• Sabrina Riley

Conflict of Interest


Often just identifying ancestors back to the 1600s or earlier is a major achievement. Understanding something about the time period and culture in which they lived provides context for the bare genealogical facts. To actually discover specific details of their lives, to have a window on their relationships, thoughts, feelings, and the detail of their daily lives is exceptional. In the case of my Cornell ancestors, a tragic set of circumstances left a record preserved by the Rhode Island General Assembly which reveals more than the typical facts about 17th-century Cornell ancestors. What follows is a "Cliff Notes" version of Elaine Forman Crane's book, Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell.

On May 23, 1673 in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, my 8th great-grandfather, Thomas Cornell II, was hung for the crime of murdering his mother, "the only fully recorded case of matricide in colonial America," (4) according to Crane. But whether or not Thomas actually killed his mother is far from a closed case. In fact, the evidence can be interpreted at least four different ways. Rebecca's death could have been an accident (the first ruling), she may have been murdered by her son (the second ruling), she might have committed suicide (something she threatened to do), or possibly someone else killed her (a possibility authorities considered after Thomas had already been convicted and executed).

So with evidence which can be plausibly interpreted so many ways, what information can be relied upon as fact? First, Rebecca (aged 72) died in her own room on the first floor of her home on the afternoon of February 8, 1673. Fire was involved, but Rebecca's death was judged an accident and she was buried on February 10. During the night of February 12 Rebecca's brother John Briggs claimed Rebecca's ghost appeared to him revealing that her death had not been an accident. John shared this experience with authorities on February 20 and shortly thereafter, his nephew was arrested. Rebecca's body was also disinterred for a second examination.

How could Thomas have been arrested on the basis of an apparition which may have actually been a dream? The ensuing testimony makes it clear that Rebecca and her son did not share a happy relationship. But whether Rebecca was an unhappy, impossible-to-please, crotchety old woman or the victim of elder abuse from a resentful and equally unhappy son is hard to determine. On Rebecca's side, as testified by her friends, she believed she was mistreated by her son and feared for her life. On Thomas' side, whatever other points of disagreement he had with his mother, as the 45-year old patriarch of the family, Rebecca should have turned her house and land over to him upon his father's death. Indeed, Rebecca exercised a great deal of authority as the executrix of her husband's estate. Instead Rebecca insisted on maintaining ownership of the property, although Thomas, his second wife, six children, and hired hands lived with her. And then there is the reported animosity between Thomas' second wife, Sarah Earle, and his mother. Furthermore, while Thomas was Rebecca's heir, her will stipulated he would receive no property from her until she died, although she distributed other property among his siblings while she was still living. And her will made a bequest to one daughter-in-law, Thomas' first wife, Elizabeth, suggesting they shared a warm relationship. Rebecca appears to have not gotten along with the much younger Sarah Earle. Perhaps this tension made the relationship with her son worse.

But without modern forensic science to pinpoint the time of Rebecca's death and specific cause, determine the source of the fire and how it was extinguished before the entire house was consumed (the family was in the next room eating supper at the time), identify the object which caused a wound in Rebecca's torso, and gather trace evidence of possible assailants, it is impossible to know the truth. Although pathology was more advanced in Europe and England, colonial medicine did not contribute any truly helpful knowledge. And most frustrating, evidence which today would be considered vitally important to the case was overlooked. In other words, not enough physical evidence was recorded to even attempt an historical forensic analysis.

But even more astounding in this case is how the legal system worked. John Brigg's apparition was admitted as evidence. The coroner, William Baulston, was also the executor of Rebecca's will and long-time friend of her husband, Thomas, Sr. In the 17th century juries were permitted to consider private information gathered outside of the trial. And religion may well have played a role. As noted in my previous post, Convergence, Rebecca joined the Quakers after her husband's death. Thomas did not and he may not have been particularly spiritually inclined as part of the generation for whom the Halfway Covenant was devised. Both inquest panels were dominated by Quakers who had reason to be more sympathetic to Rebecca. In the final trial there was a clear line between the panel of judges, mostly if not all Quaker, and jurists, mostly if not all Puritan. And in that era, judges were known to overrule juries. Based on the shakiness of the evidence, Thomas should have been acquitted, but he was not.

And after his death, authorities seemed to second guess themselves, trying Thomas' wife, Sarah, and a Native American, Wickhopash, who had resided with the family at the time. Both were acquitted. But the whole episode made people uncomfortable enough that little has been said about it in Rhode Island and Cornell family histories. In fact most genealogical notes presume that Thomas was falsely accused and executed. John Cornell in his 1902 family history calls the trial a "farce" (24). But in Crane's final analysis, although it is impossible to determine the truth over 340 years later, the possibility that Thomas really did murder his mother cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Sources:

Cornell, John. Genealogy of the Cornell Family: Being an Account of the Descendants of Thomas Cornell of Portsmouth, R. I. New York: A.T. Wright, 1902.

Crane Elaine Forman. Killed Strangely : The Death Of Rebecca Cornell. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; 2002.

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