Crime | April 6, 2021 11:16 am

The Lizzie Borden Murder House Has a New Owner

When does tragedy become a tourist attraction?

Exterior shot of dark green Greek Revival style home in Fall River, Massachusetts
Lizzie Borden may or may not have taken an ax.
Alamy Stock Photo

Congratulations are in order to the new owner of the Lizzie Borden house, the infamous Fall River, Massachusetts residence where Borden’s father and step-mother were found slain in a grizzly 1892 ax murder. Borden was ultimately acquitted of the crime, which officially remains unsolved, though folklore surrounding the nearly 130-year-old mystery tends to paint Borden as the culprit who literally got away with murder.

The home’s new owner, Lance Zaal, snapped the murder house up for $2 million after the property hit the market back in January and expects to become the home’s new owner in the coming months. “It’s not official yet. We still have to go through closing,” Zaal told Realtor. “It’s certainly a process. We’re buying the property as well as the business.”

That “business” would be the bed and breakfast the supposedly haunted residence has housed since the 1990s, offering both day tours and overnight stays to ghost enthusiasts. Zaal reportedly plans to keep the bed and breakfast running, adding a few new features in an attempt to appeal to a wider population of possible guests.

“We’ll be adding several different events for both visitors and locals. We want this to be a place where people can kind of come in just to have a good time as well,” said Zaal. “We really want to give more people a reason to go there — so more activities and more events.”

What kind of “activities and events” might one partake of at the site of a gruesome ax murder? Ax-throwing, of course, complete with Lizzie Borden-themed merch.

“We’re going to look at producing an official Lizzie Borden ax — that we will provide for ax-throwing, and also to sell to guests,” said Zaal.

Like any red-blooded American raised in Massachusetts, I too have long harbored a macabre fascination with the Lizzie Borden story. From the eerie if not entirely accurate jump-rope rhyme (Borden’s father and step-mother received around 11 and 18 “whacks,” respectively, not the 40 and 41 of the song) to the surprisingly well-done Lifetime movie starring Christina Ricci, the Borden murders remain a popular source of gory, sometimes campy entertainment.

But as even Zaal points out, the legacy surrounding Lizzie Borden isn’t just a fictional ghost story. This was a real, gruesome homicide in which two real, actual people died sudden, horrific deaths. “We’re not a haunted house. We don’t jump out and scare people,” Zaal said of his newly acquired residence. “This is legitimate, real history. Things happened here.” But at what point do those things become fodder for lurid, kitschy entertainment? When do we decide it’s okay to cash in real-life tragedy for TV movies and bed and breakfasts, to turn an ax murder into a family-friendly ax-throwing contest?

Again, I’m not saying I’m above Lizzie Borden fanfare. When the Christina Ricci movie came out in 2014 I watched it every time it came on TV for months, and I’m sure I could probably be persuaded to purchase an “official” Lizzie Borden ax from the gift shop. But it’s worth questioning what makes us decide certain tragedies remain sacred while others are fair game for folklore and merchandising.

In cases like Lizzie Borden’s, it would seem it’s more than just the old “tragedy plus time” equation. Figures like Borden, Bonnie and Clyde or even Casey Anthony seem to benefit from some kind of reverse cancel culture in which criminals (or assumed criminals), rise to a level of folk heroism, or at least anti-heroism. In Borden’s case, our lingering, lurid fascination can perhaps be attributed to the ambiguity, however dubious, of her guilt. Had Borden either been found guilty or more credibly acquitted, it seems unlikely there would still be this much interest in either her life or the death of her parents. But that doubt leaves just enough room for us to fill in the gaps with folklore, fascination and merchandise. We may never know what really happened in the Lizzie Borden house that day in 1892, but today you can go there to throw some official Lizzie Borden axes with the family in the very place Borden may or may not have slain hers.

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