A NEW ENGLAND MURDER STORY
Photo illustrations for this post are located at:
For Cornell descendants: There is a RI_Ancestors — Yahoo Group — you might want to join. Check it out! Carolyn Cornell Holland
February 8, 1673.
The body of Rebecca Cornell, 73, of Portsmouth, was found burned to death in front of her bedroom fireplace. The death of the widow of Thomas Cornell is suspicious.
Late afternoon on the fateful day Rebecca’s son Thomas arrived home to find his mother feeling ill. Family members took turns keeping 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 at supper because she didn’t want the “salt-mackrill” meal. After about 45 minutes her 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 her room, where they found her burned beyond recognition.
Two nights later Rebecca’s brother, John Briggs, a 64-year old grandfather, was surprised by a visit from a ghost. Upon seeing the shape of a woman by his bedside, he “cryed out, in the name of God what art thou…”
“I am your sister Cornell. See how I was Burnt with fire,” the apparition replied, then repeated: “See how I was Burnt with fire.”
A later autopsy showed “A Suspitious wound on her in the upper-most part of the Stomake.”
In the 21st century an air of mystery and intrigue still surrounds this murder that occurred on Acquidneck Island, located in Narragansset Bay, in the state of Rhode Island. The town of Portsmouth was on the north half of the island. Newport was on the southern half.
Rebecca’s son, Thomas Cornell, 46, was accused and tried for his mother’s “murder.” Circumstantial evidence was stacked against him. A patriarch “wannabe,” he was the last person to see Rebecca alive.
His relationship with his mother was rancorous, disrespectful and full of enmity. He likely saw her “as someone who belittled him, thwarted his independence, and curtailed his upward mobility.” Caring for Rebecca, whose life extended beyond the norm of the day, weighed him down. Financial conflict fueled his emotions: she’d given him her estate with the stipulation that he had to divide 100 pounds among his siblings. His temper, which Rebecca told people she feared, didn’t help.
Thomas not only had motive to murder, he also had access to a purported murder weapon, “sume instrumen licke or the iron spyndell of a spinning whelle.” 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 this event.
He was found guilty, and on May 23, 1673, he was hung in Newport.
Thomas’s wife gave birth to their last child, a daughter, after his hanging. Sarah named this child Innocent, perhaps in retaliation for her husband’s guilty verdict.
Did Thomas commit murder? Or was there a gross miscarriage of justice the day he was hung?
After the fact authorities and Thomas’s friends were uneasy about the guilty 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.
If Thomas wasn’t guilty, what happened? Who were the other suspects?
Unrest existed between the Island’s Europeans settlers and the Indians. Often Indian revenge was taken out by attacking lone female family members, and arson was their tactic.
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. He could have entered Rebecca’s downstairs bedroom through one of two doors. In 1674, in a loosely evidenced case, he was tried for the killing.
Could Thomas’s wife Sarah, who had a violent streak, have had a role in Rebecca’s death? Tension existed between the two women. Sarah was burdened with “catering to her demanding mother-in-law.” That Thomas’ sons were unruly, creating a disorderly household, didn’t help. In 1675 Thomas’s younger brother, William, presented persuasive evidence that Sarah did have a role in Rebecca’s death.
Both Harry and Sarah were acquitted.
Could Rebecca’s death have been an accident caused by her nightgown catching fire when she put a log in the fireplace?
Was her death was accidental? Rebecca might have tried making her own fire, caught her nightgown on fire, fallen and dragged herself away from the hearth.
Perhaps Rebecca committed suicide. On three occasions she’d confided in her daughter Rebecca that she’d considered suicide.
So whodunit? Was it murder? An accident? Suicide?
These questions are explored in depth in Killed Strangely: The Story of Rebecca Cornell by Elaine Crane, written while she was at Fordham University The book is an outgrowth of a study on elder abuse in New England during the 1600-1700s. Crane uncovered enough information on the Rebecca Cornell case to write this book, in which she thoroughly explores the issues of family abuse, aging and ghost testimony, all found in the trial transcript.
I discovered the story of Rebecca Cornell and her son Thomas when I received an updated paternal genealogy from my father’s cousin, Bob Davis, of Estero, Florida. Rebecca and Thomas were the Cornell family’s original New England ancestors. The line I descend from contains three more Thomas’s, three Gideons, Gardner, William, Irving, William and my father, Robert.
The Rebecca and Thomas Cornell family line contains four murder stories, the most well-known being the Lizzie Borden case. Lizzy Borden was a descendent of Innocent.
I’d read Killed Strangely before my husband Monte and I made our first visit to Acquidneck Island on February 18, 2003. During the snowy, cold day we confronted the investigation of the questionable justice wrought in 1673 by locating the site of both the Cornell estate in Portsmouth and the place where Thomas was hung, Miantonomi Hill. Everything else was closed; we’d have to gather research at a later date.
We revisited Acquidneck Island October 2-3, 2006. In Newport we climbed Miantonomi 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.
In Middletown(carved out of Portsmouth and Newport) we followed a road leading to a public dock, where we enjoyed a picnic supper and a sunset over Conanicut Island (the location of Jamestown, Rhode Island)—the same color-splashed sky the Cornell family would have seen several centuries previously (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.
We learned that the Cornell home, destroyed by fire in the mid-1800s, was rebuilt in the same style. In 2006 it was a defunct restaurant. The estate grounds house part of 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 locate the cemetery site where Rebecca was buried. We searched a road behind an adjacent apartment complex to no avail: it had either deteriorated to destruction, it might be on the Navy grounds, or it was hidden well.
In 2008, with the help of a local Cornell family descendent guide, we found the cemetery, located in a woodsy spot behind a condominium development. There were perhaps a dozen or more stones, most with lettering washed off. The stones that were readable were dated between the late 1600s to the mid-1800s. Remnants of a rusty metal fence, supported by cement posts, surrounded two sides of the cemetery, which was covered with overgrowth. The writing on the stones faced south. There was a sign denoting that we were in a historic cemetery.
(UPDATE on the cemetery: IN NEW ENGLAND, HISTORY CONFLICTS WITH PROGRESS )
In our exploration of Acquidneck Island we didn’t come up with any answers.
As a final note, the Rebecca and Thomas genealogy (though not in son Thomas’s line) includes another well-known person: Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University.
Factual material on Rebecca and Thomas Cornell was taken from the book Killed Strangely, the Story of Rebecca Cornell by Elaine Forman Crane, 2002.
For online information on the Rebecca Cornell murders Google Rebecca Cornell 1673.
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.
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