Bence & the Prussic Acid

Short film on Eli Bence by Garden State Films

 Eli Bence- The Man Who Might Have

by Shelley Dziedzic

The 27 year old face gazing earnestly above the tightly buttoned , notched lapels has a beseeching look.  Other than a few courtroom sketches, this portrait is how most people who study the Borden case recall Eli Bence, the clerk at Smith’s pharmacy on Columbia Street at the corner of South Main : a stubble of bristly hair, neat mustache, and a steady gaze. Other than Alice Russell and her damaging testimony about the dress that Lizzie Borden burned in the kitchen woodstove after breakfast on the day after her parents’ funeral, perhaps no other single individual possessed such potentially lethal information which, if it had been allowed, might have changed the course of events for Lizzie Borden.

Fortune smiled on the defendant when both Miss Russell’s and Mr. Bence’s testimony of what they had seen and heard was disallowed at the New Bedford trial in June 1893.

Inasmuch as no Prussic acid or poison had been found in either of the Bordens’ stomachs, and that Lizzie’s alleged visit to Smith’s Pharmacy on the morning of August 3 was too remote in time from the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden, Bence’s testimony was deemed irrelevant in the end.  The thoughts which went through the mind of Eli Bence upon hearing this can only be imagined.

In 1892 Fall River, and indeed in today’s society, many  were and are hesitant to come forward and become involved in criminal investigations for reasons stemming from lost time on the job to a reluctance to be interviewed by police and newspaper reporters.  In such a high profile as the Borden case became, Bence must have drawn upon a deeply-engrained sense of civic responsibility and duty to put himself willingly and unsparingly in the bright glare of what would be known as the Crime of the Century, and to be prepared, under oath to put his name and career on the line by taking on the daughter of one of Fall River’s influential businessmen, and a Borden.  He was but a young clerk with his living to earn, with a young wife and three-year-old son to support.  Whether he enjoyed the support of his employer, family and spouse in coming forward to testify is unknown, but what is known is that his involvement in the Borden trial would follow him the rest of his life, right onto the front page of the New Bedford newspaper obituary at his death in 1915 in his fiftieth year.  What made the character of such a man as Eli Bence?

Bence was not a stranger to death, tragedy and hard work.  Eli’s father, William Bence, was from the country town of Heaton Norris in Lancashire.  His first marriage was in 1848 to Ann Gaskell of Disley, Cheshire.  She would die five years later leaving William Bence with a son, Peter Gaskell Bence born in 1849. In 1853 Ann joined her little daughter, Emma Bence, who died the day of her birth in 1852.  They are buried in Love Lane, Heaton Norris. William Bence would not remain a widower for very long.

On the day after Christmas 1853, in the Chapel of Saint Thomas, William married Sarah Hudson, a girl from Cheadle Buckley, Stockport, Cheshire.  Sarah produced a son, Horatio, in 1854 but the couple’s happiness quickly turned to sorrow when the little infant son died within the year.  Soon after, the couple set sail for Tiverton with Peter Gaskell Bence, moving just on the outskirts of Fall River.  It was there where John William Bence was born the year after Horatio was laid to rest in the English soil.

John William would marry Harriet Fields in 1883 and produced one little daughter, Mabel G. Bence.  They settled in Swansea.  By 1858 Edwin Bence had arrived, and the family was living in Fall River with father William Bence turning a deft hand to many tasks to support his growing family. The little boy, Edwin, died at age 4 in 1862 as the Civil War raged on. The first daughter, Sarah Jane, was born the same year as Lizzie Borden, 1860.  Sarah Jane would become a school teacher in Fall River, marry Mr. Robert Goff of Swansea and produce a happy family of three children.  The Bence’s second daughter, Mary Hannah, was born just after Edwin died in 1862, and passed away nine months later.

In 1864 the Bence family would find themselves in Braintree where in 1865 Eli was born, followed by a sister, Minnie, in 1868.  Minnie would marry James Dutton Whittles and raise four children, two of whom would later settle in Weymouth.

The 1870 census lists the Bences back in Fall River, father aged 43,machinist, living in Ward 2 in the south end in a house valued at $2,000 and a personal wealth of $375.  Sarah is keeping house, Eli’s half-brother Peter Gaskell is 20 and working in a cotton mill as is 15 year old John William. Sarah Jane, Eli and Minnie are at school.  In the 1880 census the family is living on Bay Street.  Sarah Jane has become a teacher and Eli is now 15, working at 8 Granite Block in the city as a clerk.  Eli’s father and brother John William are listed as working in a cotton mill.  Peter Gaskell Bence married Sarah Jane Bull at the First Methodist –Episcopal Church in Fall River on January 21, 1871. Peter became a patrolman for the Fall River Police Department from 1878-1881 and lived at 5 Riverview St with his family just around the corner at 117 Bay Street. In 1884 brother John William is living with the couple and is listed as a weaver, and Eli, now 19 is still at the Granite Block as a clerk and also living at 117 Bay Street. Peter would sire seven children altogether with two wives.  Sarah Jane Bull Bence would die in childbirth in 1890.  In 1892, in August, Peter Bence married Emma Macomber. From 1881 – 1900 Peter was a carpenter, then a school janitor, living at 56 Palmer Street. When Emma died in 1909, Peter moved to Newport to live with his daughter Minnie Bence Kelly and her family where he died in 1919.

In 1886 Eli Bence married an English bride, Sarah A. Hayhurst.  Their first child was christened Roy Sydney Bence, born February 5, 1889.  Eli was just 21 years old on his wedding day, his bride barely 20.The couple lived at 21 Whipple Street.  It would be Sarah by his side throughout the Borden ordeal.  Whether his wife and family supported his decision to come forward is unknown, but one can speculate about the conversations that must have transpired beneath the Bence roof.  Half-brother, Peter Bence, once a police officer himself for the Fall River police department, must have offered advice, and Sunday dinners around the table with the family must have included anxious and pressing questioning about Lizzie’s visit to Smith’s, the inquest and preliminary trial, and ultimately the dismissal of Eli as a witness for the prosecution by 1893 at the trial in New Bedford.

By 1894, one year after Lizzie’s acquittal, Eli and Sarah had moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts where Eli set up a neighborhood apothecary at the corner of 4th and Russell Streets.  Roy was now five years old when the couple settled down to married life away from the aftermath of Lizzie Borden, Fall River, and her acquittal.  It is hard to know if this move away from family and Fall River had anything to do with the trial, Eli’s part in the case, or the aftermath.  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.  Annie had a sister, Nellie, also a school teacher, and a brother Frank, a tin smith apprentice.  Annie was just 30 and Eli now 38 with a 14 year old son for Annie to raise.  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.

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 age of 50. Maxfield was left an orphan of 13.

Maxfield Hudson Bence went on to become a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, serving in WWII and Korea.  He married his sweetheart Evelyn and the two are buried together in Sam Huston Veteran’s Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas.  Max died on June 25, 1981.

There is, to date no update on what happened to Roy Sydney Bence, but Bences still are thriving in Pittsfield, Swansea, Weymouth, Rehoboth and Texas.

This may not be the end of the Eli Bence story.  As long as the world holds a fascination with Lizzie Borden, Eli Bence will be immortal- and forever the man who might have made all the difference if his voice had been heard by twelve men brave and true in the city of New Bedford in the summer of 1893.

© Shelley Dziedzic 2007 All rights reserved


  • Kate Lavender

    Am I sad? I’m heartbroken that Eli’s testimony was dismissed as though it were nothing more than complete fabrication. Lizzie was lucky in many ways. Sometimes, I like to pretend that the hatchet on top of Crowe’s barn had been found and fingerprinted exposing Lizzie’s lies during the initial investigation. My how times have changed. Eli, you were a good & honorable man and I believe you. May you rest in peace, sweet Eli. K.

  • Catherine Bence

    Emma Rowena Macomber, Peter Gaskell Bence’s second wife, was Lizzie’s second cousin. Her mother was Rowena Borden Grinnell. Her grandmother was Amy Borden, sister to Lizzie’s grandfather, Abraham Borden.

    Peter Gaskell had one child by his marriage to Emma, Raymond Everett Bence. Raymond has one child, Raymond Everett Bence Jr. He had one child, me.

  • Katie Scott

    I recently discovered that Lizzie Borden is my 2nd cousin 6 times removed. I also have a 1st great grandfather: Gideon Hammond Allen – who was on a different branch of the family tree – who was a reporter for the Standard Times in New Bedford at the same time of the trial. I would love to find an article about Lizzie Borden – or any article for that matter – by Gideon Hammond Allen for the Standard Times. Do you know how I might find something like that? I don’t think the Standard Times is online yet.

  • Paula Bolton

    Great story! I’ve always have been interested in Lizzy and the paranormal that surrounds yhe Lizzy Bordens Bed and Breakfast. I knew about Eli but had only heard the testimony and a little about the tragic he survived its good to know THE TEST OF THE STORY!!
    Thank You, Paula Bolyon
    P.S. please email me at when the next room comes available for rent.

    • Paula Bolton

      Please fix my typos I hit the send key to soon.
      Thanks again for the great reading material about the witnesses. Paula Bolton

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