Often regarded as the strangest murder mystery in American colonial history. The Cornells were a very respected and prosperous Quaker family. Thomas Cornell Sr. was one of the earliest settlers of Rhode Island. He was an innkeeper in Boston after moving there in 1638 when Thomas Jr. was just 11. But, due to a religious and political conflict known as the Antinomian Controversy, the family moved to Rhode Island in 1643 with others who were ordered to leave the Massachusetts Colony. After the death of Thomas Cornell Sr., Rebecca Briggs Cornell, his 73-year-old widow, became the legal owner of the Cornell family’s 100-acre piece of Narragansett Bay. Their oldest son, Thomas Jr. and his wife and 6 children lived with her, along with one lodger and one servant. There was a rumor around town that Thomas Jr. was resentful of his mother because at 46, he was still dependent upon her. It was no secret that Rebecca disliked her oldest son and gave generous gifts from her husband’s estate to her other children, but not to Thomas Jr. She often made derogatory remarks about him to others. Rebecca died on February 8, 1673. She had refused to join the family for dinner because she didn’t like what was served. After the meal was over, her grandson went to check on her and found her charred body lying by the fireplace.
Her death was originally ruled an accident. It was believed that she had accidentally got too close to the fireplace and her clothes caught fire. It was actually a common accident of the time period. This is where things get strange. Two nights later, Rebecca’s younger brother John Briggs reported having a “spiritual visitation” from his sister who inferred that someone had murdered her. The other residents took his account extremely serious. Rebecca’s body was exhumed and examined. A wound was found on her upper abdomen, authorities decided that someone had stabbed her with an iron spindle from a spinning wheel and then burned her to hide the crime. No murder weapon was ever found. Thomas quickly became the prime suspect due to the animosity between them. Thomas Cornell Jr. was accused, tried, convicted, and executed by hanging for the alleged murder of his mother, Rebecca Briggs Cornell in Portsmouth, Rhode Island in 1673.
He was convicted due to purely circumstantial evidence, mostly consisting of hearsay about the mother and son relationship as well as crass remarks that were allegedly made by Thomas and his wife Sarah. Some people said that Thomas joked that his mother “always liked a good fire.” And that Sarah was happy her mother-in-law was gone. In addition, what is called “spectral evidence” was introduced at trial. This is where witnesses recount their prophetic dreams involving ghosts who reveal the guilty party. American jurisprudence eventually excluded the use of apparitions and dreams as evidence.
Thomas was hung before a crowd of 1,000 people. Did Thomas Cornell murder his mother? Well, curmudgeonly Rebecca Briggs Cornell certainly had her fair share of enemies. In fact, a year after Thomas was executed; the servant to the family was tried as an accomplice and acquitted. In 1675, one of Rebecca’s other sons, William, attempted to make the case that Sarah, Thomas’ widow, was the murderer. Taking all of the evidence, or lack thereof, into account, the death was most likely an accident that spiraled into a witch-hunt spurred on by the prevailing power of superstition at the time. Thomas was an innocent man.
Interestingly, Sarah was pregnant at the time of Thomas’ execution with their youngest child she named her: Innocent.
Elaine Forman Crane chronicled this case in the Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell.