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A NEW ENGLAND MURDER STORY
Photo illustrations for this post are located at:
On Feb. 8, 1673, a 73-year old widow, Rebecca Cornell, was found deceased, burned to death, in front of her bedroom fireplace. Her son, Thomas Cornell, 46, was hung for her “murder” on May 23, 1673.
An air of mystery and intrigue surrounds this case that occurred on Acquidneck Island, located in Narragansset Bay, in the state of Rhode Island. On its northern end is Portsmouth. On its southern end is Newport. While there we confronted the investigation of questionable justice wrought in 1673.
I had recently read the book Killed Strangely: The Story of Rebecca Cornell by Elaine Forham Crane when we first visited the island on February 18, 2003, just after the Boston blizzard. Interestingly enough, the 2007 Memorial Day weekend included two references to that book. My neighbor’s sister from Connecticut borrowed it to begin reading while visiting my community. And while visiting distant relatives and good friends in Sykesville, Pa., we discovered their son recently read the book during a micro-history class at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
The book was an outgrowth of a study on elder abuse in the 1600-1700s in New England. Forham found enough information on the Rebecca Cornell case to write the book.
Did Thomas really commit murder? Or was it an accident? Could Rebecca’s nightgown have caught on fire, causing her to run about before collapsing? Was there a gross miscarriage of justice that day? These questions are explored in depth in Elaine Crane’s book, done while she was at Fordham University,
Killed Strangely thoroughly explores the issues of family abuse, aging and ghost testimony that arose out of this case.
The facts: Rebecca lived in her 100-acre multi-generational home with her son Thomas; his second wife Sarah; their two daughters; his four sons from his first marriage; a male lodger and a male servant.
Late afternoon on the fateful day, Thomas arrived home to find his mother feeling ill. Family members kept her company; Thomas talked with her for ninety minutes, but left at 7:00 p.m. to wind a “Quill of Yarn” before supper. Rebecca allegedly didn’t join the family supper because she didn’t want the “salt-mackrill” meal. About 45 minutes later grandson Edward went to her room to ask her if she wanted something else to eat. Seeing flames, he ran out to get a candle. Meanwhile, everyone ran in haste to Rebecca’s room, where she was burned beyond recognition.
Two nights later Rebecca’s ghost paid a surprise visit to her brother, John Briggs, a 64-year old grandfather. He reported that on seeing the shape of a woman by his bedside, he “cryed out, in the name of God what art thou…” The apparition replied, “I am your sister Cornell, and Twice sayd, see how I was Burnt with fire.” A later autopsy showed “A Suspitious wound on her in the upper-most part of the Stomake.”
Circumstantial evidence was stacked against Thomas. His relationship with his mother was rancorous, disrespectful and full of enmity. These emotions were fueled by financial conflict: she’d given him her estate but he had to divide 100 pounds among his siblings. He probably saw his mother, whose care weighed him down, “as someone who belittled him, thwarted his independence, and curtailed his upward mobility.” His temper, which Rebecca told people she feared, didn’t help.
There was also tension between Rebecca and Sarah, and his sons were unruly, creating a disorderly household.
Thomas, a patriarch “wannabe,” with a mother whose life extended beyond the norm of the day, had motive to murder. He also had access to a purported murder weapon, “sume instrumen licke or the iron spyndell of a spinning whelle.” And he was the last person to see Rebecca alive. He was tried, found guilty and hung, probably on Miantonomi Hill in Newport, a high spot chosen for its visibility to the crowds that gathered for the event.
Authorities and Thomas’s friends were uneasy about Thomas’s verdict. Two events indicated that God, too, was dissatisfied with the verdict: excessive rains drenched Rhode Island that summer; and a fire burned 30 houses a year later.
Who were the other suspects, if it was murder? Two doors gave access to Rebecca’s downstairs bedroom. Unrest existed between Europeans settlers and the Indians. An Indian named Wickhopash (a.k.a. Harry) had a motive for the crime. He’d been on “the losing end of criminal action for grand larceny brought by Thomas in June 1671” and had received a perceived excessive punishment. Often Indian revenge was taken out by attacking lone female family members, and arson was their tactic. In 1674 he was tried and acquitted in a loosely evidenced case for the killing.
In 1675 Thomas’s younger brother, William, presented persuasive evidence that Sarah had a role in Rebecca’s death. She was burdened with “catering to her demanding mother-in-law,” and she had a violent streak. She too was acquitted.
The theory of accidental death also remains. Rebecca might have tried making her own fire, caught herself on fire, fallen and dragged herself away from the hearth. She’d also confided in her daughter Rebecca that she’d considered suicide three times.
So whodunit? Was it murder? An accident? Or suicide? In our final days in New England we explored Acquidneck Island. Of course, we didn’t come up with any answers.
We first discovered the names Rebecca and Thomas Cornell when I received an updated paternal genealogy from my father’s cousin, Bob Davis, of Estero, Florida. Their Cornell names were genealogically preceded three more Thomas’s, three Gideons, a Gardner, William, Irving, William and my father, Robert. Rebecca’s line contains four murder stories, making it very colorful.
Sarah birthed Thomas’s last child, a daughter she named Innocent, after his hanging. Innocent is the ancestor to Lizzie Borden. The Cornell line also produced the founder of Cornell University, Ezra Cornell, and Carolyn Cornell Holland.
During the snowy, cold day we visited Acquidneck Island, we located the site of both the Cornell estate in Portsmouth and the Miantonomi Hill in Newport. Everything else was closed; we’d have to gather research at a later date.
We revisited Acquidneck Island October 2-3, 2003. We learned that the Cornell home, destroyed by fire in the mid-1800s, was rebuilt in the same style and is now a defunct restaurant. The estate grounds house a Navy installation guarded by a chain-link fence enclosing most of the Cornell estate. With snow-free roads, we could pick out property landmarks, but we couldn’t find the cemetery site where Rebecca was buried. We searched a road behind an adjacent apartment complex to no avail: it is either deteriorated to destruction or it might be on the Navy grounds. We followed a road leading to a public dock, where we enjoyed a picnic supper and a sunset over mainland Rhode Island—the same color-splashed sky the Cornell family would have seen several centuries ago (except for the electric lights). We stood next to the Wading River estuary (where the river meets the sea) and identified the bay-point that is a direct mile from the Cornell house.
In Newport we climbed the hill where Thomas Cornell was probably hung. It was a high hill at bayside, a site chosen because hundreds of people could come and witness the event. Today, there is a tall World War I memorial on top of the hill.
We can now compare the bay-side and hill-side pictures, taken covered with or barren of snow.
I descend from Thomas Cornell, whose life was taken either fairly or unfairly. I descend from Thomas’s son, Thomas. Lizzie Borden descends from Thomas the accused murder’s daughter Innocent. Thomas’s wife gave birth to Innocent following his death, and perhaps named the child in retaliation for her husband’s guilty verdict.
Note: Factual material on Rebecca and Thomas Cornell was taken from the book Killed Strangely.
For more information on Lizzy’s case, click on LIZZIE BORDEN—A REENACTMENT or type in Lizzy Borden murders on the Google Internet search engine. For information on the Rebecca Cornell murders type in Rebecca Cornell 1673, or read “Killed Strangely, the Story of Rebecca Cornell” by Elaine Forman Crane, 2002.
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The links below take you to the eight Thomas and Rebecca Cornell cemetery photos contributed to this article by their descendent, George Cornwell. If you read the comments below, you will learn that he and his brother John spent many “sweaty” hours cleaning up the cemetery. I appreciate George’s permission to post the photos.
A link to Kim’s photos:
ADDITIONAL READING ON NEW ENGLAND