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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
Of the next hour the only word is Maria’s own, written to her sister in a letter submitted by the State: I went up and asked to talk with him. “There is no room for us at the tents,” he said. “Go along further and I will overtake you.” He did overtake me, outside the fence, and we passed on, arm in arm, into the woods. When in the woods some distance, he asked me to sit down, and I did. I asked him if he had burned my letters, the ones I wrote him from Somersworth, asking to be retained in meeting. “No, but there is one condition on which I will settle the difficulty.” About this time he took one of my hands and put one of his own into my bosom. I tried to get away from him, but could not. Afterwards he promised to burn the letters when he returned to Bristol.
A month later she discovered her plight. Her only salvation, she wrote to her sister on November 18, was to hide again. This time she chose Fall River, a bustling village of five thousand. Next to Lowell, it was New England’s fastest-growing mill village, and as the fish hawk flies it is only four miles from Bristol. Three times a week the King Philip plied between the two, on her way to and from Providence; and the stage, through Warren, ran twice a day. On October 3, Maria set down her trunk at a boardinghouse and started work the next Monday in the weave-shed of the Anawan Mill. She tended four looms. In the twelve-hour workday she could run off 130 yards of cloth, for which she was paid a half cent a yard. In good health, she could make sixty-five cents, or four shillings—for some people, fifty years after the Revolution, still reckoned in shillings and pence.
On Friday, October 19, Avery, as Parson Bidwell’s guest, preached at the evening service in Fall River, as he had told Squire Howe. The night was not so dark but that a passer-by saw a short woman, at the edge of the emerging crowd, pluck at the sleeve of Avery’s cloak. The evidence of what they said is again from Bidwell’s testimony.
“Mr. Avery,” Maria whispered, “I want to speak with you.”
He turned to look down at her. “Maria, I do not wish to have anything to say with you.”
“You must. I want you to say you will not hurt me here. You have ruined me at Somersworth and Lowell.”
“Say rather that you have ruined yourself. I have never wanted nor tried to hurt you, Maria, but I can give no such promise. It is only just that Elder Bidwell should be warned.”
“Nobody knows me here,” she insisted, “and will not unless you tell them. Don’t tell them, will you? I mean to behave myself well.”
“That will be seen,” he answered, pushing on after the Bidwells, “I shall talk with you tomorrow.”
He came to see her the next evening, Maria wrote her sister, and she spent an hour with him.
He said … that if that was my case [the unborn child] was not his, and said I must go to a doctor immediately; said he had burned my letters—if he had have known what would have happened he would have kept them—said I must never swear it, for if that was my case he would take care of me—spoke very feeling of his wife and children—said I must say it belonged to a man that was dead, for, said he, I am dead to you—that is, I cannot marry you. He owned and denied [his guilt] two or three times. … I pledged him my word and honor I would not expose him if he would settle it. Therefore you must not mention his name to anyone …
What the result will be I know not....I do not, however, wish you to do anything for me till I send you word....The girls make from 3 to 4 dollars per week in the summer, but the days are short now and the water is low now. We can’t do very much … I do not want for anything at present. I have kept at home except on the Sabbath, but the methodists begin to know me and say good morning Sister, as I go to the factory. I am glad that you have plenty of work. I hope you will get along for help....You must not forget you have a sister in Fall River. My love to Mother. You must burn this letter. Farewell. Your sister,
Sarah M. Cornell.
The folded yellow letter in her bandbox, unsigned, bore the Bristol postmark and the date November 13, 1832:
Miss Cornell— … I will do all you ask, only keep it secret. I wish you to write me as soon as you get this, naming a time and place where I can see you, and wait for my answer before I come … I will keep your letter till I see you, and wish you to keep mine, and have them when I see you. Write soon—Say nothing to no one. Yours in haste.
On Monday, the twenty-fifth, Avery set off from Bristol by Chadwick’s stage for a four-day prayer meeting in Providence. On Tuesday morning, dressed in the black goat-hair cloak called a camlet, he stepped aboard the King Philip at her dock. He handed a pink letter to Orswell, her engineer, with a tip of ninepence, and asked him to leave it for Miss Cornell at Mrs. Hathaway’s in Fall River. (At the trial, Orswell identified the letter, which was the second found in the bandbox, but could not positively identify Avery because of his green spectacles.) That evening Maria received it:
Providence, Nov. 26, 1832