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1644: Goodwife Cornish

December 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Sometime in December 1644 in Maine, one Goodwife Cornish was executed for the murder of her husband, Richard Cornish. Her first name has been lost to history.

The couple had married in the town of Weymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. It was a match made in hell.

According to Daniel Allen Hearn, writing of this case in his book Legal Executions in New England, 1623-1960, Richard Cornish was “a tireless worker” but his wife as “a woman of loose habits.”

The couple moved north to the settlement York in modern-day Maine in 1646, and “Goodwife Cornish wasted no time in reestablishing her notoriety.”

In 1644, Goodman Cornish’s body was found floating in the York River. He’d been killed in an unusual way: impaled on a stake, then placed in his canoe, which was weighted with stones. As Hearn records:

A cry of murder was raised. The sensational news swept the town and surrounding countryside. Had hostile Indians killed Richard Cornish? Probably not. Although the man’s skull had been crushed as if by a war club no one could imagine an Indian being so wasteful as to purposefully sink a good canoe. Such a craft would have been desirable plunder to an Indian. Moreover, what Indian, it was asked, would squander precious time by weighting down a canoe when he could be making good his escape? For these reasons it was determined that the murder of Richard Cornish was the work of some crafty white person. Suspicion fell upon the wife of the decedent. She had openly despised her husband. She was also rumored to have committed adultery.

Goodwife Cornish, when questioned, denied having murdered her husband.

But she admitted to multiple extramarital affairs and named her latest boyfriend as Edward Johnson. The authorities subjected both of them to “trial by touch,” acting on the old superstition that a murdered person’s corpse would bleed if the killer touched it.

When Goodwife Cornish and Goodman Johnson were brought before Richard Cornish’s body and made to touch it, blood supposedly oozed from his wounds. The ensuing trial, Hearn says, was “a farce.”

Much was made of Goodwife Cornish’s infidelity, but the only actual “evidence” against either her or Johnson was the fact that they’d both flunked the touch test. “It was reputation more than anything else,” Hearn notes, “that counted against Goodwife Cornish.”

Johnson was ultimately acquitted, but Goodwife Cornish was convicted of murder and condemned to die. Having maintained her innocence to the end, she was hanged in York.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Maine,Massachusetts,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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2 thoughts on “1644: Goodwife Cornish”

  1. JCF says:

    “a woman of loose habits”: for a woman in her time&culture, that was probably hanging-crime enough. RIP.

  2. Meaghan says:

    Agreed, JCF. This case puts me in mind of the Thomas Cornell execution from 1673 which was posted on Executed Today some years ago. Back in those days, juries did not exclude people who knew the defendant — in fact, they were supposed to consist of people who knew the defendant, and his/her reputation and so on would be under consideration as well as the evidence. Thomas Cornell, like Goodwife Cornish, might have been guilty of murder, but he was basically hanged for being an unfillial son.

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