Saturday, July 19, 2003

Running a little thin on Lizzie

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This year, Fall River is celebrating its bicentennial. Two hundred years ago, a bunch of people in breeches and powdered wigs threw off the shackles of their Freetown oppressors, bought a swath of land bounded on the north by the Elks lodge and on the south by Ventura’s Pharmacy on Bedford Street, and created their own town called Fall River.

If the city was born in 1803, Fall River certainly must’ve entered its awkward teenage years in 1860. That’s when Lizzie Borden was born—143 years ago today.

For those of you who have just emerged from comas, Lizzie is the woman who in 1892, as the nursery rhyme goes, allegedly took an axe and gave her stepmother 19 whacks, and when she saw what she had done, she allegedly gave her father 11. The Borden murders were actually committed with a hatchet, but very few words rhyme with that. It’s also not the type of nursery rhyme you should repeat to kids young enough to be in a nursery.

Lizzie is a part of Fall River history that some people would rather forget. In her own time, I’ve read, the brutal double murder was not a polite topic of conversation. Lizzie was apparently ignored in Fall River’s high society circles, the way you’re supposed to ignore a fart in an elevator. Just a few kids who taunted Lizzie with the above nursery rhyme openly mentioned the crime — obviously kids without a self-preservation instinct.

She may be a creepy Victorian spinster, but she’s our creepy Victorian spinster. Lizzie’s alleged crime, trial and acquittal put Fall River on the map forever.

But time heals all wounds, even more than a dozen devastating ones to the skull. Perhaps it’s time we declared July 19, her birthday, to be Lizzie Borden Day.

As far as I know, nobody celebrates this significant date in Fall River’s past. If Lizzie hadn’t been born, how would history remember this city? As a once-prominent textile manufacturing center, probably. But has anybody ever made a movie about our textiles featuring a grim Elizabeth Montgomery of “Bewitched” and Fritz Weaver? Has anybody ever written an opera about textiles? Would anybody want to watch an opera about textiles?

It would be a perfect tourist draw. The Battleship does a fine trade, but we’d have tourists choking the streets for Lizzie Borden Day, snapping pictures and buying overpriced Lizzie trinkets.

In anticipation of Lizzie’s birthday, I and a group of six tourists toured the actual crime scene, now the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast on Second Street, where friendly innkeepers serve overnight guests johnnycakes for breakfast.

On the morning of the murders, I was told, the Borden family ate three-day-old mutton broth for breakfast. This was before refrigerators and Tupperware, by the way. In many ways, the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast strives for authenticity, but thankfully this is not one of them.

What struck me about the bed and breakfast, more so than its pleasantly spooky atmosphere, was how naturally the horrific and the mundane exist side by side in there. When our tour group was in the sitting room where Andrew Borden was murdered while napping on the couch, one of the tourists was slouching on a replica of that couch — unconsciously in the same position depicted in the crime scene photos on a curio table across the room. Later, in the room where Abby Borden was found murdered on the floor, the tour guide said that Lizzie’s uncle, John Morse, recovered from his exposure to the mutton broth in that same room an hour after Abby’s body was removed. Blood was still all over the walls and carpet. And he slept there for two nights afterward, while it was still a crime scene. And we think we live in ghoulish times.

After the tour was over, I asked if they did anything special for Lizzie’s birthday at the bed and breakfast. I was secretly hoping they served hatchet-shaped johnnycakes with raspberry sauce. But no, they don’t celebrate her birthday — but they do re-enact the murders every Aug. 4.

So making July 19 Lizzie Borden Day would be good news for the bed and breakfast, since they could benefit from two special Lizzie-themed days each year. July 19 also conveniently avoids any direct association with the murders, which makes it more comfortable for the squeamish out there.

Personally, I think we should exchange presents. Since Lizzie was a kleptomaniac, we could buy gifts for our loved ones and leave them out in the open, so we can pretend to steal them from each other.

Here’s a free tip for some novelty company: make plastic toy hatchets that, when you swing them, release a flag with “WHACK!” written on it. They would sell like bottled water in the desert.

Any volunteers to run the mutton broth stand? It’ll be located right next the tomahawk-throwing demonstration. We have less than a year to plan this thing, so let’s get on the bandwagon, chop-chop.

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