“[Sinners who disobey their mothers] shall come to an untimely death… It is feared that such children will come to the gallows, and be hanged up in gibbets for the ravens and eagles to feed upon them if they will.”
--Increase Mather (1674)
Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell is a fascinating true murder mystery by a Fordham University professor of history, chock full of early American criminal legends that from a less qualified source one might chalk up as fiction. In a single volume, she touches on two of New England's most infamous murder cases, and a third, the title case, which was strangely forgotten.
At center stage in this gem of a book by Elaine Forman Crane is “one of New England’s darker moments,” the death of the elderly Rebecca Cornell in colonial Rhode Island in 1673. Weeks later, Thomas Cornell, her middle-aged son, was accused of her murder. But was she murdered at all?
Rebecca Cornell was an English settler and once was a follower and next-door neighbor of Anne Hutchinson when Hutchinson and family were massacred by Natives. How small was the colonial world. Mrs. Cornell escaped the slaughter – only to be cut down by her son years later. Or such was the verdict.
Was old Rebecca stabbed in her room, her body set on fire? Or did she die accidentally? One hopes it was indeed a case of murder since Thomas was hanged for it.
The author lays out the evidence point by point and wrestles with the vagueness in the records, searching for answers, the final one elusive, but the exercise an enjoyable one. She did manage to unearth many fascinating depositions and transcripts from the case still in existence today, 340 years later, and they reveal the most intimate abuses and private aggressions in the Cornell family (which, much later, through more illustrious offspring, would found Cornell University). Thomas Cornell treated his mother very poorly, and the people who knew him very well, his friends and neighbors who judged him, determined that he killed her. How much weight should the guilty verdict be afforded? Who's to say?
The legal process used to bring Thomas Cornell to the gallows was fascinating unto itself. The colonial court allowed a witness to testify that the dead woman’s ghost visited him in a dream and made some vague allusion to her questioned death. Hearsay -- from a ghost. There is also a description of the “ordeal by touch,” a quasi-legal procedure by which the accused was compelled to be in the presence of the deceased, and in a case of murder, bleeding from the corpse would give it away. And yet, despite these curious features of the law, Cornell was permitted an attorney and was not compelled to confess or testify against himself.
Until this book came out, the story “languished in the shadows of historical obscurity,” the author says. Amazingly, there was never a broadside, ballad, pamphlet, sermon, or other written record of the case beyond the legal papers. “The literary stillness,” Crane says, “is all the more surprising since New Englanders enjoyed a good execution sermon or thrilling murder story.” Let this be a lesson -- there are amazing murder cases out there, waiting to be discovered, in some history society's files or in a forgotten box in a corner of some old public building.
While it’s three centuries overdue, this book’s exploration of the Cornell murder case is a fast and satisfying read, and there’s certainly enough evidence to raise a strong suspicion of criminal mischief, even if, in the end, we don’t know if the defendant really did it or not.
This book is what I’d call popular criminology, a la the recent Science of Sherlock Holmes, though the academics would call it "microhistory". Either way you slice it, it deserves to belong to any respectable collection of historic true crime, and it also commands a spot on the shelf of the complete Lizzie Borden library.
How’s that? Lizzie Borden? It seems Thomas Cornell was the great, great, great, great, great grandfather of murderess Lizzie Andrew Borden, who was acquitted of patricide in 1893, 220 years after her ancestor was hanged for matricide. Lizzie Borden directly descended from Thomas Cornell's posthumous daughter “Innocent.” See "Lizzie Borden and ancestors."
And there’s more. Many well read true crime buffs will also recognize the infamous case of a young pregnant girl from Fall River, Mass. named Sarah Cornell who was found hanged from a haystack – the victim of Reverend Ephraim Avery (though he was acquitted in her death, and it was probably suicide). The author briefly explores that branch of the family tree as well. (Now that was a very famous case, made into broadsides, like this one in the Library of Congress.)
But what I found most interesting about Killed Strangely was the author’s brief foray into an uncommon crime. “Matricide was and is extremely rare,” the author remarks. “No other fully documented cases have been uncovered in colonial America, and even today the infrequency of the crime hinders sustained research into the motivations for such violence.” Some 20th-century studies of matricidal adolescents are mined for fascinating potential implications for the Cornell murder case. Needless to say, I found much to like about this book.
Unfortunately, not all academics, and not all general readers, like criminology, even when it's called “microhistory.” They don’t get it. They leave snotty short reviews on Amazon that say “I learned nothing new.” They reject hypothesizing about what really happened when Rebecca Cornell died (even when the author never evidences a bias and very clearly labels her suppositions as such). They also don’t understand the “relevance” of the “digressions” into other cases. This is enough to make your correspondent sputter. If they don’t appreciate this book, we can relish it for them.
An article published in the William and Mary Quarterly explains what “microhistory” is and why it’s not always appreciated:
With their focus on human sentiment and human dramas that are easy for modern readers to relate to, microhistories tell interesting stories while illustrating important political, economic, legal, social, and cultural contexts. The genre has mixed appeal among academics; some bemoan the general trend to sacrifice analysis for narrative. But, if ever there was a job for the microhistory, it is bringing back early American history to an audience that probably yawns at the thought of Puritans….
The review of the book in Publishers Weekly was downright mean, calling the passages about Lizzie Borden, Sarah Cornell, matricide, etc. “bizarre aside.” It goes on: “Without clear answers to whodunit or why, [the author’s] proven scholarly track record could have been put to better use.”
Well! A book is no good without clear answers to whodunit? Whatever you do, don’t repeat that to the Ripperologists.
I frankly like some of my mysteries to be mysterious. It’s the mystery that abides: Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, the Lindbergh baby... this long-ago matricide in colonial New England, brought to light for the first time in these pages. We may never know, and we rather like them that way, thank you.