Rebecca Briggs was born circa 1600 in Saffron Walden, Essex, England, United Kingdom to Henry Briggs (1574-1625) and Mary Hinckes (1581-1597) and died 8 February 1673 in Cedar Avenue, Portsmouth, Newport County, Rhode Island, United States of murder. She married Thomas Cornell (1594-1655) .
Who killed Rebecca Cornell on the afternoon of Feb. 8, 1673, as she sat alone in her room in her home in Portsmouth (Cedar Avenue)? To this day no one knows for certain, yet one man, her son, Thomas, was convicted (on evidence that now seems wholly spurious) and executed for the crime. In those days when a defendant could have no counsel to argue his case, not a few innocent men went to their death, the victims of trumped-up charges. Nowdays, a court would insist upon a minute autopsy upon the body and a rigorous investigation of all evidence before deciding the case and declaring a verdict. But let us examine the case in hand.
To begin with, the Cornells as a family were well known in Portsmouth. Thomas Cornell, the father, had been admitted as a freeman in 1640, he received a grant for 100 acres within the settlement. To this estate his son Thomas succeeded.
Thomas the 2nd, like his father, was a man of honor and consequence in the colony. He was several times a deputy from Portsmouth to the General Assembly in Newport, and was placed in many positions of public trust. In February 1673, we find him living quietly on his Portsmouth farm with his family, made up then of himself, his wife, two sons, his mother (a widow of 73), and two hired men. His mother occupied a first floor room, which contained a fireplace and had both an inside and outside door. Thomas had been married twice, having four sons by his first wife. It was two of these sons who were left at home at the time of the murder, but the wife mentioned was Sarah, the second wife.
To proceed: On Feb. 8, 1673, Rebecca, the mother, was found dead on the floor of her room, her clothes burned and her body severely scorched by fire. Taking the first testimony of Thomas Cornell and one of his hired men, Henry Strait, a coroner's jury returned a verdict that she had come "To her untimely death by an unhappy accident of fire, as she sat in her room." However, a further examination of the body disclosed a wound on the upper part of her stomach, and the jury gave out as a revised verdict that she came to her death because of both fire and the injury, but incriminated no one. As the case stood, it was a mystery until rumors began to circulate concerning trouble in the past between Thomas and his mother. Magistrates took up the inquiry and prosecuted Cornell on the strength of it. He was arrested and bound over to the superior court. Indicted on March 12, tried and convicted on the same day, sentenced to be hanged on May 23, pending the execution of the sentence. He was kept chained, manacled and guarded by four men by day and eight men by night. In the addition, a warrant was issued for the seizure of his estate. There was no chance for him to escape, and he died on the gallows on the appointed day.
Thomas Cornell did not confess anything, but strangely enough, before his execution, his friends presented a petition in his behalf to the General Assembly requesting that he be buried next to his mother. Would a murderer naturally desire to be buried next to his victim? The Petition complicated the mystery. The General Assembly did not grant it, but gave his friends permission to bury him on his own farm, provided they made his grave within 10 feet of the common road where the colony would be at liberty to set up a monument on his grave. Otherwise he would have to be buried near the gallows. As a further mark of leniency, the Assembly released his estate after his death, naming the town council of Portsmouth as executor. Another odd aspect of the case was the vote of the General Assembly after the execution to record all the proceedings and testimonies involved in the case in the "Book of Trials". This was not testimony given at the actual trail, but such information and affidavits as were procured at the inquest or later by magistrates. Some of this testimony was peculiar, as we will go through it briefly.
On Feb. 8, the afternoon of the murder, Thomas Cornell spent two and half-hours with his mother in her room. Engaging her in conversation after which he came out into the adjoining room and began to wind a quill of yarn. Before this was half wound he was summoned to supper with his family and two hired men. After supper he sent his son Edward to ask his grandmother if she would have her milk boiled for supper. The boy went, discovered the fire in the room on the floor, and came running back to get a candle and give the alarm. Henry Strait ran into the room followed by the boy with the candle and then by Thomas Cornell and his wife. The hired man saw the fire and raked it out with his hands, and then in the faint light shed by the candle saw a human body on the floor. Supposing it to be an Indian, drunk and burned, (a rather odd supposition) he shook the body and spoke to it in an Indian language. At that moment Thomas Cornell saw the body and exclaimed, "Oh, Lord! It is my mother!"
The body was lying on its left side, with its back to the bed and face towards the window. Its cloths were part woolen and part cotton but only the woolen part was burned. There was no evidence of fire about the bed, except that the curtains and valance were partially burned. Lastly the outer door was fastened.
Thomas Cornell maintained that his mother's clothes had caught fire from hot coal falling upon them from her pipe as she smoked in her chair, but no pipe or pieces appear to have been found on the floor. If that happened, she should have been able to extinguish the fire herself or at least call for help. That hypothesis does not consider the evidence of the fire about the curtains and valances. Who extinguished those, things so highly inflammable? Thomas Cornell would hardy have left the room with the fire going unwatched, thus imperiling his own house!
Now for the testimony of the hired men: One said that usually both the children were with the grandmother in the evening but that they had not gone to her room on the evening of the murder. Futher, the grandmother, when well, usually ate with the family, being sent for. Henry Strait testified that he had even asked Thomas Cornell why his mother was not at the table that evening and that the latter replied it was because they were having salt mackerel, which she could not eat. "But," said Strait; "She used to be called at other times when they had mackerel."
Further testimony was to the effect that Rebecca Cornell had had a claim against her son for overdue rent. Some said sharp words had passed between them and others that she had been threatened by her son and forced to do menial services. At one time she had hinted at suicide and at another declared that in the spring she was going to live with her other son, Samuel, but feared that she might be made away with before then. Finally, one witness who accompanied by Sarah Cornell, had visited Thomas Cornell while he was in jail asserted that the wife and husband had conversed apart and that he had heard one say to the other "If you will keep my secret, I will keep yours."
Such is the main bulk of the testimony. There is one more episode in the case, however and it might well be mentioned. Four days after the murder the brother of Rebecca Cornell testified that the ghost of his sister had appeared at his bedside and spoken to him twice, calling attention to her burns and wound and implying that she had been murdered. Strange as it seems, according to the Cornell Family Genealogical records, this bit of flimsy testimony had the most to do with the indictment and sentencing of Thomas Cornell.
The case caused a great deal of feelings among the people of the colony, as well it might and its true solution remained a mystery. Two years later it was revived briefly in the indictment of Sarah Cornell, the widow of Thomas Cornell for either perpetrating the crime or "for being abetting or consenting thereto" it may not be wrong to assume that her acquittal was in a large measure due to public sentiment. There had been time to do a whole lot of sane thinking since the hanging of Thomas Cornell. The people had reasoned to question the high handed proceedings, which rushed his execution. Whether Thomas Cornell was actually guilty or not we cannot say. The "Friends Records" say that "Rebecca Cornell, widow, was killed strangely at Portsmouth in her own dwelling house". But they name no murder. Even we, who are not lawyers, would question much of the evidence. While one prominent lawyer, once asked about the case, simply said, "there was no evidence".
Sarah Cornell, wife of Thomas Cornell, Jr., probably thought the same, for she named a daughter, born after her husband's death, "Innocent". Undoubtedly as a living protest against her husband's unjust execution, which was rather typical of the time. - Source of Information: John T. Pierce, Sr., 52 Cedar Ave., Portsmouth, R.I., 02871 (As of June 1987) and Steven Alsip, Corbin, KY Rebecca Cornell Woolsey's Depositon
Provied by Wilford Whitaker
(Deposition as to her mother's state of mind, which reveals a great deal of the state of mind of Rebecca Cornell Woolsey) We find so very little regarding women's innermost thoughts in the 1600's that it is with great wonder and renewed appreciation that I found this deposition of Rebecca Cornell Woolsey [wife of our Immigrant Ancestor, George Woolsey]. As she was attempting to give the state of mind of her mother [Rebecca Briggs Cornell] prior to the time that Rebecca Briggs Cornell was "murdered", Rebecca Cornell Woolsey actually gives us a deep insight into her own state of mind. Although this deposition is rather dark and foreboding, and disturbing as to her own state of mind, she faces the issue honestly and gives us her frank opinion. As we read it, we must remember the circumstances: her mother had recently been attacked and her body burned. Her brother Thomas Cornell had been charged with the crime. Thomas Cornell's second wife had been charged as an accessory. It was not a happy time in their lives, and Rebecca Cornell Woolseys statements reflect that period of turmoil and trouble.
HIST: Records of the General Court of Trials, Newport Court Book A, May 1673. Newport, Newport County, Rhode Island. Fiske, Jane Fletcher, transcriber. Rhode Island General Court of Trials 1671 - 1704. Boxford, Massachusetts. 1998. p. 31. [This deposition was taken 10 Apr 1673 at Flushing by Robert Coe, Justice of Peace.] The Deposition of Rebeca Woollsey is yt wn shee was last at Rhod-Island with Her Mother Mrs Rebeca Cornell falling in discourse one with Another, the Deponts Mother tould her Daughtour Woollsey that shee looked very poorly and the Depont told her Mother shee had cause soe to doe; her mother did Aske her why; the Depont told her Mother, yt shee had, had the smal pox, and yt shee was very much Afflicted and Troubled in mind, and yt shee was sometimes Perswaded to Drowne her selfe, and sometimes to stabb her selfe. Soe the Deponts Mother told her Daughter that shee must pray to God, and he would helpe Her. The Depont told Her Mother, shee did often call upon God, and he did here her, so wn the Depont had done with this Discorce, the Deponants Mother told her Daughter that shee had beene divers yeares possest with an evill spirit, and that shee was divers times Perswaded to make away with Her selfe, and yett the Lord was pleased from time to time to preserve her. The Depont told her Mother, that shee would tell her Brother Thomas of it, and her Mother charged her not to tell hime, soe shee did not tell hime: And further sayes not. ffloshin [Flushing] 10 Aprill 1673 - This Testimony taken before me Robert Coe Justice of Peace
As one reads this remember the following:
Rebecca Cornell Woolsey was 43 years old when she made this deposition. She would live for another 40 years after making this statement. She was also four months pregnant. She had just lost one daughter, Mary, (for whom the daughter she was now pregnant with would be named) and it is possible that her youngest son William had died before 1673, although we don't know his exact death date.
Her mother's advice to her was to ". . . pray to God, and he would helpe Her." Rebecca, having just lived through a small pox epidemic [that killed one of every three that came down with it, including several of her neighbors], replied that ". . . shee did often call upon God, and he did here [hear] her, . . ." Even though ". . . shee was very much Afflicted and Troubled in mind, . . ." Rebecca Cornell Woolsey relied on a great faith in God to overcome her adversities.
|Offspring of Henry Briggs and Mary Hinckes (1581-1597)|
|Rebecca Briggs (1600-1673)||1600 Saffron Walden, Essex, England, United Kingdom||8 February 1673 Cedar Avenue, Portsmouth, Newport County, Rhode Island, United States|| Thomas Cornell (1594-1655)|