(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this day in 1673, alleged mother-slayer and arsonist Thomas Cornell was hanged in Portsmouth in the colony of Rhode Island.
The death of his elderly mother, Rebecca, and the subsequent homicide investigation have got to be one of the strangest murder stories in American colonial history.
The Cornells were a respectable and prosperous Quaker family, the ancestors of the man who founded Cornell University. (Their descendants also included Lizzie Borden of the “forty whacks” fame, but that’s another story.)
Rebecca, a 73-year-old widow, was the legal owner of the family’s hundred-acre spread by Narragansett Bay. Her oldest son, Thomas, and his wife and six children lived there with her, along with one lodger and one male servant, a Narragansett Indian named Wickopash.
Crowded as the house was, Rebecca had the master bedroom all to herself. It was well known that Rebecca and Thomas didn’t get along. For some time, both parties had been complaining bitterly about each other to anyone who would listen. Thomas resented the fact that, at 46, he was still financially dependent on his mother, who had made generous gifts from her late husband’s estate to her other children but not to him. Rebecca, for her part, said Thomas was “a Terror to her” and that she was neglected and had to fetch her own firewood.
None of her complaints were taken seriously until after her mysterious death, which is chronicled in Elaine Forman Crane’s 2002 book Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell.
Rebecca died on the evening of February 8, 1673.
That night, she refused to join the family for dinner because she didn’t like what was being served. After the meal was over, her grandson came to her room to check on her and found her charred body lying on the floor by the fireplace, burnt “to a cole.” She was recognizable only by her shoes.
Her death was originally ruled “an unhappie accident.”
It could have been spontaneous human combustion, but a more likely explanation is that embers from the fireplace or from the pipe Rebecca smoked landed on her dress.
An alleged victim of spontaneous human combustion.
No one heard her scream, no one smelled smoke, and somehow the fire didn’t spread to the rest of the house. No one seems to have suspected foul play at that time.
Two nights later, however, Rebecca’s younger brother, John Briggs, received a spiritual visitation from his sister as she slept. “See how I was burned with fire,” she said. He inferred that someone had intentionally burned her.
Briggs didn’t report his experience for a week, but when he did his account was taken seriously by the superstitious colonials. Rebecca’s body was exhumed and given a thorough inspection, and this time a wound was found on her upper abdomen. The authorities decided she had been stabbed by something like “the iron spyndell of a spinning whelle.” No murder weapon was ever produced, however.
Thomas quickly became the prime suspect: he was the last person to see Rebecca alive, and the whole town knew of the enmity between them. After Rebecca’s death, Thomas and his wife Sarah reportedly made some incredibly crass remarks; Sarah said her mother-in-law’s demise was “a wonderfull thing,” and Thomas said that his mother had always liked a good fire, and “God had answered her ends, for now shee had it.”
This hearsay was presented as evidence at Thomas’s trial, along with John Briggs’s dream.
Thomas was convicted and, although many of the townspeople had doubts about the verdict and death sentence, he chose not to appeal. He was hung before a crowd of over one thousand people.
Did Thomas Cornell murder his mother?
Certainly he wasn’t the only one who had the opportunity to do so; the house was full of people that night. In fact, a year after Thomas’s death, the servant Wickopash was tried as an accomplice to the murder. Nothing is known about the case against him, but he was acquitted.
In 1675, Rebecca’s son William tried to make a case against Thomas’s wife for the murder, but he failed to produce any witnesses or evidence against her.
Was this even a murder at all?
The fire, as noted above, could have been accidental; as for the “suspicious wound” the authorities found after they dug up the body, Rebecca could have stabbed herself in her struggles after her dress caught fire, or perhaps those who performed the exhumation saw only what they expected to see.
And there is yet a third possibility: prior to her death, Rebecca told her daughter she had contemplated suicide on several occasions, but her religious beliefs prohibited such action.
One final note: Thomas’s wife, Sarah, was pregnant at the time of his execution and later gave birth to a daughter.
She named the baby Innocent.