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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
He threw open the door of a second-floor room, where a low fire burned in the fireplace. A candle before it was extinguished, but the wick still smouldered. Finding the room empty, he went downstairs again, where his eye fell upon a closed door that had been open when he passed it before.
I thought to look behind the door [he writes] and should have done so earlier, if the object of my search had been so large about the breast as most men. I must give the gentleman credit for requiring less room than I thought possible for any man to do.
Avery had been hiding behind the door, and now he was taken at last. He had grown a beard and wore green spectacles. Harnden took him by the hand.
“Do endeavor to overcome this agitation,” Harnden said; “you need fear no personal violence, you shall be kindly treated.”
Then for the first time he heard Avery speak.
“I suppose you cannot legally take me from this state, without a warrant from the Governor,” he said weakly. “Have you such a warrant?”
Harnden showed him Judge Randall’s warrant, and after Avery had packed, Harnden drove him back to Rindge in the baker’s sleigh.
Next morning the posse disbanded. Harnden carried his prisoner by stage to Boston. Back at the Bromfield House, he found Colonel Bradford Durfee of the Vigilance Committee waiting with money and congratulations. The next day he pushed on toward Rhode Island. The citizenry waited at the crossroads. During the chase excitement had been intense through the countryside, for it was not only Avery, but Harnden, also, who had disappeared. Rumor had spread that the minister had escaped to Canada or to Cuba—even that he had been a pirate in the West Indies for ten years, before taking the cloth. It was reported that Harnden had chained him in irons and was exhibiting him for a fee on the return from Rindge—a charge Harnden denied.
Late in the afternoon of January 23, the coach reached Fall River, and on the twenty-fifth Harnden handed his prisoner over to the sheriff of Newport County, Rhode Island, at the state line, not far above Maria’s hastily dug grave. The grand jury for the 1833 term of the Supreme Court of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations then indicted the Reverend Ephraim K. Avery for murder in the first degree.
His trial opened on May 6, in the lower hall of the eighteenth-century Colony House (then known as the State House) on the Newport Parade. It took 101 talesmen to produce a jury of twelve.
Five hundred spectators crowded into the pillared courtroom. Reporters came from as far away as Philadelphia, but the law forbade them to publish their stories while the trial was still in progress.
Avery pleaded not guilty. He spoke in a firm voice, holding his right hand in his breast pocket. Thereafter he sat silent, for the law did not allow the defendant in a capital case to testify. He was clad in a brown surtout; in place of a collar he wore a white handkerchief knotted at his neck, and he hid his eyes behind the green spectacles.
The prosecution was led by Albert C. Greene, the state’s attorney general, whose high stock, in his portrait, seems to lengthen the disdainful egg-shaped face above it. To defend Avery, the Methodist Conference hired a team of lawyers headed by Jeremiah Mason of Boston, after Daniel Webster the smartest and dearest advocate in New England. Like Webster, he had been a senator of the United States. He stood six foot three, with one shoulder higher than the other, but the voice that issued from his enormous frame was a falsetto squeak. The whole courtroom leaned forward as the two lawyers unfolded the story of Ephraim Avery and Maria Cornell.
Lowell, Massachusetts, at the falls of the Merrimack River, was the industrial show place of America. In 1820 it had been a barren waste. Ten years later it had fifteen thousand inhabitants and seven newspapers. Brick cotton mills, up to seven stories high, lined the watercourses, each capped with a belfry and surrounded by snug green-shuttered boardinghouses. Most of the workers were farm girls, who looked to a short experience in the mills as an introduction to life, much as their brothers looked to a few years at sea.
Among the factory hands was a little black-eyed sparrow of a girl named Maria Cornell, who stood only five feet tall. Born at Rupert, Vermont, in 1802, she had been apprenticed at twelve as a seamstress in Norwich, Connecticut, by her widowed mother. Mason showed that she had been discharged from Norwich for breaking the heddles on her loom; that she had lost other jobs—at Jewett City, Connecticut, for promiscuous behavior, and at Dorchester, Massachusetts, for calling the Methodist elders “a pack of damned fools.” She had also been dismissed from the Methodist congregation at Slatersville, Rhode Island, for lewdness. Who, asked Greene, could blame them for reading her out of meeting? She did not blame them herself, Mason answered.