Friday, October 30, 2009

Lizzie Borden House - Fall River, Mass.

Above we have the home of Lizzie Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts. It has become, since its transformation in the last decade from a private home to a museum and bed & breakfast, a major tourist attraction in Fall River.

The side door, from which Lizzie called for help upon discovering her father's murdered body.

In a way, it represents the gradual transformation over the last century of the story of Lizzie Borden from grisly homicide, to Victorian media scandal, to hushed community secret, to the object of bad jokes and morbid puns, to the never-ending fascination with unsolved mysteries.

The dining room, where Lizzie allegedly ironed while her stepmother was murdered in the room directly above her.

Very few of the furnishings and artifacts in the home are original to the period of when Lizzie Borden lived here, but the current owners have restored and refurbished the house to replicate photographs of the rooms, and have filled nearly every nook and cranny with items relative to the strange case of Lizzie Borden, from the “class reunion” photo in the dining room of the jury that acquitted her, to the photos of the family members and trial participants who were all characters in this most dramatic crime and ensuing trial. We are treated to what life was like not only in this house, but in Fall River toward the end of the 19th Century.

The sitting room, where Mr. Borden was murdered.

In 1892, Andrew Borden, a very wealthy man, lived with his second wife and his two grown daughters by his first marriage in a more modest section of Fall River. He bore the name of one of Fall River’s prominent families, and represented the eighth generation of Bordens living in the community. However wealthy they were, Andrew was not born to wealth in his branch of the family tree, but worked at a succession of careers until he fashioned himself a very wealthy banker. By all accounts a dour, miserly man, Andrew eschewed the company of the wealthier relatives who lived up The Hill in mansions with running water, toilets, gas lighting, etc., and continued to live in this ramshackle house on Second Avenue without any modern conveniences because he was not willing to pay for them, despite being quite rich.

The guest bedroom where Lizzie's Uncle John slept the night before (and after) the murders; the room where Mrs. Borden was killed.

Here, he and his wife, stepmother to his daughters Emma and Lizzie, were murdered one August morning. There has been much conjecture over the decades about who did it, how, and why, and some of the theories are quite fascinating, some outlandish. I won’t go into them here, but Lizzie was arrested for the crime, and held in jail awaiting trial for several months. Finally in the spring of the following year, she was tried for the murder of her father and stepmother. The jury found her not guilty.

Lizzie's bedroom.

That didn’t stop Fall River from ostracizing Lizzie shortly after the outcome, though she had been something of a hero and a martyr while she was imprisoned. The acquittal did not stop somebody from making up that now famous rhyme,

“Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks” etc.

A sketch of Lizzie and her lead attorney, George Robinson, in court, drawn on the spot by G. West Clinedinst (Libarary of Congress).

It didn’t stop anybody from writing a number of books, a couple of plays, a ballet, a Broadway review (“You can’t chop your papa up in Massachusetts…”) and a made for television movie which all inferred she was actually guilty.

Incidentally, a costume worn by the actress Elizabeth Montgomery who played Lizzie in “The Legend of Lizzie Borden” (1975), currently on loan from Paramount, is on display in the guest bedroom (where Mrs. Borden was murdered), along with a still photograph of Ms. Montgomery in the movie.

The parlor, where Lizzie was informed she was a suspect in the crime.

We see the kind of handkerchief Lizzie was allegedly ironing at the tabletop ironing board, flat iron at the ready, at the moment her stepmother was murdered. We see the kind of bedroom door key Andrew Borden placed on the mantle as he napped on the kind of couch he would have napped on when he was hatcheted to death in the sitting room. We see the kind of piece of wood he kept near the head of his bed as a weapon because he feared business enemies and irate tenants in his properties who might try to kill him in his sleep.

We see the replica hatchet in the wood box by the replica stove in the kitchen. Pay no attention to that. It’s just a prop. Don’t let it give you any ideas.

After her acquittal, Lizzie and Emma moved up The Hill to a nice house where the rich people lived, but Fall River continued to regard Lizzie and everything about her as an insult and embarrassment to the town. Lizzie, in what must have been a stubbornness that was a mixture of the comical and the tragic, thumbed her nose at the town in return, in part by simply not going away.

Here is a photo of the home she lived in the remainder of her life, which she christened “Maplecroft” and carved it, to the disgust of her disapproving neighbors, on the steps for everyone to see. If you visit Fall River in search of Lizzie Borden sites, please remember this home on French Street is privately owned. I imagine the owners must be sick of people driving by to glance at the house, but do not trespass.

If you’ve come this far, you might as well head on up to Oak Grove Cemetery, where the entire Borden clan is buried together. Arrows are painted on the winding cemetery drive to direct you to the Borden plot. I imagine it would have made Lizzie smile to find herself so famous as to require signposts to her grave.

Others in the cemetery might be turning over in theirs at the thought of it.

In the 1938 “WPA Guide to Massachusetts”, which gives us a wealth of detail on towns and cities in Massachusetts at the end of the Great Depression, the description of Fall River, its history and tourist attractions, discreetly makes no mention at all of Lizzie Borden, even then easily the town’s most famous citizen. Perhaps the town refused to talk. At the time this book was published, it had been some 11 years after her death. The Victorian sense of propriety which had made the murder and its acquitted accused such a scandal was beginning to fade. But not enough to where Lizzie Borden could be turned into a tourist attraction.

Fast forward to now. The garage behind the Lizzie Borden house, which was once the site of the infamous barn where Lizzie allegedly hunted for lead sinkers and ate pears while murder was being committed, is today the office and gift shop of the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast. You can buy souvenirs here, many of which seem to have a hatchet theme.

The guided tours last about 45 minutes and are conducted in the afternoons. After which, the overnight guests arrive and are treated to private tours. The house, despite Andrew Borden’s tightfistedness, is now equipped with modern conveniences, though appointed to look very 19th century.

The guide on the tour I took was young, very knowledgeable, and quite funny. She took a lot of the creepiness out of the whole experience. The house, though it is the scene of a ghastly double-murder, beyond that horrific tragedy represents a lot of what was present in Fall River as a wealthy 19th century New England community. At the time, it was among New England’s most renown cities for cotton manufacturing, rivaling Lowell and other mill towns.

The relocation of the manufacturing firms to the South, (and subsequently overseas), as well as the Great Depression finished off that era in Fall River’s timeline, and there is little left on this end of Second Street to illustrate what life was like on that August day in 1892 outside the Borden home. Time moves on, as it should.

But inside the house, that’s a different story. Victorian intrigue awaits, and the irresistibly intriguing realization that whoever committed this crime among the known persons involved in the cast of characters, including Lizzie, her visiting maternal uncle John Morse, Bridget the maid, or the disgruntled illegitimate son of Andrew Borden, or any of Mr. Borden’s supposed enemies, got away with it. The mystery has never been solved.

For more on the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, have a look at this website. For more on the story of Lizzie Borden, have a look at The Hatchet website for continuing investigation into the mystery.

And here, for the transcripts of the trial depositions. Also, the Fall River Historical Society is a valuable resource for information on the Lizzie Borden case.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Upcoming Events in New England

Upcoming events and activities in New England include:

At the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut:

October 31
Free admission 10 am to 1 pm
Spooky tales with storyteller Tom Lee, mask-making, costume parade, organ music and cemetery tours… Wear your costume if you dare! Presented in collaboration with Center Church and the Ancient Burying Ground. Stay for a FREE performance of the multimedia production DIRT at 2pm in the Aetna Theater.

The Dana Engstrom DeLoach Gallery Talk: Rembrandt's People
October 30, 12 noon.
Join Eric Zafran, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art for a discussion of our newly opened exhibition Rembrandt's People.

The Artful Tea: Rembrandt's Studio
Wednesday, November 4, 3:00-5:30 pm
Visit the exhibition and conservation lab as you explore Rembrandt’s studio practice and painting techniques with conservators Stephen Kornhauser and Ulrich Birkmaier. Program followed by discussion and afternoon tea.
Limited enrollment. Reservations required: 860.838.4046.
$25/$20 for Members

Fab or Faux?
Find out at the Expertise Clinic!
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
1:00 - 2:00 pm
Hartford Courant Room
Free to the public, enter at Morgain Main Entrance on Main Street
Curators, Conservators, and Librarians will be on hand to provide oral and aesthetic evaluations for paintings and art objects. They will not discuss monetary values, but will comment on an object’s origin, subject matter, and condition.
There is a limit of two objects per person.
Please note the following are excluded: Pre-Columbian artifacts, Native American artifacts, Asian art and objects, coins, dolls, firearms, jewelry, photographs, or stamps.
For more information contact Erin Monroe at (860) 838-4093 or

At the Adams Gallery in Boston: An exhibit on the restoration of the Modern Theatre, which illustrates the connections between Boston and Hollywood. The Modern was the first theater to show the double feature, first in Boston to install Vitaphone for sounds, etc. The exhibit brings the story up to the present with clips of films shot in Massachusetts in recent years.

The exhibit runs through Nov. 30, 2009, and follows the rise of the Modern Theatre from a warehouse built after the Great Boston Fire through its heyday as the first Boston movie theater to show “talkies.”

The theater’s original owner, Jacob Lourie, introduced the “talkie” to Boston and came up with the concept of the double-feature – which soon had Hollywood studios churning out B movies to meet demand.

Present-day photos document Suffolk University’s ongoing restoration of the theater’s historic facade, which was taken apart stone by stone for repair and will be rebuilt on site as part of a theater/gallery/residence hall complex.

Video clips from films shot in Boston show that the Hollywood connection endures today, and an oral history video now in production will offer a taste of what entertainment was like in the days before television.

Adams Gallery, 120 Tremont Street, Boston
9 a.m. – 7 p.m. daily. For more on this exhibit, have a look at this website:

Send your information on upcoming events and activities in New England to:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Trapp Family Singers in Springfield, Mass.

This is a program from one of the earliest public performances in the U.S. by the Trapp Family Singers, only weeks after they had arrived in the country as immigrants fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria.

Concert manager Charles L. Wagner (among whose famous clients was 1930s movie musical diva Jeannette MacDonald) brought them from Europe. They had to borrow the money to get here, and arrived with little more than the clothes they had on. Their home-grown family choir, under the direction of Reverend Franz Wasner, was their only means of support and their surprising eventual claim to fame.

But before they became Stowe, Vermont’s famous hoteliers, before Rogers and Hammerstein made them storybook icons with “The Sound of Music” on Broadway and in one of the most successful blockbuster films ever made, here they were, just a few weeks off the boat, performing on October 24, 1938 at Auditorium (later Symphony Hall), in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Most of their program was comprised of classical works, German leider and one bravely attempted American folksong they had learned in their uncertain and as yet heavily accented English. As a tribute to their new home, they embraced Stephen Foster and sang “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Pictured here are Maria Von Trapp (3rd from the right), and her seven stepchildren. Her two daughters with her husband, Georg Von Trapp, were too young to perform with them at this time. Maria was pregnant with their son, Johannes, who would be born in a couple of months.

By the 1940s, the farm in Stowe, Vermont would be their new permanent home and future career, the older boys would serve in the U.S. Army, and Maria would drop the European class conscious “von” from her name when she became a US citizen.

But right now, this moment in October, 1938, 71 years ago tomorrow, it was on with the show.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Arthur A. Smith Covered Bridge - Colrain, Mass.

The Arthur A. Smith Bridge, named for a Civil War Army captain, was first in one location over the North River, then moved further downstream to the Lyonsville Road spot about 1886. It would be moved again, not downstream or upstream, but over onto dry land.

At the time of the photo above, the Arthur A. Smith Bridge, as you can see, was dry docked, for a lack of a better word, in a crumbling state and left in the embarrassing position of rotting in a cornfield since 1991. It had been placed on the National Register of Historic Placed back in 1983, so it was hoped the bridge could one day be restored.

Eventually, in 2005, it was. For a look at the restored Arthur A. Smith Covered Bridge, back in its function as a bridge crossing the North River, have a look at this website. The bridge had been built originally in 1870 (replacing an earlier bridge), a Burr arch design 99 feet in length, originally meant for one lane of traffic (horse-drawn, that is). It was not originally covered, but the roof was added in the 1890s. Today it is used only for pedestrian traffic.

The 1938 WPA “Guide to Massachusetts” lists two covered bridges at this spot in Colrain. If anyone knows more about the second one, I’d love to know. (There had once been several more covered bridges in Colrain, and the Arthur A. Smith is the very last.)

It’s nice to see the photo of the restored bridge over the North River off Rt. 112 all painted red and tidy, but the above view of the bridge to nowhere has perhaps even more emotion to it. There is something haunted-looking about an historic site left abandoned. As it is, the restored bridge, now open only to pedestrian traffic, is little more than ornamental. Perhaps the restoration of this long dormant chunk of 19th century infrastructure says something about the power and the worth of even what is only ornamental.

Friday, October 16, 2009

McKinley Statue - Adams, Mass.

This statue of President William McKinley in Adams, Massachusetts would appear to be directing traffic. An easy job, considering there doesn’t appear to be much traffic at this tidy little rotary, now known as McKinley Square.

President McKinley supported legislation and tariffs favorable to the cotton industry, which was still a huge part of the economy and major employer in New England in the last days of the 19th century. Adams, a small town in the western Berkshires, was in its heyday as a mill town at this period, and the local Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company, headed by Plunkett Brothers, did very well at this time.

President McKinley, a friend of the Plunketts, visited Adams three times during his presidency, which tragically ended when McKinley was assassinated in September 1901. The new century, so anticipated with hopeful celebration, began miserably.

But the Town of Adams was not willing to let go of an old friend so easily. Shortly after the assassination, the town commissioned sculptor Augustus Lukeman to create a statue in honor of the slain president. The statue was unveiled on October 10, 1903, and still forms the centerpiece of McKinley Square.

For more on President McKinley’s ties to Adams, Mass., have a look at this website of the Adams Historical Society.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hartford's Katherine Day House

Above is the Katherine Day House in Hartford, Connecticut, named for Katherine Seymour Day (1870-1964) who bought the historic home to save it from demolition. Day was the grandniece of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Day House, right next to the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe (have a look at this post on the Harriet Beecher Stowe house), is part of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, housing the research library and administrative offices.

The home was built in 1884, designed in the Queen Anne style by architect Francis H. Kimball for owners Franklin and Mary Chamberlain. An ornate wood and granite house, a marvel of striking detail and 19th century opulence.

For more on the Katherine Day House and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, have a look at this website.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Creamery Covered Bridge - Brattleboro, VT

This is the Creamery Covered Bridge in Brattleboro, Vermont. It’s just off Route 9, and is one of southern Vermont’s most easily accessible covered bridges, making it very popular with the tourists.

Built in 1879 over Whetstone Brook, the bridge is some 80 feet long and 19 feet wide. The slate roof replaced the original wooden shingles around 1917, and the sidewalk was added around the same time. It’s built in the Town Lattice design.

What attracts us to covered bridges may not be something exactly precise, except for those who passions are 19th century architecture and engineering. For the rest of us, it may be just the general impression of a slower time, when to form and function something else was added. A sense of heritage as much as a sense of purpose. They are quaint, because we cannot pass over them at 70mph, we are compelled drive slowly, and then once on the other side, to get out of the car and walk back, and take a picture.

For more on the Brattleboro covered bridge, have a look here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Such Finess as October Airs

You’d think we’d be used to the transformations by now. They are on the calendar. They are in our memories. Early frost. Early spring. Late bloomers. These are misnomers, for nothing is early or late except by our reckoning, and nature keeps its own time.

The peak season for color, which for those of you not from New England is considered part of the tourism industry, moves like a shaft of sunlight across the region. Bring in the last of the tomatoes. Reduce the garden to stubble as the trees show off new wardrobes. All in good time.

On Fields O'er Which the Reaper's Hand has Passed
By Henry David Thoreau

On fields o'er which the reaper's hand has pass'd
Lit by the harvest moon and autumn sun,
My thoughts like stubble floating in the wind
And of such fineness as October airs,
There after harvest could I glean my life
A richer harvest reaping without toil,
And weaving gorgeous fancies at my will
In subtler webs than finest summer haze.

Note: The above photos are from the Berkshires in Western Mass., the Hancock Shaker Village in Hancock, Mass., and Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Mass. Henry David Thoreau, he’s a Concord boy.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Border Line

Looking across the St. Croix River from St. Stephen, New Brunswick, you see the United States of America. What is more interesting perhaps is what you don’t see: no guards, no guns, no fences. The border is only a still and quiet river this serene dawn, a place to paint or photograph. You can’t see the physical line in the water where the U.S. and Canada join, like the maps show you is there. You can’t see that it’s an hour ago over there across the river where somewhere in the morning mist Atlantic Time becomes Eastern Time. It’s all a lovely illusion.

You need your passport now to cross back into the U.S., which makes the invisible border seem more real. But reality is parceled sparingly out here and there in other ways, too. The St. Stephen Lighthouse is not really an aid to navigation, it’s really more for show. That boat in the water might not be “real” either. It just makes the scene too perfect. But it might be real. Is it on the US side of the imaginary line in the water, or the Canada side? I suppose you could find out if you call out to the skipper, asking what time it is. If it’s 5 a.m. he’s in the U.S., if his watch says 6 a.m., he’s in Canada.