We’re all familiar with the story of Lizzie Borden and how she was alleged to have taken an axe and killed both her father and stepmother in cold blood within their own home. The murders, which were considered particularly heinous, had captured national attention, and it wouldn’t be long before it would become one of the most well-known murder trials in US history.
Though Borden was eventually acquitted on all charges, most people believed that she had gotten away with murder. Even schoolyard children could be heard reciting rhymes that live on to this day, including the infamous:
“Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.”
If you believe that Borden had been out in the family’s barn while the murders occurred, as the jury had in her 1893 trial, then you may be surprised to learn that it wasn’t the first time someone in Borden’s family may have been falsely accused of murder. But unlike his fifth great-granddaughter Lizzie, Thomas Cornell, Jr. would not be acquitted of his crime.
Cornell, whose family had been financially dependent upon his widowed mother Rebecca, had lived on a sprawling 100-acre plot of land in Newport, Rhode Island. Together, Cornell, his wife and the six children the couple shared had been crammed into a home with Rebecca, as well as a Native American servant named Wickopash. While on the surface it would seem that Cornell had been extremely close to his mother, according to stories told by both Cornell and Rebecca, the pair despised one another.
Cornell was bitter that he was well into his 40s and still financially dependent upon his mother. He had also been jealous of the lavish gifts Rebecca had given to her other children from Cornell’s late father’s estate, while he himself had received nothing. Rebecca often told stories of Cornell forcing her to fetch her own firewood and described him as nothing less than a complete terror to anyone who would lend an empathetic ear. Nobody took these complaints as a sign that trouble was afoot until the evening of February 8, 1673.
73-year-old Rebecca had skipped dinner that evening, complaining that she didn’t care for the meal that was being served. Instead, Rebecca retired to her room, while the rest of the family enjoyed their dinner. After cleaning up, Rebecca’s grandson went to her room to check on her. Inside the room he found Rebecca’s charred body lying on the floor next to the fireplace, identifiable by only her shoes that had somehow survived the blaze unscathed.
Rebecca’s death was immediately ruled to have been the result of “an unhappie accident.” Some had posed the theory that Rebecca had been the victim of spontaneous combustion. Others had a more logical explanation and said that a stray ember from the fireplace, or even from the pipe that Rebecca was known to smoke, had gotten caught on Rebecca’s dress, burning the woman to a crisp. Whatever the real cause of the woman’s death was, the coroner’s office was content with their initial findings and the tragic case was officially closed.
It wouldn’t be until a week after the bizarre incident that Rebecca’s brother, John Briggs, would begin telling locals of the strange dreams he had been having. Briggs claimed that after the accident, Rebecca had visited him in his sleep and he had concluded that it was a sign that the fire had not been the result of a freak accident.
Quakers and Protestants, alike, were known to be a superstitious lot and they took tales of ghosts very seriously. Upon hearing the news of Briggs’ supernatural encounters with his recently deceased sister, they called to have Rebecca’s body exhumed. After a thorough examination, a wound was found near her heart. Police suspected that she had been stabbed before her body had been burned to conceal the evidence.
Though police were unable to produce any sort of murder weapon, one-by-one locals came forward to report that they had heard both Cornell and his wife making off-color remarks regarding the death of Rebecca. It’s been reported that Cornell had made a joke to several people that his mother always did like a good fire. This remark, in conjunction with their well-known feud, was considered at the time to be enough evidence to arrest Cornell for his mother’s murder.
Both Briggs’ dream and hearsay from other locals had been presented as irrefutable facts during Cornell’s trial. Though an overwhelming amount of locals believed Cornell to be innocent, a jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death.
Thomas Cornell, Jr. never sought to overturn the judge’s ruling and on May 3, 1673, he was hung in the town square in front of thousands of onlookers. Many believe that Cornell had died an innocent man, including his own wife who gave birth their seventh child after Cornell’s execution. She named their daughter Innocent.
Cornell wasn’t the only suspect in this bizarre case. A year after Cornell’s execution, Wickopash, the family’s servant, had also stood trial for Rebecca’s murder. The case was not nearly as publicized as Cornell’s trial and subsequent execution had been, but after hearing all the evidence against him, a jury had acquitted Wickopash on all charges.
There are also those who believe that Cornell’s wife, Sarah, had played an instrumental role in the murder of her mother-in-law. Cornell’s brother had attempted to assemble a case against Sarah, but the trial fell through when he failed to produce any witnesses or had any evidence to support his speculation.
A final possibility is that Rebecca’s death had been the result of a suicide. According to Rebecca’s daughter, Rebecca had found her living conditions with Cornell and his family so deplorable that she had often thought of ending it all. Left to sleep in the cold during frigid winter nights and often neglected, it is clear that Rebecca had been the victim of elder abuse at the hand of her own son. In spite of this, Rebecca claimed that it had been her strong faith and Quaker roots that prevented her from taking such action.
It would seem that these are just two of many possible mysteries concerning the Cornell-Borden family that we may never solve. Did Lizzie Borden really hack her father and stepmother to death? Had Thomas Cornell, Jr. really killed his own mother? These are questions that generations of historians have attempted to answer. Though these events happened many decades ago, these cases continue to capture our imaginations simply because it is the stories where there aren’t any solid conclusions that we are forced to draw one for ourselves.