A Tour of the Borden House

A couple of weeks ago, I was staying in Providence, Rhode Island. Fall River, Massachusetts, is only about 10 miles away. Since I’d written a review of The Legend of Lizzie Borden this past spring and felt I was pretty well read up on the case, I had to go and see the site of the murders for myself. So on that Saturday morning, I took the short drive over to Fall River and located the Borden house on Second St.

The Borden houseThe house is about the only thing in the neighborhood that remains the same as it was in 1892. The neighboring homes of the Churchills, the Kellys, and the Bowens are long gone, replaced by new and larger buildings.

I knew that the present owners ran the house as a bed and breakfast and also held tours on an hourly basis.

I arrived too late for the first tour of the day and had to wait for next one. Tickets can be purchased inside the barn at the back–the barn where Lizzie Borden claimed she was eating pears and looking for lead for sinkers during the time her father was murdered. It’s now the gift shop.

Apart from the modern plumbing and electricity installed for 21st-century guests, the house has been restored to the way it looked in 1892. The furniture is not original to the house, but is antiques from the same period and in similar style to those recorded in photographs taken at the time of the murders. Along with the 1888 Ripper murders in London, the Borden murders were among the very first to make use of crime scene photography.

Our group, consisting of me, two pairs of women (mother and daughter and two sisters, I think) plus a man-woman couple, was escorted into the house via the front door at noon.

The front parlorThe tour began in the front parlor, in which no one was killed. In the 1890s, it was the best room in the house, not used on a daily basis by the family and normally reserved for receiving callers.

These days, the parlor features a small piano with a drawing of Lizzie sitting atop it. The sheet music is for a song titled Fall River Hoe-down or You Can’t Chop Your Poppa Up in Massachusetts, which comes from a 1950s musical and was sung by the Chad Mitchell Trio in 1961.

Our tour guide first asked everyone if we knew about the murders and understood that he would be talking about some brutal incidents as we went around the house. Apparently, some people go on these tours without a clear idea of what happened in the Borden house 125 years ago and were surprised and upset to hear about the axe murders… which makes me wonder why they bothered to come.

The house was originally built as two separate residences, and Andrew Borden joined the two together when he and his family moved in. This explains its architectural peculiarities–there are no hallways and one often has to pass through one or more other rooms in an oblique manner to get where one wishes to go.

For example, when we left the parlor, we passed through a corner of the sitting room to get into the adjacent dining room. Some excitement rose in those of use who knew something about the murders. A horse-hair sofa sits just inside the door–not the same sofa Mr. Borden was murdered on while taking his nap, but nevertheless, right there.

Dining RoomThe dining room is where the Bordens had their final, disgusting breakfast of three-day-old, unrefrigerated mutton broth. According to Lizzie’s and Bridget Sullivan’s inquest testimony, bananas, cookies or johnny-cakes, and hot coffee were also available.  If you are a modern-day guest at the Borden house, they will be happy to serve you these foods as part of your breakfast. But not mutton broth.

This was also the room in which Lizzie was either ironing handkerchiefs that morning or waiting to get the flat-irons hot enough to use for ironing (her statement on this point was contradictory). A very small ironing board and lace-edged handkerchief sit at one end of the table.

In the cabinet are plaster casts of Mr. and Mrs. Borden’s skulls. The real things were produced in evidence at Lizzie’s trial to demonstrate the extent of their head wounds and the size of axe or hatchet blade that would make such wounds. Our tour guide told us that everyone present in the 1893 courtroom, including the jury, were shocked and appalled by this forensic display. The prosecution were called “ghouls.” This was the point, said our guide, when the jury’s verdict tipped firmly into Lizzie’s favor. There is a photograph of the jury on one wall, signed by all 12 men and presented to Lizzie after her acquittal.

Then we returned to the sitting room, and sat down. The one man in our group was invited to have a seat at the end of the sofa near the door–just where Mr. Borden was reclining when he was killed.

The sitting-room sofaA handy hatchet is set on a nearby occasional table and, as our guide describes the murder of Andrew Borden, he demonstrates by brandishing the hatchet over the man’s head (but doesn’t actually touch him).

The guide’s opinion is that Lizzie definitely did it, and he sympathizes. During this demonstration, he speaks of resentments long built up leading to this murderous moment, of how her father’s body must have twitched after the first, probably fatal blow, and adds an idea I hadn’t thought of before. There was a famous broken hatchet discovered in the Bordens’ basement during the first searches of the house by the police; although it was never proven so, this is generally considered to be the murder weapon. In our guide’s scenario, the hatchet handle snapped due to the force of the blows.

Then we went out through the other sitting-room door to the front hall, and up the stairs.

Looking into the guest room from halfway up the stairsAs I mentioned in my review of the TV movie, a person standing halfway up the front stairs could look across the second-floor landing into the guest room, underneath the bed, and see the body lying on the floor on the other side. This was how Bridget Sullivan discovered Mrs. Borden’s body.

Going up the same stairs myself, I had to stop at that halfway point and check it out.

Another inconsistent point in Lizzie’s inquest statement is where she was when her father returned home that morning–either she was downstairs in the kitchen or dining room, or else she was upstairs in her own room, next to the guest room. Bridget stated that, when she let Mr. Borden in at the front door, Lizzie was on the stairs. The point is that Mrs. Borden had been dead for at least an hour; if Lizzie had gone up or down the stairs past the open guest-room door, she should have seen her stepmother’s body on the floor just as Bridget did.

Where Mrs. Borden was killedThe guest room looks very much as it does in the crime-scene photographs, except that Mrs. Borden’s body is no longer there.

In one corner, there is a dress dummy wearing the green fringed dress that Elizabeth Montgomery wore in the final scenes of The Legend of Lizzie Borden.

If you’re at the Borden house as a bed-and-breakfast guest, this is one of the rooms you can choose to stay in. I wouldn’t like to do it, even after 125 years. It disturbs me that Lizzie’s uncle John Morse spent the night following the murder in this room; there must still have been blood on the wall and carpet. The man must have had nerves of iron.

I think that if I were going to stay in this house, I’d much prefer Lizzie’s room. It’s roomy, airy, and comfortable looking. If you’re bringing along a friend, you can have it as suite with sister Emma Borden’s room, which opens into it. Slightly smaller, but also quite nice.

There is a collection of videotapes and DVDs on the top shelf of the cabinet in the corner, which our guide said were Emma’s favorite movies. Emma and Lizzie Borden both died in 1926, so it is possible for them to have seen a number of silent movies and had a favorite or two… but somehow I don’t think these are the ones.

The large closet at the top of the stairs has been converted into the bathroom that Lizzie always wanted.

Lizzie's roomLizzie’s room is said to be haunted, but that doesn’t disturb me as the murder rooms do.

A photograph of Lizzie’s and Emma’s mother, Sarah Morse Borden, sits on the dressing table. She died when Lizzie was about 2 years old, although I’m not sure if the little girl she is shown holding is Lizzie or Emma.

In the Bordens’ day, the connecting door between Lizzie’s room and Mr. and Mrs. Bordens’ room was locked and blocked by furniture on both sides. Today, it’s unlocked and wide open, so our group can step easily from one to the next. Like the Lizzie/Emma suite, this bedroom and the smaller dressing room next door have been converted to bedrooms for up to four people.

Not perhaps the pleasantest place to live in during its pre-plumbing and pre-AC days, when one might be cooped up on sweltering summer days with three or four other people whom one disliked. But what strikes me as we go from room to room is not the peculiar arrangement of the rooms, although I do appreciate them more now that I’ve seen them for myself. It’s that, out of its context, this is a charming little house. The present owners  make the most of its gruesome history–I doubt that it would still be standing today if not for that–but its preservation and restoration have also helped to exorcise some of the horror.

From the Bordens’ bedroom, we took the back stairs up to the third floor to have a look into the maid’s room and the other attic rooms, which were used for storage in the 1890s but are now small, single bedrooms for guests.

Kitchen rangeFinally, we went back down to the kitchen on the ground floor, with its enormous, old-fashioned range. If you stay here, they will make your breakfast on this antique; the tour guide said that the griddle on top is fantastic, but baking and roasting inside is more tricky. There are only two settings: hot and too hot.

It was on such a range that Lizzie claimed she was trying to get her flatirons hot enough to press handkerchiefs before giving up and going out to the barn. As in the dining room, a couple of flatirons are sitting on top of the range as part of the decor in memory of this rather flimsy alibi.

Here in the kitchen, at the end of the tour, our guide expanded on his own theory about the Borden case–which I found interesting although I don’t entirely agree with it.

Earlier in our tour around the house, he mentioned Emma Borden’s being out of town visiting friends, and the suspiciously detailed nature of John Morse’s alibi on other side of Fall River during the crucial hours of that morning. Both Lizzie’s sister and uncle are therefore cleared of any suspicion of having wielded an axe themselves, although both had pretty good motives too. But were they complicit in the murders? Our guide thinks so, that Emma left town for a while and Uncle John came for his visit specifically to help his nieces get rid of their father and stepmother, and that Bridget was paid off for helping out as well.

I can’t agree with that, since I think that if any plans were made in advance, they wouldn’t have left Lizzie so open to suspicion and the risk of being hanged. She was, after all, arrested within days and acquitted due to circumstances that no one could have foreseen. Although I do believe that Emma did stand by her sister and try to cover for her after the fact.

Lizzie BobbleheadWe had a conversation about this in the kitchen after the other members of the group had gone, but time was short. I had to get back to Providence, and our guide had another group to take through the house.

Before I left, I returned to the gift shop to purchase that Lizzie Borden bobble-head doll I’d been thinking about since I first checked out the house’s Web site. It sits on my desk at work.


Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.