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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
Avery got out of Bristol just in time. Harnden had persuaded Judge Randall of the Rhode Island superior court to issue a warrant against Avery for suspicion of murder, with a request for extradition in case he had fled to another state. Now Harnden, arriving an hour after Avery left, was told by a neighbor that a carriage drawn by two white horses had picked Avery up outside the feed mill and headed northward. Above tiny Rhode Island lay the breadth of Massachusetts, and beyond it, like fingers spreading from a palm, the upper states of New England, and beyond them, Canada, where the fugitive would be safe.
The sleuth did not give up the chase. He hired a horse and sulky, disguised himself in a fur cap and pea jacket, and set out in pursuit. In turn he visited Providence, Pawtucket, Attleboro, Wrentham, Dedham, Boston, and finally Lowell, suspecting that his quarry had hidden there among his—and Maria’s—former congregation. But nobody in Lowell had seen Avery. It was January 18 by now, and at night in the American House, the sheriff oiled a sheet of paper, laid it over the innkeeper’s gazetteer, and traced on it the roads of southern New England. They all led to Boston; he should have searched there more thoroughly.
I then left Lowell [he writes] stopping but seldom for the reason that at most of the public houses through that part of the country, including the whole distance to Boston … a man must be proof against most gasses and obnoxious exhalations in order to withstand the effluvia of new rum. Yet there are several houses in the [district] that are cleanly and well-kept, and in which a man can sit down and feel himself at home, and be well entertained. But in some others, on going into the barroom, the first question put to you will be, “Mister, how fur are you going this way? What may I call your name, Sir, if I may be so bold? ‘Taint any of my business, sir, but what’s your business up this way. What’s the news down to Gineral Court?”
Arriving in Boston, he picked up the trail of the two white horses. The landlord of the Bromfield House had seen a certain Elder Gifford drive in behind them on January 10. Harnden remembered Elder Gifford as an observer sent down to the hearing by the New England Methodist Conference.
Gifford was cornered by Harnden’s knowledge of his journey from Bristol. After they had exchanged promises—that Gifford would not warn Avery if Harnden did not betray Gifford—he weakly suggested that the sheriff try Rindge, New Hampshire.
Next day [i.e., on Sunday, January 20], having crossed the state line, Harnden picked up a New Hampshire deputy sheriff named Edwards. There were not many Methodists in Rindge, said he, and those few all lived close together on a country lane just off the northbound pike.
Harnden appealed for reinforcement to Edwards; he called in a young man who drove a bread cart, and so knew the Methodist road. He eagerly promised to “keep dark.”
The three men bedded down at Colonel French’s tavern in Fitzwilliam, north of the Methodist road. After a few hours’ sleep, Harnden dispatched the other two southward, with orders to reconnoiter the road en route. He promised to meet them at noon in the public house at Rindge.
But when the posse gathered, he found that Edwards had learned nothing; it was clear that he had spent the morning in the bar. The baker, however, traveling the road in his sleigh, had heard there would be a Methodist prayer meeting that evening at a certain Captain Mayo’s, three miles north of the village. Harnden ordered him to attend it in the guise of a repentant sinner and to stay through it to the end.
The baker started off without supper, only to return before Harnden and Edwards had finished their pie and ask for some himself. He had been unable to survive the prayer meeting. Accompanied by his aides, Harnden then drove the baker’s sleigh to Captain Mayo’s. He opened the door without knocking. Two men and a woman sat in the keeping room with a single candle before them. He asked for Captain Mayo. A stocky man with a pipe in his hand allowed he was the Captain.
“I am here after Ephraim K. Avery ” Harnden announced.
“Ephraim K. Avery?” the Captain repeated slowly, moving his pipe to his lips and back again.
“Yes sir,” said Harnden.
“ Ephraim K. Avery!” Mayo repeated, as if there were more than one. “I never knew such a man as Ephraim K. Avery.”
I know such a man,” said Harnden grimly. “I have come a great way after him; I came on purpose after him, and I must have him; and Capt. Mayo, the better way is for you to go to the room where Mr. Avery is, tell him a Mr. Harnden is here and wishes to see him, and let him come forward; for he is in your house, and if he comes not forward I shall search your house, for I must have him.”
A this point Mrs. Mayo slipped into another room, closing the door behind her. Getting no help from the Captain, Harnden started the search alone, taking a single candle. While his posse guarded the doors, he explored both floors and even lifted the trap door to the attic. On the way down he met Mrs. Mayo, who whispered to him from the dark, “You seek innocent blood.”