sown, and the notion of deliberate poisoning was tossed out as a possibility.
On the morning of August 4th, the maid, Bridget Sullivan herself was ill, vomiting in the back yard around 9 a.m. She ate the same food as the family, including the leftovers.
If one believes Lizzie to be guilty of the crimes, and that Eli Bence was telling the truth- her failure to procure the Prussic acid could have prompted another surefire method of disposal- a hatchet! Results guaranteed every time.