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Tidbits from Abby Sherman’s Diary

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Diaries are a special source of historical information. We are fortunate to have David Durfee Sherman’s diary from the 1850s and a transcription of Abby Sherman’s Diary from late 19th and early 20th century.  The entries give us a rare glimpse of the happenings in Portsmouth through the eyes of contemporary observers. We are researching the 1920s and Abby has a lot to share with us.  Transcription courtesy Jim Garman.

Cast of Characters : The Witnesses

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The Portsmouth Community Theater is rehearsing for a performance of “The Ghostly Witness” Sunday (Sept. 8) , at 4 PM at the Portsmouth Historical Society Museum.  The actors appreciate knowing more about he characters they portray.

Henry Strait

Henry Strait might have been about 21 at the time of the trial. He boarded with the Cornells, but he was the apprentice of  Greshom Woddell and was learning to be a wheelwright. He was from Wales and when he was 15 he came to Rhode Island under contract to Woddell. That was how he paid his way to America. He was obligated to Woddell for six years work.   He could not write, but he did seem to have the ability to speak with the Native Americans in the area.  Strait was one of the first to come into Rebecca’s room after the fire and his testimony contradicted Thomas Cornell Jr. about Rebecca not eating with them when they had salted mackerel.

Sarah Cornell

Denise Betz as Sarah Cornell rehearses with Ron Marsh who portrays Thomas Cornell

Sarah Earle Cornell grew up in a affluent family in the household of her father, Ralph Earle.  That household would have had servants to help the women with their work at home and in the garden.  After her marriage to Thomas Cornell, Jr, she was the only able bodied woman in the household and would have milked cows, picked berries and fruit, tended the garden as well as tended to the indoor chores of cooking, cleaning and washing.  Her testimony alone put a potential murder weapon in Thomas’ hand. 

Sarah was the second wife of Thomas, so she entered marriage with a full household, Thomas, his four sons and Rebecca.  Sarah had two daughters  with Thomas and was pregnant with the third daughter at the time of the trial. She named that child “Innocent” and this daughter was an ancestor of Lizzie Borden.

Thomas’ younger brother William advocated for Sarah to stand trial in 1675 even though Thomas had already been tried, found guilty and hanged. Some thought that Sarah was a co-conspirator because another person said they overheard a conversation between Thomas and his wife.  The couple promised that “If you will keep my Council, I will keep yours.”   Sarah was indicted and stayed in prison while awaiting trial.  She was found “not guilty”.  

She was remarried to a man named David Lake and had more children with him.  

Mary Cornell

Mary was the daughter in law of Rebecca Cornell, the wife of John Cornell.  Her father was John Russell.  His testimony, along with that of John Briggs, helped re-open the Cornell case.  John Russel said that a friend reported a conversation in which Rebecca showed fear of her son Thomas and wanted to leave his home.  Mary lived in the Dartmouth area and her testimony centered around how Rebecca believed that her son Thomas neglected her.

Rebecca Woolsey

Rebecca was one of the older children of Thomas Cornell, Sr and Rebecca.  After the rest of the family came home from the Bronx after the massacre of the Hutchinson family, Rebecca stayed in New York.  Her testimony was given by deposition in Flushing, New York.  Rebecca Woolsey’s testimony added another possibility – that her mother had some suicidal thoughts.

Cast of Characters: John Briggs and his vision

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Although his sister Rebecca Cornell was buried and the coroner’s inquest labeled her death an accident, John Briggs re-opens the case with a “ghost story” – he claimed he had seen his sister.  With Briggs’ story and the testimony from a Dartmouth resident that Rebecca feared her son, the case was re-opened.  Who was John Briggs and why would his story lead to the exhumation of the body and ultimately a trial?

Born in 1609, John Briggs was one of the youngest of the signers of the compact of 1638 that led to the settlement of Aquidneck. He played a prominent part in the government of the town, serving as juryman, constable, town councilor, surveyor of lands, special commissioner, and Deputy to the General Assembly.  John Briggs married Sarah Cornell – sister of Thomas Cornell Senior.  A brother and sister Briggs (John and Rebecca)  married a brother and sister Cornell (Thomas and Sarah).

John came to Boston in 1635 on the ship, the Blessing.  This was a few years before his sister and her family came over.   He was a follower of Anne Hutchinson, and when when she ran into trouble with the leaders of the Massachusetts Colony it became unsafe for her supporters to stay there.  They banded together to found a new settlement in Portsmouth.

John Briggs is documented as having a license to operate an ordinary (tavern)  in Portsmouth RI, and in Dartmouth.  It was customary for town meetings to be held at taverns and it is clear from the records that many town meetings were frequently held at the house of Mr. John Briggs, Sr.   Although Briggs was unable to write – he was a long standing town leader. He was a credible man with a good reputation.

Ghosts were taken seriously even among the Protestant reformers.   The view at the time was that ghosts were spirits of the dead who always had a reason for their appearance – usually to correct an injustice that would not be detected by other means. Antinomians and Quakers believed that God could speak to them in their dreams.  John Briggs dream or vision of his Sister Cornell would not be easily dismissed.

Briggs landgrant

Cast of Characters: The Accused – Thomas Cornell, Jr.

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Thomas Cornell, Jr was accused of murdering his mother, Rebecca Cornell. Who was he? By most accounts Thomas was an integral part of the Portsmouth community. He was born in 1627 in Saffron Walden, Essex, England. He may have attended school there because he was able to read and write – a very valuable skill in early Portsmouth. He was eleven years old when his family emigrated from England to Boston. The Cornells were coming to Boston just at the time that Anne Hutchinson’s and her followers were leaving to begin a community in Portsmouth.  The Cornells bought William Baulston’s tavern in Boston, but they ran into trouble with the authorities there.  Thomas’ uncle, John Briggs, was in the group of Portsmouth founders and the Cornells followed him to Portsmouth in 1643. They were friends of Anne Hutchinson and went with her group to a new settlement in the Bronx.  The Cornells escaped the fate of the Hutchinson family and they returned to Portsmouth.

Thomas Cornell, Jr serving as Town Clerk 1658

Thomas played many roles in the Portsmouth community.  In 1658 he was chosen as town clerk.  He was a juror and even oversaw the construction of the prison he would eventually inhabit. He was a constable, deputy to the high court, set tax rates and was a town councilman.    Thomas seems to have left Portsmouth in 1661 after some quarrels with the town over his late father’s failure to construct a brew house.  The town wanted the return of the land that was granted.  Thomas may have been in the Dartmouth area since we know he had property there. He held offices in Dartmouth at the same time he held offices in Portsmouth.   In July of 1663 Rebecca Cornell deeded the family homestead to her son Thomas effective at her death.

Thomas Jr. had been married to Elizabeth Fiscock and they had four sons, Thomas, Stephen, Edward and John. There are indications that mother Rebecca and Elizabeth had a good relationship.   The speculation is that Thomas came back to the family homestead and his mother Rebecca when he was left a widower.  Thomas married Sarah Earle in 1668 and they had three daughters (one of whom was born after Thomas’ death).  The friction between Sarah and her mother-in-law was brought to light in the testimony of witnesses at Thomas’ trial.

Meanwhile Thomas worked the family homestead well.  They kept a good dairy, and used the wool from their sheep to spin valuable “trading cloth.”  A native American called Wickhopash (or Harry) was convicted of stealing Thomas Cornell’s rapier and a valuable length of this trading cloth.    Thomas was raising horses on his Dartmouth property for the West Indian market.  Thomas Cornell, Jr was not a poor man, but he wanted the resources to join in the Narragansett purchases and other financial deals that the Portsmouth men around him were capable of making.

Thomas’ last request was to be buried in the family plot next to his mother, Rebecca.  That request was denied, but he was buried at the homestead far away from his mother.

Cast of Characters: “Ghostly Witness”: Rebecca Cornell

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This blog will give you a bit of background to the characters you will meet when the Portsmouth Community Theater presents their play – “The Ghostly Witness” – at 4 PM at the Portsmouth Historical Society.

Rebecca Cornell’s mysterious death in 1673 has been the subject of stories, books and even a play.  Rebecca Cornell, however, had another claim to fame.  Rebecca was a friend of Anne Hutchinson and she was one of Portsmouth’s founding mothers. Back in 1630s Thomas and Rebecca Briggs Cornell were respectable members of the Saffron Walden community in Essex, England. He was 45 and she was 38 when they sailed for Boston in 1638 with their eight children. Thomas and Rebecca came to Boston in 1638, just as Anne and her followers were leaving.  They bought the house of William Baulston (who also is part of the Ghostly Witness story) and received his license for innkeeping.  Thomas soon ran into trouble in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Thomas received fines for selling wine without license. Neither Thomas nor Rebecca were literate, but Rebecca was considered an accomplished spinster (spinner).  Thomas was in trouble for his religious beliefs and they government refused to renew his license.

In 1640 the couple departed for Portsmouth. Thomas was made a freeman in Portsmouth and became a constable. By 1642 the Cornells, the Hutchinson and the Throckmortons and others had settled in large tracts of what is now the Bronx. The Hutchinson and the Cornells had adjoining land. When the Hutchinson family was massacred in August of 1643, the Cornells lost property, but their family was preserved. A boat brought the Cornells to safety and away from the hatchets and flames that killed their neighbors. The Cornells lost cattle and their home was burned.

The Cornells headed back to Portsmouth. Thomas Cornell was given ten acres of land by November of 1643. Their older daughters remained in New York as new brides.   Thomas accumulated land grants in both New York and Portsmouth. In July 1646 Thomas was granted a 100 acre homestead that would be the location of Rebecca’s mysterious death in 1673. This grant is the land around the Valley Inn property today.  Rebecca is left with the property when her husband dies.  Part of the tension between Rebecca and her son Thomas is that the junior Thomas Cornell and his family of six children are living with Rebecca on this family homestead.

West land grant map showing Cornell property

Source:  Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell by Elaine Crane.  Cornell University Press, 2002.

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