Saturday, January 24, 2015

Rebecca Briggs Cornell - 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks - Week 4, "Closest to Your Birthday"

This week's 52 Ancestors in 52 Week's theme is "Closest to Your Birthday."  As I looked into ancestors with birthdays close to mine, I quickly realized that most of the birth dates I had did not have sources accompanying them.  I persisted, and I finally found someone with a solid christening date and a very interesting story.

This week's story will focus on Rebecca Briggs my paternal 9th great grand aunt.

How I Am Descended from Rebecca Briggs.
Elizabeth Lee Henderson (Wood) was my
paternal grandmother.

"Rebecka" (spelling shown in document clipping below) was christened on 25 October 1600 at St. James, Clerkenwell, Middlesex, England.  At that time, it was customary to be baptized on the same day as one's birth, so it can be assumed that Rebecca was also born on that date.  She was the daughter of Henrie Briggs (1574-1625) and Mary Hinckes (1581-1625).  My birthday is on 22 October, so Rebecca and I are just a few centuries and a few days apart.

Rebecca's Christening Record from page 52 of London Metropolitan Archives, St. James, Clerkenwell,
composite register:  baptisms Nov 1551 - Jan 1564, marriages and burials Nov 1551
, P76/JS1/00
Engraving of the Old St. James Church, Clerkenwell

The U.S. and International Marriage Records (database), 1560-1900 documents Rebecca Briggs marrying Thomas Cornell, Sr. (1593-1655) circa 1620.  Some sources indicate that they married in Rhode Island, while the majority indicate they married in England.  Page 23 of the Boston section of the U.S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s records Thomas Cornell as immigrating in Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, in 1636.  Given that year and their much earlier marriage year, it can safely be concluded that they married while still living in England.  Additionally, I found a passage, shown below, in Freedom Road:  An American Family Saga from Jamestown to World War by Ric Murphy stating that they married in England and then traveled to America together.

Before immigrating to America, Thomas and Rebecca had several children, and the children traveled with them to their newly adopted land.  The entire family settled permanently in the Portsmouth, Rhode Island, area.

The Cornell Farm Mansion in Portsmouth, RI - 1904

A son born in October 1627, Thomas Jr., ended up entangled, as an adult, in a tragic situation centered around his mother.

On of 08 February 1673, disaster visited Thomas Cornell, Jr.'s well-known home (still legally owned by his mother, Rebecca) which was situated on 100 acres on Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island.  Rebecca still lived in the house with her son, his wife and children, a male servant (a Narragansett Indian named Wickopash), and a lodger.  Late that afternoon, Thomas arrived home and found his mother feeling ill.  Family members were keeping her company; and Thomas talked with her for and hour and a half before leaving at 7:00 p.m. to wind a “Quill of Yarn” before supper.  Rebecca supposedly did not join the family supper because she did not want what was being served. About 45 minutes later, her grandson, Edward, went to her room to ask her if she wanted something else to eat instead.  He saw flames coming from out of her room and ran to get a candle.  Meanwhile, everyone else in the household quickly ran to Rebecca’s room and found her lying by its large fireplace, her body burnt “to a cole.”  She was recognizable only by her shoes.  No one heard her scream; no one smelled smoke; and, somehow, the fire did not spread beyond her bedroom.  A coroner's panel initially declared her death "an Unhappie Accident of fire."

It was well-known that Rebecca and Thomas, Jr. did not get along well. Both of them had complained frequently about one another to anyone who would listen.  Thomas resented the fact that, at close to 50 years of age, he was still financially dependent on his mother.  He also thought that the gifts she gave his siblings out of her late husband’s estate were unfair since he didn't receive an equal share.  Rebecca said Thomas was “a Terror to her" and that she was neglected and had to get her own firewood.  The relationship between Rebecca and her daughter-in-law also was known to be strained, and Rebecca did not approve of how rambunctious Thomas' sons were in the house.  Elder abuse was quite common in the 1600s, but it was mostly ignored; so none of her complaints were taken seriously by those who heard them.

It's important to note that, in Rebecca's era, the legal system was made up of jurors who were expected to be familiar with the defendant and the case before the trial even began.  Rebecca's strange death was considered a monumental event surrounded by mystery and intrigue; and it affected her own community, as well as neighboring towns.  The transcript from Thomas Jr.'s trial survived, and it provides a rare glimpse into life and legal happenings in the late 1600s in America.  Elaine Forman Crane wrote a book entitled Killed Strangely about this murder trial and its related circumstances, and it in she states, "Instead of the harmony and respect that sermon literature, laws, and a hierarchical/patriarchal society attempted to impose, evidence illustrates filial insolence, generational conflict, disrespect toward the elderly, power plays between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, [and] adult dependence on (and resentment of) aging parents who clung to purse strings."

Two nights after Rebecca's death, her younger brother, 64-year-old John Briggs, had a spectral visitation from his sister while he was sleeping.  “See how I was burned with fire,” she allegedly said.  He concluded, based on her ghost's comment, that someone had intentionally burned her.  When John reported this incident to authorities, the superstitious Rhode Island colonists took it quite seriously - so much so that Rebecca’s body was soon exhumed and thoroughly reinspected.  Upon second examination, a  "Suspitious wound on her in the upper-most part of the Stomake" was found; and authorities decided she had been stabbed by  “sume instrumen licke or the iron spyndell of a spinning whelle.”  (However, no murder weapon was ever located.)  Page 55 of The Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island: Comprising Three Generations of Settlers who Came Before 1690, with Many Families Carried to the Fourth Generation by John Osborne Austin shows that 08 February 1673 Friends' Records state, "Rebecca Cornell, widow, was killed strangely at Portsmouth in her own dwelling house, was twice viewed by the Coroner's Inquest, digged up and buried again by her husband's grave in their own land."

As readers may guess, Thomas, Jr. quickly became the primary person of interest in Rebecca's murder, especially given their widely-known animosity towards each other and the fact that he was the last person to see her alive.  Of course, the Cornell home was filled with people on the night of her murder, and any of those present had the opportunity needed to commit such a crime.  However, logic did not prevail in these colonial legal proceedings.  John Briggs' spectral vision, as well as hearsay about harsh remarks made by family members against the deceased, were presented as evidence in the trial against Thomas.  On 12 May 1673, the final day of the murder trial, Thomas Cornell, Jr., was found guilty of matricide.  The court transcript states:

"Whereas you Thomas Cornell have beene in this Court, Indicted, and Charged for Murdering your Mother Mrs Rebeca Cornell Widdow, and you being by your Peers the Jurry found Guilty, Know, and to that end, prepare your selfe, that you are by this Court sentenced to be carryed from hence to the Common Goale, and from thence on ffryday next which will be the 23th Day of this instant month May, about one of the Clocke, to be carryed from the sayd Goale to the place of Execution, the Gallows, and there to be Hanged by ye neck untill you are Dead Dead."

Thomas Cornell, Jr., was, indeed, hung on 23 May 1673 for being found guilty of murdering his mother.  Carolyn Cornell Holland, a Cornell descendant, had this to say in relation to the weakness of the evidence against Thomas:

"Authorities and Thomas’s friends were uneasy about Thomas’s verdict. Two events indicated that God, too, was dissatisfied with the verdict: excessive rains drenched Rhode Island that summer; and a fire burned 30 houses a year later.

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 perceived excessive 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 in a loosely evidenced case 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."

Sarah Cornell was pregnant when her husband was convicted of murder, and she gave birth to their last child, a daughter she named Innocent, after his hanging.  Innocent Cornell married Richard Bordon of Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1692 and eventually became the 4th-great grandmother of the famous Lizzie Borden.  Perhaps murder - or, at least, accusations of murder - runs in the family?

Sources used for this article include those listed below.  Others are sources are hyperlinked in the post itself where they are referenced.
©Amy Wood Kelly, 2015 - I am happy to share my genealogical research and writing with others, as well as to help others with their research efforts.  However, please do not reprint this post in full or in part or use excerpts from this post without giving full credit to me, Amy Wood Kelly, as the researcher and author as well as providing the permalink to this post.  Thank you, in advance, for showing respect for my request and the work I put into creating this post.