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