Killed Strangely

Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell

Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
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    Killed Strangely
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    "It was Rebecca's son, Thomas, who first realized the victim's identity. His eyes were drawn to the victim's head, and aided by the flickering light of a candle, he 'clapt his hands and cryed out, Oh Lord, it is my mother.' James Moills, a servant of Cornell . . . described Rebecca 'lying on the floore, with fire about Her, from her Lower parts neare to the Armepits.' He recognized her only 'by her shoes.'"-fromKilled Strangely

    On a winter's evening in 1673, tragedy descended on the respectable Rhode Island household of Thomas Cornell. His 73-year-old mother, Rebecca, was found close to her bedroom's large fireplace, dead and badly burned. The legal owner of the Cornells' hundred acres along Narragansett Bay, Rebecca shared her home with Thomas and his family, a servant, and a lodger. A coroner's panel initially declared her death "an Unhappie Accident," but before summer arrived, a dark web of events-rumors of domestic abuse, allusions to witchcraft, even the testimony of Rebecca's ghost through her brother-resulted in Thomas's trial for matricide.

    Such were the ambiguities of the case that others would be tried for the murder as well. Rebecca is a direct ancestor of Cornell University's founder, Ezra Cornell. Elaine Forman Crane tells the compelling story of Rebecca's death and its aftermath, vividly depicting the world in which she lived. That world included a legal system where jurors were expected to be familiar with the defendant and case before the trial even began. Rebecca's strange death was an event of cataclysmic proportions, affecting not only her own community, but neighboring towns as well.

    The documents from Thomas's trial provide a rare glimpse into seventeenth-century life. Crane writes, "Instead of the harmony and respect that sermon literature, laws, and a hierarchical/patriarchal society attempted to impose, evidence illustrates filial insolence, generational conflict, disrespect toward the elderly, power plays between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, [and] adult dependence on (and resentment of) aging parents who clung to purse strings." Yet even at a distance of more than three hundred years, Rebecca Cornell's story is poignantly familiar. Her complaints of domestic abuse, Crane says, went largely unheeded by friends and neighbors until, at last, their complacency was shattered by her terrible death.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7145-2
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    Saturday, February 8, 1673, was a fine winter day. From the west window of her room, Rebecca Cornell could observe the bare branches of the trees in her orchard. Beyond them lay the frigid water of Narragansett Bay, where screeching seagulls skimmed the surface and the sun’s rays bounced from whitecap to whitecap. The seventy-three-year-old widow had felt poorly that morning, but the soothing warmth from a cheerful fire restored her sense of wellbeing and by noon she was “something better.” Indeed, by late afternoon she might have been found relaxing in her usual chair, puffing away on a clay...

  5. One A Death in the Family
    (pp. 8-58)

    Thomas Cornell was forty-six years old in February 1673; by seventeenth-century norms he was already well advanced in life. Nothing is known of his appearance, but if he observed contemporary style he would have been clean shaven with shoulder-length (or slightly shorter) hair. If he resembled many of his male descendants, he would have had a pronounced nose and dark eyes. Given his status in the community, he may have followed the latest London fashions, although unlike the “best sort”—William Coddington, for example—he probably did not count a wig among his possessions.¹ Cornell, his seventy-three-year-old mother Rebecca, wife...

  6. Two The Background of a Tragedy
    (pp. 59-86)

    Although Rhode Island had its share of unsavory characters, the Cornell family was not among them, nor could anyone have predicted the tragic circumstances in which they would become entangled. In the early 1630s, Thomas Cornell Sr. and his wife, the former Rebecca Briggs, had been counted among the more respectable families of Essex County, England, where they lived in or around the market town of Saffron Walden before emigrating to New England. This ancient community had been best known for wool production and woven cloth in medieval times, but by the early modern era saffron fields and a malting...

  7. Three The Contentious World of Thomas Cornell
    (pp. 87-104)

    Portsmouth was Ann Hutchinson’s town, but one would never know it from the early records. In 1639, the covenant of the “civill body Politicke” included William and Samuel, but not the more infamous Hutchinson who had sorely tested the magistrates of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Nevertheless, the town in which the Cornell family eventually settled differed little from other New England towns, despite the notoriety that had accompanied its founding in 1638. It was marked by an absence of meeting houses, but many New England towns were derelict in erecting formal structures for religious worship. People, even the most devout, held...

  8. Four Doubting Thomas: Or, Considering the Alternatives
    (pp. 105-144)

    The stories we tell about the past, the ways in which raconteurs interpret and reinterpret events, build the collective memory we call history. But with each retelling, the original story is reshaped to fit a new time and place, eventually assuming a life of its own, an entity quite remote from the episode it initially depicted. After a time, the incident itself and the reconstruction of that incident share ties only as distant relatives, the latter bearing little more than a vague resemblance to some long-forgotten ancestor. Even the immediate past cannot escape editing as the perceptions of each spectator...

  9. Five A Community Renders a Verdict
    (pp. 145-173)

    Notwithstanding the reasons behind each alternative, this indecisive approach to the case is little more than a device designed for procrastination, to delay asking a nagging question that refuses an answer: Why did the jury convict Thomas Cornell? Rhode Island felony prosecutions were few and far between; convictions and executions even more so. The odds were in Cornell’s favor. No witness pointed a finger; no evidence linked him to the crime. The circumstances of Rebecca Cornell’s death were ambiguous; his motive was weak. A reasonable jury could have acquitted him had they been so inclined. They refused to do so....

  10. Six Life after Death
    (pp. 174-190)

    No one has had much to say about Thomas Cornell in the past three centuries. Elisha Potter’s early narrative of the most important events in Rhode Island history includes a short description of the murder of Walter House by Thomas Flounders in 1670, but no reference to the more explosive—and unsettling—homicide case three years later interrupts the account. Strangely, for May 1673, Potter chooses to highlight the General Assembly’s ongoing attempt to prevent “drunkenness among the Indians,” as if the remarkable trial that had just taken place had never existed. At the turn of the twentieth century, Edward...

  11. notes
    (pp. 191-226)
  12. index
    (pp. 227-236)