Today I read the tale of Alice Lake. I came upon the tragic story of Alice while researching my own family tragedy in the death of Rebecca Cornell and the subsequent hanging of her son Thomas Cornell II for her murder. Rebecca and Alice both suffered horrible deaths. Rebecca was possibly murdered and her body burned past recognition while her family ate dinner in the next room. Alice was hanged for witchcraft after being plagued by haunting visions of her lost child. Rebecca and Alice also shared one other detail in common; their daughter in law was Sarah Earle.
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.
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!
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.
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….
One of the things I enjoy most about genealogy is discovering the unexpected. Family history can seem rather dull until you discover that first axe murderer hanging around the branches of the old family tree.
Researching the lines connected to my Mayflower ancestor has turned up some interesting gems to say the least. The great thing about Mayflower passengers is that they are such a big topic of interest that they have been researched extensively. There are groups dedicated to the Mayflower passengers as a whole, groups dedicated to the genealogy of each passenger individually, and top historians in the field are researching the topic nonstop. Due to all the interest and research early lines that might otherwise be hard to research are heavily documented for all to find.
Recently while following some of the lines in my Mayflower line I encountered the name Borden associated with the town of Fall River, Massachusetts. Most people might not immediately recognize why it’s noteworthy that I came across the surname Borden from Fall River but I have read enough on an infamous Borden from Fall River that it jumped out at me as soon as I spotted the information. The surname jumped right to the top of my priority list with one question in mind. Were we related to the infamous murderess Lizzie Borden from Fall River?
No Sharp Objects at Family Functions?
No need to resort to finger foods at the next family function. While, yes indeed, we are related to dear cousin Lizzie it’s a very distant connection. Lizzie is my 7th cousin 5 times removed. Our closest ancestor, my 11th great grandfather, was Richard Borden who died in 1671. In a less researched line it likely would have taken decades, if ever, to discover the distant connection. Useless but fun information discovered, go me!
There are so many people who connect to any one family tree that the odds of NOT finding something noteworthy are slim. Consider for a moment that your great grandparents could have each been one of 10 children, and they likely had a large family, and so on for each generation through time. The numbers of individuals connected can quickly jump into the hundreds and thousands!
My Great Grandpa was a Native American Chief
Many of us grew up with some sort of family legend. In my family there were tales of my Great Grandmother being Native American and her being related to the first Native American judge, on another side there were claims of being related to President Adams. Interestingly enough despite all my research to prove these tales I grew up hearing; I have found zero evidence to back up these claims…and plenty of evidence to call it nothing more than myth.
I don’t know how these stories got started or why they continued to be passed down generation after generation. It was hard to let go of these so-called truths I had grown up with and accept a new set of facts actually supported by historical documents but I have to follow what the records show to be true. Family legends can be a good jumping off point for research but don’t be afraid to alter your perceptions if the facts don’t add up. I never found the connections I thought would be there but I did find an Abraham Lincoln connection and Lizzie Borden. You win some, you lose some.
In the end, the best stories are waiting to be found.
Recently I became aware of a familial connection to a Mayflower Pilgrim. Apparently Great (times 10) Grandpa, George Soule, way back in the line was an indentured servant on the ship when it made that legendary landing at Plymouth Rock.
It seems ironic to me that I grew up in a family that celebrated those adventurous pilgrims each year with elaborate dinners and big family gatherings yet most of us, myself included, were unaware of how close to home that celebration truly was. Never once, not a single solitary time, was it ever mentioned to me growing up that we were Mayflower descendants. It seems this interesting tidbit of family lore was deemed unimportant somewhere along the way and no one talked about it until the information was in danger of being lost.
The Value of Asking Questions and Sharing Stories
When asked about it, my Grandmother, the Mayflower descendant, admitted that she had heard of the information growing up. It was no big surprise to her. She was aware of the information all along. Here she was in her late eighties sitting on this interesting piece of family lore.
This instance makes it painfully obvious how important it is for each generation to make an effort to preserve and share the information on our heritage for future generations. We need to lay stones in our wake for our own descendants to eventually trace and follow. We need to tell the stories and share the knowledge so that it’s not lost.
Researching into the ancestors in this forgotten family line has led to many discoveries and connections. I have found connections to Lizzie Borden, and Abraham Lincoln. I located ancestors who founded towns, served in government, and built buildings that still stand hundreds of years later. One line turned up the lost heirs to an English estate. All these discoveries were a breath away from being lost and had already been basically forgotten in my family line.
Grandma Buried Her Skeletons
Occasionally brick walls are built by our ancestors on purpose, that was the case with one of my paternal Great Grandmothers. She lived until I reached adulthood and I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time asking about her past. To say she was not forthcoming is to make an understatement. Her opinion was if everyone knew all the things she had done in her past no one would like her. I would pry; she would hesitantly provide little details, but it was like pulling teeth. It took me years to crack some of the brick walls in her family.
My Great Grandmother had escaped an abusive husband early in life. According to her she smacked him in the head with a skillet, snatched up the baby, and didn’t quit running till she hit Iowa…from Arkansas. She remarried, her husband adopted her only child, and her ex husband never gave her any problems after that but I’m sure she had a rough time surviving during those years as a single mother. I have to assume because she was unwilling to discuss it. I have heard family rumors she resorted to prostitution, there are whispers of running alcohol during the prohibition years, but she was unwilling to tell so large periods of her life will likely forever remain a mystery. Whatever dark secrets she had Grandma took to the grave with her.