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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
In 1828, repentant, she had moved to Lowell to work as a weaver in Appleton Mill Number 1. Her wages were $4 for a six-day week, of which $1.25 was withheld by the company for lodging and meals at her boardinghouse. In 1830 the Conference stationed the Reverend Mr. Avery in the growing mill town. He was thirty-three then, and must have looked as he did now in the box: a good six feet tall, with dark hair brushed up in front and curling long behind. He had a round chin, lank cheeks, and full lips. He had come first from “York State,” where he had tended store for his father, a wounded veteran of the Revolution. He had studied medicine before divinity and was something of a naturalist as well.
With his invalid wife, Sophia, his five-year-old boy Edwin and his infant daughter Catherine, he took lodgings at the house of a Mr. Abbott. There was a study for him on the ground floor—the devout called it the Prophet’s Chamber—with shelves for his collection of minerals, a couch of his own, and a separate door to the street. While Sophia spent her days upstairs with the children, he would take his tall cane after breakfast and tramp the countryside—no one knew where—till it was time for tea and evening prayer at home.
Maria was one of his flock. His rectitude, perhaps, served to reawaken the Devil within her. He had not been in Lowell a month before she stole a piece of muslin from a store; it was retrieved from within her shawl. She even rode out with a young man to the nearby village of Belvidere, where, says the State’s testimony, “They called for a chamber and he treated her with wine.”
When Avery heard this story, he threatened to expel her from meeting. She promised to reform again; she offered to work without pay as his servant if he would relent. But young Edwin, Mason proved, had once told his mother, as if it were a trifle, “Pa kissed Maria in the road.” Then the neglected lady forgot her meekness and, when Avery wanted to hire Maria to do housework, refused to have her in the house. Pious and penitent though she might be, the minister could not keep such a magdalen in the church. In October of 1830, five months after reaching Lowell, he read her out for theft and lewdness. She took the road again, this time to Somersworth, across the New Hampshire line.
Though she could not live with the Methodist Church, she could not live without it either. Avery had warned the Reverend Mr. Storrs of Somersworth. Storrs testified that when, as gently as he could, he had excluded her from a “Love-Feast” (a religious service for those who profess to have experienced a “second blessing”), she had cried to him, standing tiptoe with her arm across her breast, “You think to triumph over me now. But what care I for Mr. Avery and the Methodist Church? I will have my revenge, though it cost me my life.”
She struggled through a year at Somersworth. Then on June 1, 1832, she fled with her loneliness to Woodstock, in the northeast corner of Connecticut, to join her sister Lucretia, who was married to the tailor Grindell Rawson. He made her his bookkeeper, and she wrote out his bills in a bold, clear hand.
Although the doors of Woodstock meeting closed against her, she managed to join a Bible class at a hamlet called Muddy Brook. And no one could bar her from the camp meetings which abounded in the countryside. Their whole purpose was to save lost sheep. Card sharps, horsejockeys, liquor peddlers, and fallen women, among the hundreds who truly sought redemption, flocked to the great circles cleared among the pines. The crowd would sway on the narrow benches set up before the preachers’ stand. Delegations from neighboring villages pitched white tents at the edge of the woods and laid their provisions on the center table, where they were shared by all.
The camp meeting at Thompson, Connecticut, only a few miles from Woodstock, opened on Monday, August 27, 1832. On Tuesday John Paine, the Woodstock expressman, dressed in a dark coat, light pantaloons, and a green-lined palm-leaf hat, drove Maria to Thompson and dropped her, with bandbox and hamper, at the Muddy Brook tent. By this time Avery had been rotated from Lowell to Bristol, Rhode Island, which lies sixty miles southeast of Thompson—a long trip by chaise, even for a man in good health—and Avery, four days before, had broken his ankle on a stone wall and fainted from the pain. Though he limped as he walked, and was not even on the list of preachers, he drove to the meeting. At Thompson he boarded in the Plainfield tent. Between meals he sat with the preachers in the stand or rested in the official tent behind it.
The prosecution did not claim that he knew Maria would be there and admitted that he did not meet her till Thursday, the last day of camp. That morning at six o’clock the horn blew for sunrise prayer. As the echo of Amen died away, the Reverend Elias Scott warned his colleague that there were bad characters on the ground. Avery nodded; he had seen Maria gazing up at the stand, and when he caught her eye, she turned her back on him. He agreed with Scott that it was their duty to warn the Muddy Brook tent master of her character and took the stern assignment on himself. He listened to the preaching from ten o’clock till noon. He took dinner with Plainfield, and tea with Weston. At 7:25 P.M. the horn sounded for the last service. Half an hour later, after the prayer of dismissal, the Thompson meeting was over for another year.