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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
Greene summed up for seven hours, and Mason for eight. Justice Eddy then charged the exhausted jurymen, who retired with a hand bell at seven o’clock on Saturday evening, June 1. The case had lasted four weeks—longer, Mason told the jury in his closing arguments, than any previous trial in the history of the republic’s jurisprudence.
On Sunday morning the jury was still locked up. Most of the spectators went to church. At noon, after a hearty dinner, courtesy of the State, Foreman Trevett rang the hand bell. The sheriff called the jurymen to their box and tolled the bell in the tower of Colony House. At this signal the men instantly left church, leaving their wives behind. In five minutes the courtroom was full again.
For a breathless quarter hour the sheriff had to hunt for Jeremiah Mason, while jury and prisoner stared at each other in profound silence. At last he lumbered in. The trial ended thus:
CLERK : Gentlemen of the Jury, have you agreed upon your verdict?
JURY : We have.
CLERK : Who shall speak for you?
JURY : Our foreman.
CLERK : Mr. Foreman, what say you? Is the prisoner at the bar guilty or not guilty?
FOREMAN TREVETT : Not guilty.
For the first time Avery showed emotion. He passed his hand under his glasses and held it to his eyelids for a moment. Then he took off the glasses for good. The clergy crowded up to shake his hand; the rest of the audience filed out to the Parade, muttering its disgust. Avery was discharged. In half an hour his friends had him aboard a sloop which wafted him in three hours, with the wind behind her, to Bristol. The village had not expected a verdict on the Sabbath, but the word soon spread. A crowd followed him from the wharf to Wardwell Street but let him enter the house alone.
“Sophia,” they heard him say, “I am freed from the thrall.”
She toppled forward in her chair.
The news of his acquittal appeared in newspapers all over the country. He preached in his own meeting-house on Sunday and in Boston the next Sunday. In the week between, the Methodist Conference, which had charged him with adultery, absolved him and voted that “in view of brother Avery’s confinement and afflictions, and the influence they have had upon his health and constitution, the Bishop is hereby respectfully requested to give him such an appointment and relation to the church, as will afford him the most favorable opportunity of recovering his health.”
Bishop Henning reappointed him to Bristol, with an assistant. But the notorious preacher could not face the crowds who flocked to hear him. He had been acquitted, but the trials had ruined him. Mason’s fee of $6,000 had almost ruined the Methodist Conference.
Leaving his family at home, Avery began a speaking tour of vindication. But he was hissed at Hartford when he rose to preach on Ephesians 2:8 (“For by grace are ye saved, through faith, and not of yourselves”). At his benefit sermon in Richmond, Massachusetts, the collection was hardly enough for his horse’s oats. In Boston, when he was recognized in the street, a mob of five hundred threatened to hang him. A straw effigy of him, kneeling in prayer with a rope at his neck, was set up outside Durfee’s stackyard, and so frightened a young sinner of Tiverton that he put one around his own neck and hanged himself.
Avery’s letters to Maria were hawked in colored facsimile at the news parlors. Drury wrote an account of the hearing, and Hallett, clerk of the court, one of the trial. Harnden’s story of the capture at Rindge sold thirteen thousand copies. In New York the Richmond-Hill Theatre presented a melodrama called The Factory Girl, or the Fall River Tragedy . Lurid accounts of the case, with woodcuts, appeared throughout the country. And though Avery published his version of the facts in a so-called Statement, it convinced nobody.*
Before the end of the year he fled to his wife’s family in Connecticut, but suspicion and mockery pursued him. Finally he resigned from the ministry to move out west. He bought a fifty-acre farm in Lorain County, Ohio. In the quiet reaches of the Western Reserve he lived out the blameless life of a farmer with Sophia and the children until he died, with suspicion outrun, in 1869.
His estate amounted to $111. Sophia sold his buffalo robe and sleigh to pay for his gravestone. The Lorain Constitutionalist gave him this farewell:
Whether Maria or he had tightened the clove hitch, she had had her revenge.