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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
On viewing the body of said Sarah Maria Cornell, here lying dead, upon their oaths [they] do say that they believe the said Cornell committed suicide by hanging herself upon a stake in said yard, and was influenced to commit said crime by the wicked conduct of a married man, which we gather from Dr. Wilbur, together with the contents of three letters found in the trunk of said Cornell. And we the jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid do say the aforesaid Sarah Maria Cornell in manner aforesaid came to her death by the causes aforesaid.
Not content with this, Harnden, with Hicks, Durfee, and another man, crossed on Sunday by bridge to Aquidneck Island and by horse ferry to Bristol. The four called on Squire John Howe, justice of the peace for Bristol, and asked him to hold Elder Avery on suspicion of murder. Durfee swore out the complaint. Reluctantly, the Squire promised to send the constable that evening to arrest the suspect, and set a hearing for the next Wednesday, the day after Christmas, with his colleague Levi Haile from the neighboring town of Warren.
On Monday, back in Durfee’s barn, Dr. Wilbur performed a post-mortem on Maria’s body, exhumed for the purpose. If she had lived, he told Harnden, she would have borne a daughter in five months. A second jury then returned a new verdict, accusing Avery of being the “principal or accessory” in her death.
Maria was then buried against a stone wall in the very field where she had been found, with prayer read by Elder Bidwell to a tearful, angry crowd. That evening—December 24, 1832—Harndern, amid cheers and groans, presented the new verdict to a meeting in the Lyceum Hall at Fall River, promising that it should reach the two justices when their hearing opened two days later in Bristol. The citizens appointed him to head a “committee to aid the inhabitants of Tiverton.”
Pending the hearing, Squire Howe had released Avery in his own recognizance. The Parson, a self-confident man of thirty-seven, engaged three lawyers, to whom he admitted easily that he had known Maria Cornell in meeting at Lowell, Massachusetts, before being stationed in Bristol; that he had seen her once since then, at Elder Bidwell’s revival meeting in Fall River on October 19; that on December 20, the day before her body was found, he had crossed the ferry from Bristol to Aquidneck Island for a stroll, as the ferry master could testify; that he had returned to the ferry at nine o’clock, too late to cross, and had slept at the ferryhouse; that the Fall River men might claim to have seen him in their village, but that Mrs. Jones, who lived on the west side of the Island, could testify to seeing him cross her field in the afternoon, much too late for him to reach Fall River and return to the ferry by nine.
“Sister Jones,” he told her solemnly, “my life is worth thousands of worlds. Can you not recall that you saw me in the afternoon?”
But Mrs. Jones shook her head. She had seen a stranger in the morning , and could not even be sure whether what he carried on his shoulder was a walking stick or a clam hoe.
On Christmas Day, in those still-Puritan times a holiday of no importance, a hundred men of Fall River chartered the steamer King Philip for an invasion of Bristol. They swarmed up from the dock and surrounded the parsonage, even forcing their way into the sinkroom. Avery, who had performed a marriage that very morning, listened upstairs with his family. While William Paull, the Bristol sheriff, stood helpless on the outskirts, one stouthearted Bristolian faced the mob.
“What do you want?” he asked them.
“We’ve come for Elder Avery and will have him dead or alive,” said Harnden.
“That you shall not,” answered the Bristol man, and shoved him outdoors. There might have been a lynching if the bell of the King Philip had not rung just then. The crowd trooped down, empty-handed, for the return trip to Fall River.
Next morning the hearing opened in the courthouse on the Bristol Common, just beside Avery’s white-pillared chapel. Luke Drury, Collector of the Port, acted as clerk. The room was filled from morning to night. The squires were strict. They refused to examine Harnden’s three letters, and when he asked Dr. Wilbur to describe Maria’s condition, they refused to accept an answer. On January 7, they discharged Avery on the grounds that the complaint was signed by a private citizen (Durfee) instead of by the coroner, and that there was not much evidence against Avery anyway. That very evening Harnden read their verdict to an ugly crowd which overflowed the Congregational Church in Fall River. If the Bristol court would not bring Avery to justice, he promised them, he would do so by himself.
Avery, whose life was in danger from the Fall River mob, sought advice from the Reverend John Bristed, the Episcopalian rector of Bristol. He might not expect comradeship from his colleague, but he could expect wisdom, for Bristed had been a lawyer in New York before taking orders. He advised Avery to leave town till the excitement died down.