You have to admire the energy and endurance of those Victorian ladies. Even in the sweltering heat of a July afternoon, corseted and wearing layers of clothing, they managed to look crisp and elegant. What’s more is that they managed also to have some fun while looking so well turned out.
It would be hard to believe that a person contemplating cold-blooded murder could have, a week before the crimes, presented such a fun-loving and carefree demeanor. It was common to get out of the big cities in the heat of summer while the men stayed behind laboring and making more money. Abby Borden herself had planned a little Swansea vacation with a lady friend to the Borden farm on Gardner’s Neck Road. If you have ever been, there is always a delightful breeze , good fishing, and beautiful scenery to be enjoyed. Abby’s companion had to cancel and so she contemplated a sojourn with a relative in nearby Warren instead.
Lizzie and Emma also decided to escape the city heat and take the train to New Bedford on July 21st. It must have been a great escape from the daily routine at #92 Second Street. Emma hurried off to Fairhaven to enjoy the cool breezes of Fort Phoenix with its bandstand and shoreline attractions and a long visit to the Brownells on Green St. while Lizzie trotted off to see the Pooles, mother and daughter, at a boarding house on Madison Street. Lizzie had thoughts of diversion in her mind: pleasurable shopping jaunts, chatting with the Pooles who had known Lizzie since girlhood, and thoughts of Marion nearby with its enchantments of fishing piers, beautiful homes, boating and fishing and good friends .
With all of this in mind, you can make a good case that this seems unlikely behavior for a would-be-murderess. Lizzie had a little shopping excursion on July 23rd, perusing dress fabrics and patterns and enjoying the shops of New Bedford. On July 25th a most amiable opportunity for a day trip to Marion presented itself. Lizzie was in the very distinguished company of Rev. Buck’s daughter Alice, Anna and Mary Holmes, Mabel and Louise Remington, Isabelle Fraser, Louise Handy, Annie Bush, Elizabeth Johnson, Mrs. James and Miss Edith Jackson, and Jennie Stowell.
(Converse Point, formerly Blakes Point)
Marion was a little “Newport North”with moorings for yachts, celebrities and artists, politicians and lawyers, doctors and the upper crust of society longing to get away from the heat and crowded cities. Charming cottages and stately waterfront homes dotted the shoreline. Tree-lined streets, a chapel, art studios, delightful quaint eateries and a music hall provided entertainment for the lucky residents and distinguished guests.
Lizzie’s lady friends were busily playing house at Dr. Handy’s cottage and relaxing, Bohemian- style with back hair down and corsets loosened . Lizzie was to join the band of merrymakers on August 8th for jolly hours at the fishing hole and some slapdash housekeeping and high jinx with “the girls”. Each lady had a little job to do which made the domestic chores seem so much more fun. It is said that Lizzie was to tend to chopping kindling for the cook stove and that when told the kitchen kindling hatchet was a “dull thing” remarked that she had a sharp one she would bring that would be just the ticket.
On the 25th of July, Lizzie left the Pooles and was at Blakes Point, which is now Converse Point, for a day trip. Over time, the name has changed to whoever lives on the point at the moment. A very snappy yacht was at the moorings, the MABEL F. SWIFT. She was a trim Fall River craft owned by Charles W. Anthony, and a familiar sight to the Newport Yachting community on regatta days. The Honorable Simeon Borden, the Honorable James Jackson, Holder W. Durfee, William Winslow, and R.W. Bassett were the gentleman aboard. Friends, fun and sun in the bloom of summer were the order of the day.
The next day, Tuesday, July 26th, Lizzie would travel by carriage with Mrs. Poole and her daughter Carrie out to Westport to visit her old childhood friend Augusta Poole who had married and lived in a Victorian farmhouse with husband, Cyrus Tripp. It was a bit of a journey out to the house by carriage and Lizzie spent most of the late morning and afternoon there visiting Augusta. The band of three ladies then departed for New Bedford where Lizzie parted company with the Pooles after a busy few days, taking the train to return home to Fall River.
It was probably a reluctant but dutiful Lizzie who decided to forsake the fun and friends to return home to obligations and household drudgery. Mrs. Borden would want to be going to the farm for a break, and someone needed to be at home to look after Mr. Borden, oversee his meals and well-being. There were minutes to take at one of her many charitable organization meetings and Lizzie was conscientious. But there was the happy prospect of returning soon to the cottage of Dr. Benjamin Handy and the vacationing ladies on a spree with fishing at the pier to come. Dr. Handy was born in Marion and was a surgeon and physician. Later on, Dr. Handy would report a “wild-eyed” man in front of the Borden house on Second St. around 10:30 on the day of the murders. His Marion cottage was much-desired by friends and family as a “getaway” in the summer months.
Thus was the story of Lizzie’s week leading up to the murders. On Tuesday night the Bordens would partake of swordfish steak for supper. The family was ill Tuesday night into the next day. Mrs. Borden was in no state of health to go visiting anyone and on Wednesday morning she crossed the street to see Dr. Bowen and pronounced she was probably poisoned and Mr. Borden was taken sick too. Later on, Dr. Bowen, much-concerned about his neighbors, crossed the street to call on the sickly Bordens only to be rebuffed by Andrew Borden for the house call and its possible expense. Lizzie, perhaps out of embarrassment at her father’s rude behavior, went promptly upstairs and Dr. Bowen went away. Abby suspected there was something wrong with the family store-bought bread as once she heard of someone being taken ill from spoiled cream cakes. Lizzie claimed to be ill herself that Wednesday, never leaving the house and resting in her room. Soon Uncle John would arrive, enjoy a late lunch at the Borden table, rent a carriage and go over the river to Swansea. The scene was set for the horrors to come the next day. Did Lizzie go to Smith’s pharmacy to try to procure Prussic acid from Mr. Bence that day? What was behind Lizzie’s proclamation to Alice Russell that Wednesday evening around 7 p.m. about “something is hanging over me. I am sleeping with one eye open”. What happened to that carefree young woman on vacation in Marion just a few days before? Those are the questions that haunt us. Still.
*References used in this article: Lizzie Borden Past and Present, Leonard Rebello, Al-Zach Press, 1999.
Parallel Lives: A Social History of Lizzie A. Borden and Her Fall River, Michael Martins & Dennis Binette, Fall River Historical Society, 2010.
Photo credits: The Sippican Historical Society, Marion MA., Historic New England, Shelley M. Dziedzic (all rights reserved).
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.
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.
Although many of these publications are out of print, Amazon and Ebay frequently have Volume 3 and 4 of Spinner at a good price. Volume 4 has many wonderful old photos of Fall River and New Bedford, and features articles and interviews which give invaluable details of the “good old days”. Mrs. Florence Brigham, former curator of the Fall River Historical Society, gives a memorable interview about her memories growing up in the city. The history of ice cream parlors in New Bedford is another article full of information and charm.
Spinner Publications http://www.spinnerpub.com/Home.html site posts on new publications, calendars, maps, etc. and maintains an unparalleled archives of vintage photos.
Also not to be missed, for the serious student of Fall River history, is the Keeley Library Online collection of photographs and postcards, Fall River yearbooks and articles- many hours of free online material to enjoy if you cannot come to Fall River. http://www.sailsinc.org/durfee/fulltext.htm (articles) http://sailsinc.org/Durfee/ (index page) http://sailsinc.org/Durfee/fallriver.htm (vintage slides of the city)
As posted earlier: The public is cordially invited to attend a presentation of “Lizzie Borden: The Mystery Continues,” sponsored by the Sippican Historical Society Thursday, Aug. 19 at 7 p.m. at Marion’s Music Hall.
The speaker will be Mr. Christopher Daley in a one hour retelling of the famous double homicide. Mr. Daley is a history teacher in the Silver Lake Regional School System in Kingston. If you get to Marion earlier, there are many things to enjoy, not the least of which is the scenery.
The Sippican Historical Society has a treasure trove of things to see including the Mary Celeste room,
and many beautiful paintings and sketches by Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson Girl.
It’s no wonder Lizzie wanted to go fishing in Marion with Dr. Handy’s cottage so close to the fishing pier. The photo below is the site of Dr. Handy’s cottage, but not the original building. The water is a moment’s walk away.
Borden case prosecutor, Hosea Knowlton enjoyed a summer rental in Marion, died there and had his ashes scattered over water there. The photo below is of his summer rental house, shown with the Second St. Irregulars on Front St.
Knowlton had built a beautiful summer home in 1900, but sadly died before he could enjoy many summers in it, He died in 1902. It is now a dormitory for Tabor Academy.