I am not quite sure how I wound up visiting the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts, but I am pretty sure it was totally my dad’s fault.
I was scheduled to go home and visit my folks for a week to glut myself on foodstuffs and stare sadly at the ocean to mark my passage into my thirties. The day before I got on the train headed North, I was busy doing the eight million things that suddenly need to get done before you go on vacation. My phone rang and it was my normally phone-averse father.
“You know,” he said, “This Lizzie Borden thing is a real conundrum.”
That was all the context I was given before he began to expound on his various theories regarding a mysterious double murder that had taken place well over a hundred years ago. He had been giving the crimes thoughtful, inexplicable consideration -- they hadn’t properly investigated the Irish maid who mysteriously vanished after the crimes only to reappear in Montana decades later, and what about the surprise visit from Lizzie’s uncle the day before the murders?
I found out from my mother that the local paper had been running a series of articles about the crimes.
“But, why?” I asked. “It’s not like, any anniversary or anything, is it?”
The scuttlebutt in town was that the new editor of the local paper was trying to “spice things up” with the inclusion of these pieces. I did not point out to my parents and their friends that a week-long series of speculative articles about a 121-year-old unsolved double-murder that happened in the next state over could be argued by some to be, in fact, the complete opposite of spice.
By the time I actually arrived at my parents’ home, I knew more about Lizzie Borden -- thanks to my dad’s frequent updates -- than I ever had before. To be fair, this would not have been exactly challenging given that the sum and total of my knowledge base of the events that took place at 230 2nd Street consisted of a popular children’s rhyming song, which in the fashion of most popular children’s rhyming songs was horrific and macabre.
I can’t remember whose idea it was to drive over to Fall River and go visit the house, but once I found out that it was also a popular bed and breakfast location, I knew I was on board. The opportunity to eat Johnny cakes and syrup while possibly seeing ghosts is apparently all the lure I need to drop whatever scruples I might otherwise claim to have.
My mother and sister, being decent people, quietly demurred when we asked them if they’d like to go along with us. My brother, being a monster like myself, was all about a little afternoon excursion. My dad was chomping at the bit, a tweenaged girl with front-row seats to see Justin Bieber. He called up the place no less than five times to double check on logistical elements like ticket prices and tour times.
“I just want to be sure!” he’d say, as my brother and I discussed the potential hilarity of arriving at the place only to be greeted by concerned staffers who’d spent half their day on the phone with him.
“Don’t look now, Stan,” a cashier might say under her breath, “but here comes that total weirdo who wanted to be sure we were selling Lizzie bobble heads. Hope you’ve been paying into your accidental death and dismemberment insurance.”
What had begun as mostly a giant joke very quickly unraveled as soon as we arrived at the house. Once inside, it became clear we had made a terrible mistake.
I am a huge fan of tours of historic homes (SEE YOU AT THE NEWPORT MANSIONS, FELLOW OLDS!) and figured that this tour would be no different. I could not have been more incorrect. For one, our tour guide was, well, a Murder Super-Fan. There’s no other way to say it.
“If you touch this doorknob you’ll be touching something Lizzie touched!” he spookily intoned. “This carpet here would have been soaked in blood!” he said beaming, like it was a good thing.
He also had an incredible bias against Lizzie, who was eventually found to be not guilty of killing both her father and her stepmother mostly because her inconsistent testimony was thrown out when it was revealed she was doped out her mind when she gave it.
If I thought my dad’s theories were reaching, this guy took it to another level. He brought in schemes involving real estate fraud, a second killer, the maid’s deathbed confession. I like a good yarn as much as the next person, but I stood there thinking that this whole thing was a purely a case of the simplest answer often being the correct one: Lizzie, a mentally unstable woman who been emotionally tormented by her father, snapped and killed him and his second wife.
In the way of super-fans, our tour guide inundated us with information. I went from bored to aghast pretty quickly when suddenly we were standing around a table staring at autopsy photos. A younger girl bellowed, “COOL” and began snapping photographs of the photographs.
It got worse from there as my fellow tour-mates and apparent murder fans began doing stuff like laying down where the bodies had been found to get their pictures taken. This wasn’t history -- this was a place where something terrible happened, and I had paid to walk through it.
To make matters worse, I found myself getting worked up as a feminist as I listened to other people theorizing as we toured the place.
"She couldn't have done it, she's a woman -- women don't kill." To defend a woman's ability to kill seemed like, maybe not a great choice. Plus, my head was already throbbing when I overheard someone speculate that Lizzie had flown into a "Gay Rage."
If anything, it was this sort of sexism that got Lizzie her freedom. A murderous Sunday school teacher? Impossible. As my ire simmered I chuckled darkly at the absurdity of me being offended at the notion that my sex was incapable of true rage.
Murder Mystery dinner theatre is one thing, but this was prurience plain and simple and suddenly there was absolutely nothing funny about our trip. My brother looked sick to his stomach and would later be unable to sleep by himself in my parents' basement. Sure, the crime had been a media sensation, making news the world over -- a lady murderess, and such a violent one. But at its core, it’s still a story about two people being murdered -- brutally.
Suffice to say I quickly lost any and all appetite I had for Johnny cakes, though I mustered some reserves of happiness for the tour guide when he announced he’d be featured on HGTV in the fall for a Halloween special.
I spent the next week or so dolling out bits of the exhaustive details I had amassed at Lizzie’s house. The house is small and has really only 6 rooms (minus the attic) but the tour took over two hours. With nothing else to occupy my time, I listened and retained an insane amount of knowledge.
At my birthday dinner that week, as everyone cut into their meals, I pronounced, “The Bordens' last breakfast together gave them food poisoning because they didn’t believe in refrigeration. It was week-old mutton stew, overly ripe fruit, cookies, and Johnny cakes.” I shook my head and stared down at my pasta, “Johnny cakes, man.”
Have you ever gotten super-into a famous murder or murderer and then become quietly grossed out with yourself? When I worked at the RI Department of Health I quietly read every installment at that website Crime Library. It was a terrible time. Please tell me of these things, and any Borden murder theories you may have in the comments.