Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Minister and the Mill Girl

In December 1832, the body of a young pregnant woman was found hanging at a Tiverton, Rhode Island farm. She was identified as Sarah Cornell a worker in a textile factory in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts. Evidence implicated Methodist minister Ephraim Avery and the community was outraged that a man of the cloth had seduced and murdered an innocent mill girl. But Sarah Cornell was far from innocent and she had reasons hate Reverend Avery that had nothing to do with her pregnancy. Could Sarah Cornell have planted evidence against Avery before taking her own life? The story of the minister and the mill girl would put the town of Fall River at the center of a national controversy 60 years before Lizzie Borden would do the same. And the outcome would be just as inconclusive.

Date: Decenber 20, 1832

Location:  Tiverton, Rhode Island

Victim: Sarah Maria Cornell

Cause of Death:  Strangulation

Accused:  The Reverend Ephraim Kingsbury Avery


On Friday, December 21, 1832, the body of a young woman was found hanging from a cord tied to the roof of a hay stack in on the farm of John Durfee in the town of Tiverton, Rhode Island, just across the border from Fall River, Massachusetts. Durfee sent for the coroner and when the news reached Fall River, local ministers and mill overseers hurried to the scene to help identify the body. The Reverend Ira Bidwell recognized the girl as Sarah Maria Cornell, a member of his Methodist congregation. The identification was verified by John Smith, overseer of a weaving room at the Fall River Manufactory where Sarah Cornell had worked. Sarah’s doctor, Thomas Wilbur also confirmed her identity and added that she was pregnant when she died. Dr. Wilbur speculated that she had killed herself in despair. She had told him that the father of her unborn child was a married Methodist minister named Ehpraim Kingsbury Avery.

An ad hoc coroner’s jury first agreed with Dr. Wilbur’s assessment and declared her death a suicide and she was hastily buried on Saturday. But by Sunday new evidence came to light. In Sarah’s bandbox a penciled note was found which read:

If I should be missing enquire of the Rev Mr. Avery of Bristol he will know where I am Dec 20th S M Cornell.
An anonymous letter was found in Sarah’s trunk, requesting a meeting with her on December 20. On closer inspection, the cord around her neck did not indicate suicide. While the loop was so tight it could not be cut off without cutting her skin, it was tied with a clove hitch, a knot that would not have automatically pulled tight. The body was exhumed and examined more closely. Bruises were found on her abdomen suggesting that an abortion may have been attempted.

People of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, primarily Congregationalists, were suspicious of the rising Methodist Episcopal Church that some equated with Freemasonry. On Sunday the coroner declared that Sarah Cornell was murdered and a warrant was issued for the arrest of Methodist minister Ephraim Avery.

The Mill Girl

Sarah Cornell had been a tailor by trade but found she could make more money by working in the textile mills that were rapidly expanding throughout New England. Like many mill girls she frequently relocated because of new opportunities and changing personal situations. Sarah had also gained an unsavory reputation that she had trouble outrunning. In Providence, Rhode Island she was accused of shoplifting. She changed her name and moved to Jewett City, Connecticut where she worked in the weaving room of a mill until she was dismissed after being seen leaving the building late in the evening accompanied by a young man.

During this time she had also converted to Methodism and several times had tried to become a member of the church but her reputation had always stood in her way. In Slatersville, RI she was admonished for lewd behavior and later, after a church trial, was expelled for fornication and lying. In Lowell she had a relationship with a mill clerk that ended with more rumors of lewd behavior. She travelled Lowell, Massachusetts and as far north as Dover, New Hampshire, but could not shake her reputation as a bad girl.

The Minister

Sarah met the Reverend Ephriam Avery when he was beginning his assignment as Methodist minister in Lowell. She asked him for job as a domestic servant. Avery claimed that she was never hired but another witness said she was hired but dismissed by Avery’s wife after one week of service because she did not like the attention her husband gave her. Sarah got a job as a servant in Lynn, MA but was terminated on suspicion of theft. She returned to Reverend Avery and asked him to give her a certificate of good standing with the Methodists so she could join a church in another community. He gave her the certificate but she did not leave Lowell.

She had gotten another mill job in Lowell, but the overseer confronted her with the rumors of her loose behavior. She admitted to an illicit relationship but claimed that she had reformed. The overseer agreed to let Sarah keep her job if she would confess her sins to Reverend Avery. When she did, Avery was unsympathetic. Rather than offering forgiveness, he began the process of another church trial against Sarah. Her confessions to Avery would guarantee that she would be expelled again for fornication.

Before the trial ended, Sarah fled to Dover, New Hampshire, got another mill job and attempted to join a Methodist church there. Meantime, in Lowell, Dr. William Graves went to Rev. Avery to ask about Sarah’s whereabouts. He had been treating her for gonorrhea and she left without paying the bill. When the minister of the Dover church contacted Rev. Avery about Sarah, Avery told him that she was guilty of fornication, theft and lying, and he told him about the “foul disease” she had. His letter ended:
“Now if you want her in your church, you may have her.”
Sarah sent several letters to Avery confessing her sins and asking forgiveness but got no response. Finally she went to Lowell and confronted him in person and he agreed to sign a certificate of forgiveness that would allow her to join a church in New Hampshire. But the day after giving Sarah his signature he wrote to the minister in New Hampshire, revoking his forgiveness saying:
“we should all of us here be opposed to her joining anywhere…Alas! Alas!! Alas!!! This morning direct information was brought that she had told a known willful falsehood—her standing being as it is I have not taken any pains to enquire into the cause.”

Camp Meeting

Sarah left New Hampshire, and after a few stops in Massachusetts, went to live with her sister and brother-in-law in Woodstock, Connecticut. She stayed connected to the Methodist church by attending classes but did not try to join a church. That summer she also attended a Methodist camp meeting where hundreds of people slept in tents and attended four days of prayer and services. She was seen there by Reverend Avery (who had since been transferred to Bristol, Rhode Island) and several other Methodist ministers she had known in Lowell.

That fall, Sarah became aware that she was pregnant. She told her sister, and then related what had happened at the camp meeting. She said she had approached Reverend Avery asking him to return her letters of confession. In her sister’s words, this is what Sarah said:

“They sat down; some conversation followed about Avery having burned the letters. He said he had not, but would on one condition, and settle the difficulty. At that time he took hold of her hands, and put one onto her bosom or something like it. She said she tried to get away from him, but could not. She said he then had intercourse with her, and they returned to the camp. He promised to destroy the letters, on his return to Bristol.”
Her sister also said that Sarah had been “unwell as females are” eight days before the camp meeting, confirming that the conception had happened there. Sarah was advised by her brother-in-law and his lawyer to move to Rhode Island where, if necessary, she could sue Avery for support. Sarah moved to Fall River, Massachusetts, on the Rhode Island border— not far from the town of Bristol—where she knew she could get mill work. She stayed in Fall River until her death on December 20.

The Hearing

The Saturday after the body was found, Reverend Avery had learned of the suspicions against had planned to travel to Lowell on Monday to gather evidence of Sarah Cornell’s bad character. On Sunday, before the coroner had officially declared the death murder, a delegation from Fall River and Tiverton persuaded the Bristol authorities to arrest Avery. On Monday a large vigilance committee arrived by ferry from Fall River to bring Avery back to stand trial in Tiverton, but Bristol authorities would not release him. The hearing to determine whether Ephraim Avery would be tried for murder was held in Bristol.

The hearing began on December 25, 1832—Christmas Day was not an official holiday at the time. Justices John Howe and Levi Haile would hear the case. The prosecution brought in all the evidence to suggest that Sarah Cornell was murdered and that Reverend Avery had the motive and opportunity to be the murder. They proved that he had not been in Bristol on December 20, but was on an island with a bridge to Tiverton. The anonymous letter had been written on distinctive pink stationary, which matched stationary in Avery’s possession and John Orswell, the engineer of the ferry King Phillip testified that Avery had handed him the letter to deliver to Miss Cornell. But the court would not allow the letter into evidence since it could not be proven that Avery wrote it. Even more damaging to the prosecution, the court would not allow the testimony of Sarah’s sister and brother-in-law or Dr. Wilbur, regarding Sarah’s assertion that Avery was the father of her unborn child.

The defense brought in witnesses that testified to Reverend Avery’s good character and Sarah Cornell’s bad character and had co-workers of Sarah’s that testified that she was suicidal. They also had witnesses who stated that Avery could not have given the letter to John Orswell, and could not have been in Tiverton on December 20.

On January 7 the justices gave their opinions. Both agreed that there was not enough evidence to try Reverend Avery for murder or even that it was murder and not suicide.


Fearing the inevitable negative public reaction, Avery fled quickly and quietly, travelling to the home of Simeon Mayo in the town of Rindge, New Hampshire. While probably not in any physical danger, Avery correctly assumed that the people of Fall River and Tiverton would not be satisfied with the ruling. Should they come after him again, residing in a state without a border with Rhode Island would complicate the extradition process.

The people of Fall River and Tiverton did not accept the Bristol ruling and issued another warrant for Avery on the grounds that he was held and examined outside the county where the crime was committed. Deputy Harvey Hamden, began a search for Avery that took him to Lowell, Boston, and in a remarkably short time, to Rindge, New Hampshire. Hamden had obtained the proper Hew Hampshire warrants and in Rindge met with a deputy Sherriff and a posse who rode with him to Mayo’s house. Mayo feigned ignorance but let the men into his house where they found Avery. Though he had grown a beard and was wearing green-tinted spectacles Hamden recognized him. Avery was arrested and taken back to Tiverton.

Trial: May 6. 1833

Ephraim Avery’s murder trial was held in the city of Newport and lasted 27 days. It followed much the same course as the previous hearing. Once again Sarah’s words to her sister and her doctor regarding the father of her unborn child were not admitted. Medical testimony regarding questions of suicide versus murder and the exact age of the fetus was quite prolonged with each side summoning experts to support their point of view. The defense provided witnesses who could seemingly account for every minute of Reverend Avery’s time at the camp meeting and again attacked Sarah Cornell’s morality and sanity. But the circumstantial evidence against Avery was so strong that the defense claimed, not only that Sarah Cornell committed suicide, but that she first planted evidence that would implicate Reverend Avery.

In the end, the jury could not find enough evidence to convict Ephraim Avery of murder

Verdict: Not guilty


Ephraim Avery left court for Bristol ahead of the public announcement of the verdict. He did not remain there long, by June 5, Avery was in Boston awaiting a Methodist church trial. He was acquitted by the church of the charges of murder and "improper connexion.”

He returned to Bristol and tried to preach but his congregation was now divided with many opposed to his continuing there. He was burned in effigy twice in Bristol and at least four times in Fall River. After 1834 Avery was never again stationed in the New England conference of the Methodist church. His role gradually diminished and by 1837 he was dropped from their roster. Avery and his family eventually settled in Lorain County Ohio where he died a farmer in 1869.

Though the murder of Sarah Cornell brought national notoriety to the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, it would be overshadowed 59 years later by another Fall River killing—the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden.

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century
Kasserman, David Richard. Fall River Outrage: Life, Murder, and Justice in Early Industrial New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.

Avery, Ephraim K.. A Report of the Trial of the Rev. Ephraim K. Avery, Before the Supreme Judicial Court of Rhode Island, On an Indictment for the Murder of Sarah Maria Cornell.Providence: Marshall and Brown, 1833.

Clarke, M.. Sarah Maria Cornell, or the Fall River murder: a domestic drama in three acts. New York: No. 5 Chatham Square, 1833.

"The Minister and the Mill Girl" American Heritage, October 1961


Caroline says:
February 11, 2012 at 4:15 PM

The fact that the knot would not have automatically pulled tight is, by itself, an indicator of murder, or at least assisted suicide. By who? That's up for debate. But that knot is evidence that she did not kill herself.

Leslie says:
April 4, 2014 at 11:01 AM

Why would he rape her knowing she had gonnorhea?

Bowman says:
May 16, 2019 at 11:10 AM

Whomever wrote this should have proofread it before posting. There are many grammatical errors in it.

Robert Wilhelm says:
May 17, 2019 at 2:07 PM

It should be "Whoever wrote this" since it is the subject of the sentence. "Whom" is only used as the object of a verb or preposition. Yes, we should all proofread.

Wheresmymickie says:
January 3, 2021 at 4:28 PM

Lol nice

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