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Lizzie Borden took an axe – Dark Tourism in Massachusetts

Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.

 

Lizzie Borden guesthouse, Fall River

 

Dark Tourism 

 

Dark Tourism is a growing trend in visiting landmarks around the world that have a morbid fascination to them. Guided tours of Jack the Ripper’s old hunting grounds in Whitechapel, London are a good example. My own interest in Dark Tourism stems from around 2009, when I first heard of Elena Filatova. This Ukrainian photojournalist, sometimes known as the ‘Kid of Speed’, claims to have repeatedly visited the area around Chernobyl and Pripyat to document its isolation and devastation. Her accounts of motorbike tours through the dead zone have been questioned by sceptics, but whatever the actual truth behind them, I’ve always found her unique essays both haunting and fascinating.

 

Waco

 

A couple of years ago we were driving through Texas from Austin to Dallas, and happened to pass quite close to the city of Waco. In 1993 the FBI laid siege to a compound near here that was inhabited by a religious group, the Branch Davidians. After a couple of months the standoff ended in tragedy, with nearly 80 people killed. Purely out of morbid curiosity, we decided to make a small detour and look around for a while.

 

Passing through the town itself, I had a very odd sensation of the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. I couldn’t tell you what caused it, Waco seemed like a tranquil small American town, but it just creeped me out all the same.

 

We pulled over close to where the compound used to stand – it was bulldozed after the siege ended – and snapped a couple of photos. The area was completely deserted, and noiseless, and that eerie atmosphere made my skin crawl even more. Then, far off in the distance up a track, we saw a white pick-up truck start making its way toward us. It began to accelerate and although it seemed unlikely it was someone coming to talk to us, we figured we’d make like a banana anyway.

 

Lizzie

 

Cut to about two months later, and we had arrived on the outskirts of Boston. We’d rented an AirBnB way out in the gorgeous Massachusetts countryside, one of the most idyllic spots you could hope to find. It took us an hour to drive into the city itself, and after the first couple of days covering the main historic landmarks such as the Freedom Trail and the harbour, we decided to spend the rest of our week exploring the surrounding area.


I was idly browsing online for ideas on where to go and what to do, when I realised that we were only a half-hour drive from Fall River.

 

During the latter half of the 19th century, Lizzie Borden lived with her family in this sleepy Massachusetts town. Kind of like Waco, first impressions make it seem like the kind of place where not a great deal happens worthy of catching national attention. But in 1892, Fall River became famous not just nationally but around the world, when the bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden, Lizzie’s father and stepmother, were discovered on a hot August morning. They had both been battered to death with a hatchet.

 

Lizzie Borden

 

The ensuing investigation and trial became an American cause célèbre. Lizzie was the prime suspect from day one. Her relationships with the victims were difficult, she had behaved suspiciously on the morning of the murders and afterward, and all the evidence pointed to the killer being a member of the household. American society was rocked to the core by the brutal murders of two upstanding members of the community, and the daughter standing accused.

 

Lizzie was tried and acquitted, and spent the rest of her life ostracized by the Fall River community, many of whom thought she was the culprit. The truth of what happened on that day is buried firmly in the past, but pick up any book about infamous crimes from history, and you can be sure there will be a chapter about Lizzie Borden.

 

Visiting the Lizzie Borden House

 

Despite its macabre history, the Borden house is now a popular bed and breakfast in Fall River. Reading up on it, I learned you can take a guided tour of the property, which has been partially converted into a museum. Sold.

 

Lizzie Borden Museum and Bed & Breakfast

 

I convinced Maria to come along with me by mentioning that Fall River has a distinctive Portuguese culture and she might be able to pick up a few traditional delicacies from back home while I was indulging the darker side of my personality. She wasn’t especially enthused about the idea, but my limited skills of persuasion eventually paid off.

 

We got into town nice and early, as I hadn’t booked ahead. Then, after settling the family in a cafe for an hour or so, I made my way to the Borden house.

 

The tour begins, as so many savvy tours of this nature do, with a short wait in the gift shop. I had plenty of time to browse a vast collection of trinkets which ran the gamut from the obvious, such as books and dvds about the case and souvenir t-shirts, to the frankly bizarre – fridge magnets bearing an image of the crime scene, and cookie cutters in the shape of a hatchet, anyone? Observing how such a tragic event has been turned into a profitable merchandising line was probably the weirdest part of the day.

 

We started exploring the house in the living room, where Andrew Borden was found dead on the sofa. A replica hatchet was propped up on a cushion where his body would have lain. Our guide explained the events leading up to the murders, and how the maid claimed to have been asleep at the time, so that only Lizzie and her parents were known to have been moving around the house.

 

Replica hatchet on sofa

 

Next we headed upstairs to see the bedroom where Abby Borden, Andrew’s second wife and Lizzie’s unloved stepmother, was found slumped in a corner. She had been caught while making up the bed. In another strange twist, a few members of the group were invited at this point to get down on their hands and knees and assume Abby’s huddled death position for photographs.

 

Abby Borden death scene

 

After this unique photo opportunity, we moved downstairs to the dining room where memorabilia included faded photographs of the family, the trial jury, the arresting officers and a board on which the bodies were carried away. In a display case next to the dining table can be seen a couple of replica skulls showing the damage caused by the hatchet to the victims’ heads. Imagine your gaze falling on them while you’re eating your boiled eggs in the morning.

 

Replica skull

Lizzie Borden House

 

This is probably the strangest, most darkly fascinating museum I’ve ever visited. I’ll be honest, I would have liked to stay overnight for the thrill of it, but the bed & breakfast was full, and I got the feeling Maria might have raised a few objections.

 

Perhaps because no-one can ever be sure what really happened, or because the thought of a respectable young woman suddenly snapping in such a horrific manner both repulsed and fascinated society, the Lizzie Borden case is an enduring mystery in American culture. As is the fact that I got through this entire article without making a cheap remark about burying the hatchet.

 

Find information on tour of the Lizzie Borden Museum and booking a stay at the Bed & Breakfast

 

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