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
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.
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