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An Axe To Grind

This article is more than 12 years old.

One hot August day in 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally killed in their Fall River home. Their daughter Lizzie was tried and acquitted of the crime. But still, she's gone down in popular history as the woman who "took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks."

This week, a new museum about the murders is scheduled to open in Salem, home of the notorious witch trials. And, as WBUR's Andrea Shea reports, that's sparked a fight over who can claim Lizzie Borden's infamy.


FILM CLIP from the 1974 TV movie, "The Legend of Lizzie Borden:" "Do come in, someone has killed father." (sound of children singing) "Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks, when she saw what she had done, gave her father 41."

SHEA: That creepy cut is from an old TV movie about Lizzie Borden. It's really popular on YouTube, but Leonard Pickle says he has a problem with the number of whacks in the infamous verse.

LEONARD PICKLE: The rhyme is completely incorrect because it was really a total of 38, 39 strikes, we think, so it certainly wasn't 40 and 41.

[Sound of circular saw in Salem museum]

SHEA: Pickle, a Haunted House entrepreneur, owns the new "True Story of Lizzie Borden" Museum in Salem. As he works on the space Pickle describes its mission: to separate reality from myth in the Borden story. It was, he says, the O.J. Simpson trial of its day.

LEONARD PICKLE: It's a murder mystery and people can't stand not to know the answer to it and so they've constantly trying fill in the gaps to figure out exactly how she did it, why she did and if she did it or who else could've done it and we'll never know for sure.

SHEA: Huge photographs, text and reproductions of the Borden's crushed skulls are on display inside Pickle's museum. Outside a busy walkway is littered with magic shops, witch kitsch and tourists.

PHIL SMITH: I'm Phil Smith from Boxborough, Mass. I'm just a little confused why something that relates to Fall River's history is doing up in Salem (laughs).

LEE ANN WILBER: I hate to say it but if anyone is going to capitalize on the tragedy it should be Fall River, it really should.

SHEA: Lee Ann Wilber co-owns the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum about 80 miles southwest of Salem. Visitors pay to take tours and, if they're brave enough, actually spend the night in the house where the Bordens met their brutal demise in 1892.

[Sound of Tour: "This is the sitting room; this is where Lizzie discovered Mr. Borden's body, the photo on the wall."]

SHEA: More than 10,000 "Lizzie" fans, from all over the world, travel to Fall River to see the house each year. Wilber says they buy Lizzie mugs, "I Survived the Night" t-shirts and axe-wielding bobble-heads. A fleet of massive, historic naval ships also draws tourists to the city. But still, she admits, it's tough.

WILBER: Other than the battleship and Lizzie Fall River doesn't have a whole lot going for it, another mill just closed down it's becoming a depressed market, let Lizzie be the doorway to draw people in and then show them what else Fall River has to offer.

SHEA: Wilber worries the new Lizzie Borden Museum in Salem will cut into her business. Her partner Donald Woods has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to protect the B&B's trademark. This raises questions about ownership of Lizzie Borden's legacy.

ARTHUR MOTTA: Rather than ownership I would say really the issue is authenticity.

SHEA: That's Arthur Motta of the local Convention and Visitors' Bureau. The B&B is a member. Motta says the Fall River Historical Society holds evidence from Borden's trial, including the famous "handle-less hatchet." And, he says, the B&B is the crime scene.

ARTHUR MOTTA: And if anyone has a right to call it a museum it's this location.

FILM CLIP of documentary in gift shop: "Miss Borden's head went down upon the rail in front of her and the prisoner wept with joy."

SHEA: A documentary plays inside the B&B's gift shop where Motta sits, but he acknowledges what he calls "Terror Tourism." Fall River, he says, has grappled with promoting its dark past over the years. Jack Levin, Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University, says selling killers and heinous crimes is nothing new.

JACK LEVIN: You want to be famous, you want to be immortalized, just kill someone and then you'll go down in history and they might even build a museum in your honor, and communities might even compete for the that museum.

[Sound of drill in Salem museum]

SHEA: For Leonard Pickle, owner of the new Lizzie Borden Museum still under construction in Salem, the 32 year-old spinster is a fascinating character. After being tried and acquitted Borden was ostracized by Fall River society. But she never moved away, and is even buried in a cemetery there. Pickle says shear numbers drove him to choose "Witch City" for his museum.

LEONARD PICKLE: There are 600,000 tourists who come to Salem, Massachusetts looking for the dark side of history and it is after all Massachusetts history, and we feel like we can share Lizzie's story with more people here than we ever could in Fall River.

[Creepy music from the movie, "The Legend of Lizzie Borden"]

SHEA: While Lizzie Borden has pretty much nothing to do with Salem, there is a tenuous connection. A statue of another pop culture icon stands a block away from the new museum. It's a bronze Elizabeth Montgomery, star of the popular 60s/70s sit-com, "Bewitched." As it turns out Montgomery also played the accused axe-murderess in the 1974 TV movie, "The Legend of Lizzie Borden."

For WBUR, I'm Andrea Shea.

This program aired on August 12, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.


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