"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Strange Death of Rebecca Cornell

Vintage photograph of the Cornell house.

All we know for certain about the last moments of 73-year-old widow Rebecca Briggs Cornell is that they were very horrible and very, very weird.

February 8, 1673 seemed a normal enough day for the Cornell family of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The only unusual event was that Rebecca failed to join the household (which consisted of her son Thomas, his wife Sarah and their six children, as well as two boarders) at dinner. She had been feeling ill during the day, and she allegedly said that the "salt-mackrill" served at the meal would disagree with her. Thomas sat with his mother for about ninety minutes, then left at about 7 p.m. to wind a "quill of yarne" before dinner. He later said he left her sitting by the large fireplace in her bedroom, peacefully smoking a clay pipe.

About 45 minutes later, Thomas' wife sent her stepson Edward to ask if Rebecca wanted something to eat. He was stunned to see flames in the room. He called for help. When the rest of the household entered the room, they found a charred body lying on the floor. What was left of Rebecca Cornell was so unrecognizable that at first, it was thought to be "a Drunken Indian burnt to Death." Strangely, the fireplace had "litell feyer," and the corpse was on the other end of the room.

The inquest into Cornell's shocking death was held the very next day. After the gruesome task of examining the corpse, the jury noted the obvious--that her clothes were "very much Burnt by fire," and the body "very much scorched and burnt." With little further ado, they concluded that the Cornell matriarch "was brought to her untimely death by an Unhappie Accident of fire as Shee satt in her Rome." The unfortunate woman was buried the following day, and that appeared to be that. Case closed.

However, if Rebecca's brother John Briggs was to be believed, the dead woman felt otherwise.

According to Briggs, on the night of February 12 his sister's ghost paid him a visit. The apparition's appearance was so startling that he was compelled to describe it to the deputy governor and council. Briggs stated that as he "lay in his Bedd...being between Sleepeing and Wakeing," something heaved up the bedclothes, forcing him fully awake. He "perceived A Light in the roome, like to the Dawning of the day, and plainely saw the shape and Apearance of A Woman standing by his Bed side." The understandably perturbed Briggs cried, "in the name of God what art thou?" The "Aperition" replied, "I am your sister Cornell...see how I was Burnt with fire." Indeed, in the spectral light, Briggs could see that the spirit was burned on the shoulders, face, and head. Although the ghost did not give any more details, Briggs believed his sister was implying that her death was due to foul play.

Briggs' story inspired one John Russill to come forward with revelations of his own. He claimed that shortly before Rebecca's death, an "Anchant frind" of his named George Soule confided to him that on a visit to the Cornell house, Rebecca told Soule that she planned to move in with her other son Samuel, "but shee feared shee should be made away before that time."

The citizens of Portsmouth became increasingly "Suspitious" that Rebecca Cornell's death was no "Unhappie Accident." It was no secret that the Cornell household was not a happy one. Very unusually for colonial America, Rebecca, not her 46-year-old son Thomas, was the head of her household. They lived in her home, and she was apparently not shy about exercising her authority and controlling the purse strings. In short, her middle-aged son was still dependent on his mother, and rumor had it that he greatly resented his subservience...resented it enough, perhaps, to finally free himself through murder.

Briggs and Russill were convincing enough for the deputy governor to convene a new inquest, and Rebecca's body was exhumed in order for a more thorough autopsy. Two surgeons from Newport were called in to see if any wounds could be found on the dead woman. A "Dilligent search" by the doctors found what they described as "A Suspitious wound" on her stomach. The surgeons believed it had been made "with sume instramen licke, or the iron spyndell of a spining whelle." Suddenly, the fact that Thomas Cornell had been winding yarn with an "iron spyndell" just before his mother's death took on a very sinister significance. Did he use it to stab his mother, and then set her on fire in order to cover up the deed? This second inquest panel now ruled that Rebecca had died not only from burns, but from a "Suspitious wound." Thomas Cornell was put under arrest, and a grand jury assembled. We have little idea of what Thomas' reputation was before his mother's death, but it is striking how despite the paucity of evidence against him, so many people were ready and eager to believe he committed the shocking and relatively rare crime of matricide.

Cornell insisted that neither he nor anyone else was "Instrumentall in any Measure" to procure his mother's death. He believed that "her Clothes tooke fire from A Cole" that dropped "From Her Pipe as shee sat Smoaking in Her Chaire."

Further damaging information emerged about the accused man. Henry Straite, who boarded with the Cornells, stated that it was highly unusual for Rebecca to not join them for meals, even when "Mackrill" was served. George Soule gave more details about his ominous conversation with Rebecca. Soule said she told him that "A difference was arisen between her and her son Thomas, about rent, and she hinted that Thomas would be willing to kill her to get his hands on her money. Soule believed she was genuinely in fear for her life. A neighbor named John Pearce testified that shortly after Rebecca's death, Thomas callously joked that "his Mother in her life time had A desire to have A good fire...that he thought God had answered her ends, for now shee had it."

Although legal precedent forbade wives from giving evidence, an exception was made in this case in order for the court to hear the vital testimony of Sarah Cornell. She largely confirmed her husband's account, but added the peculiar detail that when young Edward Cornell opened Rebecca's door, "the Great Dogg being in her roome, Leaped out over the Boy."

The what?

There was no other mention of the family owning a "Dogg"--particularly one big enough to leap over a teenager--leaving Sarah's remark as just one of the many puzzling details about this extremely odd case. In her book "Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell," Elaine Crane suggested that this was a reference to the many evil supernatural dogs of English folklore. Crane noted that these beasts "were often associated with flame and fire and could be either the ghost of a person come to rectify a wrong or the Devil in the shape of a dog...Indeed, the dog may have been Satan himself, whose presence at this catastrophic moment suggested that he had come to claim Rebecca's soul." Many wives have thought of their mother-in-law as a witch, but Crane proposed that Sarah meant it quite literally.

Sarah claimed to have no idea how Rebecca died, shrugging it off as simply "A wonderfull thing," pointing to the unnatural detail that "part of her Clothes being Cotton and wooll, the wooll was burnt and the cotton Remained whole."

Other significant testimony was given by Rebecca Cornell Woolsey, the dead woman's daughter. She stated that the last time she saw her mother, Mrs. Woolsey complained of being "Afflicted and Troubled," and that she sometimes thought of suicide. Rebecca Senior confessed that she herself "had beene divers yeares posest with an evill spirit, and that she was divers times Perswaded to make away with Her selfe." Mrs. Woolsey was clearly trying to exonerate her brother by insinuating that the elderly lady had ended her own life. Corroborating evidence was provided by Mary Cornell, the wife of Thomas' brother John. Her deposition stated that several years before, Rebecca had despairingly told her that feeling "weake" and "disregarded," she "thought to have stabd A Penknife in her Heart, that she had in her hand, and then she should be ridd of Her Trouble."

The Cornell family dirty laundry got a thorough airing in the court. A neighbor named Mary Almy revealed that she had "severall times observed an Undutyfullness in Thomas Cornell." Rebecca told her that "shee was much neglected, and that shee was forced in the winter season, in the cold wether to goe to her Bed unmade, and unwarmed." She also complained that when she was too unwell to join the family at meal times, "there was nothing brought in for Her to Eate." Even more ominously, Almy said that a Mrs. Shaw told her of a conversation she (Shaw) had overheard between Thomas Cornell and his wife, where the couple told each other, "If you will keepe my Councell I will keepe yours." Elizabeth Parsons, who had helped "lay out" Rebecca's body, testified that the corpse had fresh blood around the nose, adding that Thomas Cornell had been in the room at the time. (This was an obvious reference to the folklore that a murder victim can bleed when in the proximity of the killer.) Other neighbors recalled how Rebecca would complain to them of being ill-treated by Thomas' entire family, and that she was in great fear of both her son and daughter-in-law. She "was afrayed there would be mischiefe don." When asked why she did not separate herself from Thomas, Rebecca explained that she had legally made over her estate to him. Rebecca was quoted as adding, "if shee had thought her son Thomas first wife would have dyed before her, shee would not have made it over to him."

Elizabeth' Parsons' husband Hugh, one of the first neighbors to arrive on the scene after Rebecca's body was discovered, added still more incriminating details. He claimed that in Rebecca's room, he observed burnt cinders lying in "A traine" that "covered the floare in such A manner as if shee had beene drawne thether." In other words, he believed someone had dragged Rebecca's corpse to the place in the room where it had been found.

It was made clear that there were serious financial issues between Rebecca and her son. There had been an arrangement that Thomas was to pay her £6 a year for rent, as well as providing her with a maid. However, he refused to meet these obligations unless she released him from paying back £100 he had borrowed from her. This Rebecca would not do, on the grounds that this would be unfair to her other children.

After the grand jury heard all this, it ruled that Thomas "did violently kill his Mother, Rebecca Cornell, Widdow, or was ayding or Abetting thereto, in the Dwelling House of his sayd Mother." Thomas responded with a plea of "Not guilty," and a trial jury was engaged. At the end of his trial, on May 16, this panel also unanimously found that Thomas Cornell had murdered Rebecca Cornell. Evidently, all the talk of Thomas' unkindness to his mother, the alleged wound on the body, the fact that he was the last person to see her alive--not to mention the cameo appearance by Rebecca's ghost--was enough to convince jurors of his guilt. Thomas was hanged on May 23. His last request was that he be buried next to his mother. His wish was granted. Was this the act of an innocent man, or a murderer's show of remorse?

The Cornell burial plot.

Sarah Cornell was pregnant at the time of her husband's execution. She gave birth to a daughter a short time later. She named the child "Innocent."

Although the case against Thomas Cornell was closed, it certainly was not resolved. Despite the jury's verdict, we simply do not know for sure how Rebecca Cornell died. The testimony suggests that Thomas did indeed have the motive and opportunity to kill his mother, but, of course, that does not necessarily mean he did. There were no eyewitnesses, and a murder weapon was never found. Would Thomas have been reckless enough to commit a murder in such a fashion that he risked burning the entire house down?

It is also by no means clear that Rebecca's demise would have financially benefited her son. The £100 debt he owed her would, upon Rebecca's death, merely revert to her estate. And would the £6 rent really be enough to lead him to kill his own mother? The evidence about the bad relations between the two was based largely on hearsay, and it may be significant that none of these accounts accuse Thomas of physical abuse. For all we know, Rebecca may have deliberately exaggerated the ill-treatment she received from her son and daughter-in-law, in order to gain sympathy from her neighbors.

Hugh Parsons' damaging testimony about the trail of ashes on Rebecca's floor ignored the fact that by the time he arrived on the scene, Henry Straite had already "raked away the fire with his hands," altering the original pattern of the cinders. If Thomas had set his mother on fire 45 minutes before her body was found, Rebecca should have been much more consumed by the flames than the eyewitness testimony suggested. Additionally, the surgeons could have been mistaken about the "wound" they found on what must have been the badly decomposed corpse.

It is within the bounds of possibility that Rebecca did finally succumb to the "evill spirit" and kill herself. As a suicide's property was subject to forfeit, her family would have good reason to conceal any evidence that she ended her own life. Considering that one of the two doors in her bedroom led to the outside, it is conceivable that she was murdered by an intruder. Some modern researchers have even suggested that Rebecca was a victim of what is today known as "spontaneous human combustion." Or--to use Occam's Razor--perhaps the original inquest was correct, and the poor woman merely suffered an "Unhappie Accident."

The Cornell mystery was one that refused to die. In May 1674, a grand jury indicted an Indian named Wickhopash, a former servant of the Cornells, for "actinge abettinge or consentinge" to Rebecca's murder. Although few details about his trial survive, we know that in 1671, Wickhopash was found guilty of having stolen from Thomas Cornell. Perhaps it was theorized that he had committed the murder out of revenge. In any event, Wickhopash was acquitted. He immediately left the area, and disappears from history.

The final chapter of this grim saga came in October 1675, when Thomas' brother William brought a personal indictment against Sarah Cornell, accusing her of having participated in Rebecca's murder. As is the case with the trial of Wickhopash, there is no surviving record of the evidence that was brought against her. We only know that she too was found not guilty.

There is a 19th century postscript to this case--one that is far more famous today than the enigmatic death of Rebecca Cornell. A direct descendant of Thomas Cornell's posthumous daughter was a Fall River, Massachusetts lady named Lizzie Borden. In 1893 she, like Thomas Cornell, stood trial for the murder of a parent.

Of course, Lizzie was far luckier.


  1. Fascinating - a great yarn!

  2. Clearly Thomas Cornell wasn't convicted on the evidence - but then, unfortunately, not everyone found guilty is.

  3. Thomas Cornell is my 10th Great Grandfather. This family line is full of "supposed" murders. I wonder if it's genetic. This is also Lizzie Borden's line. There is another Borden who murdered 3 children by drowning them in a cistern and another Cornell who murdered a pastor she had an affair with.

    1. Thomas Cornell is my 11th Great Grandfather so I suppose were are family! That said there are some factual issues I want to clear up on the other cases. Eliza Borden killed only two of the three children and then herself. However, this was most likely due to postpartum depression. Also, she is a Borden by marriage and not by blood. The Cornell case is in reverse. Sarah Cornell was found to have hung herself, however Pastor Avery was charged with her death. He was never convicted.


Comments are moderated. Because no one gets to be rude and obnoxious around here except the author of this blog.