Friday, August 04, 2006
What Happened One Hot Day in Fall River
August 4, 1892 was hot in Fall River, indeed, much like what the good people of that town are suffering with this week. After a breakfast that history tells us included hot cakes, a spinster daughter went to the barn, looking for - as she would later testify - lead weights for her fishing line, as she thought she would want to pass the afternoon beside the river, under the comforting shade of a riparian tree.
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one!
Today is the anniversary of the murders of Andrew Borden and his wife, Abby Borden. Although the crime scene photos are grainy, since photography was still in its infancy at that time, they depict the fact that the killings were horrific. Most of Andrew's face was obliterated by what authorities at the time presumed was an axe. He was found stretched across the sofa in the parlor, seemingly killed as he napped after lunch. Abby was on the floor of an upstairs bedroom, face down.
As most of you know, Andrew's eldest daughter, Lizzie, was accused of the murders . . . and acquitted. Forensics was, of course, not as advanced as it is today, but what is known about the murders - which includes Lizzie burning one of her dresses in the home's fireplace - point to her guilt. Yet she was found not guilty, largely because Victorian sensibilities of that time could not admit that a female of proper breeding could commit such a violent act. After all, if convicted, then any one of the landed gentry of Fall River could be the next madman - or madwoman - to emerge.
Why my interest? My great-grandparents, Henry and Elizabeth Sears, were Miss Lizzie's servants, after she sold the family home where the murders occurred and acquired her estate, Maplethorpe. Henry was a "florist" - read, gardener - for "private homes." Elizabeth (also called Lizzie, but this story belongs to only one Lizzie) was a "domestic servant." My grandmother, their daughter Anna, told me stories of her Fall River childhood. She was one of the privileged children whom Miss Lizzie would invite up to Maplethorpe, to sit at a lavishly appointed table for tea, lemonade and cookies with the doting old woman. My grandmother remembered Miss Lizzie as "kindly," and thought since she never married and had children, took an interest in the children's stories as if they all were her own grandchildren.
However, the family story is that Grandpa Sears maintained firmly until his death - "She did it." Unfortunately, his reasons were never expressed or lost to history. I wonder if, as Lizzie felt her days on earth begin to wane, whether she confided in her two servants the truth. Why not? She was an old lady and double jeopardy would protect her from trial. Futhermore, I believe Henry and Elizabeth knew her at the time of the murders and subsequent trial. Lizzie's confidante at the time was her clergyman, the Rev. Edwin A. Buck, a Congregational minister. I was surprised to get my great-grandparents marriage license from the turn of the century that shows they were married by . . . the Rev. Buck, despite the fact that his congregation was made up of well-to-do citizens of Fall River and Henry and Elizabeth were poor Catholics. Elizabeth's occupation at marriage was housemaid - was she already then working for Miss Lizzie, or perhaps the minister?
Henry himself remains a mystery, as I have been unable to locate his birthplace. Sometimes he claims Massachuetts as the site of his nativity, sometimes Claremont, New Hampshire, and sometimes French Canada. I did the montage with his picture above some while back, asking my dead ancestor, "Henri, qu'est-ce que passe?" "Henry, what happened?"
I am still waiting for my answer.