Communing with Ghosts: Staying Overnight in the Lizzie Borden House
I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in the bedroom of an over 120 year old home. It was completely dark with the exception of a dot of red light shinning from the corner—a camcorder documenting the night’s events. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could start to make out the shapes of the people sitting on the floor around me. These people, approximately thirteen in all, were essentially strangers. I had only met them a few hours ago in the parlor of this old house. My best friend, Nicole, sat cross-legged on the floor directly to my right. Kel, an Australian filmmaker touring America on honeymoon with his new wife, Rey, was the one holding the camcorder. His goal that night? To visually capture our communion with the dead; particularly the two small children whose ghosts habitually haunted the very room in which we sat.
About ten minutes earlier, Ben, our guide and overall steward of the house, lead us all into the room and regaled us with a bit history. Back in the 1800s, a distraught woman who lived across the street drowned her two children in a well on the property of the house in which we stood. She then went back across the street and hung herself in her own home. The ghosts of the children stayed and there were many reports of their presence in this one particular room.
“If nobody objects, I would like to turn out the lights and attempt to talk to the children,” Ben added rather unexpectedly.
My heart quickened and my eyes widened. This is when I knew the tour was not any ordinary tour. It suddenly became more than I ever expected and everything I ever wanted.
I could tell I was not the only one jarred by Ben’s request. The reactions of the others (tiny gasps, uneasy expressions, averted eye contact, audible gulping proverbial lumps in the throat) in the room while subtle reverberated in the silence. Nobody objected but despite the fact we all choose to spend the night in a haunted house (some guests even equipped their own personal EMF meters) you could sense the communal vibe at that moment was nobody expected a spontaneous séance.
I suppose I should back-up a little. This haunted house is a very particular haunted house—it was once the home of Lizze Borden.
I remember learning about Lizzie Borden when I was a young girl. My grandfather surprised me with The Very Scary Almanac as a Halloween treat when I was just in the third grade. The cover of the fairly thin children’s book displays a large tombstone surrounded by a rat carrying a bone, a snake slithering thought the eye socket of a skull, and a decaying ghoul peering out from behind the grave marker.
The tag line under the title reads: Featuring frightening facts about vampires, werewolves, zombies, leeches, rats, Lizzie Borden, Friday the 13th, The Loch Ness Monster, Edgar Allan Poe, The Bermuda Triangle, Ouija Boards, Morticians, Poltergeists, Cannibals, Big Foot, Grave Robbers, Jack the Ripper, Horror Movies, Ad Nauseam…
I was immediately drawn to Lizzie Borden because in that long litany of horrors she was the only girl and for that reason alone I was drawn to her. I immediately tore through the book looking the page that would tell me more about Lizzie Borden. She was in the chapter titled ‘Horrible Humans,’ sandwiched between Jack the Ripper and Ed Gein. (Yes, this is a children’s book.)
If you’ve never heard of Lizzie Borden, allow me to share with you my first introduction to her from the passage in The Very Scary Almanac:
Lizzie Borden, 1860-1927
On August 4, 1892, an ax- wielding killer murdered Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother. Lizzie was arrested and put on trial. She was found not guilty, but many people continue to believe she committed the crimes, because of the compelling evidence against her and because she made conflicting statements under oath. Books are still written about her to this day—two in 1992 along: one trying to prove her guilt, the other attempting to show her innocence. A rhyme was even written about her, which, by the way, is not all true. Her father was whacked only eleven times,and her stepmother twenty-one times!
Lizzie inspired the rhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an ax,
And gave her father forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her mother forty-one.
A very elementary introduction to a rather complicated young woman but to an eight-year-old, I was entranced. This girl (woman, actually—she was 32 at the time of the murders but in my young mind…she was a girl) was pure evil! How could she just hack up her parents?! Yet, I wasn’t appalled; I was fascinated. I reveled in telling my friends the rhyme. Have you heard about Lizzie Bordern?! I would ask. Then I would delight them with the little ditty, feeling superior in dispelling my gruesome knowledge.
I was a pretty normal child. I loved my parents and they loved me. (To be clear, what I’m saying here is that I did not want to ax my mom and dad.) But I did always have a little Wednesday Addams in me. I delighted in the taboo and the macabre like an adolescent Catherine Moreland. Lizzie Borden was found innocent but despite what the passage stated about her acquittal, the image of a murderous, ax-wielding villain was forever imprinted in my mind. Even now, I doubt her innocence.
So twenty-three years after learning about Lizzie Borden, I spent the night in the house where these murders took place.
My best friend, Nicole, and I had talked about travelling to Salem, MA for years and we finally settled on going in early August of 2016. We spent a couple days relishing in the local history and lore of Witch City but for the last two days of our trip we decided to drive about two hours south to Fall River to spend the night at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast.
The Borden Bed and Breakfast stands at 92 Second Street in the historically prominent industrial city of Fall River. Fall River’s claim to fame arises from its textile manufacturing, the Battleship Cove Museum, which features the world’s largest collection of World War II navel vessels, and, of course, Lizzie Borden. For a little over hundred bucks you can reserve a room in this haunted house. The house was not originally a B&B; it was just a traditional home—with the exception of a couple murders taking place under its roof and on the property—but over time became a destination for curious ghost hunters and skeptics alike.
The house pretty much looks as it did during the time the Borden family lived there in the 1800s. There are some original structures/features still prominent in the home, notably the archways, doors, and the doorknobs, but mostly every room has been restored with reproductions of the original furnishings down to the wallpaper, the dishes, photographs, the curtains, etc. With the aid of crime scene photos, even the furniture has been arranged to model its original placement at the time of the murders. With the exception of a few, spare modern amenities, when you enter the front doors of the house, you do, in fact, feel as if you have stepped back in time.
Nicole and I were running behind our desired schedule. We planned on checking in to the B&B around four in the afternoon but as we shot down the interstate from Salem through Boston, it looked like we weren’t going to be in Fall River until closer to eight o’clock. Nicole called the B&B from the road. We worried that since it wasn’t a traditional hotel there would be nobody there to let us in our room that late in the evening.
“Hi, yes, we’ve reserved a one night stay in the Bridget Sullivan room. We are running behind but we will be there probably about eight o’clock. We are on the road now.”
“Okay, great, Thanks.”
“What did they say?” I asked.
“They said it would be fine.” Nicole replied, “That we would get there just in time for the tour.”
Tour? Although I researched the B&B a little bit the week before we visited, I didn’t remember reading anything about a tour on the website. Up until that point, I thought we were just paying to stay in a haunted house, hope to experience some supernatural bumps in the night, wake up and eat the breakfast included in our package before we hit the road to Logan Airport.
The tour, as it turned out, was more involved than I could ever anticipate and it began almost immediately when we entered the front door. Ben stood there in the foyer to greet us. Given that we were the last registered guests to arrive and we had called from road, he was expecting us. He led us to our room to set down our bags and said we would all be gathering in the parlor very soon to start the evening.
Every room was completely booked that night. The house was full. The other guests included a husband and wife in their 50s. They were from Philadelphia and on this trip celebrating her birthday. The wife proclaimed to be a devout believer in ghosts but her husband was more so a skeptic who told us this trip was “all her.” He was just “along for the ride.”
There were two friends, mid-aged women from New York; and one of the women also claimed to be medium. They both brought their own EMF meters and voice recorders.
There was a young couple that flew in from Virginia. The girlfriend was a nurse and the most I gathered from her boyfriend was he had inherited a couple hundred acres of farmland in which they lived on back home. They were recreational ghost hunters (as we learned of their past stays in haunted prisons) and I could tell they were giddy with excitement to be in this infamous murder house. They also brought their own EMF meter.
Next, there was a group of four middle-aged women, sisters from East Texas on a girls’ trip, who had no idea what to expect but in true Lone Star spirit were ready to go charging into the night with guns blazing all in the name of a good time.
There was the aforementioned honeymooning Aussie couple, loaded down with a ton of professional video gear and special permission from Ben to record all night and use this footage for their future documentary of haunted sites.
By the time Ben asked us if we were open and willing to communicate with ghosts, we collectively as a group had slowly inched from room to room learning the history and the events that unfolded in each space. The dinning room, where we were to breakfast in the morning, was where the bodies of Lizzie’s parents, Andrew Jackson Borden and Abby Borden, were laid out and examined after being found brutally murdered in the living room and the upstairs master bedroom, respectively. At one point, Ben staged a reenactment of the murder with a couple of guest volunteers. His intentions weren’t gratuitous. Ben was truly interested in the dispensing of history no matter how gruesome. He told us he was an elementary school history teacher. He lived almost two hours away but he had been working as a guide at the Borden House for over sixteen years because he loved the history of the place and he had a firm respect and interest in the supernatural. He shared many of his otherworldly experiences he had witnessed to over the years and he confidently knew that the ghosts of the Bordens and the two small children were in the house.
When the silence seemed to confirm our mutual willingness to participate in a séance, Ben took that as a go.
He looked around and asked that if anyone of us didn’t have our head in this—meaning if anybody thought this act of communing with dead and the supernatural in general was a bunch of hooey, if we could just please be respectful and leave the room.
Nobody said anything. Nobody budged. We were in it. Ben nodded and asked us to sit down and get comfortable before he turned out the lights. He pulled out his voice recorder and pushed ‘Record’ and placed it on the bed. Kel took his position in the corner with his video camera.
In the dark, Ben asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves to assure the children we were there to play with them and meant no harm. Ben told them we brought them two new toys for them to play with in addition to all the other toys in the chest in the corner room. Ben had been stockpiling the chest for a couple years so that the children would have something to play with at night. Guests who have stayed in this room in the past have reported the toys moving or rocking, children’s laughter and footsteps, and playful tugs to the corners of the sheets as they sleep. The husband and wife from Philadelphia had booked this room and would be sleeping there later that night.
The toys Ben was referring to were the voice recorder and the video camera. He told the children they could touch them or talk to them if they so liked.
He told us that the children loved to be read to and he had bought them a new book—Corduroy’s Best Halloween Ever. Ben asked any of us would like to read the book aloud. Nicole volunteered. As an actress and as a mother to young children herself, Nicole knows how to read a good bedtime story. Under the glow of a cell phone flashlight, Nicole charmed us with the story of a stuffed teddy bear planning his Halloween party for his animal pals. An enthralled group of adults sitting in the dark completely fascinated with Corduroy’s conundrum of what costume to wear to his own playful party. All of us waiting to know what this stuffed bear would pick and if the ghosts of dead children were in the room.
After Nicole finished reading, we all sat momentarily in awe of her performance and tensely waiting for some otherworldly response. After a moment or so, Ben suggested we all ask the children a question and then pause for a few seconds so that the voice recorder could pick up in kind of response.
We went around the room: What is your favorite game? Do you like candy? Do you miss your parents? Are you scared? What is your favorite book? Do you like living here? What is your favorite holiday? Do you wish people would leave you alone?
Then we sat in total silence for several minutes. I suddenly grabbed Nicole’s bare leg next to me overcome with the feeling of feeling. My chest was tight and all I could do was feel how heavy everything was around me. The air, people breathing, the dark, the etherealness of possibility, the stories of dead children, the fact I was so far from home—not just where I lived in Denton,Texas but so far from the world of my childhood which was someplace else, someplace real and not real, someplace in my mind caught between realms. It was all so heavy and it draped around me like a blanket.
Ben broke the silence.
“Well, I guess we will move on to the next room. I’m going to turn the lights back on. Get up slowly and take your time.”
And that was that.
Later that night, I asked Nicole what she thought of the experience of reading the book to the children. She told me in the silence that followed after she finished the story that she had heard children.
“Yeah, I heard the titter of children at play.”
“What did they sound like?”
The official tour of the house ended around midnight. We all gathered in the kitchen for cookies and coffee and that was when Ben suggested we all go to the graveyard. Oak Grove Cemetery, where the Borden family was buried, was a few miles away. We all packed in a couple cars, all of us except the ladies from Texas who opted to call it a night, and headed off into the night towards the final resting place of this haunting family.
The stars were out and the moon was bright as we crept through stone archway and the massive front gates. Ben told us that he had brought guests here before they had been locked in and had to call the police. Somebody asked Ben if what we were doing was illegal to which apathetically shrugged and casted the question off.
Nothing happened in the graveyard. We crowded around the graves and stared down at the murdered parents buried next to their daughter—their suspected murderer. We shuffled about in the grass and few dead leaves. One of the women from New York started disturbing the tokens left behind on Lizzie’s grave, picking them up, touching them, reading the notes left behind. I suddenly became very mad at her and wanted to leave. Those things weren’t for her.
When we got back to the house we all divided up. A few continue to roam the house, Ben eventually left to go back to his own home, and others went to sleep or tired to go to sleep. Nicole and I slept with the lights off. I barely slept at all, in and out of slumber where I would dare to open my eyes and stare and the crucifix hanging from the wall above our bed; and above that the sachet I made of herbs and salts and crystals and pinned to the ceiling over our bed for protection. Many times when I was awake but with my eyes shut tight, I felt something heavy in the room, something weighing down on my chest, but although the presence made me uncomfortable I knew it wouldn’t hurt me. I would steady my nerves by listening to Nicole’s breathing. I believed her when she said she heard the children. I believed she heard them and no one else because she was the one who read them the story, because she was the mother they needed.
The next morning we all trundled down to the dinning room for breakfast. Ben was gone, leaving us something in the early morning, and in his place was the cook, John. John was preparing us a feast of eggs, bacon, potatoes, fruit, and johnnycakes. The aroma of coffee wafted in the air and we all took a seat in room where the preliminary autopsies of John and Abby Borden took place.
After breakfast, Kel pulled out his laptop. He said he had something to show us, some of the recordings from last night’s reading. We crowed around to watch the green-tinted night vision footage of us all sacked out on the floor listening to Nicole read. Her voice is clear and animated. You can see our own shapes, our bodies occasionally shift as we listen, our heads mostly bowed as if in prayer. And then the scene in the room focuses, a tiny orb appears and then a boy’s face. He’s there. He’s with us. And then his face becomes a flash of light that swooshes upward. It congeals back into an orb and bounces above our heads until finally landing on Nicole and then it disappears.
Other things happened that night. Things I can’t really explain. We all heard voices. We all saw things. The husband from New York, the “I’m just along for the ride” guy, seemed a bit different that next morning, shaken. He said something was in their room last night, he felt something was there. All I can say is I feel it in body that those children were in that room, that I felt the energies and forces alive in the house, that the voices I heard were real. And there may be some skeptics; someone who can claim we all wanted what we experienced so we conjured it up in our minds, collectively and individually, that there are reasonable explanations for what we saw and heard, but I know what I felt and nobody can convince we otherwise. I don’t need answers or explanations; I am content in possibility. I am willing to believe there are such things.