November 18, 2007 — So I got to stay the night in Lizzie Borden’s bedroom...and my girlfriend was totally okay with it.
Actually, before I continue smashing my fists onto the keyboard in the rough semblance of typing that I’ve always called writing, I’d like to interject and make it official. This is going to be the best article I’ve ever written for O.T.I.S....even if it’s the worst article I’ve ever written for O.T.I.S. Seriously. The pictures could be finger-painted into it by digit-less farmhands, the writing style and grasp of language could be, well, the usual O.T.I.S. standards, and the site format could shatter into one of Kooning’s unintelligible doodles, but this article will still be the penultimate.
That’s right. Every article after this one will be a let-down, so delete your browser bookmarks. After all, it’s not every day you get to spend the night at a murder scene...in the murderess’ own room no less, and not just because it’s impossible to spend any night during the day.
If you don’t know the story, here it is in modified children’s rhyme. Lizzie Borden took an axe. She gave her parents 30 whacks. Now you can stay in the place where it happened. 225 bucks a night plus tax.
And for those of you not into jump-roping, here it is in prose form. In 1892, the bodies of 70-year-old Andrew Borden and his wife 64-year-old Abby Borden were discovered in their Fall River, MA, home, each one impolitely hacked to death with an axe. The crime scene pics of their bodies are grisly, legendary, and stapled like drywall all over the Internet, if you’re interested. And you are. After all, the two most accessed types of images on the Internet are naked people and dead people. Humanity’s sick. What can you do?
Moving right along, the main suspect of the double murder was Elizabeth Borden, daughter of Andrew and stepdaughter of Abby. Lizzie was unmarried, 32, and lived at the house with her parents and older sister. She also had every motive, a weak and inconsistent alibi, and tons of evidence against her. She was still somehow exonerated in court after a drawn-out case that became an international sensation back when it was much, much harder to become an international sensation. The story is fascinating and worth hearing from an actual reputable source, so I’ll skip the details. I’ve got my own story to get to anyway. Now, more than a century after the crime, and 80 years after the deaths of the Borden sisters, the house has been turned into a bed and breakfast. Um. Because of its inherent quaintness.
I’d heard that due to high demand, it was impossible to get a room at the B&B without booking years in advance (from the Travel Channel, no less, which makes me wonder what else they’re wrong about. Is there really even a place called Asia?). We looked up the contact information on the B&B's website, and then one pessimistic, surreptitious, and half-embarrassed e-mail later, we totally got a room. And we got Lizzie Borden’s herself no less. We originally looked into renting the John Morse room, named for the Borden uncle with the best timing in the world who was visiting at the time of the murder. It was in his room that Abby fell prey to what medical textbooks describe as “hatchet repeatedly to the back of the head.” I forget the Latin name for it. The room was already taken, though.
We “settled” for Lizzie’s actual room. Turns out, as usual, that the world makes better decisions for my life than I would have on my own, and staying in Lizzie’s room was a much better idea. One, because it was her room, and there’s a special cachet in that. Two, because it allowed me to make that joke in the first line of this article. And three, because it gave us the opportunity to do something that I think is pretty cool, but I’m not sure until cooler people than me tell me it is. I'll get to it in a second.
We arrived in Fall River on a pleasantly dreary overcast Autumn day. The town’s located about an hour from Boston in that queer little hook part of Massachusetts that rudely shoulders Rhode Island away from the Atlantic Ocean. There were a billion Bordens in its boneyard and bona fide battleships in its bay. Actually, it was a cove, but the rules of alliteration triumph over accuracy every time.
Fall River surprised me. It’s not the quaint little town I’d imagined it to be. In fact, it was neither quaint, little, nor a town. I probably would have known this in advance if I’d done even the meagerest amount of research on the place instead of being obsessed with one house within the confines of its zip codes. It’s actually in the top ten largest cities in Massachusetts. In fact, it struck me as one of those cities that used to be a shade close to grandish at some point in the past and is currently about halfway between that and ultimate decline. I saw a dentist office shoved unceremoniously into an old church. A giant fortress-like armory that had been converted without imagination into a YMCA. And a lot of teenagers actually using the hoods on their hoodies.
The city area was settled in 1670, so it’s old as far as American cities are concerned, but it lacks that clean pride-of-place that many historic cities have. We also heard a rumor from fellow guests that it wasn’t the safest place to be out in at night, but we’d already gathered that from the hoodies. “Out in at” is three prepositions in a row, for those of you into that kind of stuff.
We got to Fall River a few hours before check-in time, but that was according to plan. We had a few things to do before we could settle in...to the murderess’ bedroom. Wait. Alleged murderess’ bedroom. Actually, I don’t even know if that’s accurate, either. She was cleared of all culpability by that law of ours so often symbolized by a blindfolded woman. I don’t know the word that encapsulates the idea in those past few sentences, so from now on “alleged” in this piece just means all that.
Anyway, first on our Fall River docket was the town graveyard. The cemetery is usually always first on my docket when I enter an old town. Call me morbid if you want, but you’ll lose out on much better opportunities to do so throughout this story. In this case, though, there was a specific reason. All the central players in the Borden fiasco are, in the words of Dave, our Lizzie Borden B&B cook whom we haven’t met at this point in the story, “happily buried” in Oak Grove Cemetery, less than two miles away from the Borden home.
Oak Grove’s a decent cemetery. Certainly not one of the more interesting ones in New England, but a dead body could end up in far worse places. Like an industrial sausage grinder at a meat-packing plant. The gate to Oak Grove Cemetery is a tall stone edifice with two gatehouses. It was in one of these gatehouses that the coroner conducted the second of two autopsies on the Borden corpses, removing their heads in the process because, well, why wouldn’t you do that. The first autopsy was actually conducted in the Borden’s dining room...where we had breakfast the next morning. We’ll get there. This paragraph’s getting too long, so excuse me while I make a hard break.
All right. Now, like I mentioned at a completely unnecessary place earlier in the article, there were a gazillion Bordens in the graveyard. Fortunately, some kind soul painted arrows that lead directly to the plot of the Bordens-that-you-are-there-to-see. And by kind soul, I mean somebody who was tired of everybody inquiring about the location of the Borden family plot at the cemetery office. The arrows are not labeled, but they’re the only arrows painted on the road. So follow them if you’re there to see Lizzie. If not, I have no clue why’d you be in Fall River’s cemetery in the first place.
The plot itself is distinguished by a tall column bearing the usual information on the deceased (names, expiration dates, average lifetime bowling scores), beside which are six loaf-shaped stones with the first names or initials of each of the Bordens (Andrew, Abby, Andrew’s first wife Sarah, Lizzie, her older sister Emma, and Alice, a third sister who died in infancy...which may or may not be better than dying in infamy—only Lizzie knows in that family), denoting the resting places of the actual bodies, although I guess at some point in time “resting place” becomes an inaccurate term for a decomposing body. I’ve never really dug these type of grave markers. They look more like doorstops or something accidentally dropped in the grass.
Oddly enough, Emma and Lizzie’s were the only ones adorned with flowers and those little random items that people leave to denote visitations and which I have to remove about every time I take a picture of a famous grave site. Okay, I guess that’s not odd. And normally I would say something self-righteous and pseudo-insightful about what that means if it weren’t for the fact that we were there to gawk specifically at her grave, too, even if we weren’t leaving rocks and homemade bracelets. Oh, and the slight fact we were going to sleep in her bedroom, as well. We drove around the graveyard a little after that, but saw nothing really of note, so we took off for the second stop on our Fall River itinerary. Maplecroft.
Maplecroft was the house where Lizzie ended up living after being exonerated from the crime and receiving her fortunate fortune of an inherited inheritance from the deathly death of her father. Every cloud has a silver lining, even if you have to hack away the cloud to get to it. Allegedly hack. My life in two words, actually.
The house is located in what was then the “rich part of town” on the proverbial hill at 306 French St., about one and a half miles from Lizzie’s original house and half a mile from Oak Grove Cemetery. The house was large enough, if a little run-down. Definitely didn’t look like the type of house that merited a name, but there it was, incised right on the front step. Lizzie wanted to name her house, well, because that’s what rich people do. Because their stuff is way cooler and merits that kind of personification.
Currently, according to a trusted source (the house’s first floor window), Maplecroft is the home and probably home office of R. Dube, public fire adjuster and notary. That’s probably the most worthless fact you’ll get out of this article, so I hope it’s the one you remember. The neighborhood was filled with large houses just like Maplecroft, all just about as run down. It was slightly depressive, but that could have been the weather or the fact that I’d run out of my pills on the trip. Actually, my entire impression of Fall River could be attributed to that. Sorry, tourism board.
Now, next on our itinerary should have been the Fall River Historical Society museum, where they keep various photos, mundane items transmuted into items of interest because they’re related to Lizzie’s existence, and the axe head thought to be the murder weapon. If you’re a much more thorough tourist (a phrase that I hope to God is the title of some boring travel book or cable show somewhere) than I am, you should go there and see that stuff.
However, we’d heard you have to get through an interminable two-hour tour that tries to pretend that other things of note happened in the history of the town besides the insidious murders, but even if that wasn’t the case, we were staying in her actual room, for the sake of goodness. We were on such a different level of tourism at that point. Besides, we were really starting to get antsy about settling into the B&B. And speaking of interminable and antsy, probably so are you.
Finally, it was time to check in. Lizzie’s house is set the opposite of prominently in the middle of town closer to the river side at 92 2nd St. in a quasi-residential quasi-downtown strip area. Lizzie’s place was forest green, well-kept, with parking in the back and a gift store in a separate shed-sized building in the back. The owners have restored it to look pretty much exactly as it does in old photographs of the place...except that it’s in color and has a B&B sign on the front.
The front door of the B&B was locked, and we were too chicken to knock or try the side door, so we walked into the gift store where a woman logged us into a book and then ushered us into the house through the unlocked side door. The next morning we'd see this same woman in her pajamas. A couple weeks later we'd see her on The Montel Williams Show. I didn't even know that guy still had a show.
Inside, we were introduced to the hostess, who I will refrain from describing in any way because I’m horrible at character development. She circled our names on a piece of paper and showed us to our room, explaining that there would be a total of 10 guests staying the night and that a group tour would start at 8:00 in the evening. Then she graciously left us alone to decompress. It was about 4:00, so we had some hours to kill.
Normally when you get to a place where you’re staying the night, you settle in, throw your underwear around, and call it home. The impending tour prevented this, so we left the doors open and made sure our luggage was stacked unobtrusively and out of camera frame in the corner. We realized that there was a good chance the other guests would want to take pictures of our room even before the tour because of whose it was (ours, of course), and we’d rather give them the chance sooner rather than later.
Our room was actually more of a suite. Because of the layout of the rooms on the second floor Lizzie’s sister Emma’s room opened only onto ours, so we had reserved both without realizing it. Emma’s was smaller than Lizzie’s, with the only thing really of note being a dressmaker’s dummy with an old-looking gray dress draped on it. There was no placard or anything explaining what it was, so me and the girlfriend made an obvious joke about getting her to try it on and scare the other guests late at night and then promptly forgot about it.
Inside Lizzie’s room was a bed, a writing desk, a dresser with mirror, an old-fashioned cast iron heater above which was hung a stern-looking picture of Lizzie, and some glass-enclosed recessed shelving with little Lizzie mementos and books that was either locked or was really hard to open. Various mundane things like change and hair combs were scattered on the dressers to make the room looked lived in, which was a nice, easily overlooked touch. Our bathroom was across the hall, which we’d have to share with the couple in the John Morse room, and another door off our room led directly into Andrew Borden’s room. It was only lockable by a small metal hook on our side of the door, with an identical one on the Andrew Borden side. That’s right, the equivalent of a paper-clip was securing us from whatever type of crazy people would want to stay at a murder scene. And vice versa.
We were the second room to check in for the day. The couple who had the John Morse room had already arrived, but were off downtown. We took advantage of the moment by slipping into their room to take pictures of the carpet that was Abby’s last sight on this earth. It’s not as ill-mannered as it sounds because of the explanation I’ve already gone through coupled with the fact we stole nothing of theirs. Even if it was ill-mannered, though, we probably would still have done it. We really wanted those pictures and weren’t sure what kind of chances we’d get later.
We then wandered through some of the other rooms and then downstairs to the parlor where Andrew was given his scalp massage. The original couch wasn’t there, but they’d stuck in a close replica. A Ouija board sat propped in the corner (It’s only a game, isn’t it?™). We did picture duty there at the couch, and, I’m somewhat ashamed to say—actually completely ashamed to say—I acted in the most clichéd manner possible. I’ve resisted the impulses to lie face-down at the bottom of the Exorcist Stairs, shamble like a zombie through Monroeville Mall, and cop an Elvis pose at Graceland, but I couldn’t resist pulling an Andrew Borden on the couch. [Editor’s Note: For spacing reasons, the two pictures referenced in the past few paragraphs will appear in part two of this article.] [Author’s Note: I have an editor?]
After waiting a few moments to let my embarrassment fade, we then grabbed some books on Lizzie from the shelves, took them up to our room, and started reading about the murder...in the house where it was committed and the room where it was dreamed up. For the past three and half centuries, the word for what she did has been parenticide, but I’ve refrained from using it so far because it’s such an unimaginative term for such an appalling act. Oh, allegedly.
At this point in our visit, it was time for some reflection. When we first received our reservation confirmation, the predominant feeling was excitement and anticipation, and that pretty much drowned out anything else. Now that we were there and getting comfortable, we finally had a chance to dredge through the muck of our feelings on exactly what we were doing. We talked about it and, honestly, we weren’t creeped out. It took longer getting used to sharing a bathroom with strangers than getting used to the fact that we were gallivanting around a murder scene in our socks. In fact, any trepidation we felt at this point was just that we didn’t know what was appropriate to do at a murder scene turned bed and breakfast.
I’ve actually been in similar situations before. Enough times in fact, that there’s an entire section of my brain entitled, “Annals of Morbidity.” I once night-toured all the spots in Whitechapel, London, where Jack the Ripper gutted his victims. If that sounds cool, it’s not as cool as it sounds. What was once dismal alleyways and horrid gutters are now mundane parking spots and office building corners. It was a lot like touring random streets, which I guess is what it was. I also once cleaned up a much more recent murder scene in a job that has permanently become my answer in the “Tell me something I don’t know about you” game. That wasn’t as morbid-feeling as you’d think, either. We cleaned fingerprint dust off the sink, scraped crime scene tape off the windows, and cut the blood stains from the carpet and mattress to shove in biohazarded bags. It pretty much felt like what it technically was, cleaning a house.
And that’s pretty much how we felt at Lizzie’s. It was just a B&B. The human capacity for being alternately freaked out by violent death and dispassioned by violent death is absolutely fascinating...so I’ll ignore that topic. We sat in our room for a bit, took a brief drive around the town, and then came back and waited for the tour.
At eight o’clock, we went down to the parlor for the tour. Our hostess had changed into period clothes since we last saw her, but we had to wait a bit for some of our fellow guests to arrive back from dinner. While we sat around waiting, the hostess asked, in much the same way that waiters offer you dessert after a meal, if we’d like a séance after the tour. Neither one of us had ever been to one before, so we accepted. Actually, that’s probably not the main reason. It was probably more like we just felt bad saying no. We’re real pushovers for the Girl Scouts, too. Plus I don’t know if it’s covered in any etiquette books, but if you’re offered a séance in a house where violent death happened, you probably should say yes. Either way, a séance was in our future.
Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast, Part II: Meeting newlywed ghost hunters, touring a murder scene, enduring a séance, wearing a dead murderess’ dress (alleged), and breakfasting in an autopsy room.