posted by Jayne Ormerod
The Place…a 100 acre farm in Portsmouth, RI (currently the site of The Valley Inn, pictured on the left.)
The situation…Thomas Cornell, a farmer aged 46, had a lot of hungry mouths to feed. He was the father of four sons from his first marriage, two children (with a third on the way) from his second marriage to Sarah, plus his widowed mother Rebecca, age 73. All nine people lived under one very tiny roof. And, while Thomas did all the work, Rebecca owned the farm and thus controlled things.
The problem…There were rumors that not all was well on the Cornell farm. Reports of elder abuse ran rampant through the small community. Local legend has it that Rebecca had confided she felt sure she’d be “done away with” by year’s end.
What happened…February 8, 1673, Thomas arrived at the dinner table at 7 p.m. after visiting his mother in her room for an hour and a half, and announced she would not be joining the family for the meal. After dinner, Sarah sent one of the elder sons up to the room to take Rebecca a glass of warm milk. He opened the door and found flames on the floor around the fireplace. He ran to get help. After the flames were out, a charred corpse was discovered in the corner. It was identified (based on the slippers worn) to be that of Rebecca Cornell.
The verdict…The town elders conducted a 17th century CSI investigation and declared the following: “Rebecca Cornell was brought to her untimely death by an Unhappy Accident of fire as Shee (sic) satt (sic) in her Rome (sic).”
Was it an accident? It made sense that a flaming ember had escaped from her pipe, causing her woolen clothes to catch fire and burn her around her head, shoulders and chest.
But…(and this is where the ghost story comes in): Two nights after her burial, Rebecca’s brother John Briggs had a visitor while he slept. His bed sheets were ripped off and a ghostly apparition appeared. According to local historian Larry Stanford (in his book Sordid Stories form the City by the Sea) John Briggs cried out to the spirit, “In the name of God, what art though?” The dimly lit spirit replied, “I am your sister Cornell,” then repeated twice, “See how I was burned by fire!” John shared his experience with the village elders and Rebecca’s body was exhumed for additional investigation. This time the medical examiners found a puncture wound (the size of a spinning wheel spindle) and bruising near her heart. It was determined that Rebecca had indeed been murdered.
Who did it? Thomas Cornell was the last to see his mother alive, and the person who benefited most from her death. Plus there were all those rumors of elder abuse and threats Rebecca had received. So it was no big surprise when on May 16, 1673, on the steps of Newport, Rhode Island’s historic White Horse Tavern (pictured right and has a ghost story of its own), the verdict was handed down proclaiming Thomas Cornell guilty of murdering his mother and sentencing him to death one week hence.
The significance of this story: This is the only case in U.S. History where a ghost’s testimony led to a murder conviction.
In a weird twist of fate: While Thomas Cornell was found guilty of matricide, his five-generations later granddaughter LizzieBorden was found NOT guilty of patricide in the whacking death of her parents in Fall River, Massachusetts.
An odd fact: The girl born after the trial and hanging of her father was named Innocent Cornell.