Blame the victims and a good ol ‘Rhode Island Christmas murder

Sunday 19 December 2021

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On his 34th birthday – July 4, 1838 – Nathaniel Hawthorne attended an Independence Day festival on the Common in his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. As Hawthorne recalled, the many amusements and attractions included a “wax figure show, made up almost entirely of murderers and their victims.” Among these were the figures of “EK Avery and Cornell” – the first a figure in black, leaning on the back of a chair, in the posture of a clergyman about to pray; an ugly devil, said to be a good likeness.

Almost six years earlier, four days before Christmas 1832, Tiverton farmer, RI, John Durfee, had made a startling discovery: the frozen corpse of a woman hanging by her neck from a post supporting a haystack in motion. to dry. The woman, wrapped in a black cape, turned out to be a factory worker from Fall River, Massachusetts: Sarah Maria Cornell, 30.

Investigating what they initially considered suicide, officers quickly found an incriminating note in Sarah’s bedroom at a boarding house in Fall River. “If I should be absent, inquire with Reverend Mr. Avery of Bristol [Rhode Island]. They also uncovered a correspondence highly suggestive of a sexual relationship between Cornell and Avery, a Methodist pastor whose full name was Ephraim Kingsbury Avery. Subsequently, a doctor from Fall River came forward to say that Cornell was pregnant. four months old at the time of her death and had named Avery as a father.The jury for a coroner at Tiverton upheld the original view that Cornell’s death was suicide, but added that she had been influenced to commit the act “by the bad conduct of a married man”.


Briefly, “the married man” has remained publicly anonymous. However, a second coroner’s jury – one assembled in Bristol after a gruesome exhumation of a shallow grave in Durfee Field and a formal autopsy – came to a different conclusion. The autopsy not only confirmed Cornell’s pregnancy, but also revealed severe bruising on her torso. The second jury unanimously rejected the theory of suicide. The jury in turn named Avery as “main or incidental” in the Cornell murder. The much respected Avery was quickly arrested by Marshal Bristol, but just as quickly released on his own engagement in time to organize Christmas services. Meanwhile, Samaritans have reburied Cornell in a pottery field in Fall River. The funeral took place on Christmas Eve.

In the early years, during shifts in factories and factories in Southeastern New England, Cornell had earned a reputation for being mentally unstable, promiscuous, prone to theft and, in general, of low moral character. By the mid-1820s, however, she had decided to change her ways and became an active Methodist. It was while working in a factory in Lowell, MA, in 1828, that she first met the Reverend Avery, who was then ministering to a congregation in Lowell before his move to Bristol. The two met again in August 1832 at a Methodist camp reunion in Thompson, Connecticut, where Cornell’s baby was conceived.

In a courtroom in Newport, RI, in May and early June 1833, Avery mounted a strong defense led by an expensive attorney, former New Hampshire attorney general and United States Senator Jeremiah Mason, who was also a legal partner. by Daniel Webster. (Mason’s honoraria was paid from a fund raised by prominent New England Methodist leaders, who were just as determined to uphold the reputation of their Church as they were to uphold Avery.)

In one of the earliest cases of female “victim responsibility”, Mason made much of Cornell’s past “sins” against decorum and society, describing her as a provocateur and temptress who had led a generally unsavory life. : a life always destined for a sort of sad and desperate end. It was also a life, noted Mason, which did not compare well with the righteous record of the devotee Reverend Avery. It doesn’t matter that Cornell’s body was badly bruised; it does not matter that she herself named the bride Avery as her seducer; it matters little that during the two inquiries a substantial doubt was expressed as to whether it would have been possible for Cornell to tighten the noose around his own neck in the manner found; Never mind that Avery had at some point before the trial fled to New Hampshire in an unsuccessful effort to avoid prosecution – a place from which he was returned in handcuffs.

Despite all of this, the jury ended up finding Cornell guilty of his life story and Avery not guilty of murder. But being found not guilty in the eyes of the court is not the same as being found innocent in the eyes of the public. Interest in the trial had spread throughout the northeast. Avery was soon hanged and burned in effigy at dozens of public gatherings. At one point, he himself was nearly lynched while visiting Boston.

Public outrage soon mounted to the point where Avery had to resign from his ministry. He eventually moved to Connecticut, then New York and finally Ohio, never returning to the pulpit. Instead, he supported himself as a farmer. Sometimes he gave lectures during which he sought to exonerate himself. At one point, he even published a little pamphlet with the same ambition. But when he finally died in 1869, he did so in disgrace. A year earlier, a fund had been raised in Fall River to unearth Cornell one last time and give him a suitable burial with a gravestone in that town’s Oak Grove cemetery, where it still stands to this day.

Edward J. Renehan Jr. lives in Wickford, RI. His latest book is DELIBERATE EVIL: NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE, DANIEL WEBSTER, AND THE 1830 MURDER OF A SALEM SLAVE TRADER (Chicago Review Press). Learn more at

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