Skip to main content

The Minister And The Mill Girl

July 2024
30min read

Was Parson Avery innocent of poor, pregnant Maria Cornell’s murder, as his fellow ministers maintained, or was a guilty hypocrite concealed by his cleric’s garb? A glimpse at the legal process in 1833 New England

About nine on the morning of Friday, December 21, 1832, John Durfee, a farmer of Tiverton, Rhode Island, was driving his team through his stackyard when he noticed something inside swaying against one of the five-foot stakes. Leaping forward, he saw the body of a woman. Her knees hung six inches above the ground; her legs were bent backward, the toes balancing on the grass; her head lolled forward from a cord attached six inches below the top of the stake. Durfee tried to lift her with one hand, while loosing the cord with the other, but small as she was, her weight was too great for him. He shouted for help. In a moment his father, with Bill Allen and Ben Negus, the farm hands, ran up from the darkness. Allen cut the cord with his knife, and they laid the body on the ground.

The dead woman’s black hair cascaded from the pleats of her calash—the “bashful bonnet,” it was often called. Her cheeks were frostbitten, and her tongue was caught between her teeth. Her brown cloak was hooked up the front, except at the very top. Beneath it, one arm hung straight, and one was bent up to her breast, as if to ease the cord at her throat. There were gloves on her hands, and half of a comb in her hair; the other half they found outside the stackyard. Her shoes lay together a few inches to her right, with a red bandanna beside them. On the “fog”—last year’s dead grass—there were no footprints, for the ground was frozen. The noose by which she hung was not the slip-knot, but what farmers call a double hitch and sailors, a clove hitch. The cord was three-strand hemp, no thicker than a goose quill. It cut into her neck just below the right ear, and her right cheek rested against the stake.

Tiverton is one of the townships in Newport County. Durfee’s farm lay half a mile below the Massachusetts line at Fall River. Someone ran into the village for Elihu Hicks, the coroner, and someone else to Fall River for a doctor. Hicks arrived within an hour. Picking a jury from the gathering crowd, he swore them in inside the stackyard. Then the body was carried to Durfee’s house under a horse blanket, with straw beneath the broken neck.

By this time there were two Fall River men who could identify the body: Dr. Thomas Wilbur and the Reverend Mr. Bidwell of the Methodist Church. Dr. Wilbur examined it with the help of the female bystanders. Beneath the petticoat was the imprint of two hands. When Aunt Hannah Wrightington asked Dorcas Ford what she thought they proved, Dorcas whispered, “Rash violence!”

The girl was Maria Cornell—her full name was Sarah Maria Cornell—of Mr. Bidwell’s own congregation. The minister sent Durfee to Mrs. Hathaway’s in Fall River, where Maria had boarded, to fetch her effects. Durfee soon returned with a trunk and a bandbox, and with Mrs. Hathaway herself. In the bandbox Hicks found a letter, undated and unmailed, addressed to Bidwell. He made the minister read it aloud:

Sir: I take this opportunity to inform you that for reasons known to God and my own soul I wish no longer to be connected with the Methodist Society. When I came to this place I thought I should enjoy myself among them but as I do not enjoy any Religion attall, I have not seen a well nor a happy day since I left Thompson campground. You will therefore please to drop my name from [the Bible Class], and I will try to gain all the instruction I can from your public labours. I hope I shall feel different some time or other. The Methodists are my people when I enjoy any Religion. To them I was Indebted under God for my spiritual birth. I once knew what it was to love God with all my heart once felt God was my father, Jesus my friend and Heaven my home but have awfully departed and sometimes feel I shall lose my soul forever. I desire your prayer that God would help me from this.

Yours respectfully, Sarah M. Cornell.

Beside it, under her trinkets and ribbons, lay three letters addressed to her—one yellow, one pink, and one white—and a soiled scrap of paper, dated the very day before. Hicks read it aloud:

If I should be missing, enquire of the Rev. Mr. Avery in Bristol. He will know where I am gone. Dec. 20. S.M. Cornell.

Bristol, Rhode Island, lies across Mount Hope Bay in full sight of Fall River and Tiverton. The Reverend Ephraim K. Avery, a friend and fellow laborer of Bidwell’s, was the minister of the Methodist Church there. On hearing Avery’s name, Bidwell took horse through Fall River, round the head of the bay, and down through Warren to Bristol. It was seven o’clock when he reached that town. He whispered the news of the suicide to his friend, outdoors in the dark, on the narrow dog-leg of Wardwell Street, where Avery lived. Avery did not ask him to spend the night, and we can guess he would have declined. Bidwell rode home.

The deputy sheriff for Fall River was a young sleuth named Harvey Harnden. Hicks and Harnden spent Saturday morning over the three remaining letters found in the bandbox, which led them to suspect Avery of murder. However, the coroner’s jury, when it returned its verdict, was more cautions:

On viewing the body of said Sarah Maria Cornell, here lying dead, upon their oaths [they] do say that they believe the said Cornell committed suicide by hanging herself upon a stake in said yard, and was influenced to commit said crime by the wicked conduct of a married man, which we gather from Dr. Wilbur, together with the contents of three letters found in the trunk of said Cornell. And we the jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid do say the aforesaid Sarah Maria Cornell in manner aforesaid came to her death by the causes aforesaid.

Not content with this, Harnden, with Hicks, Durfee, and another man, crossed on Sunday by bridge to Aquidneck Island and by horse ferry to Bristol. The four called on Squire John Howe, justice of the peace for Bristol, and asked him to hold Elder Avery on suspicion of murder. Durfee swore out the complaint. Reluctantly, the Squire promised to send the constable that evening to arrest the suspect, and set a hearing for the next Wednesday, the day after Christmas, with his colleague Levi Haile from the neighboring town of Warren.

On Monday, back in Durfee’s barn, Dr. Wilbur performed a post-mortem on Maria’s body, exhumed for the purpose. If she had lived, he told Harnden, she would have borne a daughter in five months. A second jury then returned a new verdict, accusing Avery of being the “principal or accessory” in her death.

Maria was then buried against a stone wall in the very field where she had been found, with prayer read by Elder Bidwell to a tearful, angry crowd. That evening—December 24, 1832—Harndern, amid cheers and groans, presented the new verdict to a meeting in the Lyceum Hall at Fall River, promising that it should reach the two justices when their hearing opened two days later in Bristol. The citizens appointed him to head a “committee to aid the inhabitants of Tiverton.”

Pending the hearing, Squire Howe had released Avery in his own recognizance. The Parson, a self-confident man of thirty-seven, engaged three lawyers, to whom he admitted easily that he had known Maria Cornell in meeting at Lowell, Massachusetts, before being stationed in Bristol; that he had seen her once since then, at Elder Bidwell’s revival meeting in Fall River on October 19; that on December 20, the day before her body was found, he had crossed the ferry from Bristol to Aquidneck Island for a stroll, as the ferry master could testify; that he had returned to the ferry at nine o’clock, too late to cross, and had slept at the ferryhouse; that the Fall River men might claim to have seen him in their village, but that Mrs. Jones, who lived on the west side of the Island, could testify to seeing him cross her field in the afternoon, much too late for him to reach Fall River and return to the ferry by nine.

“Sister Jones,” he told her solemnly, “my life is worth thousands of worlds. Can you not recall that you saw me in the afternoon?”

But Mrs. Jones shook her head. She had seen a stranger in the morning , and could not even be sure whether what he carried on his shoulder was a walking stick or a clam hoe.

On Christmas Day, in those still-Puritan times a holiday of no importance, a hundred men of Fall River chartered the steamer King Philip for an invasion of Bristol. They swarmed up from the dock and surrounded the parsonage, even forcing their way into the sinkroom. Avery, who had performed a marriage that very morning, listened upstairs with his family. While William Paull, the Bristol sheriff, stood helpless on the outskirts, one stouthearted Bristolian faced the mob.

“What do you want?” he asked them.

“We’ve come for Elder Avery and will have him dead or alive,” said Harnden.

“That you shall not,” answered the Bristol man, and shoved him outdoors. There might have been a lynching if the bell of the King Philip had not rung just then. The crowd trooped down, empty-handed, for the return trip to Fall River.

Next morning the hearing opened in the courthouse on the Bristol Common, just beside Avery’s white-pillared chapel. Luke Drury, Collector of the Port, acted as clerk. The room was filled from morning to night. The squires were strict. They refused to examine Harnden’s three letters, and when he asked Dr. Wilbur to describe Maria’s condition, they refused to accept an answer. On January 7, they discharged Avery on the grounds that the complaint was signed by a private citizen (Durfee) instead of by the coroner, and that there was not much evidence against Avery anyway. That very evening Harnden read their verdict to an ugly crowd which overflowed the Congregational Church in Fall River. If the Bristol court would not bring Avery to justice, he promised them, he would do so by himself.

Avery, whose life was in danger from the Fall River mob, sought advice from the Reverend John Bristed, the Episcopalian rector of Bristol. He might not expect comradeship from his colleague, but he could expect wisdom, for Bristed had been a lawyer in New York before taking orders. He advised Avery to leave town till the excitement died down.

Avery got out of Bristol just in time. Harnden had persuaded Judge Randall of the Rhode Island superior court to issue a warrant against Avery for suspicion of murder, with a request for extradition in case he had fled to another state. Now Harnden, arriving an hour after Avery left, was told by a neighbor that a carriage drawn by two white horses had picked Avery up outside the feed mill and headed northward. Above tiny Rhode Island lay the breadth of Massachusetts, and beyond it, like fingers spreading from a palm, the upper states of New England, and beyond them, Canada, where the fugitive would be safe.

The sleuth did not give up the chase. He hired a horse and sulky, disguised himself in a fur cap and pea jacket, and set out in pursuit. In turn he visited Providence, Pawtucket, Attleboro, Wrentham, Dedham, Boston, and finally Lowell, suspecting that his quarry had hidden there among his—and Maria’s—former congregation. But nobody in Lowell had seen Avery. It was January 18 by now, and at night in the American House, the sheriff oiled a sheet of paper, laid it over the innkeeper’s gazetteer, and traced on it the roads of southern New England. They all led to Boston; he should have searched there more thoroughly.

I then left Lowell [he writes] stopping but seldom for the reason that at most of the public houses through that part of the country, including the whole distance to Boston … a man must be proof against most gasses and obnoxious exhalations in order to withstand the effluvia of new rum. Yet there are several houses in the [district] that are cleanly and well-kept, and in which a man can sit down and feel himself at home, and be well entertained. But in some others, on going into the barroom, the first question put to you will be, “Mister, how fur are you going this way? What may I call your name, Sir, if I may be so bold? ‘Taint any of my business, sir, but what’s your business up this way. What’s the news down to Gineral Court?”

Arriving in Boston, he picked up the trail of the two white horses. The landlord of the Bromfield House had seen a certain Elder Gifford drive in behind them on January 10. Harnden remembered Elder Gifford as an observer sent down to the hearing by the New England Methodist Conference.

Gifford was cornered by Harnden’s knowledge of his journey from Bristol. After they had exchanged promises—that Gifford would not warn Avery if Harnden did not betray Gifford—he weakly suggested that the sheriff try Rindge, New Hampshire.

Next day [i.e., on Sunday, January 20], having crossed the state line, Harnden picked up a New Hampshire deputy sheriff named Edwards. There were not many Methodists in Rindge, said he, and those few all lived close together on a country lane just off the northbound pike.

Harnden appealed for reinforcement to Edwards; he called in a young man who drove a bread cart, and so knew the Methodist road. He eagerly promised to “keep dark.”

The three men bedded down at Colonel French’s tavern in Fitzwilliam, north of the Methodist road. After a few hours’ sleep, Harnden dispatched the other two southward, with orders to reconnoiter the road en route. He promised to meet them at noon in the public house at Rindge.

But when the posse gathered, he found that Edwards had learned nothing; it was clear that he had spent the morning in the bar. The baker, however, traveling the road in his sleigh, had heard there would be a Methodist prayer meeting that evening at a certain Captain Mayo’s, three miles north of the village. Harnden ordered him to attend it in the guise of a repentant sinner and to stay through it to the end.

The baker started off without supper, only to return before Harnden and Edwards had finished their pie and ask for some himself. He had been unable to survive the prayer meeting. Accompanied by his aides, Harnden then drove the baker’s sleigh to Captain Mayo’s. He opened the door without knocking. Two men and a woman sat in the keeping room with a single candle before them. He asked for Captain Mayo. A stocky man with a pipe in his hand allowed he was the Captain.

“I am here after Ephraim K. Avery ” Harnden announced.

“Ephraim K. Avery?” the Captain repeated slowly, moving his pipe to his lips and back again.

“Yes sir,” said Harnden.

Ephraim K. Avery!” Mayo repeated, as if there were more than one. “I never knew such a man as Ephraim K. Avery.”

I know such a man,” said Harnden grimly. “I have come a great way after him; I came on purpose after him, and I must have him; and Capt. Mayo, the better way is for you to go to the room where Mr. Avery is, tell him a Mr. Harnden is here and wishes to see him, and let him come forward; for he is in your house, and if he comes not forward I shall search your house, for I must have him.”

A this point Mrs. Mayo slipped into another room, closing the door behind her. Getting no help from the Captain, Harnden started the search alone, taking a single candle. While his posse guarded the doors, he explored both floors and even lifted the trap door to the attic. On the way down he met Mrs. Mayo, who whispered to him from the dark, “You seek innocent blood.”

He threw open the door of a second-floor room, where a low fire burned in the fireplace. A candle before it was extinguished, but the wick still smouldered. Finding the room empty, he went downstairs again, where his eye fell upon a closed door that had been open when he passed it before.

I thought to look behind the door [he writes] and should have done so earlier, if the object of my search had been so large about the breast as most men. I must give the gentleman credit for requiring less room than I thought possible for any man to do.

Avery had been hiding behind the door, and now he was taken at last. He had grown a beard and wore green spectacles. Harnden took him by the hand.

“Do endeavor to overcome this agitation,” Harnden said; “you need fear no personal violence, you shall be kindly treated.”

Then for the first time he heard Avery speak.

“I suppose you cannot legally take me from this state, without a warrant from the Governor,” he said weakly. “Have you such a warrant?”

Harnden showed him Judge Randall’s warrant, and after Avery had packed, Harnden drove him back to Rindge in the baker’s sleigh.

Next morning the posse disbanded. Harnden carried his prisoner by stage to Boston. Back at the Bromfield House, he found Colonel Bradford Durfee of the Vigilance Committee waiting with money and congratulations. The next day he pushed on toward Rhode Island. The citizenry waited at the crossroads. During the chase excitement had been intense through the countryside, for it was not only Avery, but Harnden, also, who had disappeared. Rumor had spread that the minister had escaped to Canada or to Cuba—even that he had been a pirate in the West Indies for ten years, before taking the cloth. It was reported that Harnden had chained him in irons and was exhibiting him for a fee on the return from Rindge—a charge Harnden denied.

Late in the afternoon of January 23, the coach reached Fall River, and on the twenty-fifth Harnden handed his prisoner over to the sheriff of Newport County, Rhode Island, at the state line, not far above Maria’s hastily dug grave. The grand jury for the 1833 term of the Supreme Court of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations then indicted the Reverend Ephraim K. Avery for murder in the first degree.

His trial opened on May 6, in the lower hall of the eighteenth-century Colony House (then known as the State House) on the Newport Parade. It took 101 talesmen to produce a jury of twelve.

Five hundred spectators crowded into the pillared courtroom. Reporters came from as far away as Philadelphia, but the law forbade them to publish their stories while the trial was still in progress.

Avery pleaded not guilty. He spoke in a firm voice, holding his right hand in his breast pocket. Thereafter he sat silent, for the law did not allow the defendant in a capital case to testify. He was clad in a brown surtout; in place of a collar he wore a white handkerchief knotted at his neck, and he hid his eyes behind the green spectacles.

The prosecution was led by Albert C. Greene, the state’s attorney general, whose high stock, in his portrait, seems to lengthen the disdainful egg-shaped face above it. To defend Avery, the Methodist Conference hired a team of lawyers headed by Jeremiah Mason of Boston, after Daniel Webster the smartest and dearest advocate in New England. Like Webster, he had been a senator of the United States. He stood six foot three, with one shoulder higher than the other, but the voice that issued from his enormous frame was a falsetto squeak. The whole courtroom leaned forward as the two lawyers unfolded the story of Ephraim Avery and Maria Cornell.

Lowell, Massachusetts, at the falls of the Merrimack River, was the industrial show place of America. In 1820 it had been a barren waste. Ten years later it had fifteen thousand inhabitants and seven newspapers. Brick cotton mills, up to seven stories high, lined the watercourses, each capped with a belfry and surrounded by snug green-shuttered boardinghouses. Most of the workers were farm girls, who looked to a short experience in the mills as an introduction to life, much as their brothers looked to a few years at sea.

Among the factory hands was a little black-eyed sparrow of a girl named Maria Cornell, who stood only five feet tall. Born at Rupert, Vermont, in 1802, she had been apprenticed at twelve as a seamstress in Norwich, Connecticut, by her widowed mother. Mason showed that she had been discharged from Norwich for breaking the heddles on her loom; that she had lost other jobs—at Jewett City, Connecticut, for promiscuous behavior, and at Dorchester, Massachusetts, for calling the Methodist elders “a pack of damned fools.” She had also been dismissed from the Methodist congregation at Slatersville, Rhode Island, for lewdness. Who, asked Greene, could blame them for reading her out of meeting? She did not blame them herself, Mason answered.

In 1828, repentant, she had moved to Lowell to work as a weaver in Appleton Mill Number 1. Her wages were $4 for a six-day week, of which $1.25 was withheld by the company for lodging and meals at her boardinghouse. In 1830 the Conference stationed the Reverend Mr. Avery in the growing mill town. He was thirty-three then, and must have looked as he did now in the box: a good six feet tall, with dark hair brushed up in front and curling long behind. He had a round chin, lank cheeks, and full lips. He had come first from “York State,” where he had tended store for his father, a wounded veteran of the Revolution. He had studied medicine before divinity and was something of a naturalist as well.

With his invalid wife, Sophia, his five-year-old boy Edwin and his infant daughter Catherine, he took lodgings at the house of a Mr. Abbott. There was a study for him on the ground floor—the devout called it the Prophet’s Chamber—with shelves for his collection of minerals, a couch of his own, and a separate door to the street. While Sophia spent her days upstairs with the children, he would take his tall cane after breakfast and tramp the countryside—no one knew where—till it was time for tea and evening prayer at home.

Maria was one of his flock. His rectitude, perhaps, served to reawaken the Devil within her. He had not been in Lowell a month before she stole a piece of muslin from a store; it was retrieved from within her shawl. She even rode out with a young man to the nearby village of Belvidere, where, says the State’s testimony, “They called for a chamber and he treated her with wine.”

When Avery heard this story, he threatened to expel her from meeting. She promised to reform again; she offered to work without pay as his servant if he would relent. But young Edwin, Mason proved, had once told his mother, as if it were a trifle, “Pa kissed Maria in the road.” Then the neglected lady forgot her meekness and, when Avery wanted to hire Maria to do housework, refused to have her in the house. Pious and penitent though she might be, the minister could not keep such a magdalen in the church. In October of 1830, five months after reaching Lowell, he read her out for theft and lewdness. She took the road again, this time to Somersworth, across the New Hampshire line.

Though she could not live with the Methodist Church, she could not live without it either. Avery had warned the Reverend Mr. Storrs of Somersworth. Storrs testified that when, as gently as he could, he had excluded her from a “Love-Feast” (a religious service for those who profess to have experienced a “second blessing”), she had cried to him, standing tiptoe with her arm across her breast, “You think to triumph over me now. But what care I for Mr. Avery and the Methodist Church? I will have my revenge, though it cost me my life.”

She struggled through a year at Somersworth. Then on June 1, 1832, she fled with her loneliness to Woodstock, in the northeast corner of Connecticut, to join her sister Lucretia, who was married to the tailor Grindell Rawson. He made her his bookkeeper, and she wrote out his bills in a bold, clear hand.

Although the doors of Woodstock meeting closed against her, she managed to join a Bible class at a hamlet called Muddy Brook. And no one could bar her from the camp meetings which abounded in the countryside. Their whole purpose was to save lost sheep. Card sharps, horsejockeys, liquor peddlers, and fallen women, among the hundreds who truly sought redemption, flocked to the great circles cleared among the pines. The crowd would sway on the narrow benches set up before the preachers’ stand. Delegations from neighboring villages pitched white tents at the edge of the woods and laid their provisions on the center table, where they were shared by all.

The camp meeting at Thompson, Connecticut, only a few miles from Woodstock, opened on Monday, August 27, 1832. On Tuesday John Paine, the Woodstock expressman, dressed in a dark coat, light pantaloons, and a green-lined palm-leaf hat, drove Maria to Thompson and dropped her, with bandbox and hamper, at the Muddy Brook tent. By this time Avery had been rotated from Lowell to Bristol, Rhode Island, which lies sixty miles southeast of Thompson—a long trip by chaise, even for a man in good health—and Avery, four days before, had broken his ankle on a stone wall and fainted from the pain. Though he limped as he walked, and was not even on the list of preachers, he drove to the meeting. At Thompson he boarded in the Plainfield tent. Between meals he sat with the preachers in the stand or rested in the official tent behind it.

The prosecution did not claim that he knew Maria would be there and admitted that he did not meet her till Thursday, the last day of camp. That morning at six o’clock the horn blew for sunrise prayer. As the echo of Amen died away, the Reverend Elias Scott warned his colleague that there were bad characters on the ground. Avery nodded; he had seen Maria gazing up at the stand, and when he caught her eye, she turned her back on him. He agreed with Scott that it was their duty to warn the Muddy Brook tent master of her character and took the stern assignment on himself. He listened to the preaching from ten o’clock till noon. He took dinner with Plainfield, and tea with Weston. At 7:25 P.M. the horn sounded for the last service. Half an hour later, after the prayer of dismissal, the Thompson meeting was over for another year.

Of the next hour the only word is Maria’s own, written to her sister in a letter submitted by the State: I went up and asked to talk with him. “There is no room for us at the tents,” he said. “Go along further and I will overtake you.” He did overtake me, outside the fence, and we passed on, arm in arm, into the woods. When in the woods some distance, he asked me to sit down, and I did. I asked him if he had burned my letters, the ones I wrote him from Somersworth, asking to be retained in meeting. “No, but there is one condition on which I will settle the difficulty.” About this time he took one of my hands and put one of his own into my bosom. I tried to get away from him, but could not. Afterwards he promised to burn the letters when he returned to Bristol.

A month later she discovered her plight. Her only salvation, she wrote to her sister on November 18, was to hide again. This time she chose Fall River, a bustling village of five thousand. Next to Lowell, it was New England’s fastest-growing mill village, and as the fish hawk flies it is only four miles from Bristol. Three times a week the King Philip plied between the two, on her way to and from Providence; and the stage, through Warren, ran twice a day. On October 3, Maria set down her trunk at a boardinghouse and started work the next Monday in the weave-shed of the Anawan Mill. She tended four looms. In the twelve-hour workday she could run off 130 yards of cloth, for which she was paid a half cent a yard. In good health, she could make sixty-five cents, or four shillings—for some people, fifty years after the Revolution, still reckoned in shillings and pence.

On Friday, October 19, Avery, as Parson Bidwell’s guest, preached at the evening service in Fall River, as he had told Squire Howe. The night was not so dark but that a passer-by saw a short woman, at the edge of the emerging crowd, pluck at the sleeve of Avery’s cloak. The evidence of what they said is again from Bidwell’s testimony.

“Mr. Avery,” Maria whispered, “I want to speak with you.”

He turned to look down at her. “Maria, I do not wish to have anything to say with you.”

“You must. I want you to say you will not hurt me here. You have ruined me at Somersworth and Lowell.”

“Say rather that you have ruined yourself. I have never wanted nor tried to hurt you, Maria, but I can give no such promise. It is only just that Elder Bidwell should be warned.”

“Nobody knows me here,” she insisted, “and will not unless you tell them. Don’t tell them, will you? I mean to behave myself well.”

“That will be seen,” he answered, pushing on after the Bidwells, “I shall talk with you tomorrow.”

He came to see her the next evening, Maria wrote her sister, and she spent an hour with him.

He said … that if that was my case [the unborn child] was not his, and said I must go to a doctor immediately; said he had burned my letters—if he had have known what would have happened he would have kept them—said I must never swear it, for if that was my case he would take care of me—spoke very feeling of his wife and children—said I must say it belonged to a man that was dead, for, said he, I am dead to you—that is, I cannot marry you. He owned and denied [his guilt] two or three times. … I pledged him my word and honor I would not expose him if he would settle it. Therefore you must not mention his name to anyone …

What the result will be I know not....I do not, however, wish you to do anything for me till I send you word....The girls make from 3 to 4 dollars per week in the summer, but the days are short now and the water is low now. We can’t do very much … I do not want for anything at present. I have kept at home except on the Sabbath, but the methodists begin to know me and say good morning Sister, as I go to the factory. I am glad that you have plenty of work. I hope you will get along for help....You must not forget you have a sister in Fall River. My love to Mother. You must burn this letter. Farewell. Your sister,

Sarah M. Cornell.

The folded yellow letter in her bandbox, unsigned, bore the Bristol postmark and the date November 13, 1832:

Miss Cornell— … I will do all you ask, only keep it secret. I wish you to write me as soon as you get this, naming a time and place where I can see you, and wait for my answer before I come … I will keep your letter till I see you, and wish you to keep mine, and have them when I see you. Write soon—Say nothing to no one. Yours in haste.

On Monday, the twenty-fifth, Avery set off from Bristol by Chadwick’s stage for a four-day prayer meeting in Providence. On Tuesday morning, dressed in the black goat-hair cloak called a camlet, he stepped aboard the King Philip at her dock. He handed a pink letter to Orswell, her engineer, with a tip of ninepence, and asked him to leave it for Miss Cornell at Mrs. Hathaway’s in Fall River. (At the trial, Orswell identified the letter, which was the second found in the bandbox, but could not positively identify Avery because of his green spectacles.) That evening Maria received it:

Providence, Nov. 26, 1832

Dear Sister:

As I told you I am willing to help you and do for you. As circumstances are, I should ratther you would come to Bristol in the stage the 18th of December and stop at the Hotell and stay till six in the evening and then go up directly across the main street to a brick building neare to the stone meeting house where I will meet you and talk with you. When you stop at the tavern either inquire for work or go out on to the street in pretense of looking for some or something else and I may see you. Say nothing about me or my family. Should it storm on the 18th come the 20th. If you cannot come and it will be more convenient to meet me at the methodist meeting house in summerset just over the ferry on either of the above eve’g I will meet you there at the same hour or if you cannot do either, I will come to fall river on one of the above evenings when there will be the least passing, I should think before the mills stop work....When you write, direct your letter to Betsy Hills and not as you have to me. Remember this . Your last letter I am afraid was broken open. Wear your calash not your plain bonnet. You can send your letter by mail.

Yours &c, B.H.

Betsy Hills was the crippled niece of Mrs. Avery who helped with the housework. Inside the flap was a postscript: “—Let me still enjoin the secret. Keep the letters in your bosoom or burn them up.”

But he did not wait for her to come to Bristol. On the eighth, ten days before the assignation, he walked the fourteen roundabout miles to Fall River. He bought a half-sheet of white paper—the third found in the bandbox—scribbled a note on it, sealed it with a purple wafer, and dropped it at the post office in the penny box for local delivery:

—I will be here on the 20th if pleasant at the place named, at six o’clock. If not pleasant, the next Monday evening. Say nothing, etc.

The twentieth was the day before John Durfee had found Maria’s body in the stackyard.

After noonday dinner, Avery started out from his house in Bristol. He wore his peaked walking hat and the same brown surtout he wore later in the courtroom. He carried a red bandanna under his arm with a package in it. He eased his limp on a walking stick. There were no spectacles on his nose. At the foot of Ferry Hill in Bristol, two miles from home, he shouted across to George Pearse, the ferryman, who was tied up on the Island side. Pearse brought the horse scow over, apologizing that he must charge sixteen cents instead of eight, since he had to cross twice. He ported the sweep and clucked to the pair in the deck stalls; they plodded the disk of the treadmill; the paddles began to turn, and the scow edged into the channel.

Waving his cane toward the west side of the Island, Avery told Pearse he was out for a ramble, in spite of his still-lame ankle. He aimed to call on Brother Cook, four miles down-island. On the way, he thought to look at the Butt’s Hill Fort, where his father had fought in the Revolution, and perhaps at the coal deposits on the western shore. Pearse saw him limp up the hill to the windmill on the crest, and then out of sight, with his cane to help him.

Eastward in Fall River, at four that afternoon, Maria asked her overseer to excuse her for the rest of the day. Lucy Hathaway promised to watch her looms—one was broken anyway—for the half hour that remained till dark. Maria walked home to her lodging, changed to her brown cloak and calash, and went out, telling Mrs. Hathaway she would be home early. At the same time, a little beyond the Tiverton bridge connecting the Island to the mainland, Annis Norton saw a dark-spectacled six-footer, in a snug snuff-colored surtout and tapered beaver, striding uphill toward Fall River.

“At that rate,” laughed Annis, “he’ll reach Ohio by sunrise.”

The sun set at half past four; the moon would not rise till ten. In the dusk, on the hill just short of Fall River, Benjamin Manchester and Abner Davis were blasting rock. Having kindled their shavings, they ran to the shelter of a stone wall. At that moment a stranger, taller than common height, climbed the same wall farther down. “Look out,” they shouted to him. He halted till the rock had stopped falling, then started across the field. He climbed the opposite wall into John Durfee’s pasture. Durfee saw him too, dark as it was. The stranger gazed at Durfee’s stackyard, then squared his shoulders, and passed into the dusk, toward Fall River.

There, in Lawton’s Hotel, a clock peddler was eating supper. At quarter of six a long-legged stranger with dark glasses on his nose walked into the sitting room and ordered supper too. He wore a fur cap and had no cane. While waiting for his food he walked into the bar and returned with half a tumbler of brandy, which he drank neat at the trestle table, without speaking to the peddler. Having eaten, he paid Margaret Hambly, the waitress, and walked out into the dark.

At seven o’clock, Zeruiah Hambly, Margaret’s mother, happening to open the door with a lantern in her hand, saw a tall man and a short woman, arm in arm, walk down the lane in the direction of Durfee’s farm. At half past seven, Eleanor Owen heard shrieks from the same direction. She was washing the tea dishes in the sinkroom, but kept on washing them.

Everyone went to bed early, to save candles. But at 9:10 P.M. John Borden, on the Tiverton side of the bridge, passed a stranger striding from the direction of Fall River; and a few minutes later William Anthony, on the Island side, foddering his cattle late, saw a figure come from the same direction and disappear toward the ferry. The moon was not yet up.

Whoever the stranger was—if indeed there was not more than one of him—the Reverend Ephraim K. Avery soon afterward awakened Jeremiah Gifford, who tended the wharf on the Island side of the ferry. Gifford resented being roused from his four-poster. He peered at the wooden clock on his mantel; the hands just lacked quarter of ten. The minister asked to be ferried to Bristol.

Gifford grumbled that it would be inconvenient. The wind was high, and it was very cold.

Avery persisted, saying that his family was unwell and needed him at home.

The ferryman still refused. He did, however, give Avery a room for the night. The minister was up at five for an impatient breakfast. He crossed as the sunrise bell sounded from the Congregational Church in Bristol and trudged up Ferry Hill, reaching home in time for a second meal. In the afternoon he, Mrs. Avery, and their son walked downtown for tea with Mrs. Nancy Gladding, who testified that he was cheerful and affable; his demeanor was that of a Christian and a gentleman. Soon afterward, as we have seen, Elder Bidwell brought him the news of Maria Cornell’s death.

The State had a hard time drawing a description of the corpus delicti from the ladies who had laid it out, and one of them snapped, “I never heard such questions asked of nobody .”

Attorney General Greene described it anyway, to the courtroom’s horror, while Avery sat impassive behind his spectacles. The crowd’s hatred for him spread to encompass the black-robed elders who attended him. When the gentle Bidwell entered the courtroom, someone called out, “Here comes another of the damned murderers.”

Mason, on the other hand, was waked up one night by a man who said an angel had appeared at his bed-post to tell him, “Mr. Avery is innocent of this crime,” and immediately vanished. He begged to take the stand with this evidence, and Mason said he might do so, provided he brought the angel with him.

No one had seen Avery at the places where the defense claimed he had spent the afternoon—not at the Fort, nor at the mine, nor at Brother Cook’s. The only people he had met on the Island—a boy driving sheep and a man with a torn hat—could not be found, nor had anyone else seen them. Mrs. Jones, being a Quaker, would not take the oath but despite the minister’s solemn admonition that she had seen him after noon, affirmed that her stranger had passed in the morning. Jane Gifford, the ferry master’s daughter, swore that Avery had told her he “had business with Brother Cook”; Cook swore he was away from home all day. Mason countered that Avery had not told Jane he had actually seen Cook; and besides, Jane had been read out of meeting just as Maria had.

On the other hand, none of the witnesses who claimed that Avery had gone to Fall River could surely identify him. The red bandanna at Maria’s feet looked like the one that Pearse had seen him carry, but could not be proved to be the same. Harnden hired two boys to walk from Lawton’s Tavern to the ferryhouse, to show there was time for a murder on the way. It took them an hour and a quarter, but they admitted on cross-examination that they might have trotted a little going downhill. He bought a forty-dollar patent lever watch to prove that the Bristol bell was half an hour slow; but this evidence must have been prompted by civic jealousy, for it did not affect the final outcome of the case.

Greene called 78 prosecution witnesses. Mason, for the defense, called 160, mostly clergymen to prove that Avery’s character was good and women to prove that Maria’s was bad. He produced an expert on penmanship who deposed that the three letters were forged and a cordwainer who swore that a stranger—not Avery—had given him a letter to deliver to Orswell at the King Philip on the very morning the state claimed Avery had delivered his. By a miracle of coincidence both letters were pink and both were addressed to Miss Cornell in Fall River. Brother Jillson of Providence testified that Brother Avery could not possibly have reached the King Philip between the services at sunrise and at nine, as he had shaved and eaten breakfast in between.

Mason implied that Maria had forged the three letters and then hanged herself to incriminate Avery. To support this likelihood, Miss Louisa Whitney, for the defense, stated that the clove hitch was used by weavers like Maria and herself to repair the harness of their looms. On the stand she tied one and drew it taut at her own neck, amid the gasps of the courtroom. Another weaver, for the State, denied that she had ever used a clove hitch.

Mason saved his heaviest artillery for the end. He called Dr. Walter Channing, professor of midwifery and medical jurisprudence at Harvard, who declared it was impossible to tighten a clove hitch on anyone who resisted. Using the report of Dr. Wilbur’s post-mortem, he proved by a dozen authorities that Maria’s unborn child could have been conceived before the Thompson camp meeting.

Greene summed up for seven hours, and Mason for eight. Justice Eddy then charged the exhausted jurymen, who retired with a hand bell at seven o’clock on Saturday evening, June 1. The case had lasted four weeks—longer, Mason told the jury in his closing arguments, than any previous trial in the history of the republic’s jurisprudence.

On Sunday morning the jury was still locked up. Most of the spectators went to church. At noon, after a hearty dinner, courtesy of the State, Foreman Trevett rang the hand bell. The sheriff called the jurymen to their box and tolled the bell in the tower of Colony House. At this signal the men instantly left church, leaving their wives behind. In five minutes the courtroom was full again.

For a breathless quarter hour the sheriff had to hunt for Jeremiah Mason, while jury and prisoner stared at each other in profound silence. At last he lumbered in. The trial ended thus:

CLERK : Gentlemen of the Jury, have you agreed upon your verdict?

JURY : We have.

CLERK : Who shall speak for you?

JURY : Our foreman.

CLERK : Mr. Foreman, what say you? Is the prisoner at the bar guilty or not guilty?


For the first time Avery showed emotion. He passed his hand under his glasses and held it to his eyelids for a moment. Then he took off the glasses for good. The clergy crowded up to shake his hand; the rest of the audience filed out to the Parade, muttering its disgust. Avery was discharged. In half an hour his friends had him aboard a sloop which wafted him in three hours, with the wind behind her, to Bristol. The village had not expected a verdict on the Sabbath, but the word soon spread. A crowd followed him from the wharf to Wardwell Street but let him enter the house alone.

“Sophia,” they heard him say, “I am freed from the thrall.”

She toppled forward in her chair.

The news of his acquittal appeared in newspapers all over the country. He preached in his own meeting-house on Sunday and in Boston the next Sunday. In the week between, the Methodist Conference, which had charged him with adultery, absolved him and voted that “in view of brother Avery’s confinement and afflictions, and the influence they have had upon his health and constitution, the Bishop is hereby respectfully requested to give him such an appointment and relation to the church, as will afford him the most favorable opportunity of recovering his health.”

Bishop Henning reappointed him to Bristol, with an assistant. But the notorious preacher could not face the crowds who flocked to hear him. He had been acquitted, but the trials had ruined him. Mason’s fee of $6,000 had almost ruined the Methodist Conference.

Leaving his family at home, Avery began a speaking tour of vindication. But he was hissed at Hartford when he rose to preach on Ephesians 2:8 (“For by grace are ye saved, through faith, and not of yourselves”). At his benefit sermon in Richmond, Massachusetts, the collection was hardly enough for his horse’s oats. In Boston, when he was recognized in the street, a mob of five hundred threatened to hang him. A straw effigy of him, kneeling in prayer with a rope at his neck, was set up outside Durfee’s stackyard, and so frightened a young sinner of Tiverton that he put one around his own neck and hanged himself.

Avery’s letters to Maria were hawked in colored facsimile at the news parlors. Drury wrote an account of the hearing, and Hallett, clerk of the court, one of the trial. Harnden’s story of the capture at Rindge sold thirteen thousand copies. In New York the Richmond-Hill Theatre presented a melodrama called The Factory Girl, or the Fall River Tragedy . Lurid accounts of the case, with woodcuts, appeared throughout the country. And though Avery published his version of the facts in a so-called Statement, it convinced nobody.*

Before the end of the year he fled to his wife’s family in Connecticut, but suspicion and mockery pursued him. Finally he resigned from the ministry to move out west. He bought a fifty-acre farm in Lorain County, Ohio. In the quiet reaches of the Western Reserve he lived out the blameless life of a farmer with Sophia and the children until he died, with suspicion outrun, in 1869.

His estate amounted to $111. Sophia sold his buffalo robe and sleigh to pay for his gravestone. The Lorain Constitutionalist gave him this farewell:

Servant of God, well done; /Thy glorious warfare is past; /The battle is fought, the victory won, /And thou art crowned at last.

Whether Maria or he had tightened the clove hitch, she had had her revenge.

*Among the published curiosities of the Avery case is a sixteen-page purported confession—to adultery but not “wilful murder”—entitled “Explanation of the Circumstances Connected with the Death of Sarah Maria Cornell, by Ephraim K. Avery.” It bears the legend: Providence:/William S. Clark, Printer/1834/Price 121/2 cents. It turns out, however, that there was no printer named Clark in Providence around that time, and that this document was a deception, published in New York and sold for a quick profit before the fraud could be detected.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.