Lizzie Borden’s School Days & The Morgan Street School by Shelley Dziedzic
The Morgan Street School (courtesy of The Keeley Library Photo Archive)
With the discovery a couple of years ago of the photograph of a wistful little Lizzie Borden, aged perhaps nine years, there is much renewed interest in her life and childhood influences. As with any person accused of a shocking crime, both acquitted and found guilty, biographers yearn for information on the early years. What childhood events might make a person into a possible murderer later on in life? How could one who looked so innocent possibly have been guilty of such a grisly double homicide?
It is a frustrating fact that there is not more known about the early years of Lizzie Borden. Hopefully the diaries and letters which were recently donated to the Fall River Historical Society will reveal more about the missing years of her life when their upcoming book, Parallel Lives is published.. But surely one area of her life which holds a fascination is her grammar school years.
Lizzie was ready for grammar school at a very opportune time in the history of Fall River education. Prior to the Civil War, a quality education within the city was an unevenly distributed entity. Earlier school houses of 1850 had been cheaply built with few conveniences .The city had been divided into nine school districts in 1818 which increased later to 14. The three-man General School Committee had urged the abolishment of the district system for years, although it remained in place until 1864. The problem with the system was apparent- the most densely populated districts erected the best schools and had the money to hire the most qualified teachers in the country whereas the sparsely populated districts could not manage to provide the very basics and resorted to poorly paid, highly unqualified teaching staff and severely substandard facilities.
One of the earliest school reports of 1842 makes strong condemnation about the conditions of the city’s schools, which included a lack of books, blackboards, discipline problems and lack of attendance. Women teacher during this time made $16.25 per month and had to be unmarried. Men in the winter term made $62.50 per month.
Improvements began in 1848 with the establishment of an evening school, a high school in 1849, a school for factory children in 1862, and in 1865 an almshouse was converted into a detention and instruction school for truants. But it was in 1865, at war’s end, when an important man took the reins of the troubled school system. He was Rev. Daniel W. Stevens, a Harvard graduate who devoted his energies toward fitting out the schools with much-needed supplies. He also appointed the first truant officer and set to work updating school furnishings. Malcolm Tewksbury continued the good work the following year through 1872, followed by William Connell who held the position until 1894.
In the two decades from 1850 to 1870, the population of the city jumped by 16,000. It was plain many new schoolhouses would have to be built to accommodate the pupils. The very first of what would become a wave of new school building began with the Morgan Street school which was built and opened by the summer term of 1868. Lizzie Borden was eight years old. Later the school would be called after the city’s third mayor, Nathaniel Briggs Borden, (mayor in 1857 and followed in that position by Josiah C. Blaisdell from 1858-59).
The Morgan Street school was built in what was called the Second Empire style which is basically Italianate forms with a Mansard roof. Dormer windows, sometimes a square (not round) tower, decorative brackets, molded cornices, similar to Italianate detail on windows and doors are all elements of this popular style. It is the first true style of the Victorian era in the U.S. (roughly 1860-1900). This style was most popular in the Northeast, Midwest, and very rarely seen in the South. Also known as the “General Grant style” as it was used during the Grant administration for public buildings. This style was named for the reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870), who undertook a major building campaign to transform Paris into a city of grand boulevards and monumental buildings which were copied throughout Europe and North America. Napoleon’s famous project was the enlargement of the Louvre (1852-1857), where he reintroduced the Mansard roof, developed in 1600’s Renaissance France by Francois Mansart. This style traveled from France to England to America. The Morgan Street school would later lose its distinctive cupola on the roof.
The Bordens were living on Ferry Street at the time of Lizzie’s primary school years. Andrew had remarried to Abby Durfee Gray and now Lizzie had a new stepmother. It would have been a bit of a walk for Lizzie from Ferry Street up to Morgan Street. She probably went east up Columbia Street to South Main, and on to Morgan St., a few blocks southeast, the most direct route. Lizzie had moved in 1872 to Second Street and was still at the Morgan Street School for grammar school until age 14.
Mr. Horace Benson, a principal at the Morgan Street School had this to say about Lizzie as a student, “ as a pupil she was an average scholar, neither being exceptionally smart nor noticeably dull. She was subject to varying moods, and was never fond of her stepmother. She had no hesitation in talking about her, and in many ways showed her dislike of her father’s second wife.” When Mr. Benson lived next door to the Bordens, he came to know Abby Borden and had this to say about her:
“. . . a kindly, lovable woman, who tried, but ineffectually, to win the love of the stepdaughters.”
Mr. Benson is listed in the directory in 1874 as a principal of the Morgan Street school. He boarded at 84 Second Street from 1891 to 1903. Then moving to 44 Morgan Street until 1909. (Rebello, Lizzie Borden: Past and Present, Alzach Press, 1999, p. 8).
Mrs. Charles J. Holmes and some other family friends were interviewed by the Boston Herald August 7, 1892 and had this to say:
“As a child she was of a very sensitive nature, inclined to be non-communicative with new acquaintances and this characteristic has tenaciously clung to her all through life and has been erroneously interpreted. . . . At the usual age she was sent to the Morgan Street School, embracing primary and grammar grades. Her school days were perhaps unlike most girls in this lack of affiliation with fellow friends As a scholar she was not remarkable for brilliancy but she was conscientious in her studies and with application, always held a good rank. She was a girl with anything but an enthusiastic idea of her own personal attainments. She thought people were not favorable disposed toward her and that she made a poor impression. She entered the high school about 15 or 16 years old.”
(Rebello, Lizzie Borden: Past and Present, Alzach Press, 1999, p. 8).
Morgan Street School circa 1900, Second Grade (courtesy of Keeley Library Photo Archive)
“ We find her at the Morgan Street Grammar School when 14. Then she was a stout, blooming, strapping lass. Her great characteristic was keeping to herself. She had one and only one chum, a girl about her own age, who is now married and lives in Rhode Island. Her exclusiveness was just because it was her nature. She had a sharp, sarcastic tongue and was inclined to use it when not let alone. Her chief quality was her secretiveness. Such was Lizzie Borden the school girl.”
(Source: Martins, Michael, “A Volume of Sentiment,” Fall River Historical Society Quarterly Report vol 5., Winter/ 1994.2) (Rebello, Lizzie Borden: Past and Present, Alzach Press, 1999, p. 10).
1903 postcard view of Fall River High School where Lizzie dropped out in her junior year.
Today the windows of the old brick schoolhouse on Morgan Street stare like vacant eyes over the playground fringed with weeds. It was only June 2007 when colorful flowers cut from construction paper festooned these same windows. There had been white snowflakes in the winter, and tulips in the spring. It was in June 2007 that the school, a fixture since 1868, closed its doors forever as an institution of learning. With low test scores and severely strained facilities, the Board of Education decided it was for the best. Another wave of new school building has swept the city over the past five years, as it had in 1865, but now the sound of skipping feet and childish laughter is heard no more at the N.B. Borden School.
On an autumn visit, the sight of the darkened, empty classrooms was haunting as only a building once full of life, then silenced, can be. The school office was shrouded in quiet, papers were scattered everywhere; the principal’s desk stood forlorn and expectant. Above all the windows and doors inside were the most exquisite Renaissance Revival cornices. In some rooms, the rich walnut had been painted over with cheap institutional paint. On the first floor, the little cafeteria tables still stand ready for students’ lunches which will come no more. Across the hall, another classroom had been converted into a gymnasium. A basketball net swung lazily in a shaft of pale sunlight and dust motes. Every floor of the three floor building was identical. A large, square center hall as large as a room with two spacious classrooms opened off each side. A winding staircase at both the front and the back of the building rose to the next level. Its coiling newel post finial had been touched by thousands of little sticky hands over the 139 years, the walnut worn and smooth and cool to the touch. The climb from the second to the third floor revealed a fancy scrolling pattern in the stairwell, and the windows on the highest floors were carefully covered with thick wire screens for safety.
Everywhere were the reminders of long ago from the wooden plank floors, beadboard-backed bookcases, to brass cloak room hooks, and dozens of those wonderful triangular pediments over the doors. On the top floor, a dumb waiter was suspended, waiting in its chute with its doors agape – waiting now forever for an eager hand to hoist the ropes. A seagull swooped by the high screened window which revealed a most amazing view of the Braga Bridge and Taunton River. Everywhere, the hasty retreat of the staff and students could be seen in the debris on the floor, papers flung willy-nilly, boxes, desks shoved into corners. It was the end of an era.
The playground was also silent. Heavy granite uprights still remained to support fencing which no longer exists- only the running rusts showed the spot where it once had been. In the shadows of an autumn afternoon, you might just see the serious face of a little girl under a straw hat. She is carrying her tin lunch pail and sitting alone in the schoolyard waiting for Emma.
My thanks to Tim McCluskie of the Board of Education Facilities Department for allowing this visit to the N.B. Borden Morgan Street School. The Board of Education will be turning the school over to the City of Fall River. Its fate is unknown. The building at 43 Morgan Street is on the list of Registered Places in Bristol County. There are no plans to tear it down.
Sources: History of Fall River, Henry Fenner, A.B., F.T. Smiley Publishing Co., New York, 1906.
A Guidebook to Fall River’s National Register Properties, Patricia Giza, The Office of Historic Preservation for The City of Fall River, 1984.
Lizzie Borden Past and Present, Leonard Rebello, Alzach Press, 1999.
Conversations with Mr. Timothy McCluskie, Director, Board of education Facilities.
The Keeley Library, B.M.C. Durfee High School historic slide collection, Fall River.
2007 Shelley M. Dziedzic (all rights reserved)