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The real Lizzie Borden?

In upcoming book, authors take an ax to the tale of Fall River woman acquitted of killing her parents

Michael Martins, curator of the Fall River Historical Society, and Dennis A. Binette have shed newlight on Lizzie Borden. Michael Martins, curator of the Fall River Historical Society, and Dennis A. Binette have shed newlight on Lizzie Borden.
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / November 28, 2010

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FALL RIVER — The infamous Lizzie Borden, 83 years dead and buried at Oak Grove Cemetery, continues to fascinate the mystery-loving public as a macabre marketing tool, a sociopathic killer, or the misunderstood daughter of a misanthropic miser.

At what is now the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, where her father and stepmother were hacked to death in 1892, a shop offers ax-wielding Lizzie Borden bobblehead dolls. Souvenir golf balls urge duffers to “keep hacking away.’’ And the writing on a woman’s top tells the world, “Everything I need to know about anger management I learned from Lizzie Borden.’’

But across the city, in a grand Victorian mansion that houses the Fall River Historical Society, a different woman is ready to emerge. In a forthcoming book eight years in the making, Lizzie Borden is a colorful, caring, and three-dimensional person who bears no resemblance to the black-and-white monster of popular culture.

“The Lizzie Borden of legend was not this woman, by any means,’’ said Michael Martins, coauthor of the book and curator of the society, which is the main repository for material related to Borden’s life and trial.

The Lizzie Borden that Martins and assistant curator Dennis Binette have uncovered is a warm and compassionate woman who loved children, protected animals, and spoke affection ately of her late father.

This is not the Lizzie Borden who, according to the children’s rhyme, “gave her mother 40 whacks’’ and “when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.’’

Never mind that the 12-man jury took only an hour to acquit her. In the court of public opinion, she stands guilty of one of the most sensational crimes of 19th-century America.

“She’s a perfect example of how gossip and innuendo can ruin a life,’’ Binette said. “We’ve unearthed a woman that not only no one knows, but no one expects.’’

The new portrait took shape when the descendants of Borden’s friends and acquaintances, tracked down through global detective work by Martins and Binette, began to share private papers and artifacts related to Borden. They passed along correspondence, greeting cards, household items, gifts, and clothing that Borden had given to their families.

“The material has always been out there, but people didn’t know where to look,’’ Martins said.

The result is a picture of a woman, and a thriving turn-of-the-century city, that became far richer than the simpler book of myth and fact that the pair had intended to write, Martins said.

The book, called “Parallel Lives: The Social Life of Lizzie A. Borden and Her Fall River,’’ is expected to be released early next year, Martins said. It focuses not on the well-chronicled crime, but rather on the city and the circumstances that surrounded Borden.

In the 1890s, Martins said, Fall River was the largest producer of cotton cloth in the United States and a place sharply divided between the wealthy and their workers. Andrew Jackson Borden, Lizzie’s father, a former carpenter and undertaker who became a successful investor, was on the fringes of upper Fall River society as he amassed an estate valued at $300,000.

That sum, worth $7 million today, did not translate into extravagance at the modest Borden household, located downtown on Second Street. The house had no running water, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing. Despite all of Borden’s wealth, the household’s waste was hauled outside in slop buckets.

Although he financed a grand tour of Europe for Lizzie, the younger of two daughters, she is believed to have become furious in 1887 when he bought a house where his second wife’s sister could live. Perhaps in Lizzie’s eyes, such purchases of real estate should have benefited his children instead.

“This was not a happy home,’’ tour guide Will Clawson said as he led a visitor around the three-floor Borden house. And Lizzie, who possibly robbed her parents of valuables, developed a reputation in Fall River as a kleptomaniac, Clawson added.

The fact that a pharmacist rebuffed her efforts to buy poison shortly before the murders only added to the suspicions. But that evidence, as well as other important circumstantial testimony, was not admitted at trial.

Afterward, Borden moved with her sister to a large home in the fashionable Highlands neighborhood, entertained actors at elegant parties, and traveled to swank hotels in Boston, New York, and Washington. Although Borden decided to remain in Fall River after the killings, those trips helped provide an escape from a city where eggs were thrown at her house, churchgoers shunned her at services, and rope-skipping children maligned her with the sing-song verses of a popular, new rhyme.

Martins and Binette declined to disclose new information from the book but said they are confident no other work has looked at Borden so comprehensively. What is striking, they said, is that their unconnected sources provided the same picture.

“They felt it was impossible that this woman could have committed such a heinous crime,’’ Martins said. “They are still protective of her memory.’’

At the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, which Lee-ann Wilber bought after a romantic Valentine’s Day stay in 2003, some staff members feel otherwise.

“Too much points toward her,’’ said Stephanie Grinvalsky, who tends the museum store. “I think she’s a liar.’’

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.