PORTSMOUTH, RI — On May 23, 1673, a state-appointed hangman slipped his noose around the neck of 46-year-old Thomas Cornell.
The innkeeper and early settler of England’s American colonies stood convicted for killing his mother, 73-year-old Rebecca Briggs Cornell, by stabbing her and setting her on fire.
What makes Thomas Cornell’s execution unique, at least by modern sensibilities, in that he arrived at the gallows largely due to testimony from a witness claiming Rebecca’s ghost fingered him as the guilty party — in a dream. Weirder still, Thomas Cornell was an ancestor of Lizzie Borden who, two centuries later, would become America’s most fabled parent-slayer.
Rebecca Cornell died in her bedroom on the night of February 8, 1673. After hearing what was being served for dinner, she had refused to go downstairs to dine with Thomas, his wife Sarah, and their six children.Apparently, this snub was typical of Cornell family relations. Thomas regarded Rebecca to be a nasty skinflint, and she thought her son a callous layabout. The pair argued often.
Alas, during that dinner, without anyone hearing screams or smelling smoke, Rebecca somehow burned to death. Her grandson later discovered Rebecca’s charred remains next to her fireplace. Equally strange, the flames that so powerfully consumed Rebecca didn’t spread anywhere else.
Authorities initially deemed the death “an unhappie accident” [sic]. That changed after John Briggs, Rebecca’s younger brother, reported that his sister’s ghost came to him in a dream and said someone had purposefully done her in.
This being the “witch trial” era of colonial history when “spectral evidence” was taken seriously, lawmen exhumed Rebecca’s body. A doctor then supposedly discovered a puncture wound in Rebecca’s stomach. No weapon turned up, but suspicious eyes turned quickly toward Thomas.
Not helping his case, Thomas and Sarah reportedly declared in public that Rebecca’s death made them happy. Sarah supposedly called it “a wonderful thing,” while Thomas is said to have joked that his mother “always liked a good fire” and that “God had answered her ends, and now she had it.”
On top of all that, many neighbors and fellow businessmen disliked Thomas Cornell. They proved happy to testify against his character during the murder trial. His uncle John Briggs also took the stand to swear that Rebecca’s ghost told him she’d been murdered. The jury’s guilty verdict came fast, and the death sentence came decisively.
Tossing out the spook-centric evidence, though, Rebecca’s death remains a mystery.
One theory is that she may have died from spontaneous human combustion. Another posits that an ember from the fireplace ignited Rebecca’s clothing, and that she managed to contain the flames by rolling around. During that struggle, she may have also accidentally stabbed herself in the stomach.
Regardless, just three months after Rebecca died, Thomas was hanged for the crime. You just couldn’t argue against ghosts back then.
At the time, Sarah Thomas was pregnant with the couple’s seventh child. Shortly thereafter, she gave birth to a daughter and pointedly named the child Innocent.