This year marks the 123rd anniversary of the crime that shocked Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie Borden was accused, yet later acquitted, of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe on the morning of August 4, 1892. Did Lizzie get away with murder?
Every year on the anniversary, the Pear Essential Players investigate that very question through a day of re-enactments of the murders. The performances are tasteful, with the show beginning after the parents have been discovered killed in the family home.
This is the second year I have participated in the re-enactment. This time I played Bertie Whitehead, the half sister of Abby Borden. We arrived in Fall River the day before the performances. We stayed with the rest of the cast on the third floor of the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum.
After bringing our luggage to our room, it was time to rehearse. My character only appears in the basement, in the last scene of the show. I interact with one other character, Detective Seaver. We ran our lines a few times, and we were confident we had our parts down.
Exhausted from the six-hour trip and flat tire drama upon arrival, we all slept well. The following morning I awoke to monsoon rain, thunder and lightning. Not a bad way to wake up in a murder house. Fortunately the weather improved behind the storm. I had breakfast with other house guests downstairs in the dining room, which is where the autopsies of both Abby and Andrew Borden took place on that day over 100 years ago. A vintage autopsy table hangs on the wall, a grim reminder of that day.
Breakfast consists of items the Bordens would have enjoyed in the 1800s. I feasted on scrambled eggs, potatoes with sausage, and johnny cakes. Johnny cakes are similar to pancakes, but made from cornmeal, and smaller. They can be an acquired taste, but with some cinnamon and syrup they’re not bad.
After breakfast it was time to get into character. Costuming is always a hectic affair. The guys have to get their mustaches glued, while the ladies’ hair is styled.
The women put on their dresses, dark tights and full slips beneath the thin outfits are a must to preserve modesty. Shoes tend to be black, and accessories include hats, gloves, and jewelry. The costumes are appropriate for the time period.
It’s almost time for the first show at 10:30 AM, so the cast takes their places. I retreat to the basement, my location for the bulk of the day, but not before grabbing a few bottles of water. The dress has long sleeves, and with the undergarments, it can get warm fast.
I am kept hidden in the laundry area, a coverlet hung on the line blocking the view of the visitors from the modern appliances. I am out of sight except for a missing board where guests could spot me before I make my entrance. Since I have nothing but time on my hands until the guests reach my scene, I study my lines and drink water, sometimes seated on a laundry basket.
It occurs to me that I am in one of the scariest parts of the house. I am also alone. Luminol sprayed on the basement ceiling will show the blood of Andrew Borden dripped from the room above, visible all these years later.
When I hear my cue from Detective Seaver, out I come from my cove to deliver Bertie’s lines. After our exchange, I storm up the stairs into the kitchen. I hang out there until I hear the detective funnel everyone out of the house through the basement stairs, which happen to be next to my hiding spot. After that it’s back into the basement for another group going through the house.
There are three performances before the lunch break. It is here where we compare notes on how our scenes are going, and how the crowds are responding. We enjoy pizza, sandwiches, and a wonderful marble cake for dessert, which is cut by our own Lizzie Borden. After this brief respite, it’s back to work.
We were exhausted after the last tour at 3:30 PM. We performed a total of nine shows that day, and tossing out the script when it’s all over is liberating. No more lines to memorize until next August.
This year there was a surprise in store for us. We were invited to Maplecroft, the home where Lizzie Borden lived after her acquittal, also in Fall River. We were treated to a rare glimpse inside the stunning three-story mansion. This year the cast took their photo on Maplecroft’s historic front steps instead of in front of 92 Second Street, the scene of the crime.
After the photo, some performers left for Oak Grove Cemetery, the final resting place of Lizzie and her family. The tradition is to place roses on the graves of Andrew and Abby Borden, the victims in the tragedy that unfolded in the house on Second Street.
After the brief ceremony and more photos, the cast retreated back to Lizzie’s for much needed showers before walking to local hot spot Taphouse for food and drink. There we toasted another successful year of re-enactments, and there was plenty of good conversation with good company.
When we drank and ate our fill, some of the performers returned to Lizzie’s while others left for their homes. The party continued on the third floor of the house. We gathered outside our rooms and read the comment cards left by the guests. We ask them where they are from, if they had visited the house before, who they think committed the crime and with what weapon. We also ask if they saw anything suspicious.
The furthest visitor came from California, with a couple from Florida. Quite a few people thought Lizzie was the killer, and others thought Uncle John Morse was creepy and also a good possibility of being the perpetrator. Someone said finding a script in the bathroom was suspicious, which we found hysterical.
At midnight a small group returned to Oak Grove Cemetery. We visited the Borden Family graves again, and we found the graves of the children who drowned in the well at 96 Second Street, neighbors of Lizzie also named Borden. The story goes that the mother threw her three children down a well before slitting her throat. Only one of the children survived, and it’s said that the deceased childrens’ ghosts inhabit the Hosea Knowlton Room on the third floor of the Lizzie Borden house. In fact, a toy chest is kept in that room.
The following day we departed for home. Our friends may come from Ohio, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, but it’s our interest in the Lizzie Borden story that bring us together yearly.