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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
Everyone went to bed early, to save candles. But at 9:10 P.M. John Borden, on the Tiverton side of the bridge, passed a stranger striding from the direction of Fall River; and a few minutes later William Anthony, on the Island side, foddering his cattle late, saw a figure come from the same direction and disappear toward the ferry. The moon was not yet up.
Whoever the stranger was—if indeed there was not more than one of him—the Reverend Ephraim K. Avery soon afterward awakened Jeremiah Gifford, who tended the wharf on the Island side of the ferry. Gifford resented being roused from his four-poster. He peered at the wooden clock on his mantel; the hands just lacked quarter of ten. The minister asked to be ferried to Bristol.
Gifford grumbled that it would be inconvenient. The wind was high, and it was very cold.
Avery persisted, saying that his family was unwell and needed him at home.
The ferryman still refused. He did, however, give Avery a room for the night. The minister was up at five for an impatient breakfast. He crossed as the sunrise bell sounded from the Congregational Church in Bristol and trudged up Ferry Hill, reaching home in time for a second meal. In the afternoon he, Mrs. Avery, and their son walked downtown for tea with Mrs. Nancy Gladding, who testified that he was cheerful and affable; his demeanor was that of a Christian and a gentleman. Soon afterward, as we have seen, Elder Bidwell brought him the news of Maria Cornell’s death.
The State had a hard time drawing a description of the corpus delicti from the ladies who had laid it out, and one of them snapped, “I never heard such questions asked of nobody .”
Attorney General Greene described it anyway, to the courtroom’s horror, while Avery sat impassive behind his spectacles. The crowd’s hatred for him spread to encompass the black-robed elders who attended him. When the gentle Bidwell entered the courtroom, someone called out, “Here comes another of the damned murderers.”
Mason, on the other hand, was waked up one night by a man who said an angel had appeared at his bed-post to tell him, “Mr. Avery is innocent of this crime,” and immediately vanished. He begged to take the stand with this evidence, and Mason said he might do so, provided he brought the angel with him.
No one had seen Avery at the places where the defense claimed he had spent the afternoon—not at the Fort, nor at the mine, nor at Brother Cook’s. The only people he had met on the Island—a boy driving sheep and a man with a torn hat—could not be found, nor had anyone else seen them. Mrs. Jones, being a Quaker, would not take the oath but despite the minister’s solemn admonition that she had seen him after noon, affirmed that her stranger had passed in the morning. Jane Gifford, the ferry master’s daughter, swore that Avery had told her he “had business with Brother Cook”; Cook swore he was away from home all day. Mason countered that Avery had not told Jane he had actually seen Cook; and besides, Jane had been read out of meeting just as Maria had.
On the other hand, none of the witnesses who claimed that Avery had gone to Fall River could surely identify him. The red bandanna at Maria’s feet looked like the one that Pearse had seen him carry, but could not be proved to be the same. Harnden hired two boys to walk from Lawton’s Tavern to the ferryhouse, to show there was time for a murder on the way. It took them an hour and a quarter, but they admitted on cross-examination that they might have trotted a little going downhill. He bought a forty-dollar patent lever watch to prove that the Bristol bell was half an hour slow; but this evidence must have been prompted by civic jealousy, for it did not affect the final outcome of the case.
Greene called 78 prosecution witnesses. Mason, for the defense, called 160, mostly clergymen to prove that Avery’s character was good and women to prove that Maria’s was bad. He produced an expert on penmanship who deposed that the three letters were forged and a cordwainer who swore that a stranger—not Avery—had given him a letter to deliver to Orswell at the King Philip on the very morning the state claimed Avery had delivered his. By a miracle of coincidence both letters were pink and both were addressed to Miss Cornell in Fall River. Brother Jillson of Providence testified that Brother Avery could not possibly have reached the King Philip between the services at sunrise and at nine, as he had shaved and eaten breakfast in between.
Mason implied that Maria had forged the three letters and then hanged herself to incriminate Avery. To support this likelihood, Miss Louisa Whitney, for the defense, stated that the clove hitch was used by weavers like Maria and herself to repair the harness of their looms. On the stand she tied one and drew it taut at her own neck, amid the gasps of the courtroom. Another weaver, for the State, denied that she had ever used a clove hitch.
Mason saved his heaviest artillery for the end. He called Dr. Walter Channing, professor of midwifery and medical jurisprudence at Harvard, who declared it was impossible to tighten a clove hitch on anyone who resisted. Using the report of Dr. Wilbur’s post-mortem, he proved by a dozen authorities that Maria’s unborn child could have been conceived before the Thompson camp meeting.