Rebecca Cornell’s Death: How Elder Abuse, Ghosts, Guilt, and Legal Testimonies Mattered in 1673

By Alicia Bertrand, M.A.

*Trigger Warning: this article deals with themes such as murder, elder abuse, suicide, and other difficult topics.

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There are few stories that encompass all of the topics I love: ghosts, family history, murder mysteries, and strange legal precedents. The story of Rebecca Cornell and her son Thomas embodies all of these topics; and is so strange that it has been the subject of many articles, books, and even a play.[1] Almost 350 years ago, a murder trial brought to light many issues that affect families and communities today. Issues such as elder abuse, conflicts between in-laws, monetary arguments, and other common family problems we can all understand. This article outlines Thomas and Rebecca Cornell’s family in the 17th century, Rebecca’s death; and how spectral evidence, witness testimonies, and early colonial law led to the hanging of Thomas Cornell Jr. in 1673. The article ends with a connection to another alleged parent murderer that descended from this bloodline.

Background

Rebecca Briggs was born on October 25, 1600 to Henrie Briggs and Mary Hinkes in London, Middlesex, England.[2] Her husband, Thomas Cornell, was born in 1594 in Fairstead, Essex, England.[3] Thomas and Rebecca married on June 9, 1620 at St. Mary the Virgin church in Saffron Waldon, England.[4] They had numerous children while in England. In 1636, the Cornell family immigrated to Boston, Massachusetts, USA.[5]

 The Cornell family were friends with Ann Hutchison and the Antinomians, a religious group that were kicked out of Boston and founded the Portsmouth, Rhode Island area. Thomas received “freeman” status and then became constable in Portsmouth in 1640.[6] He and his family were in good standing in this New England society. In 1642, the Cornell, Williams, Throckmorton, and Hutchison families moved to an area of New Amsterdam, in present-day Bronx borough. However, the families fled when Governor William Kieft attacked two local indigenous groups in February 1643, and the indigenous peoples retaliated with attacks on the white colonists of New Amsterdam.[7] The Hutchison family was killed, but the Cornell family fled without loss of life back to Portsmouth. It was in February 1646 that Thomas Cornell had the Cornell homestead built in which Rebecca’s life would strangely end, and her death would cause familial strife for generations to come.

Photo source: [Rev. John Cornell, Genealogy of the Cornell family: being an account of the descendants of Thomas Cornell, Portsmouth, R.I., (New York: Press of T.A. Wright, 1902), frontispieces]

The Family

Thomas and Rebecca Cornell had the following children: Sarah (b.1623); Ann (b.1624); Richard (b. 1624); William (b. 1625); Thomas Jr. (b. 1627); Rebecca (b. 1629); John (b.1634); Elizabeth (b. 1637); Joshua (b. 1643); Samuel (b. 1644); and Mary (b. 1644).

Sarah, the eldest, had married while the family lived in New Amsterdam, and did not go back to Portsmouth after the indigenous retaliations.

Thomas Jr. married Elizabeth Fiscock on November 2, 1642.[8] They had four children: Thomas III, Edward, Stephen, and John. Elizabeth died, so Thomas married Sarah Earle. By February 1673, they had two children, Sarah and Mary, and were pregnant with their third.

The Cornell household also housed a boarder, Henry Straite,[9] and a servant, James Moills, in 1673, a total of eleven people in a large home, but a crowded one.

The Issues

Property

The 100 acres of this plot and homestead in Portsmouth would become a contentious issue between Thomas Jr. and his mother after Thomas Sr.’s death in 1656. Rebecca had given tracts of land by deed of gift to some of her other sons, but Thomas Jr., whom lived with her in the Cornell homestead, was not given land without condition. Rebecca, acting as executrix of her husband’s Will, bequeathed “Cornell’s Neck” near Westchester, New York to her eldest daughter, Sarah and husband Charles Bridges.[10] The death of Rebecca Cornell caused Thomas Pell to sue for the “Cornell’s Neck” land. It caused years of legal disputes for Sarah Bridges.[11] Thomas wanted land from his father or mother’s estate, but had to live with his mother if he wanted a stake in the Cornell homestead he resided in.

Monetary Issues

34-year-old George Soule stated that Rebecca told him she wanted to live with her son Samuel in the Spring of 1673. She told him that she and Thomas had disagreements about rent. He also wanted money to build a house on the land. 38-year-old Joane Coggeshall stated that she was told Thomas “carried himself unkindly” to his mother by detaining her rent and not giving her money. Thomas was under his mother’s monetary thumb, which as a 46-year-old man in the 17th century, could have caused disparagement. Soule also noted that Rebecca implied that Thomas had threatened her with “a bond on her head” and that she would move to Samuel’s “if she was not otherwise disposed of, or made away.”[12] If Rebecca had gone to live with Samuel, it would have left Thomas with less financial power over the home and estate he tried to obtain. Rebecca told a neighbour that if she had known Thomas’ first wife Elizabeth was going to die before her, she would have never made her estate and Will over to Thomas.[13]

Elder Abuse

33-year-old Mary Almy stated that she saw numerous instances of Thomas being “undutiful” to his mother. She noted that Rebecca told her that she was neglected, and in the winter months she would go to bed unmade, cold, and un-warmed (by a copper bed warmer) and would have to wrap herself in woolen cloth to stay warm. Almy also noted that Rebecca mentioned that she could not eat when the rest of the family ate, due to fasting, and that nothing was brought to her when she was not in her time of fasting. 33-year-old Patience Coggeshall stated that Rebecca greatly wept to her and her sister Joane one day that she was sick of feeling like a maid for her son. Rebecca also told them that Thomas and his wife Sarah were “very cross to her” and that she did not like Sarah because she once chased after one of her step-children with an axe, but Rebecca stopped her from causing harm to her grandchildren.[14]

73-year-old Nicholas Wild agreed with this statement, and said that Rebecca also told him Thomas refused to pay certain monies to her, and that she was treated like a maid. She told him she was forced to go out into the snow for wood and would cry often due to her “grief and troubles.”[15] His wife, Sarah Wild accounted for Thomas’ cruelty to his mother via verbal abuse.

Suicidal Thoughts

28-year-old Mary Cornell (née Russell), wife of John Cornell, Rebecca’s son, stated that 3-4-years prior, Rebecca confided in her that she was weak and tired but made to chase after pigs and do hard work around the house. She said that she had thoughts of stabbing herself in the heart with her pen-knife “to be rid of her troubles”, but that she resisted the Devil and would not “satisfy him”.[16]

44-year-old Rebecca Woollsey, Rebecca’s daughter, described a day in which she confided in her mother that after she survived a bout of smallpox, she had suicidal thoughts of drowning herself, or stabbing herself. She said that her mother told her to pray to God and trust he would help, as he had helped her in the past when she too had wanted to “make away with herself” yet God “preserved her.” When her daughter said that she should tell Thomas about their mothers’ thoughts, she stated her mother pleaded that she not tell him.[17]

The Day of Rebecca’s Death

On February 8, 1673, Rebecca Cornell sat in her room. Thomas testified that he sat and spoke with her for an hour and a half before going to the table for dinner. She had allegedly refused salted mackerel and did not want to come out for dinner. Sarah then asked her step-son Edward to go ask his grandmother if she would like boiled milk for dinner. As a 73-year-old woman, perhaps it was easier to digest boiled milk than fish. She needed something to keep her strength up in the cold February Rhode Island weather.

Edward entered her bedroom and then yelled out for help. A body lay charred on the floor. At first, Henry Straite thought it was a “drunken Indian” that had either attempted to break in, or had an accident, that lay upon the floor. Thomas testified that he was the one to recognize his mother.[18] William Baulston, the coroner, testified that Rebecca was deeply burned from the legs to the armpits. He and Joshua Coggeshall studied the portions of unburnt clothing on her body and the burned rest of her body. They declared that she had come to her death via an “unhappy accident” of fire as she sat in her room.[19] The strange aspect of the body not being completely burnt is how Straite and her family members did not recognize her if she was not full engulfed and burned. Yes, they were looking upon her corpse in the dark and by candlelight, but Rebecca would have had a certain wardrobe, and her grandchildren and son should have recognized the “unburnt” parts of her clothing. So, how did this “unhappy accident” turn into a murder trial against Thomas Cornell?

A ghost.

It took John Briggs, Rebecca’s 64-year-old brother, a week to come forward with a vague allegation that she was murdered, via a ghostly apparition that appeared to him one evening while he lay in bed. On February 20, 1673 at Thomas’ trial, that ““he was much affrighted and cryed out, in the name of God, what are you?” The apparition answered “I am your sister Cornell,” and twice said, “See how I was burnt with fire.””[20] The ghost did not directly accuse Thomas of murder. However, the language of “I was burnt with fire” differed enough to put it into question whether it was truly an accident.

Thomas testified that his mother regularly smoked a pipe, and the ash or ember from her pipe could have caused a fire while she slept in her chair, or that she was too slow to get up to save herself. If she was asleep and caught fire and died of shock from waking up on fire, she would not have made noise for the ten other people in the house to hear. However, if she was awake and sitting in her chair, caught fire, and yelled out, she would have been heard by her other family members in the house. Thomas told the jury that his mother’s clothing was made of cotton and wool, two highly flammable fabrics. Could an ember from her pipe, or the fireplace, engulf her without spreading to the room? Or did someone ensure that the home was spared, but she was not?

Based on the spectral accusation, two examiners, Henry Greenland and Simon Cooper, were sent to exhume Rebecca’s body and re-examine it. Upon this secondary examination, Greenland and Cooper found a “suspicious wound in the Body of the sayd Rebeca Cornell in the uppermost part of her Stomake.”[21] There was supposedly a hole near her heart, and clotted blood that indicated force. However, New England doctors in the colonies were not as highly educated as their English and Scottish counterparts. Could they have made a mistake by examining an already cleaned and buried corpse?

The case caused Portsmouth to churn the rumour mill into high speed. Over twenty-five individuals were called in for testimony for the case. It was important not only for legal precedence in Rhode Island, but also the colonists’ beliefs in certain testimonies, and spectral evidence.

Robert Smith described her death in a letter to John Winthrop:

“We have noe newes latly I supose butt what you have hard, onley att Rhod Island a sade aixedent latly hapned. Ould Mistrs Cornall who lived with her sone wase found burned to death nerly to a cole. Butt litell feyer being in the rome and she not neare it wher shee laye ded, severall pepoll being in the next rome, only a perticion of bords betweene, nott hard her cry, nor smelt her wolone cloths tho burned to a cole, having no coten cloths aboutt her, an inquest pased on her who returned a verditt thett shee was burned to deth by fyer, so shee was buryed. In a shortt time aftwards an aperriscion apeared to one mr Briges who was a frend of this Mistris Cornall. As he laye in his bed she heved up the cloths and awacked him, she standing by his bed side: he asked her in the name of God who she was, she replyed she was his sister Cornell, soe sd she howe I am burned with fyer, and a glimering light apeared in the rome, wher he afermeth on his injagment he perfectly sawe her deformed with the feyer, to his greatt astonishment. One devilging of which and the obscervanc sume had of the unkindnes used by her sonns behaver twowards his mother when living and after she laye ded, she was by the athoroty taken up agayne and serched by the curirgions with a juroy also of 24 men, who found a wound thatt went in neare her hartt. Shee being riped open found doted bloud a greatt deall, the hole suposed to be made with sume inftramen licke, or the iron spyndell of a spining whelle. One which Tho. Cornall was aprehended, being her sonn, who denyse it; he is comited to prison to be scequred untell Maye Courtt. If he be gilty its an excrabell murder; he confeseth he was the last man was in her company and not above ¾ of an ower before she was fownd ded.”[22] [Original spelling kept for authenticity]

Spectral Evidence in the United States

The Cornell murder case was one of the earliest recorded cases in which spectral evidence was allowed in a trial.[23] Before John Briggs’ testimony that Rebecca Cornell’s ghost appeared to him, the coroner had deemed her death an accident. Although, initial coroner reports can be incorrect.

Spectral evidence was used to convict 19 persons in the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials under the Court of Oyer and Terminer from March to October 1692.[24] The definition of spectral evidence in regards to the Salem witch trials revolves around the accused appearing as a spectral apparition due to their contract with the Devil.[25] Whereas, in the Cornell case, the spectral apparition was the victim. In October 1692, Superior Court of Judicature replaced the Court of Oyer and Terminer. It was directed to ignore all spectral evidence and rely on facts.

It is interesting how in 1673, a man who testifies to a religious (mostly Quaker) community that he saw his sister’s ghost is taken seriously, and his testimony leads to a man’s conviction, whereas 22-years earlier, my 10th-great-grandmother Alice Lake was hanged for witchcraft because she dreamt of her dead child.[26] John Briggs had the luxury of a) being a man and b) being a reputable man in his community.

Testimonies Led to Further Questions

The peculiar testimonies from numerous people who were in the house the night of Rebecca Cornell’s death, and those who knew her and the family, were rife with contradictory statements. Thomas’ wife Sarah gave testimony that seems to accuse her elderly mother-in-law of witchcraft. She and her husband both made statements about God doing his work by taking her life. Sarah was the only person in the household to mention a “great dog” that jumped over her step-son when he opened the door of Rebecca’s room to alert them of something wrong.[27] Perhaps, as an English immigrant, she believed in the evil black dog of English superstition. Sarah also mentioned something that would come across as abnormal to the jury, that Rebecca’s wool was burned, but cotton was not. She implied that something evil had been at work and it was not her husband that caused Rebecca’s death.

Most of Rebecca’s teenage grandchildren testified similar accounts to Straite. The question that the prosecutors focused on was that numerous eyewitnesses stated that part of a curtain and bed skirt were slightly burned, but the bedsheets were not. How did the fabric become alight, but go out? The prosecution alleged that Thomas had ensured his mother burned, but the furniture and house he was to inherit would not be damaged. If she was alone in the room and on fire, how would the curtain and bedskirt not continue to burn? These questions were never answered. Hugh Parsons testified that he believed the streaks in the soot near the fireplace was from Rebecca’s body being dragged, and not that she dragged herself away from the fire.[28] Thomas, possibly attempting a joke, told 41-year-old John Pearce that his mother “loved a good fire” and that God had “answered her ends.”[29] If he was innocent of murder, he was guilty of a poor taste in humour.

Sentenced to be Hanged

A trial that began based on a ghostly apparition also heard weeks of testimony from family and friends about the demeanor of the Cornell family. The first testimony was given on February 21, 1673, and the last was given on May 16th. The jury found Thomas Cornell guilty of the murder of his mother Rebecca Cornell. He was sentenced to be hanged on May 23rd. He was hanged in the gallows in Newport, Rhode Island. His body was not buried with his parents, although his neighbours and some friends petitioned for him to be buried in the family plot.

His brother William supposedly attempted to charge Sarah and an indigenous servant of the family with being accessories to the murder, but were both acquitted. However, none of the blogs that state this story of Sarah and an indigenous man cite any primary source evidence, and the stories are rife with racist undertones against the indigenous man Wickopash.[30] Therefore, I give that tale no credence here.

Innocent

Sarah Cornell gave birth to Thomas’ seventh child after he had been hanged for the murder of his mother. She named her daughter Innocent. A tribute to her true feelings towards her husbands’ innocence. Innocent would later marry Richard Borden. Her 4th great-granddaughter, Elizabeth, would go on trial for murdering her father and step-mother. We know her as Lizzie Borden.

Questions

What do you think happened to Rebecca Cornell? Leave a comment on this article with your thoughts:

  1. It was an accident
  2. Thomas, her son killed her
  3. Someone else killed her
  4. It was a suicide

Conclusion

The reason why this story is so interesting to me is not only due to ghosts and strange tales, but because Rebecca Cornell is my 10th-great grandmother. The strange tale of her death is in my blood, and many others across North America. Not only was Thomas Cornell hanged for murdering his mother, but via his daughter Innocent[31], one of his descendants would also be charged for parental homicide, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Borden, my 7th cousin 4x removed. A family with these skeletons in its ancestral closet must write about it! The story is integral to historians who write about how society has not, but should, learn from its mistakes. The Cornell family had issues that many families still deal with in society today. These issues were also known to numerous family members and friends, yet no one spoke out about it until it was too late. Intergenerational squabbles, property disputes, estate disputes, and not liking one’s in-laws, will likely be issues society deals with indefinitely. We may hope that we can learn to treat family members with kindness across all generations… or be haunted by them if we chose not to.  

If you, or someone you know, is the victim of elder abuse, please go to: https://eapon.ca/ for more information.

***

Disclaimer: This article is current as of April 21, 2022. Ancestry by Alicia assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this site. The information contained in this site is provided on an “as is” basis with no guarantees of completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or timeliness.

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[1] Elaine Forman Crane, Killed strangely : the death of Rebecca Cornell, (Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 2002); Portsmouth Community Theater, “The Ghostly Witness”, play by the Portsmouth Historical Society, 2019, <https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2019/09/01/cast-of-characters-ghostly-witness-rebecca-cornell/&gt;; New England Historical Society, “The 1673 Murder of Rebecca Cornell and the ‘Good Fire’”, <https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/1673-murder-rebecca-cornell-and-good-fire/&gt;; Strange Company, “The Strange Death of Rebecca Cornell,”  July 3, 2017, <http://strangeco.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-strange-death-of-rebecca-cornell.html&gt;.

[2] Ancestry.com. Web: Netherlands, GenealogieOnline Trees Index, 1000-2015 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. Original data: GenealogieOnline. Coret Genealogie. <http://www.genealogieonline.nl/en/&gt;: accessed 31 August 2015.

[3] (Parents unknown). Ancestry.com. Web: Netherlands, GenealogieOnline Trees Index, 1000-2015 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. Original data: GenealogieOnline. Coret Genealogie. <http://www.genealogieonline.nl/en/&gt;: accessed 31 August 2015.

[4] Genealogical Publishing Co.; Baltimore, MD, USA; Volume Title: New England Marriages Prior to 1700, pg. 183.

[5] Place: Boston, Massachusetts; Year: 1636; Page Number: 23; Rev. John Cornell, Genealogy of the Cornell family

: being an account of the descendants of Thomas Cornell, Portsmouth, R.I., (New York: Press of T.A. Wright, 1902), pg. 17.

[6] Ibid, pg. 18.

[7] Ibid, pg. 19.

[8] Genealogical Publishing Co.; Baltimore, MD, USA; Volume Title: New England Marriages Prior to 1700, pg. 183; John Osborne Austin, The genealogical dictionary of Rhode Island: comprising three generations of settlers who came before 1690: with many families carried to the fourth generation, (Albany: J. Munsell’s sons, 1887), pg. 54.

[9] Crane, pg. 11; “Trial of Thomas Cornell for the murder of his mother, Rebeca Cornell,” Records of the General Court of Trials 1671-1704; Newport Court Book A; October 1673, Transcribed verbatim by Jane Fletcher Fiske, 1998, <http://sites.rootsweb.com/~rinewpor/Cornell.html&gt;

[10] “North America, Family Histories, 1500-2000”, pg. 55. Ancestry.com. North America, Family Histories, 1500-2000 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016; Blake A. Bell, “The 1665 Lawsuit Against Thomas Pell Over Cornell’s Neck Which He Claimed as Part of the Manor of Pelham”, Historic Pelham, June 20, 2018, (available online: <http://historicpelham.blogspot.com/2018/06/the-1665-lawsuit-against-thomas-pell.html&gt;)

[11] Ibid; Cornell, 21.

[12] Records of the General Court of Trials 1671-1704.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid; Volume Number and Title: Vol· 07: Friends and Ministers: Births, Baptisms, Marriages, Deaths, pg. 12.

[19] Records of the General Court of Trials 1671-1704.

[20] Austin, pg. 26; Records of the General Court of Trials 1671-1704.

[21] Records of the General Court of Trials 1671-1704.

[22] Daniel Berkeley Updike, Richard Smith, first English settler of the Narragansett country, Rhode Island, (Boston: Merrymount Press, 1937), pg. 93.

[23] Emphasis on recorded, because Rhode Island had decided to record trials early on so there could be instances lost to history due to it not being documented.

[24] Catherine Bransfield, “The Devil Made Me Do It,” Massachusetts Law Updates, (March 9, 2014), available online: <https://blog.mass.gov/masslawlib/legal-history/the-devil-made-me-do-it/&gt;

[25] Wendel D. Craker, “Spectral Evidence, Non-Spectral Acts of Witchcraft, and Confession at Salem in 1692,” The Historical Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Jun., 1997), pg. 332.

[26] See my previous blog post “In My Blood: Witches of Massachusetts” https://ancestrybyalicia.ca/2021/09/10/in-my-blood-witches-of-massachusetts/

[27] Records of the General Court of Trials 1671-1704.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] https://shaketree.blogspot.com/2015/01/rebecca-briggs-cornell-52-ancestors-in.html; http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~rinewpor/Cornell.html; http://www.executedtoday.com/2011/05/23/1673-thomas-cornell/; http://ancestorslivehere.blogspot.com/2012/09/relationship-with-lizzie-borden.html; http://southcoastghost.weebly.com/cornell-murders.html

[31] Aptly named by Thomas’ widow after his hanging, who consistently argued that Thomas was innocent of matricide.

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Published by AncestryByAlicia

After obtaining my Master of Arts degree in History, and working on my genealogy for over 13 years, I decided to write about interesting historical matters from not only my family, but other interesting tidbits as well. I also research and present free walking tours in my city, including "Haunted Oshawa" and "Murder and Mayhem in Oshawa." I am currently writing two books. One is a historical account of small-town murders in Ontario. The other is a historical novel about the Royal African Company's James Fort on the Gambia River, 1715-1740.

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