- Historic Sites
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
As I told you I am willing to help you and do for you. As circumstances are, I should ratther you would come to Bristol in the stage the 18th of December and stop at the Hotell and stay till six in the evening and then go up directly across the main street to a brick building neare to the stone meeting house where I will meet you and talk with you. When you stop at the tavern either inquire for work or go out on to the street in pretense of looking for some or something else and I may see you. Say nothing about me or my family. Should it storm on the 18th come the 20th. If you cannot come and it will be more convenient to meet me at the methodist meeting house in summerset just over the ferry on either of the above eve’g I will meet you there at the same hour or if you cannot do either, I will come to fall river on one of the above evenings when there will be the least passing, I should think before the mills stop work....When you write, direct your letter to Betsy Hills and not as you have to me. Remember this . Your last letter I am afraid was broken open. Wear your calash not your plain bonnet. You can send your letter by mail.
Yours &c, B.H.
Betsy Hills was the crippled niece of Mrs. Avery who helped with the housework. Inside the flap was a postscript: “—Let me still enjoin the secret. Keep the letters in your bosoom or burn them up.”
But he did not wait for her to come to Bristol. On the eighth, ten days before the assignation, he walked the fourteen roundabout miles to Fall River. He bought a half-sheet of white paper—the third found in the bandbox—scribbled a note on it, sealed it with a purple wafer, and dropped it at the post office in the penny box for local delivery:
—I will be here on the 20th if pleasant at the place named, at six o’clock. If not pleasant, the next Monday evening. Say nothing, etc.
The twentieth was the day before John Durfee had found Maria’s body in the stackyard.
After noonday dinner, Avery started out from his house in Bristol. He wore his peaked walking hat and the same brown surtout he wore later in the courtroom. He carried a red bandanna under his arm with a package in it. He eased his limp on a walking stick. There were no spectacles on his nose. At the foot of Ferry Hill in Bristol, two miles from home, he shouted across to George Pearse, the ferryman, who was tied up on the Island side. Pearse brought the horse scow over, apologizing that he must charge sixteen cents instead of eight, since he had to cross twice. He ported the sweep and clucked to the pair in the deck stalls; they plodded the disk of the treadmill; the paddles began to turn, and the scow edged into the channel.
Waving his cane toward the west side of the Island, Avery told Pearse he was out for a ramble, in spite of his still-lame ankle. He aimed to call on Brother Cook, four miles down-island. On the way, he thought to look at the Butt’s Hill Fort, where his father had fought in the Revolution, and perhaps at the coal deposits on the western shore. Pearse saw him limp up the hill to the windmill on the crest, and then out of sight, with his cane to help him.
Eastward in Fall River, at four that afternoon, Maria asked her overseer to excuse her for the rest of the day. Lucy Hathaway promised to watch her looms—one was broken anyway—for the half hour that remained till dark. Maria walked home to her lodging, changed to her brown cloak and calash, and went out, telling Mrs. Hathaway she would be home early. At the same time, a little beyond the Tiverton bridge connecting the Island to the mainland, Annis Norton saw a dark-spectacled six-footer, in a snug snuff-colored surtout and tapered beaver, striding uphill toward Fall River.
“At that rate,” laughed Annis, “he’ll reach Ohio by sunrise.”
The sun set at half past four; the moon would not rise till ten. In the dusk, on the hill just short of Fall River, Benjamin Manchester and Abner Davis were blasting rock. Having kindled their shavings, they ran to the shelter of a stone wall. At that moment a stranger, taller than common height, climbed the same wall farther down. “Look out,” they shouted to him. He halted till the rock had stopped falling, then started across the field. He climbed the opposite wall into John Durfee’s pasture. Durfee saw him too, dark as it was. The stranger gazed at Durfee’s stackyard, then squared his shoulders, and passed into the dusk, toward Fall River.
There, in Lawton’s Hotel, a clock peddler was eating supper. At quarter of six a long-legged stranger with dark glasses on his nose walked into the sitting room and ordered supper too. He wore a fur cap and had no cane. While waiting for his food he walked into the bar and returned with half a tumbler of brandy, which he drank neat at the trestle table, without speaking to the peddler. Having eaten, he paid Margaret Hambly, the waitress, and walked out into the dark.
At seven o’clock, Zeruiah Hambly, Margaret’s mother, happening to open the door with a lantern in her hand, saw a tall man and a short woman, arm in arm, walk down the lane in the direction of Durfee’s farm. At half past seven, Eleanor Owen heard shrieks from the same direction. She was washing the tea dishes in the sinkroom, but kept on washing them.