Sarah Schmidt’s terrifying encounter with the Bordens
November 2, 2017
How Sarah Schmidt met the Bordens…
I met Lizzie in a second hand bookstore in 2005. I should never have looked her in the eye. Habit and instinct saw me in the true crime section, saw me reaching for a book about women who kill. My arm bumped a shelf and a slim pamphlet fell out onto the floor. It was about the Lizzie Borden case. I read the pulpy account of the 4 August 1892 Borden murders cover to cover, the details of which I now know were largely sensation. The case didn’t interest me in the slightest. However as I looked at the photo of Lizzie on the front cover, made eye contact with her, I heard a voice crawl into my ear and say, ‘There was no more love.’ Lights flickered. The store was closing. I shrugged it all off, put Lizzie back on the shelf and went home.
That night I dreamt of Lizzie: she was sitting on the end of my bed poking my legs. Lizzie and her smile, the way she looked at me. She poked and said, ‘I have something to tell you about my father. He has a lot to answer for.’ I woke in fright, tried to ignore the dream. But the next night she came back again, poked my legs. ‘Let me tell you something,’ she said as she wiped blood off the carpet. I ignored her. Lizzie came to me every night for a week. I decided the only way to get rid of her was to write down my dreams, write the images she showed me and hope she would eventually leave. I wrote and I wrote.
Eventually I started researching the case. I read the various theories as to what happened that day, the blood evidence, the trial testimonies, and as fascinating as the case was, I still wasn’t particularly interested in writing about it. The more I read, the more I realised I wanted to write about the family, what it might have been like to live in that house. I wanted to explore the reasons why someone would be pushed to commit acts of brutal violence. And so I began walking down that path, Lizzie always by my side, an unwelcome shadow. Almost four years after meeting Lizzie, and a couple of abandoned versions of the manuscript later, two things became clear to me: one, Lizzie was never going to let me go until I had finished the book, and two, to really get to know this family, these characters, to make this novel work, I had to go to the source. That’s when I got the idea to spend a few nights at 92 Second Street, sleeping in Lizzie’s bedroom.
That’s right. The Borden house is now a lovely, if slightly creepy, B&B. I was so thrilled to find this out. Over the course of my time in that house, I met amateur ghost-hunters, bio-scientists armed with luminal spray (‘We’re only here for the blood stains,’ they told me), Carrie-obsessed college students whose idea of a good time was to have sex in haunted houses while watching horror films, unsuspecting retired school teachers looking for a place to sleep, a lone English lawyer living in Lisbon whose mother read him bedtime stories of the Borden murders, and a cast of wonderful tour guides who all have their own theory as to what happened that fateful August day.
In that house I also met the Bordens, or at least traces of them. One of them brushed their hand across my forehead as I drifted off to sleep. Another one pushed me in the chest while I made a cup of tea in the kitchen. At different times during the day and night, I caught the faint smell of tobacco pipe and lavender but could never trace the origin. I saw a tall shadow of a man walk through the sitting room as I read old newspaper clippings in the dining room. But you should know: I only believe in ghosts when I write.
The first moments I spent in that infamous setting have never left me all these years later. I can still feel the wood of the house on my palms, can still hear people’s voices outside the house talking about the case as they walked by, still hear the tick tick of the clock on the mantel. These little hauntings. And there are all the moments leading up to my arrival in Fall River: the little Amish boy in his starch-stiff blue shirt clinging to his mother as they walked toward a train platform, the wave of PA system voices muffling arrivals and departures, the sound of the bus door pulling open as I stepped aboard. I was taking the Peter Pan bus service from Boston South Station to Fall River and as I settled onto the bus, I noticed a family – siblings: two men, a woman – along the backseat. They looked tired and withdrawn, as if they’d spent too much time with each other.
‘Just wish there’s something more to do for Mom,’ one of the brothers said. He had short, light brown hair, was late twenties. He rubbed his face, muffled his voice, sounded old.
‘Nothing else but to watch her die now,’ the woman said. The way it came out of her. She’d given up on wishing. The brothers nodded and then they were quiet.
After the bus had pulled out of the station, had left Boston and its brownstones, its harbour and bridge, the family spread themselves around, went quiet for a moment, looked out of the windows. The woman traced the outline of her reflection, flicked the glass: a bully to self. Boston disappeared behind us and the younger brother said, ‘Remember that time we went to the zoo?’ When all else fails, there is always history.
‘Sure,’ the older brother said. ‘That was a good time.’
The sister sighed. ‘I don’t like the room she’s in.’
‘I don’t think they’re giving her the right treatments,’ the older brother again. For the next forty-five minutes the family circled around cancer and the past, circled around life without their mother.
I thought about Lizzie and Emma Borden, their lives without a mother, two mothers. What would they have made of this conversation?
Fall River. Off the bus. I wheeled my suitcase up Second Street toward the Bordens’, the rush of myself along asphalt; thunder. I wished I was quieter. I walked on, scanned the street, the sky, the ground, had that sense of déjà vu. A few days before I’d left for Fall River, I’d come across photos of Second Street taken around the time of the murders. In them there was a complete neighbourhood, single and double storied houses surrounded by semi-overgrown lawns and tree-lined footpaths. That Second Street doesn’t exist anymore. Many houses and trees have been knocked down, making markers of crime testimony harder to pinpoint. Without luck, I tried to locate the houses Bridget had gone to when Lizzie had sent her to fetch a doctor after discovering her brutalised father. Instead I found a construction site, a half complete courthouse. The irony was not lost on me. Modernity had grown around the Borden house like weeds. Finding relics of them would be that little bit more challenging. But I had hopes that inside 92 Second Street the past had remained relatively static, the way Andrew might’ve wanted his wife and daughters to be: family-strong blood together in the house, no one in, no one out.
I walked further along the street and as I upped a small incline a dark green house appeared on the opposite side of the road. Ahead of me deep in conversation were two men heading in the direction of the house and, without missing a beat, they crossed in unison to my side of the street, walked a few meters before crossing back. Casual avoidance. I knew I’d arrived at my destination. I grinned ridiculous.
From the outside the Bordens’ is a polite house: a small lamp guides you to the front door and the front steps are old-man grey, the concrete smattered with sand-sized glass flecks that radiate when the sun moves out from behind a cloud. The windows are dressed in floral drapes and a singular juvenile-sized tree stands to the left of the yard, well behaved. Nothing here seems out of place. I looked to the roof, saw a pigeon preen under wing atop the chimney. The preening stopped and the pigeon looked down at me, coo-cooed, and I pulled my suitcase behind me, headed for the house.
Buried under car fumes and the blunt-chalk scent of construction work was the smell of citrus, made my mouth beg for drink. Where was that smell coming from? As much as I wanted to get inside and freshen up it was impossible not to think: here’s where hundreds, then thousands, of people came to watch Andrew and Abby be taken from their home in coffins, came to see the grieving adult children who had spent a lifetime by their father’s side. I imagined Lizzie waving to friends as she got onto a carriage, the way her pale face might’ve appeared underneath her black mourning bonnet: a sunken morphine smile.
I downed the driveway, my suitcase dawdling behind me, passed the side door where Lizzie once told her neighbour, Mrs Churchill, ‘Do come in. Someone’s killed father,’ and headed to the barn, a replica of the original which now doubles as a gift store and the bed and breakfast reception. You wouldn’t believe the things they had there: books and DVDs about the crime, fake pears, Lizzie Borden bobbleheads, axe earrings, posters, t-shirts, tea towels: all kitsch, all great, all slightly unnerving. Once I’d checked into Lizzie’s room, Lee Ann, the owner of the house said, ‘Please make yourself at home.’ I smiled. These are words you want to hear. She smiled back, a lick of guilty pleasure, and said, ‘Tomorrow night we have a full house but tonight, you’re our only guest.’ I considered leaving right there and then. I told Lee Ann about the research I planned to do and after a time she said, ‘We have many stories that might be useful.’ That’s how I first heard about Aunt Borden, who once lived next door in the Dr Kelly house, the same Aunt Borden who had drowned her children before committing suicide.
Musk stench, wood polish, coffee grinds, lavender hand soap: this is how the Borden house smells in spring. I entered the house through the side door, saw immediately the backstairs where Lizzie had called out to Bridget, ‘Someone’s killed father.’ I craned a look up the stairs. From the floor plans I’d studied I knew that was the way to Andrew and Abby’s bedroom and to the attic where Bridget slept. I heard myself say, ‘I’ll come back for you later.’ It worried me I was already talking to the house like an old friend.
My body was a compass. Everything as if I’d been there before. I navigated toward Lizzie’s room through the kitchen and past the fridge hum, past the dining room door into the sitting room where a replica of the horse-hair sofa where Andrew was killed sits. A clock on the mantel ticked, was a heartbeat, and near the far window a small bookcase filled with books and folders caught my eye, drew me toward a cluster of photos of the Bordens on the mantelpiece. I walked over, bent to eye a series of young Lizzies and Emmas, photographic Matryoshka dolls, thought about those sisters storming through the house, their laughing and fighting. Mental notes and plotting: I was a vulture, scabbing through mementoes of the past, already sorting through details of what I could use in the novel, what I’d leave out. It’s what writers do but in that moment guilt ate at me, made me feel the weight of the house: this was the room a murder took place in yet I was treating the space as if nothing had happened, as if it were the all the days, weeks, and years before the murders took place. I glanced over at the sofa, thought of Andrew, his bloodied and raw face, heard the clock. Had he known what was coming for him?
I continued toward Lizzie’s bedroom. The house was both nothing and everything I had expected: although I had seen other people’s photos of the home, knew that the interiors had been modelled on the crime scene photos, nothing seemed familiar. It was only when dragging my suitcase up the front stairs that I realised I’d subconsciously rearranged and interpreted the physical space of the house to suit my characters. This home was real but so was the version of 92 Second Street I’d dreamt about. Both things living and breathing inside each other. My instinct had always been that Lizzie felt suffocated and so I made her live in a dollhouse, made her feel as if she was too big for her body and that she had literally outgrown her family, her city, her life. In that moment, I was in her dollhouse, the walls and ceiling closing around me, making me sweat. It felt something like a haunting.
I entered Lizzie’s room for the first time, put my suitcase on the bed. I have a habit of talking to myself, talking to rooms. I took my shoes off and mumbled ‘All right, I’m here. Let’s get to work.’ I closed my eyes, reopened, took everything in. Lizzie’s room is wallpapered, colours of tea rose pinks and ivy green, white ceiling, white doors, white bookcase, skirting board, window frame, white, white, white. Barefoot, the carpet feels like moss, makes you believe that you’re moving over furry rock, will absorb the grunt of your skin as you walk from door to wooden bed to wooden dressing table, and then finally to the window where you will part lace curtains, let it flick and scratch your palm. I pressed against the window pane, let hips settle, looked out into the neighbour’s yard and thought: down there, decades before I existed, my aunt took two of her children to the cistern of the basement and drowned them, waited for them to stop kicking for life, before she went back into the house and slit her own throat. The things my family does.
The sound of wood pop along the walls made me jump a little, made me realise what I’d been thinking: my aunt, my family. I’d been thinking like Lizzie. I didn’t like it. I thought about how I’d be alone in the house that night. I wanted to go home. But I’d come so far, had a book to research, had promised I’d finish the novel. I needed fresh air. Shoes back on, I grabbed a notebook and pen from my suitcase and virtually jumped down the stairs and left through the front door. I walked around Fall River and took notes until it was time to come back and face the house once more.
Relief comes in many forms. Later that afternoon mine came in the shape of two retired school teachers, both tall and salt-and-pepper haired. Checking back in at the barn, I noticed a black car in the carpark. Lee Ann came out from the barn and told me, ‘You’re in luck! We’ve got some guests staying.’ I clapped my hands together. This was very exciting news.
I first met the couple in the sitting room. They were sitting on Mr. Borden’s death sofa, said hello as I walked in. I took the chair by the window and bookcase, wondered how on earth they could be on the sofa and look so calm.
‘Cute house, isn’t it?’ The woman said.
I wasn’t sure about the cute, but I said, ‘Yeah, they’ve done a really good job decorating it as it was.’
They both scanned the room, loved the quaintness of it all. ‘You don’t get many houses looking like this,’ said the man.
‘Very true.’ I couldn’t take my eyes off the sofa.
The woman pointed at me, smiled polite. ‘You’ve got an accent. England?’
‘No, I’m from Melbourne.’
‘What an earth brings you all the way here?’
‘I’m trying to write a book. I’m here to research.’
She grinned. ‘That’s just wonderful. I guess Salem isn’t that far from here.’
It took me a moment to register what she meant. ‘Oh, I’m not writing about witches. I’m writing about Lizzie Borden.’
The man leant forward. ‘She was from around this area, wasn’t she?’
There were many conversations I expected to have in the house. This wasn’t one of them. I looked at the sofa. ‘Yes,’ I told him. ‘She was from here.’ The clock on the mantel ticked, filled the silence.
‘Fall River?’ The woman, brow frown.
I realised then: they didn’t know where they were. I couldn’t wait to tell them. ‘This is her house. We’re in her house!’ I pointed to the sofa. ‘That’s where Mr Borden was murdered.’ I’ve never seen anyone jump from their seat so quick. The woman rushed, ‘This is that house? Oh my God, I had no idea.’
Her husband jackalled, made me smile. ‘We just punched Bed and Breakfast into the GPS and it brought us here.’
‘Where are you sleeping?’ I asked.
The woman pointed to the ceiling. ‘The room called the John Morse room?’
‘That’s the room where Mrs Borden was murdered.’ I didn’t mean to sound gleeful.
The husband laughed again and the woman looked as if she was about to cry. We talked then: about how they saw Lee Ann walk out of the house and assumed that’s where they would check in (this completely explained why they didn’t know this was a murder house. If they’d gone to the barn it would’ve been a dead giveaway), talked about the case, about how they’d just retired from teaching and were taking a long-awaited car trip around America, about the outrageous policies of George W. Bush. I liked them and was glad I’d be sharing the house with them. We chatted for hours, tried to deny that night had grown around us, tried to deny it would soon be time for sleep.
Eventually we called it, made sure the sitting room light was on and ascended the front stairs, went to our separate rooms. I could hear the couple, their quick low talk, and as I pulled the covers down, changed into pyjamas, heard the clock on the mantel tick, heard a car drive by, I was thankful for the constant noise. Eventually the house settled into the moon, quietened some. Warm still air; I breathed it all in. I hopped into bed, listened and waited. I wasn’t sure what I expected would happen but I knew it wouldn’t be sleep. It’s an odd thing to be in the bedroom of an accused murderer. I thought about Lizzie and Emma, all the nights they would’ve spent in this particular room talking life plans, all the stories Emma would’ve told Lizzie about their mother from when they were younger. I thought of Lizzie laying in her bed, so close to Abby and Andrew’s bedroom on the other side of the wall. The things she might’ve heard. I thought of the murders then, the fact that this awful crime happened in such mundane circumstance, the way most crimes do. I pulled the covers to my chin. And that’s when I heard the sobbing. A woman. At first I thought it was coming from the guest room so I shrugged it off, lay still in bed until the sobbing stopped. I realised I’d been holding my breath, let it go. Everything in my body ached, longed for deep rest and as I rolled onto my right side, tried to cradle myself into foetal sleep, I heard footsteps from inside Mr and Mrs Borden’s bedroom. My heart in my ears. I decided to investigate. I dragged myself to the door, opened it, heard footsteps near their bed, got the feeling that I shouldn’t go further but I did. Inside the Borden bedroom it was moonlight dark, was disorientating. How many times had a young Lizzie stumbled into this room at night? How had she mapped her path to parental safety?
I stepped further inside. ‘Hello?’ Talking to myself, this thing I was used to doing. Nothing but the sound of a clock. Of course there was no response. Why would there be? I went back to my room, made sure I was alone, stuck my head into Emma’s room, thought I saw her sitting on her bed. I jumped in my skin. There was nothing there. Always this expectation of seeing the past play out in front of me. That’s when I heard the sobbing again, this time from below, deep in the belly of the house. I opened Lizzie’s door to the landing, stood there for a time, the clock ticking, filling the house. Light from the sitting room crept upstairs as I slowed to the guest bedroom, eared the door, I heard snoring. I looked at the front stairs, knew I’d have to go down into the sitting room to make sure nobody else was in the house, that nobody down there was crying.
I was creaky on the stairs, gave myself the creeps and wished I wasn’t so curious. Shadows played along the walls, the coat rack took human form. I walked into the sitting room as if in a dream, everything slow, then stood in the middle of the room. There was the sofa, the clock, the photos, the spaces where the family had stretched and breathed, loved and hated, lived and died. These remnants of the Bordens. This was still their home. I closed my eyes, pictured them all around me, didn’t like what I saw. I went back to bed, couldn’t bring myself to sleep. So I began taking notes in bed, listened to the house, this place I’d thought about for years, tried to distract myself with characters and mood, tried to figure out how the murders could take place in the house without anyone hearing a thing. But something was missing. What I needed was Lizzie, all that energy. After all, she was the one who brought me to Second Street. Where was she inside this house? If there was one thing the past had taught me it was that Lizzie lived inside dreams. I took a deep breath, inched down the bed, made myself small and waited for sleep, waited for her.
Sarah Schmidt’s critically acclaimed SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE, based around the Borden murders, is out in paperback today