FALL RIVER, MASSACHUSETTS — She remains the grand queen of the city’s history books, but Dennis Binette insists there’s far more to Fall River’s early years than simply Lizzie Borden.
Borden, the accused axe murderess who still fascinates people today, doesn’t even draw the majority of questions when people visit the Fall River Historical Society, where Binette works as a curator, he said.
“It’s probably more than 50 percent, but Fall River history is a big draw,” Binette said, adding that his office gets phone calls and emails practically daily from people who grew up in the region, left the state, and decades later want to learn more about their native city.
“There are an awful lot of questions about Fall River,” he said. “And there’s a lot of history in Fall River.”
Still, the legend of Lizzie Borden does remain a strong draw for both the city and its Historical Society, which is why the museum at 451 Rock St. in the city’s “Historic Highlands” neighborhood has its own Lizzie Borden room — which includes the axe that was discovered by police to have been used in the murders of Andrew Borden and his wife Abbey on Aug. 4, 1892, in their home on Second Street in downtown Fall River.
Andrew Borden’s daughter Lizzie was charged with the murders, but after a 13 day trial she was acquitted by a jury that found it hard to believe that such a dignified lady could ever have committed such heinous acts. Lizzie Borden returned to Fall River, lived briefly at the house on Second Street where the murders were committed, then later retired at a Victorian-style home on French Street known as Maplecroft. She died in 1927.
“This is where Lizzie hangs out,” Binette said as he walked through the room that contains material about her life and case — much of it from the collection of the descendants of Andrew Jennings, one of Borden’s defense attorneys, including that gruesome axe.
“The cornerstone of our collection is what we call the Hip Bath collection,” Binette said. “It came to us in the 1960s. It includes trial artifacts, transcripts from the police reports, the inquest, and photographs used as exhibits during the trial. It came to us from the descendants of Andrew Jennings. It wouldn’t happen today, but he had a lot of material that was a part of the case. He took these things home, and they were put in a hip bath — the tubs they used to take baths in on a Saturday night.”
In the 1960s, the family decided to donate the materials to the Historical Society to be preserved.
“They were very good about helping us,” Binette said of the Jennings family. But even today, he added, “There’s still a lot of Lizzie Borden material out there, that is related to Lizzie as a person.”
So much, in fact, that Binette and his fellow curator, Michael Martins, have been searching out that material, making connections with the families that have it, and using the material for an upcoming book they’re writing, “Parallel Lives,” a biography of both Lizzie Borden and a history of Fall River.
“It tries to present the city and her life,” Binette said. “What was the environment she grew up in? It really does present a life experience of Lizzie Borden.”
In fact, of the 1,000 or so pages in the book, only 35 are devoted to her trial.
“We wanted to look at Lizzie Borden the person, and Fall River the city,” he said. “A good portion of it is from private collections of people directly connected to Lizzie Borden, and up to now they have been very protective of her.”
The book will be released in mid-November, and available for purchase on the Historical Society’s web site, http://www.lizzieborden.org/.
Still, even with Halloween coming up, Binette said the Historical Society doesn’t go out of its way to highlight the gory murders of the Borden family to bring in more tourists. For one thing, he said, they don’t need to.
“We don’t play up the grisly aspects of it, even when you take the tour here,” he said. “It’s more geared to facts. We try to humanize it a little bit so it’s not a story of stereotypes and grisly moments.”
For one thing, he added, Lizzie Borden came back to Fall River after the trial and settled down. She refused to act like someone guilty of a heinous crime, he added.
“I think it’s a very poignant story, regardless of whether she did it or not,” he said. “She came back to her native city and stayed here, and that says a lot about her.”
In fact, of curiosity to Lizzie Borden buffs, the Maplecroft home that she retired in has been for sale, on and off, for years. But at an asking price that has varied between $800,000 and $1 million, it hasn’t found a buyer yet.
Binette said the Historical Society does well discussing other aspects of the city’s history, including its ethnic diversity and large Azorean population, with many Portuguese restaurants and shops available in the city. They also talk a lot about a part of the city that’s harder to find today: its aging textile mills.
Earlier this year, the Historical Society did a lecture series at Bristol Community College as part of the city’s bicentenntial — the first cotton mill was built here in 1811, and Fall River celebrated 100 years of cotton cloth production.
The lecture series was so popular, Binette said, that turnout exceeded expectations and they had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate everyone.
“It was great to see all those people come out for the history of the mills,” he said.
To learn more about Fall River’s history, call 508-679-1071.
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