Originally created 05/27/01

Hatchet job

FALL RIVER, Mass. - Marcie Gordon, a tourist from Boise, Idaho, is shown to her bedroom upstairs at the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast. Yes, the night manager tells her, just as you requested this is the very room where Abby Borden was axed to death on Aug. 4, 1892.

"People can't believe that we're staying here," says Ms. Gordon, who has been curious about the case for 30 years and whose bed for the night rests beneath a framed police photo of Abby's bloodied body. "They ask, 'Why would you want to do that?"'

From the simply curious to the morbidly fascinated, the "Lizzie buffs" are legion. They are amateur sleuths, college professors and otherwise unremarkable folks who are - to a sometimes disturbing degree - obsessed with one of America's most infamous murder cases.

This southern Massachusetts city, where Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abby, met their violent fate (Andrew in the living room downstairs) is happy to have the visitors. It features a trail of sites related to the case.

"Anything that brings people to the city makes me happy because that's my job," says John Gibbons, Fall River's tourism director.

Lizzie, Andrew's adult daughter, was tried for the killings of her father and stepmother in 1893. After 10 weeks of testimony she was acquitted in what was genuinely the trial of the century. Ever since, the evidence has been hashed and rehashed in dozens of books, documentaries and even academic conferences.

Did she, or didn't she? Almost everyone in town has an opinion.

Eleanor Thibault, tour guide at the privately owned Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast and Museum, acknowledges that Lizzie was no saint but still believes she was set up.

Michael Viera, a gravedigger at the cemetery where the family is buried together, thinks the alibi of a visiting uncle was suspiciously precise. (Others also have wondered why he remembered the badge number of a police officer he ran into.)

Then there was the maid who fled town and a few quirky neighbors. Nobody, it seems, much liked the Bordens, so there were ample motives, and the murder weapon was never found.

"Pretty much everybody has been suspected at one point in time, either by officials or by authors writing books," says Dennis Binette, assistant curator of the Fall River Historical Society.

Mr. Binette - one of the few who claims to have no opinion on the matter - says he has no problem with the level of attention the case still receives.

"Lizzie Borden happens to be a part of Fall River's history, like it or not," he says. "If your claim to fame is a murder case, you want to (teach) about it in the most educational way possible."

Fall River never really promoted its Borden history until a few years ago, Mr. Gibbons says, concentrating on other, still bigger attractions, such as Battleship Cove, which gets about 130,000 visitors a year, more than 10 times as many as the Borden Museum.

Still, the interest in the Borden case was undeniable and seemed to pick up in recent years after a string of television documentaries. So Mr. Gibbons put together some brochures advertising the "Lizzie Borden Trail."

Starting with the bed and breakfast and museum, the tour heads to the Historical Society, a beautifully restored home where the remaining Borden evidence is stored. The rest of the house pays tribute to the opulence of what was, at the time of the murders, a prosperous textile town.

There's also the church where the Bordens worshipped. It's now part of a culinary school and restaurant, and manager Kathy Karousos can point to the exact spot of the Borden family pew.

Ms. Karousos doesn't believe the place is haunted. "But something's around here," she says. "Some interesting things have happened at night. The waiters are afraid to come in here."

Finally, there's the graveyard where Lizzie, who lived as an outcast for 34 years after her trial, was buried next to Andrew and Abby.

Mr. Gibbons says he's careful not to go over the top in promotions. Once, he sent back a proposed brochure made to look like it was dripping in blood. But he's not above a light touch, such as the trail's slogan: "The Lizzie Borden Trail - get the axe, the whacks and the facts."

There are plenty of facts at the Borden house, where guests are served johnnycakes (Andrew and Abby's last meal) and guests and visitors get a nearly hour-long tour that offers the details that Lizzie buffs delight in: dirt on the Borden family and the minutiae of the crime scene.

A famous rhyme about the case says: "Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41."

Actually, Andrew Borden got just 11 whacks, and Abby 19 (both were probably dead after one or two).

Natives say some visitors show an unnerving level of interest. Mr. Binette recounts people who believed they heard Lizzie's voice, and others so obsessed they have collected, burned and then re-collected all the books on the subject.

"There's a subculture here," he says. "People that have gotten rid of all of their money to come to Fall River because this is where Lizzie Borden lived."

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