Rare Lizzie Borden letter bought for Fall River Historical Society
FALL RIVER — Almost 126 years after it was originally written, a letter from Lizzie Borden has found its way to its destination — just three blocks from her home, although it traveled across the country first.
According to Fall River Historical Society Curator Michael Martins, the museum has acquired a rare letter written by Borden that was recently up for sale by RR Auction of Boston. The letter, which was on sale until Oct. 12, sold for $6,970.
The letter is “accompanied by the original mailing envelope addressed in Borden’s hand, with the stamp clipped off. Housed in a custom-designed purple leather presentation folder, with a gilt-stamped spine and blind stamped ‘L.B.’ axe on the front,” according to RR Auction.
Martins said a private foundation bought it on the Historical Society’s behalf, but he’s not at liberty to disclose which group that is.
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“They requested anonymity, but they were delighted to acquire it for the society,” Martins said. “They were thrilled that they were able to get it into our public collection.”
What’s in Lizzie Borden’s letter, and who did she send it to?
The letter, dated Dec. 9, 1896, was written by Borden only a few years after her father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden were killed on Aug. 4, 1892; the two were found dead in their Second Street home, butchered with a hatchet. Lizzie, the only suspect, was acquitted after a sensational trial that made international headlines due to the crime’s brutality and the blueblood status of those involved.
At the time of the letter’s writing, Lizzie and her sister, Emma, were living at 306 French St., a 13-room Victorian home that Lizzie would name Maplecroft shortly after the turn of the 20th century. The short letter, on personal letterhead, is addressed to Miss Jennie F. Boas of 227 Whipple St., and is a request for help with a project and some royal purple ribbon to “tie the pages.”
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Martins and Historical Society Assistant Curator Dennis Binette wrote about this letter in their landmark book “Parallel Lives: A Social History of Lizzie A. Borden and her Fall River,” published in 2010.
Martins said Boas “was a member of the Jewish community in Fall River, and she worked as a stenographer” in the Granite Block, a massive business center located about where Gromada Plaza is today.
According to “Parallel Lives,” Boas’ parents were David S. and Augusta (Nelson) Boas. David Boas was in “the men’s clothing business with Henry Strassman, founding the firm Strassman and Boas; the shop was located on South Main Street in the Borden Block, almost directly across from the A.J. Borden Building.” An ad for their business from 1875 places their store at 52 S. Main St., about where the Academy Building is.
It’s unknown how Borden and Boas knew each other, or exactly what project Lizzie needed ribbon for.
“What the pages referred to in the letter remains a mystery but, considering the date of the note, it is possible that the activity had something to do with the upcoming holiday,” Martins and Binette write in “Parallel Lives.” “Had Lizzie secured Jennie’s assistance in preparing pages for keepsake booklets intended as gifts for her closest friends at Christmastime?”
Adding it to the Historical Society’s collection
Martins said the letter will enter the museum’s vast repository of Lizzie Borden material, the world’s largest collection of primary source material pertaining to Borden’s life. It is available for people to use for research purposes.
“We don’t exhibit this type of material because of fading and paper’s ephemerous, and of course is prone to deterioration, so they’re only exhibited for special occasions,” Martins said. “But the collection here is a research collection so if people were interested in looking at the document — we don’t allow people to handle original documents like this because of their rarity, of course — but we would make facsimiles available.”
Martins said his next step is to establish the document’s provenance – tracing back each step in how the letter found its way into the marketplace and to his museum.
“It was last sold in 2019 by another auction house,” Martins said. “It had been around for quite a while. I can remember back in the late ’80s it was actually for sale by a dealer in California, who had a significant price on it at the time.”
This simple letter traveled from Lizzie’s hands to Boas’, wound up for sale across the continent, and then back home to Fall River; however that happened, Martins said, “we’re delighted to add it to the collection.”
Dan Medeiros can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News today.