1673: Thomas Cornell, on spectral evidence

4 comments May 23rd, 2011 Meaghan

(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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Public Executions,Rhode Island,The Supernatural,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1589: Dietrich Flade, for leniency towards evildoers

5 comments September 18th, 2008 dogboy

On Sept 18, 1589, a magistrate and deputy governor in Trier, a city embroiled in a witch-burning campaign, was himself delivered that fate.

The winds of the Reformation swirled mercilessly at that time, and Dietrich Flade sat on the bench charged with maintaining order in Trier. Flade held a Doctorate of Civil and of the Canon Law, and he was well-connected in the magisterial Germany of the day. He just happened to be alive at the wrong time. George Lincoln Burr provides an extensive account of Flade’s ill-fated time on the bench, including this foreboding look:

But the storm that was to rob him of fortune, fame, and life was already brewing all along the horizon. The witch-trials, which, during the earlier part of the century, had appeared only sporadically, were settling here and there into organized persecutions. In the neighboring Lorraine, the terrible Nicolas Remy was already exercising that judgeship, as the fruit of whose activity he could boast a decade later of the condemnation of nine hundred witches within fifteen years; and just across the nearer frontier of Luxemburg, now in Spanish hands, the fires were also blazing. Nay, the persection had already, in 1572, invaded the Electorate itself.

In six years, the diocese of Trier oversaw the execution of 368 witches, many of whom confessed only under torture. The anti-witchcraft campaign was so expansive that some towns were left with few if any women. The hysteria was widely reviled by the academics of the time, including both Flade and Cornelius Loos.

Loos was so disturbed by the events occurring around him that he wrote a book in objection; before it could gain distribution, however, Loos was arrested and jailed. It was four years before he was released, only after recanting his entire treatise and acknowledging the authority of the Pope.

Flade (German Wikipedia link) was not as lucky.

As judge, he was too light with suspected witches and allowed many to go free or get off with light sentences. Worst of all, he let the unsettled Reformation continue without his intervention on behalf of the church. His “trial” was brutal*, with an extracted confession from five heinous torture sessions serving as evidence against him. As high-ranking as Flade was, though, he was executed rather mutedly in Treves.

Not without reason, Burr suspects the motive was entirely political on the part of Archbishop Johann von Schöneburg. Von Schöneburg immediately stepped up his campaign to ensure his dominion, moving to larger mass executions and damning the populace to a generation of loss — except the executioner, of course, who was paid handsomely for the deed.

The persecutions were spurred on by both similar events elsewhere in the world and the writings of those directly involved. France, and, of course, Spain both featured notable witchcraft courts. One bishop under Von Schoeneburg, Peter Binsfield, was tasked with scribing works to defend the practice, which he dutifully discharged in 1589 and 1591; these were followed shortly by Jesuit Peter Thyraeus** (1594) and the aforementioned Nicholas Remy (1595). By that time, however, the furor in Trier had, in more ways than one, burned itself out: by 1593, with too few people to tend the land and sustain the towns, the area around Trier had become an economic crater, and the persecutors put a reluctant end to the madness.

Badly damaged page from Flade’s original trial transcription, courtesy of the Cornell University Library’s Witchcraft Collection.

* One of the founders of Cornell University, A.D. White, joined forces with Burr to acquire the one known copy for that university’s library in 1883. Burr intended to transcribe the text but apparently never completed the job, instead delivering several talks and writing an tract on the subject that includes extensive footnotes.

** Thyraeus also wrote one of the age’s definitive considerations of lycanthropy, shapeshifting and werewolfism — another demonic manifestation simultaneously afoot in Germany.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,God,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Judges,Lawyers,Other Voices,Politicians,Public Executions,The Worm Turns,Torture,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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