Killed Strangely – The Death of Rebecca Cornell
Rebecca Cornell, age 73, died in Rhode Island. Her oldest son, Thomas Cornell, found her badly burned body close to the large, walk-in fireplace in her bedroom. Two weeks after her burial, her son Thomas was arrested for her murder. His is the first murder trial in Rhode Island and also the first in which a written record was made of the investigation and the testimony. The evidence against Thomas consisted of a rudimentary twelve-man coroner’s inquest; conflicting testimony on the condition of the body at death, the appearance of Rebecca’s ghost, who made a statement to her brother, John Briggs; speculation by friends, relatives, and neighbors; and circumstantial evidence. Since Rebecca’s bedroom had a door to the outside as well as to the inside plus thick walls (including the fireplace and stairways to the upper floors of the large house), the family originally believed the crime to have been committed by the family’s Indian servant Wickhopash. Both Thomas and Wickhopash were arrested and tried for the murder.
The author’s thesis and main point is that the limited facts and evidence available, as provided by the written record of the testimony, provide a starting point for understanding life and religious beliefs in late seventeenth-century New England and for speculating about what might have happened to Rebecca other than her being murdered by her son. Thomas’ guilt is linked to his relationship with his family and to external social forces that shaped his life. Since this book was written centuries after the crime and is based on the court records, it could have been written any time. The author, Elaine Forman Crane, is Professor of History at Fordham University. Her previous books include Ebb Tide in New England: Women, Seaports, and Social Change, 1630-1800.
Dr. Crane examines what is known of life and religious beliefs in New England in the late 1600’s in great detail. She discusses the various religious sects and splinter groups active at the time and how their beliefs may have influenced events. Under the Rhode Island civil code of 1647, maliciously killing a parent was only slightly less a crime than killing a reigning monarch. The author also discusses in great detail the problems and implications of several generations of Cornells living under the same roof, including whether Rebecca or Thomas would have been the “ruler” of the household, the likely intergenerational conflicts of family and religions, the possibility of elderly abuse, the means by which parents chose to distribute property (Rebecca gave away parts of her real estate by means of a deed of gift with life estate reserved), and roles played within the household by different generations. The author also discusses whether or not relations between Rebecca and Thomas’ second wife Sarah might have been very strained.
When the author stays within her sphere of knowledge, the history of early New England and all the religious, family, and cultural variables involved, the book is very good and on point. However, when she speculates that the strain of insanity evidenced in future generations and other family branches may have been present also in this Cornell family, her implications are strange and not well-taken as are her attempts at amateur psychiatry. Lizzie Borden may have been a descendent (page 141). She states that Rebecca Cornell’s “retention of the great bed (a symbol of both power and sex) may have strained the relationship between mother and son, if only subconsciously” (page 133). Since the documents on which this book is based consist only of the trial records and photographs of similar houses with rooms and fireplaces similar to that in the Cornell house (which later burned), the author repeats this information in an many different ways as possible without providing early on details I would have liked to have – how the fireplace was constructed and the composition of the floor of the room, whether wood or dirt. These details, discussed later, suggest to me that since Rebecca Cornell’s body was almost completely burned and the wooden floor was not, it is quite likely she either fell into the fireplace or was pushed into it. She might have not died instantly but crawled out onto the large hearth or been pulled out of the fire by the murderer.
The strength of the book is the immense amount of detail provided by the author about family relationships in 17th Century Rhode Island, especially when that family consists of several generations residing under one large roof; expectations of inheritance by male sons; roles within the family expected to be performed by sons, daughters, wives, grand-children, and servants; lack of available currency and use of paper notes signifying debts; eternal existence of physical and emotional intra-familial abuse; and religious beliefs, changeability and effects on family relationships. The author makes her point, but not especially clearly, since she is prone to speculation and repeated use of words indicating educated guesses and inferences. Working backwards from insanity in later generations of possible descendants of this branch of the Cornell family to infer possible schizophrenia in son Thomas and suicidal tendencies in mother Rebecca is hard to follow and probably not accurate.
There are, to me, several weaknesses of the book. The author throws out names of religious splinter groups without explanation of their beliefs and why this would cause friction between family members under the same roof. While the book started out very readable, it soon became bogged down in repeated details and unproven speculation, making the reading very dull for the most part. This is a book that would be very interesting to historians and theologians but not to the general reading public. I had expected it to be much more interesting than it was, and I had to search for details I considered important. For example, on page 35, there is a drawing of Rebecca’s room, indicating the location but not the size of the fireplace. On the next page there is a picture of a bed similar to the one Rebecca would have had. Then there is a brief discussion of what the various witnesses saw when they entered the room and that nobody heard or smelled anything when Rebecca’s body burned.
The author then goes into the family history, Rhode Island history, religious conflict in the community, inheritance practices, the arrival of the Puritans in Plymouth Colony, whether or not the wound found later in Rebecca’s body was inflicted or caused by decay, tools that could have made such a wound, why blood on Thomas’ body might not have been noticed, and many other speculative areas about what might have happened. The picture of the similar fireplace and hearth are on page 128. While the dimensions are not given, the picture shows that the fireplace was walk-in and had a huge hearth. The walls were very dense and contained stairways. If the family members were in the next room seated around the dining table talking and eating, they would not have heard or smelled anything coming from Rebecca’s room.
I would not recommend this book to any of my friends. The content is of limited interest to the general public and is much too detailed and repetitive to be liked even as a historical reference book. The subject matter and immense amount of details made what should have been an interesting book very dull.