cornell-landRebecca Cornell, a 73 year old widow, lived in her 100-acre home in Portsmouth with her son Thomas; his second wife Sarah; their two daughters; his four sons from his first marriage; a male lodger and a male servant. Late afternoon on Feb 8, 1673, Thomas arrived home to find his mother feeling ill. Family members kept her company; Thomas talked with her for ninety minutes, but left at 7:00 p.m. to wind a “Quill of Yarn” before supper. Rebecca didn’t join the family supper because she didn’t want the “salt-mackrill” meal. About 45 minutes later grandson Edward went to her room to ask her if she wanted something else to eat. Seeing flames, he ran out to get a candle. Meanwhile, everyone ran into Rebecca’s room, where she was burned beyond recognition. Two nights later Rebecca’s ghost paid a surprise visit to her brother, John Briggs, a 64-year old grandfather. He reported that on seeing the shape of a woman by his bedside, he “cryed out, in the name of God what art thou…” The apparition replied, “I am your sister Cornell, and Twice sayd, see how I was Burnt with fire.” A later autopsy showed “A Suspitious wound on her in the upper-most part of the Stomake.” Circumstantial evidence was stacked against Thomas. There were bad feelings between mother and son because she’d given him her estate but he had to divide 100 pounds among his siblings and he had to care for his mother. His temper, which Rebecca told people she feared, didn’t help. There was also tension between Rebecca and daughter-in-law Sarah. Thomas had motive to murder. He also had access to a purported murder weapon, “sume instrumen licke or the iron spyndell of a spinning whelle.” And he was the last person to see Rebecca alive. Thomas Cornell, 46, was hung for her “murder” on May 23, 1673. Who were the other suspects, if it was murder? Two doors gave access to Rebecca’s downstairs bedroom. Unrest existed between Europeans settlers and the Indians. An Indian named Wickhopash (a.k.a. Harry) had a motive for the crime. He’d been on “the losing end of criminal action for grand larceny brought by Thomas in June 1671” and had received a punishment. Often Indian revenge was taken out by attacking lone female family members, and arson was their tactic. In 1674 he was tried and acquitted for the killing. In 1675 Thomas’s younger brother, William, presented persuasive evidence that Sarah had a role in Rebecca’s death. She was burdened with “catering to her demanding mother-in-law,” and she had a violent streak. She too was acquitted. The theory of accidental death also remains. Rebecca might have tried making her own fire, caught herself on fire, fallen and dragged herself away from the hearth. She’d also confided in her daughter Rebecca that she’d considered suicide three times. So whodunit? Was it murder? An accident? Or suicide? Sarah birthed Thomas’s last child, a daughter she named Innocent, after his hanging. Sources: Crane, Elaine F. Killed Strangely: The death of Rebeka Cornell. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2002