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.