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).
- Swann Auction Galleries in New York is selling an oversized original photograph of the jury that acquited Lizzie Borden. It’s Lot 207 in the October 2, 2012 sale. Estimate is $800.00-$1,200.00. John O’Neil New Bedford, MA 1893 -photographer. The photo below is the one familiar to most and was given as a parting gift to Lizzie after her acquittal.
As mentioned in an earlier article on Warps and Wefts, http://lizziebordenwarpsandwefts.com/mutton-eaters-february-article/, Eli Bence and his testimony about Lizzie Borden coming into the pharmacy where he was a counter clerk on the day before the murders was bombshell testimony. Although allowed through the Preliminary, Bence’s important revelations did not make it into the 1893 trial, being ruled as “too far remote in time” from the actual killings. No prussic acid was found in the bodies of either Borden, not surprising as the lady who inquired for the deadly poison could not obtain it without a prescription. Perhaps Bence’s and the testimony of the dress burning incident by Alice Russell might have turned the tide for Lizzie, had either been allowed.
Bence moved to New Bedford and set up his own drug store by 1894, then after the death of his wife, remarried a Fairhaven girl, Annie Coggshell Maxfield, whose father ran a successful plumbing concern on Bridge St. Bence eventually moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts with son Roy by his first wife Sarah Hayhurst, and his son Maxfield by his second wife Annie. They also had a little girl Priscilla who died very young. Bence died at his Pittsfield home after suffering a stroke while riding in a car returning from the Berkshires with his son and daughter in law and wife on May 4, 1915. He is buried in Fairhaven by the side of his wife Annie and their daughter Priscilla.
The only photograph we have seen of Bence until now has been of the earnest, 27 year old who tried to give his testimony at Lizzie’s trial.
Bence’s parents, William and Sarah are buried in Oak Grove Cemetery, Fall River.
The Gazette had an article marking Lizzie’s acquittal anniversary on June 20th.
A welcome home party was given for Lizzie at the home of Charles and Marianna Holmes on Pine Street on the day of the acquittal. Their house is still standing. Those waiting outside the murder house on Second Street, hoping for a glimpse of Lizzie, were disappointed.
Below: The Holmes house on Pine Street today, the scene of Lizzie’s triumphant return to Fall River, a free woman. It is now subdivided into several apartments. In the background, steeple of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension on Rock St. (now called Holy Spirit).
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)
The old whaling city is not just famous for its maritime heritage. Opening soon officially in the old Wamsutta Mill complex is the New Bedford Glass Museum. The top floor of the mill houses a fantastic antiques center while antique furniture and the new glass museum can be found at the street level. There’s ample parking, the upper level is air-conditioned, and the glass museum, while not yet officially open, has most of the exhibits in place with a delightful and knowledgeable curator on duty to explain the intricacies of New Bedford’s famed Pairpoint and Mount Washington Glass. Many other types of glass are on display from every decade, contemporary, Victorian, Tiffany glass, Sandwich glass and glassworks by reknown glass artists. This is one not to miss. Visit their informative site at http://www.nbmog.com/
This week will mark the end of criminal cases tried at the historic New Bedford Superior Court House at 441 County Street, the venue for the famous 1893 trial of Lizzie Borden. Only civil cases will be heard now at the New Bedford site. Amazingly the old court room where the Borden trial took place has remained, for the most part, the same as it looked in 1893.
The new Fall River Justice Center on Second Street, will assume the task of trying criminal cases. One wonders if the 1892 crime happened today- might Lizzie try for “house arrest” and remain in her house across the street from the new court house wearing an ankle device!
Some footage from this past weekend’s event-with some really great entries.
Lizzie Borden Tale Of Two Cities
Youtube entry by Rick Rebelo.
Blood Relations written by Sharon Pollack and directed by Stephen Kay opens November 12th. The play runs November 12-22 at the Your Theatre Playhouse at 136 River Street, New Bedford.
The play within a play structure in which, ten years after her acquittal, Lizzie Borden’s actress friend, Nance O’Neil acts out the crucial scenes, lends a fascinating sense of ambiguity to a familiar story. For reservations call 508-993-0772.
For more about the play read http://www.enotes.com/blood-relations
Today’s South Coast Today puts Lizzie in the Press again with coverage of last night’s “Mock Trial”. Read the story at http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090925/NEWS/909250337
Gallery X will be holding an open exhibit “Lizzie Borden, A Tale of Two Cities”. On August 4, 1892, a terrible crime was committed in the city of Fall River. After all suspects were interviewed, all were cleared except for the youngest daughter of the victims, Miss Lizzie Andrew Borden. The vicious murders and it’s following trial caused the largest media blitz America had ever seen. Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Jackson Borden were brutally slain in their home in broad daylight. The trial of Lizzie Borden has lived in the hearts, imaginations, and minds of a larger group of people than one would expect. The crime was committed in the City of Fall River, On June 5, 1893, Ten months later, Lizzie was brought to trial at the Bristol County Superior Court house in New Bedford. After a trial of thirteen days, Lizzie was acquitted for lack of evidence.
The show’s title, “Lizzie Borden, A Tale of Two Cities” is a reference to the connection of these two cities and the national interest the murders in Fall River, and the following trial in New Bedford caused. Nearly every newspaper in the country held front page accounts of the tragedy and it’s proceedings. It seems everyone had their opinion on these bizarre proceedings and the press couldn’t get enough! The exhibit is open to all artists, local and otherwise. All submissions must pertain to Lizzie and/or the Borden tragedy. The limit is three pieces per artist, at $10.00 each. Gallery X will receive A35% commission on any sales. The show opens on October 14, 2009,the opening reception will be on October 17, 2009. The deadline for entries is Sunday October 11,2009 between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Gallery X hours are Wednesday through Friday 11:00 a.m. till 5:00 p.m. , Saturday and Sunday 11:00 a.m. till 3:00 p.m.
The 1893 Lizzie Borden trial re-enactment at Bristol County courthouse is the must-see event for September. The courtroom where it all happened in June of 1893 is much today as it was on the day when Lizzie sat on the hard wooden bench and hid her enigmatic face behind her fan. Even the Victorian wooden Defense and Prosecution tables where Robinson and Knowlton held forth are still in place. A large oil portrait of Attorney Knowlton hangs on the wall today. A large turnout is expected and tickets will soon be a hot commodity in the area. An open house will be held the night of the re-enactment from 6 – 7 p.m. when the “trial” begins.
The free program is open to the public, with limited seating.
Mail a self-addressed stamped envelope to “Lizzie, Redux Request”, care of Clerk Magistrate Marc J. Santos, Bristol Count Clerk of Courts, 441 County St., New Bedford, MA 02740 for tickets. There will be two tickets issued per request. Tickets will be honored until 20 minutes before the performance, after which there will be a general admission as room is available.
2009 markes the 150th anniversary for the Massachusetts Superior courts. Many events and displays are on tap for the year . Of particular interest is this notation on their web site
“Lizzie Borden, Redux ~ Multiple dates and locations
New Bedford Superior Courthouse ~ September 24
Fall River Superior Courthouse ~ October 22
Taunton Superior Courthouse ~ November 19
Ms. Borden was acquitted of the murder of her father
and mother and no other suspect was ever identified.
The trial, which took place in 1893 in the New Bedford
Superior Court, continues to interest and intrigue the
public. Not a re-enactment but in a mock trial, Ms.
Borden will be tried again with two lawyers serving as
team prosecutors and two lawyers as team defense. The
audience will vote a verdict.”
To see a listing of all the big doings for the year visit http://www.mass.gov/courts/press/summary-of-events.pdf
One of the most interesting witnesses for the prosecution must surely have been young Eli Bence, the pharmacy clerk who testified that Lizzie Borden had asked for a dime’s worth of deadly Prussic acid on the morning before the murders. Mr. Bence denied her request without a prescription, but remembered her face and voice, and would later identify Lizzie, as did two other men in the store at the time, as the lady who visited the store that Wednesday morning.
Bence’s evidence was a godsend to the prosecution and stood firm until it reached the higher court. There it was ruled too remote in time from the killings -and no poison was ever found in the stomachs of the two victims. Eli’s evidence, had it been heard by the jury, may have had serious consequences. Miss Borden denied going to the pharmacy and even knowing where it was located on Main Street, only two blocks south of her house.
Bence left Fall River and started his own pharmacy in a residential section of New Bedford in 1894 at the corner of Russell and Fourth Streets. His wife died in New Bedford, but Bence remarried in 1904, to a Fairhaven woman, and the pair with his young son Roy Sydney Bence, moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts to establish another pharmacy. The couple had two children, Priscilla and Maxfield. Bence had a successful career and rose to the top of his profession. His name in print was always followed by a mention about the part he played in the famous Borden trial, even in his obituary. This medicine bottle, minus its cork stopper was recently found in a New Bedford antique store and reads Eli Bence Pharmacy, New Bedford.
For more on Eli Bence visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlJumWmayLc