Ghost Story of Murder

A Ghost Story of Murder

My 9th great grandfather on my maternal line is a man named Thomas Cornell.

He was born on 21 October 1627 in Saffron Walden, England. He was the 4th of 13 children of Thomas and Rebecca Cornell.

The Cornells emigrated to Boston when Thomas was just 11 years old and settled in Boston, where his father purchased Willam Baulston’s tavern.

Things did not work out in Boston for the family so they moved to Portsmouth in 1643, where Rebecca’s brother, John Briggs, was a founder of the city.

Coming of age in Portsmouth, Thomas Cornell established himself as a respectable citizen.

He was chosen as the town clerk and would later oversee construction of a local prison. He was a constable, a deputy to the high court and also a town councilman.

History does not always look kindly on the Cornell family.

My great grandfather Thomas would be accused of murdering his mother, Rebecca.

His famous trial and conviction would later be linked through one of his direct descendants in Lizzie Borden.

Throughout the centuries some histories cast dark aspersions on the Cornell family because of these famous murder cases.

But is that fair?

As usual, the devil is in the details. In Puritan New England they fought the devil pretty hard.

Cornell House

This is the home of Thomas Cornell where Rebecca died. It burned down in 1889. Rebecca’s room was on first floor just left of entry.

~ What Happened to Rebecca Cornell? ~

Rebecca Cornell was born in 1600 and married Thomas Cornell in 1620.

Her heritage has been in dispute by genealogists for centuries. There has been much conjecture about her maiden name being Briggs, because the tale of her murder includes testimony from a man named John Briggs, who is listed as her brother in court records.

In fact, it is the testimony of John Briggs that makes the murder case of Rebecca Cornell so important.

On the night of February 8th, 1673, Rebecca was not feeling well.

While Thomas’ family sat down to a supper of mackerel, Rebecca stayed up in her room complaining that the fish made her sick.

After supper, Sarah (Thomas’ wife) sent one of Thomas’s sons to ask if there was anything that Rebecca wanted.

Upon entering the room, the boy found Rebecca on fire — and she was already dead.

Thomas Cornell’s original statement, the statement of one of the farm hands and the first coroner’s inquest, were all taken the following day: February 9th, 1673.

After the local coroner took all the statements he concluded Rebecca’s tragic death was an accident.

Rebecca Cornell death notice

This is the death notice of Rebecca Cornell

~ Rebecca’s Story ~

At this point in her life she had lived quite long for a woman in the 17th century.

She was a mother of 14 and an owner of significant property in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

Her husband, also named Thomas, died in 1655.

Both father and son had done well in their careers in Portsmouth and Rebecca chose to live with her son Thomas for her remaining years.

But all was not well between them.

According to neighbors, Thomas did not get along well with his mother Rebecca, who was critical of debts Thomas had run up to his parent’s estate.

It was said that Thomas and Rebecca were quite mean to each other.

These facts surfaced at the trial of Thomas Cornell for the murder of his mother, Rebecca.

The corner’s investigation was re-opened when John Briggs – described in court documents as Rebecca’s brother – claimed that Rebecca came to him after her death:

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.”

Rebecca’s brother interpreted the vision to mean that his sister accused someone of burning her intentionally.

John Briggs Testimony

Testimony of John Briggs from his deposition

Rebecca’s body was inspected a second time, and this jury found a suspicious wound in her stomach.

The investigation turned to neighbors, friends and family members.

Slowly but surely, all fingers pointed to Thomas Cornell and the drama that had built up over the years between him and his mother.

~ A Trial and Conviction ~

At trial, 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.

Thomas 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.

Another particular concern to Rebecca: Thomas’ second wife, Sarah, who she disliked.

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.”

To continue this bitter relationship, in Rebecca’s will, all of her estate was to be equally divided among her children, whom she listed by name. All of her sons and daughters received a part of Rebecca’s property, such as clothes, valuable objects, and even one of her daughters, Mary, inherited her mother’s gold ring. All the children except for Thomas was mentioned in Rebecca’s will.

Even Thomas’s first wife was mentioned in her will. This was because Thomas was the only son living with his mother, along with his first wife whom Rebecca loved.

Unfortunately, Thomas’ wife died a couple years after Rebecca signed her will. Thomas married Sarah and added to his family with her. Shortly after, Rebecca was asked as to why she did not live with any of her other children. She said that if she knew Thomas’ wife was going to pass, she would have left years ago. Rebecca and Sarah clearly did not care for each other.

The things Thomas and Sarah said immediately after Rebecca’s passing did little to help his case.

Thomas and Sarah reportedly declared in public that Rebecca’s death made them happy. Sarah supposedly called it “a wonderful thing,” while Thomas is said to have joked that his mother “always liked a good fire” and that “God had answered her ends, and now she had it.”The hearing began at the General Court of Trials at Newport on May 12th, 1673; Thomas pled not guilty.

But once testimony after testimony was presented talking about the strife between Thomas and his mother, it didn’t take long for the jury to present a guilty verdict.

He was among one of two men on trial for murder during the May trials of 1673.

Both men were found guilty and both sentenced to hanging. Thomas’s death may be the first capital punishment recorded in Rhode Island.

The jury convicted Thomas Cornell of murdering his mother with virtually no evidence that he had done so.

Two years after he died, his widow Sarah was charged with assisting in the murder, along with a local Indian, though she was not convicted and the case of Rebecca Cornell caused the people of Rhode Island to debate whether spectral evidence should be used in criminal cases at all.

Thomas’s execution is widely believed to be May 23, 1673.

It was Thomas’ desire to be buried next to his mother. This was not allowed.

Shortly after this date, Sarah Cornell gave birth to their last daughter together. She named the baby Innocent. Many believe that this was meant as a form of protest against the guilty verdict.

Innocent was the daughter who married into the Borden family, and it is her great-great-great-great granddaughter who was accused and acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother.

The descendants of Thomas and Rebecca Cornell would make all kinds of history in early America. We will detail some of these better stories in time.

Jeff Westover
Jeff Westover

Husband, father, Latter-day Saint, 11th generation American, and web geek currently residing in Smithfield, Utah. Please visit my website at

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