Ephraim Avery Trial: 1833

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Ephraim Avery Trial: 1833

Defendant: Ephraim Avery
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Jeremiah Mason, Richard Randolf, George Turner, Henry Cranston, Joseph Hathaway, Joseph Blake (Nathaniel Bullock assisted with pretrial matters)
Chief Prosecutors: Albert C. Greene, Dutee J. Pearce(William Staples assisted with pretrial matters)
Judges: Samuel Eddy, Charles Brayton, Job Durfee
Place: Newport, Rhode Island
Date of Trial: May 6-June 2, 1833
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The "moral character" of the victim was as much on trial as the man accused of her murder. Because the man was a Methodist minister with a wife and children, the long trial also garnered the attention of New England Puritans suspicious of the relatively new religion of Methodism.

On the bitterly cold morning of Friday, December 21, 1832, John Durfee made a horrifying discovery on his father's farm in Tiverton, Rhode Island. Hanging by the neck from a cord lashed to a five-foot haystack post was the frozen body of 30-year-old Sarah Maria Cornell. At first, it was believed that the young lady had committed suicide, but then a note, in her handwriting and dated the day of her death, was found among her effects. It said, "If I should be missing, enquire of the Rev. Mr. Avery of Bristol, he will know where I am." Other incriminating letters were found, suspicions were aroused, and an autopsy was performed, which uncovered that the unmarried woman was four months pregnant when she died. Thus began an affair that received national attention and led to one of the longest murder trials in Rhode Island's history.

A Victim of Questionable Morals?

The victim had lived in Fall River, Massachusetts, just one-half mile away from where her body was found. Raised in a small, rural Connecticut community by her mother as a member of the Congregational Church, Sarah Cornell wanted more out of life than what her surroundings gave her, so she left home at age 18 and worked as a weaver and loom-operator in a number of mill towns across New England. Also while a teenager, Cornell converted to Methodism.

The person suspected in her death, the Reverend Ephraim Avery, was a 33-year-old Methodist minister with a wife and children who resided 16 miles away in Bristol, Rhode Island. He and Cornell had known each other since July 1830, when Avery was assigned to a church in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Cornell was a member of his congregation. (The pastor was reassigned to Bristol, and she moved to Fall River, in 1832.) For a brief time, Cornell lived in the pastor's home as a servant, but was cast out when the minister's son reported to his mother that "Pa kissed Maria." In October 1830, Avery excommunicated Cornell when she was accused of, and confessed to, numerous sexual affairs.

The Methodist Church was the center of Cornell's life, so she moved to other towns and joined other congregations, but the Reverend Avery always found out and forced her to leave those parishes as well. Realizing that she needed Avery's approval to rejoin the church, Cornell met him at a Methodist camp meeting in August 1832. Cornell later told her sister that it was there the pastor had his way with her and she became pregnant.

Cornell's murder, however, was more than just the alleged attempt by a married man to hide the fact that a single woman was carrying his child. Several major social changes were also going on at the same time that caused Avery's trial to receive national attention.

A Crime in a Changing New England

New England in the 1820s and 1830s was going through a tremendous transformation. The Industrial Revolution had begun and thousands of people were moving from the farms into the cities. For the first time, young women could leave home and obtain some degree of independence by working in the cotton mills that sprang up across the region. A religious "second awakening" was also occurring. For centuries, the Congregationalists with their strict morals and dull church services were predominant in New England, but now the new Methodist Church, with its joyful singing, shouting, and clapping of hands and with its outdoor meetings (that were as much unchaperoned social events as spiritual gatherings), was attracting thousands of youthful followers.

Many looked upon these developments with great disfavor. To them, the Industrial Age meant the loosening of family ties and the exposure of the young to the evils of the city. Likewise, the new religion was not a legitimate faith, but a cult that attracted the naive and simple-minded. And while the idea that a girl like Sarah Cornell could leave the home and church of her parents to work in a factory and join the Methodist Church was terrible enough, the fact that a man of the cloth (even a Methodist) could be tied to her pregnancy and death was proof that the world was going mad.

Other people also had an interest in the case. There were the industrialists whose mills depended upon the labor of women like Cornell. For years, they asserted that the girls were just as safe under their care as they were at their parents' farms. Thus, it was in their interest to champion Cornell's cause, to keep her name from being dragged through the mud, and to find her killer. The Methodist Church, on the other hand, was trying hard to win both respectability and converts and it could not afford to have one of its ministers found guilty of scandal and murder. As a result, both groups contributed great amounts of time, money, and manpower to the prosecution (or defense) of the Reverend Avery and helped find many of the witnesses who would later testify at his trial.

Suicide or Murder?

The initial coroners' jury in Tiverton, which met before the autopsy of Cornell's body, concluded that she had "committed suicide by hanging herself upon a stake and was influenced to commit said crime by the wicked conduct of a married man." After the post-mortem, however, a second coroners' jury in Bristol accused Avery of being the "principal or accessory" in her death. Avery was arrested for murder, but was quickly released on his own recognizance.

The residents of Fall River were shocked by Cornell's death. When she was buried on Christmas Eve, a large, angry crowd attended her funeral. That evening, at a mass meeting in Fall River, funds were pledged and two committees selected "to aid the inhabitants of Tiverton" in the investigation of the crime. On Christmas Day (the holiday was not celebrated in Puritan-dominated New England), one hundred men from Fall River chartered a steamer, sailed to Bristol, and marched to Avery's home. Once there, they demanded that the reverend show himself, but he stayed upstairs while a friend confronted the crowd. There might have been a lynching if the steamer had not rung its bell announcing its return to Fall River.

An inquest was then held in Bristol. In the end, the two justices of the peace concluded that there was not enough evidence to try Avery for murder. The residents of Fall River were outraged and rumors flew that at least one of the judges was a Methodist who wanted to protect the reputation of the church. Harvey Harnden, Fall River's deputy sheriff, then got a warrant for Avery's arrest from a Rhode Island Superior Court judge, but the minister had fled before a Rhode Island sheriff could serve it.

Avery supposedly ran on the advice of a friend after being told that his life was in danger. He was found by Harnden in Rindge, New Hampshire, on January 20, 1833, and was promptly returned to Rhode Island, where he was committed to the Newport jail. On March 8, the pastor was indicted for murder by the Newport County grand jury and he pleaded "not guilty."

High-powered Attorneys for the Defense and Prosecution

The trial before the state's three-member Supreme Judicial Council (Rhode Island's highest court, now called the Supreme Court) began on May 6. The prosecutors were Albert Greene, the attorney general of Rhode Island, and one of Greene's predecessors, Dutee Pearce. Jeremiah Mason, a former U.S. Senator and one of the greatest lawyers in the country, led the six-man defense team, hired by the Methodist Church.

The trial lasted 27 days, during which 500 spectators crowded every day into the courtroom in the old Colony House. During the proceeding, Avery did not speak for himself because, under Rhode Island law at that time, defendants in a capital case were not allowed to testify in their own defense. Still, the jury had plenty of other witnesses to listen to. In all, the prosecution called 68 people to the witness stand while the defense called 128. As was the practice of the day, the members of the jury were not allowed to take notes and they may have been confused by the enormous amount of testimony that was given.

Defense Raises the Issue of the Victim's Moral Character

Mason and his colleagues argued that the pastor was not present when the murder happened. However, the largest and most controversial part of Avery's defense was its attack on the victim's moral character. Sarah Cornell was described by one of the reverend's attorneys as "utterly abandoned, unprincipled, profligate." It was brought up that Cornell had been expelled from the Methodist Church for fornication. Numerous witnesses testified that she was promiscuous, that she had once been treated for venereal disease, that she had often threatened suicide, and that she frequently acted in a deranged manner.

Medical experts also debated whether Cornell's unborn baby was conceived in August, 1832, or at an earlier date. Topics such as Cornell's menstrual cycles and female anatomy were discussed in detail. Still, due to the Puritan standards of modesty that existed then in Rhode Island, it was sometimes difficult for the lawyers to get the testimony they needed. For example, when one of the women who examined Cornell's body was asked about the condition of the corpse, she refused to answer and angrily replied, "I never heard such questions asked of nobody." Indeed, some testimony embarrassed one of the court reporters to such an extent that he simply omitted it from his version of the transcript.

On Sunday, June 2, 1833, after considering the evidence for 16 hours, the jury found Ephraim Avery "Not Guilty." The minister was promptly released and he returned to his pastoral duties, but the public was convinced that a great injustice had been done. Contempt and hatred followed him wherever he went. At more than one location Avery was hanged or burned in effigy and once, when a mob in Boston recognized him, he was almost lynched. Many people were also angry at the Methodist Church, so to calm the unrest, the church's New England Conference conducted its own trial. Avery was acquitted in that proceeding as well, but that did not lessen the controversy.

To escape the public's eye, the Reverend Ephraim Avery finally left the ministry and went to Ohio with his family in 1836, where he lived out the last 33 years of his life as a farmer. In contrast, Cornell's grave was visited for many years by hundreds as if it were a shrine, but as time has passed, the crowds dwindled until most forgot about the woman from Fall River and the significance her murder had in the social history of the United States.

Mark Thorburn

Suggestions for Further Reading

Cable, Mary. Avery's Knot. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1981.

Howe, George. "The Minister and the Mill Girl." American Heritage Magazine (October 1961): 34-7, 82-8.

Kasserman, David Richard. Fall River Outrage: Life, Murder, and Justice in Early Industrial New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.

McLoughlin, William G. "Untangling the Tiverton Tragedy: The Social Meaning of the Terrible Haystack Murder of 1833." Journal of American Culture, 7 (Winter 1984): 75-84.

Paul, Raymond. The Tragedy at Tiverton. New York: Viking Press, 1984.

Williams, Catherine Read. Fall River, An Authentic Narrative. Edited by Patricia Caldwell. New York:Oxford University Press, 1993.