Death and the Poet: Inside the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast

October 9, 2017 | 1 book mentioned 9 min read

The poet will always stay in the haunted house with you. Sisters will balk, husbands must watch children, but a poet will feel obliged to accompany where ghosts reputedly tread.

The poet is arbiter between life and death, constantly stretching the tenuous fabric of life as if considering buying a yard from that bolt. What exactly was it that called Emily Dickinson back from her little cousins? The poet must know. The arterial blood poor John Keats coughed into his handkerchief before his pen had thoroughly gleaned his teeming brain: worthy of examination.

My staunch escort was A., winner of the Iowa Prize, someone who cares so deeply for the craft she earned two MFAs. I knew her from undergrad, a small liberal arts college in Maine. Since we had graduated in the early 1990s, I had seen her exactly three times. Three times in a quarter of a century, and yet I didn’t even have to call; I texted her to say “Want to stay overnight with me in the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast August 18, my treat?” Despite “treat” being a dubious description, within moments I had an affirmative response.

The Lizzie Borden B&B in Fall River, Mass., pays homage to the shocking dual murders, by hatchet, of Andrew and Abby Borden in 1892. Andrew was Lizzie’s father and Abby her stepmother. I was writing a novel about the case, and my editor wanted me to spend the night. Since I live in California, I was trying to come up with an east coaster—hopefully with somewhat morbid sensibilities—who could meet me for the night.

A few months later, I took a redeye into Boston, rented a car and met A. at a deli where we ate abject iceberg salads and then caravanned to the house. I drove past it on the first try; the house was quiet and the world was calm when I had been expecting more fanfare. I circled back and saw A. in the rear view do the same. We parked behind the house where a minor orchard once supplied pears for snacks and alibis.

For some background, Abby was murdered in the morning while Andrew was out of the house, a fact established by forensic examination of the couple’s stomach contents. He came home a few hours later, sat down on the sofa in the sitting room and was killed, never knowing his wife’s body was cooling upstairs on the guest room floor. Famously, as memorialized in the jump rope rhyme, their heads bore many, many blows. There was such rage that it made potsherds of their skulls.

Lizzie was accused of the murders because she was home for both, had weird, conflicting stories for what she was doing (eating pears in the barn, ironing handkerchiefs, looking for fishing sinkers) and was known to be uncordial with Abby. She had also been seen trying to buy poison the day before the murders (and hmmm the Bordens were vomiting that week, as was the family’s Irish maid) and had a spot-on premonition, expressed to a family friend on the very eve, that “something might happen.”

Instead of experiencing an hour of lead after discovering her father’s hacked-up corpse, she wondered aloud where her stepmother might be, saying she had gone to visit a sick friend, and then suddenly proclaiming she thought she had heard Abby come home and maybe she too had been killed.

Despite these troublesome facts, a jury hurriedly acquitted her. They deliberated only one hour; it’s said they stretched it out to appear more diligent. Lizzie and her sister, Emma, went on to purchase a nice home with the proceeds. Luckily, Mrs. Borden’s dying first meant the sisters received everything as Andrew’s heirs rather than having to share anything with their stepmother’s family…people whom the sisters strongly disliked.

A poet surmises that the site of so much anger bears supernatural residue. The hatchet carved a solo meridian in Abby’s forehead: she saw her attacker. Andrew, on the other hand, was napping when attacked (he did go gentle into that good night) and perhaps feels a shade’s outrage for the unfair fight. Abby tried to crawl under the guest room bed to escape, but was too large. The post-mortem photographer pulled her back out and tacked her arms down by her side. There is pathos to the hobnails displayed on the upturned soles of her shoes, like the garland briefer than a girl’s.

Anyone can book a night in the room where Mrs. Borden foundered. It contains a different bed, meant to look like the original. Portions of the carpet were cut away to display vestiges of the carnage in court, and one can only assume that under today’s equally-florid carpeting, stains still plague the wood. There was no way in hell I’d stay in that room, with or without a poet.

Luckily, the room I considered the safest, one full floor above any murder, was the one I needed to stay in: the maid’s attic chamber. My novel tells the story from her—Bridget Sullivan’s— point of view, along with a contemporary narrative. I set aside fire hazard fears and welcomed being at the top of the house, far from any wraithlike shenanigans, and had booked it online as soon as I got A.’s consent.

Yet as A. and I entered the house through the side door, the servant’s entrance leading to the kitchen, we learned we’d be just down the hall from the most haunted room in the house, named for the prosecuting attorney, who clearly sucked.

Great.

We dropped our bags and poked around the house, told we had free range; the home was now closed to day visitors. History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors, the front stairs and the servant stairs, the chambers locked between family members. A. had read up on Wikipedia but didn’t know Lizzie’s story fully; nonetheless, she was clearly interested in the Victorian interiors and the home’s confines. I imagined what it was like to be Bridget, tasked with cooking and cleaning the downstairs chambers, wielding the broom lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies.

I walked into Lizzie’s chamber and shrieked: two people were lying on the bed. “Come in, come in,” they called to me, laughing. But I felt too shy and I never really did circle back to examine that room closely; even during our official tour later in the evening the room was too small for everyone to fit into.

After our self-guided wanderings, A. and I walked a few blocks downtown to a Portuguese restaurant for seafood. I made her try sangria; she hated it so that left me with a pitcher to conquer. We lingered so long we had to speed back to the house for our official tour. I was glad we had left for a few hours, both because we got reprieve from the home’s claustrophobic energy and because we got a spectacular view of it from far away, lights blazing in the night. It occurred to me then that Lizzie would’ve loved the house heaving with people interested in her and the minutia of her life. Who knows but I am enjoying this? Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

We returned to the kitchen for snickerdoodles and bloodthirsty tales, a two-hour voyage through every chamber with a guide who knew the case backwards and forwards. Up in the attic, we learned why the Hosea Knowlton Room was the most haunted. Before Lizzie was born, a relative had lived next door, a woman apparently so overwhelmed by the duties of maternity that she drowned her baby and two-year-old in the basement well, and slit her own throat. The four-year-old got away somehow. A sordid, awful tale and for anyone with an iota of imagination, like a poet, nearly impossible not to envision with real-time mental footage. The story is cited in connection with the Borden murders because it’s an example of kin killing kin (we cannot draw a genetic insanity correlation, however, because she was related to Lizzie via marriage) and because when Lizzie’s family moved to Second Street, likely there was talk of the scandal from decades prior. Oddly, the drowned children are said to have moved their paranormal selves one house over and up three stories, where they push unseen but noisy marbles across the floor.

The tour included snippets of important information for each room (here on the sitting room mantelpiece Andrew kept the key to his bedroom; here is the lounge where Lizzie reclined and was fanned by her friends while police tried to interview her; here is the stove where Lizzie burned a dress directly after learning she was a suspect). Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

In Lizzie’s bedroom, the guide pointed out the nail holes in the doorjamb connecting between her room and the elder Bordens’. Lizzie, or someone, had nailed that door shut, and positioned the bed to block the door. For anyone raised in the post-Freudian era, these details elevated eyebrows. Yes, the guide said. Over the years, psychologists who took the tour had told her these particulars signaled textbook abuse.

He did not do, he did not do, any more, that black shoe.

In the guest room, our guide lay face down where Abby had, and we all climbed the stairs single file to do just what jurors had done in 1893: to turn our heads midway up the winding flight to see if it was possible to look under the bed and see the body on the other side. Note: it is entirely possible. I think this is the single most damning detail from the whole saga: as Andrew Borden was ringing the front doorbell to gain access to his own home, strangely locked to him while his wife’s life blood was congealing (did he accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent?), and Bridget fought the locks to open the door so he could come in and be killed, Lizzie stood on the stairs—where we now stood— and laughed.

After the tour ended, the guide showed us the handwritten telephone number to reach the B&B’s owner. There was considerable stirring as we realized we were going to be alone in the house, strangers brought together by odd fascination with a century-old cold case. But but but, we sputtered collectively.

The owner lived in the second story of the barn, so if specters pursued us and we fled into the night screaming, we at least now had a door to pound on. The “barn” was a reconstruction of the structure where Lizzie said she ate pears one after another in the hayloft on the hottest summer day, or picked through a box looking for lead to make a sinker—despite not possessing a fishing line and despite having canceled her trip to the seashore and despite never having fished before. Plausibility: it’s a thing.

The guide departed and the rest of us milled around. A medium offered to do readings in the parlor and several people joined her. A man set up his laptop with special time-lapse ghost-hunting software to film Andrew’s sofa all night, then went upstairs to install another to capture Abby’s slice of carpet; some people followed him. A. and I repaired (I found myself thinking in Victorian verbs) to the sitting room, reluctant to go to bed. The door was open to the parlor, so we spoke in hushed tones to not disturb the spirits fighting through the travails of time and loss to whisper in the medium’s sensitive ears.

A. was upset, I soon learned. She was still mulling over the baby and toddler drowned by their mother. I had already encountered and digested this story in my research, but for A. it was a jolt and she wasn’t easily dismissing it. I even wondered if this was the thing that would push us out into the night to find Fall River’s Motel 6.

But eventually conversation turned, and we kvetched about teaching, lowering our voices, although I realized at one point the ghost-hunting camera was recording our every word (Note to that guy: you can blackmail us!). I also realized how casually I was chatting away on a replica of the sofa on which Andrew had been slain.

After a bit, we adjourned to the parlor but learned we had been correct to avoid the awkwardness (“I sense an older woman telling you you’re doing a great job.” “Really?” “Yes. An older woman. Has an older woman passed, an aunt or a family friend?” “No.” “But she’s here and she wants you to know you’re doing a good job.” “I don’t have a job right now”), and left as soon as we could, leaving the company of others to climb Bridget’s dank stairs to our third floor attic room.

Via mutual decision, we kept the light on all night. I’m sure the neighbors see the windows aglow all the time and our B&B fee must factor in the electrical expense. Our only jump scare came when someone abruptly rattled our door, trying to gain entry—but it turned out to be domicile ventriloquism from someone opening the bathroom door.

We lay there talking, so much in common despite the years. We both taught English comp at trade schools, were both married with two daughters, held MFAs in poetry (just one for me), and felt guilty being there. I had left my family for a week, spending time with my bereaved sister and wedging in this research trip, and she felt badly because the day she left, her youngest had been vomiting. We sleepily talked, then tried to read, then fell asleep with our books in our hands.

If something walks the halls of 92 Second Street, A. and I did not feel it. I did have a nightmare, though. In it, I had opened the closet in our room to find a young, naked girl cowering. I could trace that back to two things: the four-year-old who had escaped her mother’s infanticidal clutch, and the incest theory between Lizzie and Andrew. Oh, another thing, too: the tour guide had told us that inside the third attic chamber’s closet, wire hangers would jangle on their own in the night. Silly to be scared by haunted hangers, yet their repository figured in my dream.

coverIn the morning, we were jubilant. We had survived without filming terrorized, wild-eyed video missives to explain our demises à la The Blair Witch Project. A. confided she felt A-OK to walk down the two flights by herself to brew a pot of coffee. “That’s cool,” I said. I pulled out my notebook to jot down the dream.

After a while I realized she hadn’t left yet.

I looked at her questioningly.

She blushed. “Want to go down with me?”

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is the author of The Murderer's Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel and several other historical novels. More at erikamailman.com.

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