Monday, August 15, 2016

Killed Strangely: Thomas, Rebecca and Innocent Cornell

Thomas Cornell, Sr (ca.1594-1654) immigrated to Boston in 1638 with wife Rebecca Briggs (1600-1673), both from Saffron Walden, Essex, England, and most of his 9 children.  They were relatively older immigrants with Thomas about 44 and Rebecca 38 years old.  Thomas ran an inn in Boston but, after being fined for selling wine without a license, he had to stop his “entertainment” business. With the combination of the inn fiasco and being peripherally associated with the Antinomians, Thomas was not accepted as a freeman.  He pulled up stakes in 1640 and went to Portsmouth, there almost immediately made a freeman and given a bit of land.

 At age 46, Thomas was one of the older colonists, but overall financially well off.  Even so, he elected to accompany Anne Hutchinson and several other families in 1642 to settle the Mespath area north of New Amsterdam after Anne’s husband died.   In late August 1643, Indians set fire to the Cornell house and barn - basically leveled the settlement - but the forewarned Cornell family were able to escape.  Unfortunately, Anne elected to remain in her home.  She and six of her children were scalped and killed in the massacre.  With few remaining resources, Thomas returned to Portsmouth and managed to acquire land and build a substantial house on a 100 acre grant at the west side of the island.  He was back and forth between Portsmouth and New Amsterdam, accumulating land in the process in both places as well as at Dartmouth, MA.  He may have gone for a few years to England, leaving his family behind, as there is a gap missing his name in Portsmouth records. Together with Roger Williams he co-founded the village of Westchester north of what is now New York City.  An area bordering Westchester known as Cornell’s Neck later became part of the Bronx.   

When Thomas made his will in 1651, he took an unusual measure of leaving his estate to Rebecca and none to his children.  The girls were already married, but why not anything to his sons?  He died five years later and lies buried at the Captain Clark Cornell Lot in Portsmouth.


Cornell Cemetery Lot, Portsmouth, Rhode Island, designated as a historic cemetery
Rebecca’s brother, John Briggs, was a first settler at Portsmouth and signer of the Portsmouth Compact.  Quakers arrived in Portsmouth in 1657 after Thomas Sr’s death and Rebecca became Quaker.  She burned to death in a bizarre incident at the house and is buried with Thomas Sr. in the Cornell Cemetery behind the family house.  The original house burned in the late 1800’s and another built on the site operates as The Village Inn.

Thomas Sr. can count among his descendants a signer of the Declaration, a Revolutionary War general who served in the Continental Congress, Bill Gates, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, 
Senator Daniel Webster, John Kerry, Amelia Earhardt, founder of Cornell University Ezra Cornell and, by way of his granddaughter Innocent, Lizzie Borden.

Thomas Cornell, Jr (1627-1673), Thomas and Rebecca’s third child, was 11 when the family immigrated from Essex to Boston.  He went with the family from Boston to Portsmouth to New Amsterdam, where he married Elizabeth Fiscock in November 1642/43.  Now a married man, he remained behind when the family returned to Portsmouth after the Mespath massacre.  Shortly after joining the New Amsterdam militia as a 17 year old, he was charged with attempted murder and desertion.  He was taken for execution, but released after the executioner fired the musket over his head to set an example.

Thomas married twice, first to Elizabeth Fiscock in New Amsterdam with whom he had 5 children.  He and Elizabeth returned to Portsmouth just before she died and they moved into the homestead owned by his widowed mother, Rebecca Briggs Cornell. After Elizabeth’s death in 1658 he married secondly to Sarah Earle, daughter of our Ralph Earle, in 1660.  As mentioned, Thomas Sr. had deeded all his land to Rebecca and she in turn parceled out the land to the siblings - except Thomas Jr.  Thomas was to receive the homestead after Rebecca died, but amazingly she lived another 18 years after Thomas Sr’s death, all the while Thomas Jr, wife Sarah, a number of his children, his man servant and Rebecca were living in the two story house.

Cornell House, destroyed by fire 1889.  Rebecca's room was on first floor just left of entry.
Rebuilt house, now operating as The Village Inn, photo taken 2013 
On the evening of February 8, 1673, Rebecca’s burned body was found in her bedroom, likely from a coal or pipe ashes catching her clothing on fire.  Rebecca had been sitting in front of the fire in her bedchamber, smoking her pipe while the family had dinner.  She had earlier complained of not feeling well and refused to join the family at dinner.  After eating, one of the boys went to her room to inquire whether she would like some milk and found his grandmother in flames, so unrecognizable the family thought it to be a drunken Indian.

An inquest was held, the death ruled accidental and the body was prepared for burial by Elizabeth Parsons and Mary Walker Earle, two of our grandmother ancestors.  Two nights after burial, according to a report by her brother John Briggs, Rebecca’s ghost appeared and said “see how I am burnt by fire!” As Briggs was an upstanding citizen - indeed signer of the Portsmouth Compact - and ghosts were taken seriously in those times, Rebecca’s body was exhumed and a second inquest held declaring her death a homicide.  Thomas Jr.  was felt to have motive as he had been waiting years for his inheritance of the family homestead.  Reports were given about what would be today considered elder abuse.  Further, one of our grandfather ancestors, John Pearce, testified that Thomas had said "his Mother in her life time had a desire to have a good fire and that he thought God had answered her ends, for now she had it."  He was tried, convicted and hanged within a period of five days.  

White Horse Tavern
The trial may have been held at the White Horse Tavern, still standing in Newport and on the National Register of Historic Places.  He was hanged on Miantonomi Hill where now sits a World War I Memorial.

His request to the court to be buried beside his mother was denied, but the family was allowed to bury him somewhere on the property, just not within 20 yards of Rebecca.  Thomas Sr. and Rebecca are buried in the Cornell Lot in Portsmouth.  The story is recounted in the book Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell.


Sarah was six months pregnant at the time Thomas was hanged and the child was named Innocent Cornell (1673-1720).  See Sarah Earle above and Innocent Cornell in previous posts. 

Thomas Sr. is our 10th great grandfather, Thomas Jr. our 9th, and Innocent our 8th great grandmother.

Source:  Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell, Rebecca Crane.

2 comments:

Jennie Dixon said...

Great post - have you read the book?

Katharine said...

Yes, quite thoroughly. It is well written and, of course, fascinating look at life in those times.