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A Spirit For The Prosecution

Just in time for Halloween, here is a true story that took place and was probably well known local news to my Holmes ancestors who lived less than 10 miles away at the time of the occurrence.

The Cornell House

Thomas Cornell Sr. and Rebecca Cornell lived in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, along with their four daughters and three sons. They formerly lived in Boston, where they had planned to stay for the rest of their lives when they arrived from England in 1627. Thomas Sr. and Rebecca Cornell bought a house and 112 acres in Boston from William Baulston, a settler who abandoned Boston to go to Portsmouth, a new settlement Rebecca's brother, John Briggs, along with other settlers had founded. In 1640, Thomas Sr. and Rebecca Cornell's family decided that it was best to leave Boston and move to Portsmouth due to a number of fines Thomas Sr. had received. The fines consisted of drinking heavily, selling wine without a licence, and selling beer above the maximum allowable price. As soon as they arrived in Portsmouth they were welcomed and they immediately made Thomas Sr. a freeman, meaning that he was able to purchase land in Portsmouth. Within a year, Thomas Sr. had been granted meadow land and was made constable of Portsmouth. In the next couple of years, Thomas Sr. prospered in Rhode Island. Governor Kieft of New Netherlands awarded Thomas a tract of land in 1646, seven months before the town of Portsmouth allotted him 100 acres of land where his widow would meet her tragic death more than a quarter century later.

After Thomas Sr. died in 1655, Thomas Jr. allegedly became bitter that he was well into his 40s and was still financially dependent upon his widowed mother. He had also been jealous of the lavish gifts Rebecca had given to her other children from his late father's estate, while he himself had received nothing. The family resided on the sprawling 100-acre plot of land in Newport, Rhode Island. Thomas Jr., his wife and the six children the couple shared were crammed into a home with Rebecca, as well as a Native American servant named Wickopash. While on the surface it would seem that Thomas had been extremely close to his mother, according to stories told by both him and Rebecca, the pair despised one another. Rebecca often told stories of her son forcing her to fetch her own firewood and described him as nothing less than a complete terror to anyone who would lend an empathetic ear. Nobody took these complaints as a sign that trouble was afoot until the evening of 8 February 1673.

On the day she died, Thomas spent more than an hour talking with his mother in her sitting room. Then he was called to dinner. The 73-year-old Rebecca had skipped dinner that evening, complaining that she didn't care for the meal of salt mackerel that was being served. Instead, Rebecca retired to her room, while the rest of the family enjoyed their dinner.

After cleaning up, Thomas sent his son Edward to ask Rebecca if she wanted boiled milk or something else for supper. As Edward went to check on his grandmother, he was alarmed by a dog bounding from the sitting room. Something was amiss and Edward ran to fetch a candle and raise an alarm. When Thomas returned to the sitting room with Edward, he found Rebecca's charred body lying on the floor next to the fireplace, identifiable only by her shoes that had somehow survived the blaze unscathed. Rebecca's death was immediately ruled to have been the result of "an unhappie accident." Some had posed the theory that Rebecca had been the victim of spontaneous combustion. Others had a more logical explanation and said that a stray ember from the fireplace, or even from the pipe that Rebecca was known to smoke, had gotten caught on Rebecca's dress, burning the woman to a crisp. Whatever the real cause of the woman's death was, the coroner's office was content with their initial findings and the tragic case was officially closed.

It would not be until a week after the bizarre incident that Rebecca's brother, John Briggs, would begin telling locals of the strange dreams he had been having. Briggs claimed that he was asleep in bed when "he felt something heave up the bedclothes twice, and thought somebody had been coming to bed to him, where upon he awaked, and turned himself about in his bed, and being turned, he perceived a light in the room, like to the dawning of the day, and plainly saw the shape and appearance of a woman standing by his bedside where at he was much affrighted, and cried out, 'in the name of God what art thou?'

The apparition answered, 'I am your sister Cornell,' and twice said, 'see how I was burnt with fire.' And she plainly appeared unto him to be very much burnt about the shoulders, face, and head." He concluded that it was a sign that the fire had not been the result of a freak accident and that his sister accused someone of burning her intentionally.

Quakers and Protestants alike were known to be a superstitious lot and they took tales of ghosts very seriously. Upon hearing the news of Briggs' supernatural encounters with his recently deceased sister, they called to have Rebecca's body exhumed. After a thorough examination, a wound was found near her heart. Police suspected that she had been stabbed before her body had been burned to conceal the evidence. Though they were unable to produce any sort of murder weapon, one-by-one locals came forward to report that they had heard both Thomas and his wife making off-color remarks regarding the death of Rebecca. It was reported that Thomas had made a joke to several people that his mother always did like a good fire. This remark, in conjunction with their well-known feud, was considered at the time to be enough evidence to arrest him for his mother's murder.

Both Briggs' dream and hearsay from other locals were presented as irrefutable facts during Thomas' trial.

The hearing began at the General Court of Trials at Newport on 12 May 1673. Thomas pled not guilty. But witnesses painted an unpleasant picture of life in the Cornell home. Rebecca Cornell had complained about her treatment. She had to work on the farm. She went to bed without her bed made up or warmed. And she complained that Thomas was skimpy in heating the home and would not provide a good fire.

Her son declined to hire a maid to look after her and she and Thomas argued over whether rent should be paid for staying at the house and whether he should pay her or vice versa.

Rebecca Cornell, two witnesses testified, had contemplated killing herself, either by stabbing herself or drowning herself. Further, she had told some, she planned to leave Thomas’ house and move in with her son Samuel in the spring, particularly since Rebecca disliked Thomas' second wife, Sarah.

Patience Coggeshall testified: "She was afraid there would be mischief done. Her daughter-in-law was of such a desperate spirit, for not long since, said she, she ran after one of the children of his first wife, with an Axe, into her house; but she prevented her striking the child. Yet she did not live with any of her other children because she had made over her estate to her son Thomas. If she had thought her son Thomas first wife would have died before her, she would not have made it over to him."

Though an overwhelming amount of locals believed Thomas to be innocent, a jury found him guilty of murdering his mother with virtually no evidence that he had done so and sentenced him to death. Thomas Cornell, Jr. never sought to overturn the judge's ruling and on 23 May 1673, he was hung in the town square in front of thousands of onlookers.

After his execution, his wife who gave birth to their seventh child. She named their daughter Innocent. Innocent later married into the Borden family, and her great-great-great-great granddaughter Lizzie would later be accused and acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother.

Thomas had not been the only suspect in this bizarre case. A year after his execution, Wickopash, the family's servant, had also stood trial for Rebecca's murder. The case was not nearly as publicized as Thomas' trial and subsequent execution had been, but after hearing all the evidence against him, a jury acquitted Wickopash on all charges.

There are also those who believe that Thomas' wife, Sarah, had played an instrumental role in the murder of her mother-in-law. Thomas' brother had attempted to assemble a case against Sarah, but the trial fell through when he failed to produce any witnesses or had any evidence to support his speculation.

The case of Rebecca Cornell caused the people of Rhode Island to debate whether spectral evidence should be used in criminal cases at all. It was the only time in our nation's history that someone was convicted based on the testimony of a ghost.



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