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The Minister And The Mill Girl
Was Parson Avery innocent of poor, pregnant Maria Cornell’s murder, as his fellow ministers maintained, or was a guilty hypocrite concealed by his cleric’s garb? A glimpse at the legal process in 1833 New England
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
About nine on the morning of Friday, December 21, 1832, John Durfee, a farmer of Tiverton, Rhode Island, was driving his team through his stackyard when he noticed something inside swaying against one of the five-foot stakes. Leaping forward, he saw the body of a woman. Her knees hung six inches above the ground; her legs were bent backward, the toes balancing on the grass; her head lolled forward from a cord attached six inches below the top of the stake. Durfee tried to lift her with one hand, while loosing the cord with the other, but small as she was, her weight was too great for him. He shouted for help. In a moment his father, with Bill Allen and Ben Negus, the farm hands, ran up from the darkness. Allen cut the cord with his knife, and they laid the body on the ground.
The dead woman’s black hair cascaded from the pleats of her calash—the “bashful bonnet,” it was often called. Her cheeks were frostbitten, and her tongue was caught between her teeth. Her brown cloak was hooked up the front, except at the very top. Beneath it, one arm hung straight, and one was bent up to her breast, as if to ease the cord at her throat. There were gloves on her hands, and half of a comb in her hair; the other half they found outside the stackyard. Her shoes lay together a few inches to her right, with a red bandanna beside them. On the “fog”—last year’s dead grass—there were no footprints, for the ground was frozen. The noose by which she hung was not the slip-knot, but what farmers call a double hitch and sailors, a clove hitch. The cord was three-strand hemp, no thicker than a goose quill. It cut into her neck just below the right ear, and her right cheek rested against the stake.
Tiverton is one of the townships in Newport County. Durfee’s farm lay half a mile below the Massachusetts line at Fall River. Someone ran into the village for Elihu Hicks, the coroner, and someone else to Fall River for a doctor. Hicks arrived within an hour. Picking a jury from the gathering crowd, he swore them in inside the stackyard. Then the body was carried to Durfee’s house under a horse blanket, with straw beneath the broken neck.
By this time there were two Fall River men who could identify the body: Dr. Thomas Wilbur and the Reverend Mr. Bidwell of the Methodist Church. Dr. Wilbur examined it with the help of the female bystanders. Beneath the petticoat was the imprint of two hands. When Aunt Hannah Wrightington asked Dorcas Ford what she thought they proved, Dorcas whispered, “Rash violence!”
The girl was Maria Cornell—her full name was Sarah Maria Cornell—of Mr. Bidwell’s own congregation. The minister sent Durfee to Mrs. Hathaway’s in Fall River, where Maria had boarded, to fetch her effects. Durfee soon returned with a trunk and a bandbox, and with Mrs. Hathaway herself. In the bandbox Hicks found a letter, undated and unmailed, addressed to Bidwell. He made the minister read it aloud:
Sir: I take this opportunity to inform you that for reasons known to God and my own soul I wish no longer to be connected with the Methodist Society. When I came to this place I thought I should enjoy myself among them but as I do not enjoy any Religion attall, I have not seen a well nor a happy day since I left Thompson campground. You will therefore please to drop my name from [the Bible Class], and I will try to gain all the instruction I can from your public labours. I hope I shall feel different some time or other. The Methodists are my people when I enjoy any Religion. To them I was Indebted under God for my spiritual birth. I once knew what it was to love God with all my heart once felt God was my father, Jesus my friend and Heaven my home but have awfully departed and sometimes feel I shall lose my soul forever. I desire your prayer that God would help me from this.
Yours respectfully, Sarah M. Cornell.
Beside it, under her trinkets and ribbons, lay three letters addressed to her—one yellow, one pink, and one white—and a soiled scrap of paper, dated the very day before. Hicks read it aloud:
If I should be missing, enquire of the Rev. Mr. Avery in Bristol. He will know where I am gone. Dec. 20. S.M. Cornell.
Bristol, Rhode Island, lies across Mount Hope Bay in full sight of Fall River and Tiverton. The Reverend Ephraim K. Avery, a friend and fellow laborer of Bidwell’s, was the minister of the Methodist Church there. On hearing Avery’s name, Bidwell took horse through Fall River, round the head of the bay, and down through Warren to Bristol. It was seven o’clock when he reached that town. He whispered the news of the suicide to his friend, outdoors in the dark, on the narrow dog-leg of Wardwell Street, where Avery lived. Avery did not ask him to spend the night, and we can guess he would have declined. Bidwell rode home.
The deputy sheriff for Fall River was a young sleuth named Harvey Harnden. Hicks and Harnden spent Saturday morning over the three remaining letters found in the bandbox, which led them to suspect Avery of murder. However, the coroner’s jury, when it returned its verdict, was more cautions: