Odd Death of Rebecca Cornell. What Really Happened?

My Mom’s Uncle helped get my Dad’s Grandpa hanged… well that escalated quickly!

I finally got the chance to do some real research today after weeks of real life responsibilities killing my groove.  I decided to grab up one of my loose ends and start digging in.

The line I chose was one that I suspected I connected to twice.  Work smarter, not harder right?  I’ve been doing genealogical research long enough to not be surprised by cousin marriages anymore.  They are almost like a bonus because it narrows down the number of lines I need to research in the end.

My line in question was the Cornell line which was in New York around the early 1800’s.  I had a Cornelia Cornell and a Harriet Cornell, both of who were my 3rd Great Grandmothers.  Their Grandchildren, Myron Ashley and Sarah Eckler, were my father’s maternal grandparents.   I was off and tracking the line, making progress at a pretty good pace, killing two birds with one stone.

Myron and Sarah Eckler Ashley with some of their children and a son in law

The data was interesting but not noteworthy for countless generations as I followed the trail.  The family is connected to the university that bears their surname, founded by some Cornell relative I haven’t bothered to connect yet.  They trace back generation after generation, an American colonial family helping to forge a new world out of the frontier.

Cornelia and Harriet were sisters.  They were the daughters of Wilbur Cornell land Sylvia Mosher.  Wilbur was the son of Joseph Cornell Sr and Abigail Allen, Joseph’s parents were Zebulon Cornell and Ruth Allen.  Zebulon was the son of Daniel Cornell and Elizabeth Allen.  Daniel Cornell was the son of William Cornell and Mehitable Fish.  William Cornell was the son of Stephen Cornell and Hannah Mosher.

That brings me to Stephen Cornell’s parents.  Thomas Cornell II and Elizabeth Fiscock were his parents, the time period is the 1600’s, and they were my 10 great grandparents.   At this point things got interesting in my research.

Rebecca Briggs Cornell Burned to Death

Thomas Cornell II has a very interesting footnote in history.  In 1673 he was hanged for the murder of his mother, Rebecca Briggs.  According to records from the time it was a farce of a case, most of the evidence being that his uncle had a dream in which Rebecca’s spirit visited him pointing the blame at Thomas.


This book provides a great look at the case of Thomas Cornell II and the death of his mother.

One of the other noteworthy witnesses to offer testimony that led to the hanging of Thomas Cornell II was a local town Constable at the time.  The town was Portsmouth, Rhode Island and the Constable was none other than George Soule.  I’ll have to research further to confirm but I believe this would be my 10th great uncle, as opposed to my 10th great grandfather of the same name due to the year.  That’s right my mother’s ancestor helped get my father’s ancestor hanged…probably a good thing they didn’t know this when they got divorced!

Weak Case

By modern accounts the testimony against Grandpa Thomas was shoddy at best.  In a court of law today there is no way Thomas Cornell II would have been hanged.  Present researchers think Rebecca Briggs probably burned to death when an ember from her pipe fell on her igniting her clothing.  In the end the result was the same, Thomas Cornell II was hanged in Rhode Island for the death of his widowed mother in May 1673.

Murderous Legacy?

His wife went on to give birth to a daughter after his execution.  She named the child Innocent.  As a further interesting side note many researchers believe that Innocent Cornell went onto marry Richard Borden and is the 4th great grandmother of the infamous parent murdering Lizzie Borden.  So maybe Gramps wasn’t so innocent after all….

Not bad for a morning dipping back into the research pool.  I tracked two lines for the price of one and discovered an unexpected connection between my maternal and paternal relatives hundreds of years before they would cross paths later to create little ole me.

Did my 10th Great Grandfather burn my 11th Great Grandmother to death or was she the victim of a tragic accident for which her son would lose his life in a quest for justice?  Some mysteries will always be mysteries….

14 replies »

  1. Good research on your family. When I find interesting stories like this it makes all the effort worth while and encourages me to keep looking. Look forward to reading more of your discoveries.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There appears to be a lot of work done to preserve the records relating to this case because it is thought to be the first time in the new world someone was executed for matricide. His suspected connection to Lizzie Borden has only furthered modern interest in the case. So far I have managed to find transcriptions of the original testimony but not the original images. Cross your fingers! Such a fascinating case, I’m dying to find more.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Did Thomas have anything to gain from the death of his mother? An inheritance perhaps? Have you checked for probate records for his father and his mother? Great story!

    Like

  3. Thomas was accused of killing him mom to acquire her property. Actually he was “hanged” not hung. This branch of the Cornells came to America from Saffron Walden England in 1636. Were among the founders of Rhode Island.

    Like

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