History 48: Murder in a Mill Town


MURDER IN A MILL TOWN: A WINDOW ON SOCIAL CHANGE IN THE EARLY REPUBLIC

History 48

Swarthmore College

Prof. Bruce Dorsey

Fall 1997

 

Synopsis of the Avery/Cornell Murder Case

On December 21, 1832, John Durfee discovered the body of a young woman hanging from the pole of a haystack on his farm in Tiverton, Rhode Island. A local Methodist minister identified the victim as Sarah M. Cornell, a "factory girl" who attended his church and who had come to the area only a few months ago to work in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts. Cornell, it turned out, was pregnant, and letters in her trunk suggested that another Methodist minister, Ephraim K. Avery of Bristol, Rhode Island (a married man with several children), was the father of her child. A jury of local citizens, called together by the coroner to conduct an inquest, initially ruled the death a suicide. But additional evidence caused them to change their verdict to homicide. A second search of Cornell's belongings had turned up a scribbled note dated December 20th: "if I should be missing enquire of the Rev Mr Avery of Bristol he will know where I am . . . S M Cornell."

While the coroner's jury took steps to revise its verdict, John Durfee and a companion set off for Bristol to see to Avery's arrest. The local Justices of the Peace (John Howe and Levi Haile) refused to extradite Avery to Tiverton and insisted that a hearing on the charges be conducted in Bristol. In the meantime, prominent citizens of Fall River called a meeting of the community, at which a committee was formed to gather evidence and aid the prosecution in its efforts. The committee's assistance proved to be of little avail, however, because Justices Howe and Haile determined that there was not sufficient evidence to link Avery to the crime. On January 7, 1833, they set the minister free.

Perhaps because he feared for his life at the hands of outraged citizens, Avery fled town and went into hiding in New Hampshire. The Fall River committee immediately sprang into action. On the basis of what was claimed to be new evidence, the committee secured a second warrant for Avery's arrest, tracked him down in hiding, and brought him back to Rhode Island to stand trial before the state's Supreme Court in Newport.

The trial, which began in early May, 1833, and lasted for approximately a month, attracted national attention. The prosecution presented a mass of circumstantial evidence connecting Avery with the murder. The defense, aided by both the manpower and wealth of the Methodist organization, presented an equally massive body of evidence aimed at demolishing the character of the victim and reviving the possibility that she had in fact committed suicide. In the end, members of the jury found the arguments of Avery's skillful attorneys sufficiently convincing that they rendered a verdict of not guilty. Less than two weeks later the Methodist church issued its own report, completely exonerating Avery of the charges of murder and adultery.

Popular outrage at the outcome of the trial made it impossible for Avery to continue to live and preach in the area. In October he moved to upstate New York. A couple of years later, he resigned from the ministry and moved to Ohio where he took up farming. He died in 1869.

For a more detailed account of these events, see David Richard Kasserman, Fall River Outrage: Life, Murder, and Justice in Early Industrial New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986). See also, William G. McLoughlin, "Untangling the Tiverton Tragedy: The Social Meaning of the Terrible Haystack Murder of 1833," Journal of American Culture, 7 (Winter 1984), pp. 75-84.

 

REQUIRED READINGS:

Students are expected to purchase the following books at the College Bookstore:

Catherine Williams, Fall River: An Authentic Narrative.

Nancy Cott, Bonds of Womanhood.

Melton McLaurin, Celia, A Slave.

A documents reader is available to be purchased from the History Department (Trotter 209). All of the secondary readings are also on reserve at McCabe Library. A few additional handouts may be distributed in class to supplement the two reading packets.

Supplemental readings are listed each week for students who wish to dig deeper into the historical context for these events and topics.

COURSE REQUIREMENTS:

Students are expected to read all of the assigned documents and secondary materials carefully each week, and to attend and actively participate in class discussions. Grades will be based on performance in class as well as on the paper assignments.

Students are required to attend all classes for the successful completion of the course. Unexcused absences will result in a lower final grade. Discussion meetings are an essential feature of this course. Failure to attend any discussion meeting (without permission from the instructor) may result in the student being automatically dropped from the class.

Papers must be handed in in class on the date due.

PAPER ASSIGNMENTS:

(SIX TO SEVEN (DOUBLE SPACE, TYPEWRITTEN) PAGES.)

1. Write a short biography of Sarah M. Cornell. Your biography should not be merely a chronology of the events of her life. Rather, you should be careful to set your narrative in the context of the changes that were occurring in the larger environment in which Cornell lived and worked.

2. After the jury acquitted Avery of murder and the Methodist Church declared him innocent of all wrongdoing, there was a tremendous popular outcry. Why? Why did the case evoke such a high level of passion? Why did both sides tend to view events in conspiratorial terms?

3. Write a story or play about some aspects of the Cornell/Avery murder case. Append to your account a short (two-three page) discussion of the difference between this assignment and the previous two. Did you use the historical materials in a different way for this assignment? Did your thought processes change? Which assignment(s) do you feel gave you the most insight into the period's history?

In addition, there will be a short written assignment on the readings for week 7. See week 7 below for details.

 

OUTLINE OF THE LECTURES AND READING ASSIGNMENTS

Week 1:

Sept. 2 -- Introduction:

Sept. 4 -- Lecture: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC AND THIS CASE

 

Week 2:

Sept. 9 -- Lecture: THE CHANGING NATURE OF WOMEN'S WORK

Sept. 11 -- Reading Assignments:

Documents:

1. Catherine Williams, Fall River: A Narrative, pp. 3-15, 65-86, 107-08 (Letter No. 5), 167-70.

2. Gurdon Williams, Brief and Impartial Narrative of the Life of Sarah Maria Cornell, pp. 1-16.

3. The Lowell Offering -- "Factory Girls," (Dec. 1840); "Letters from Susan," (June 1844); "Pleasures of Factory Life," (Dec. 1840); "The Spirit of Discontent," (1841).

4. "New Song of the Factory Girl." (Broadside/Ballad)

5. "The Factory Girl." (Broadside/Ballad)

6. Newspaper accounts: "Mr. Hallett . . . ," Fall River Weekly Recorder (May 22, 1833); "Factory Girls," Ibid. (June 26, 1833); "Factory Labor," Ibid. (September 11, 1833).

Readings:

1. Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood, pp. 19-62.

2. Barbara Tucker, Samuel Slater and the Origins of the American Textile Industry, pp. 139-62.

3. Thomas Dublin, Women at Work, ch. 3.

Supplemental Readings:

1. Thomas Bender, Toward an Urban Vision, pp. 19-51, 201-14.

2. Mary Blewett, Men, Women, and Work, ch. 1.

 

Week 3:

Sept. 16 -- Lecture: "REPUBLICAN MOTHERHOOD", DOMESTICITY, AND FEMALE SEXUALITY

Sept. 18 -- Reading Assignments:

Documents:

1. Luke Drury, Report of the Examination, pp. 3-6, 13 (Harriet Hathaway) - 16 (Elijah Cole), 39 (Mary Ide) - 42 (Samuel Boyd), 43-44 (Sarah Honey only), 45-46 (Abraham Merrill only), 49-64.

2. Benjamin F. Hallett, A Full Report of the Trial, pp. 65 (Harriet Hathaway) - 69 (Lucy Hathaway), 72 (Amy Durfee only), 78 (Elijah Cole) - 79 (Ruth Lawton), 85 (Grindall Rawson) - 87 (Benjamin F. Sanders), 110-31 (Charles Hodges), 134 (Abraham Merrill) - 140, 142 (Abby Hathaway) - 143 (Josiah H. Ormsby).

3. Hallett, Supplementary Edition, pp. 12-14 (Dr. Thomas Wilbur).

4. Hallett, Arguments of Counsel, pp. 25-28, 61(bottom)-70.

Readings:

1. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood, pp. 63-100.

2. Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, pp. 191-203.

Supplemental Readings:

1. Cornelia Dayton, "Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an 18th-Century New England Village" William and Mary Quarterly 48 (1991), 19-49.

2. Nancy F. Cott, "Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850," in A Heritage of Her Own, pp. 162-181.

3. Timothy Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920, ch. 3.

 

Week 4:

Sept. 23 -- Lecture: WOMEN AND THE SECOND GREAT AWAKENING

Sept. 25 -- Reading Assignments:

Documents:

1. Catherine Williams, Fall River: A Narrative, pp. 75-76, 101-25.

2. Thomas Dublin, ed., Farm to Factory, pp. 42-47, 49-50.

Readings:

1. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood, pp. 126-59.

2. William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings and Reform, pp. 98-122.

3. Tucker, Samuel Slater and the Origins of the American Textile Industry, pp. 163-85.

Supplemental Readings:

1. Susan Juster, "'In a Different Voice': Male and Female Narratives of Religious Conversion in Post-Revolutionary America," American Quarterly 41 (1989), 34-62.

2. Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class, ch. 2.

 

Week 5:

Sept. 30 -- Lecture: MENTAL ILLNESS AND THE ASYLUM MOVEMENT

Oct. 2 -- Reading Assignments:

Documents: (READ AGAIN)

1. Drury, Report of the Examination, pp. 39 (Mary Ide) - 41 (Lydia Pervere), 43-44 (Sarah Honey only), 45-46 (Abraham Merrill only).

2. Hallett, A Full Report of the Trial, pp. 110-31 (Charles Hodge).

3. Hallett, Arguments of Counsel, pp. 25-28, 61(bottom)-70.

READ ALSO

4. The Lowell Offering -- "Editorial: The Suicide," (July 1844).

Readings:

1. David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum, pp. 109-29, 335-38.

2. Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady, pp. 1-17.

Supplemental Readings:

1. Gerald Grob, The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America's Mentally Ill, ch. 2.

 

Week 6:

Oct. 7 -- Lecture: SEDUCTION THEME IN EARLY AMERICAN CULTURE

Oct. 9 -- FIRST PAPER DUE IN CLASS. (DISCUSSION)

 

Fall vacation: October 14 & 16

Week 7:

Oct. 21 -- Lecture: MURDERS & INTERPRETING AMERICAN SOCIAL HISTORY

Oct. 23 -- Reading Assignments:

Readings:

1. Melton McLaurin, Celia, A Slave.

2. Patricia Cline Cohen, ""Unregulated Youths: Masculinity and Murder in the 1830s City." Radical History Review (1992), 33-52.

3. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, chapter 17, "The Anatomy of a Wife-Killing," pp. 462-493.

Written Assignment: Write a two-to-three page essay critically evaluating the social meaning of murder as interpreted by these three historians. Due on Tuesday, Oct. 28.

 

Week 8:

Oct. 28 -- Lecture: NEW MASCULINE IDENTITIES

Oct. 30 -- Reading Assignments:

Documents:

1. Catherine Williams, Fall River: A Narrative, pp. 87-99.

2. Thomas F. Norris, "To the Public."

3. Deposition of Nancy Stanley.

4. Drury, Report of the Examination, pp. 36-37 (Joseph Merrill only), 38 (Merrill cont.).

5. "Mr. Avery's Statement," in Timothy Merritt, et al., Vindication, pp. 9-22.

6. "Death of Sarah M. Cornell." (Broadside/Ballad)

7. "Lines Written on the Death of Sarah M. Cornell." (Broadside/Ballad)

8. G. Williams, Brief and Impartial Narrative of the Life of Sarah Maria Cornell, pp. 17-24.

Readings:

1. Ruth Bloch, "The Gendered Meanings of Virtue in Revolutionary America," Signs (1987), pp. 37-58.

2. E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood, pp. 10-30.

Supplemental Readings:

1. Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women, ch. 1.

2. Donald M. Scott, From Office to Profession: The New England Ministry, 1750-1850, pp. 52-75, 169-173.

 

Week 9:

Nov. 4 -- Lecture: THE METHODIST COMMUNITY

Nov. 6 -- Reading Assignments:

Documents:

1. Catherine Williams, Fall River: A Narrative, pp. 143-67.

2. Nathan Bangs, A History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, pp. 265-76.

3. James Porter, An Essay on Camp Meetings, pp. 40-67.

Readings:

1. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings and Reform, pp. 131-138.

Supplemental Readings:

1. Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, pp. 49-66, 81-93.

2. Russell Richey, Early American Methodism, pp. 21-32.

 

Week 10:

Nov. 11 -- Lecture: THE PARANOID STYLE OF AMERICAN POLITICS

Nov. 13 -- Reading Assignments:

Documents:

1. Report of a Committee of the Methodist Episcopal Church, pp. 3-12.

2. Aristides, Strictures, pp. 3-16, 32-45, 54-70, 83-100.

3. Timothy Merritt, et al., Vindication, pp. 23-39, 51-52, 56.

4. Hallett, A Full Report of the Trial, pp. 33-34 (Dr. Foster Hooper).

5. Hallett, Supplementary Edition, pp. 10-11 (Dr. Foster Hooper only).

Readings:

1. David Brion Davis, "Some Themes of Counter-Subversion," Mississippi Valley Historical Review (1960), pp. 205-224.

2. Gordon S. Wood, "Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style," William and Mary Quarterly (1982), pp. 401-441.

Supplemental Readings:

1. Paul Goodman, Towards a Christian Republic, pp. 105-119; 163-92.

 

Week 11:

Nov. 18 -- Lecture: JUSTICE AND PUBLIC OPINION

Nov. 20 -- Reading Assignments:

Documents:

1. Catherine Williams, Fall River: A Narrative, pp. 29-32, 127-142.

2. Hallett, A Full Report of the Trial, pp. 4-13, 17-18

3. Hallett, Supplementary Edition, pp. 25 (William Simmons) - 27 (Allen Wardwell).

4. Hallett, Arguments of Counsel, pp. 4-11, 55-59.

5. Newspaper accounts: (Newport) Rhode Island Republican (July 17, 1833) through Pawtucket Chronicle (August 2, 1833).

Readings:

1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pp. 246-76.

Supplemental Readings:

1. Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution, pp. 3-26.

2. Michael Stephen Hindus, Prison and Plantation: Crime, Justice, and Authority in Massachusetts and South Carolina, 1767-1878, ch. 4, "Trial by Jury," pp. 85-98.

 

Week 12:

Nov. 25 -- Lecture: THE EMERGENCE OF THE PROFESSIONS

SECOND PAPER DUE IN CLASS.

Reading Assignments:

Documents:

1. "Medical Evidence in the Trial of the Rev. E. K. Avery for the Murder of Sarah M. Cornell," Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (July 3, 1833), pp. 333-40.

2. Drury, Report of the Examination, pp. 6-9, (Elisha Hicks), 12 (Dr. Foster Hooper only), 33-34 (Lucy-Ann Borden).

3. Hallett, A Full Report of the Trial, pp. 30 (Dr. Foster Hooper) - 43 (Dr. Thomas Wilbur), 47-49 (Susanna Borden), 52-53 (Ruth Cook only), 99-109, 193-207.

3. Hallett, Supplementary Edition, pp. 10-11 (Dr. Foster Hooper only).

4. Hallett, Arguments of Counsel, pp. 3-4, 17-19, 70-76, 86-87.

Readings:

1. Bernard Riznik, "The Professional Lives of Early Nineteenth Century New England Doctors," Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 19 (1964), 1-16.

2. Laurel Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale, pp. 36-71, 248-61, 372-81, 400-02.

Supplemental Readings:

1. Mary Roth Walsh, "Doctors Wanted, No Women Apply": Sexual Barriers in the Medical Profession, 1835-1875, ch. 1.

2. James C. Mohr, Abortion in America, pp. 46-85, 274-283.

Nov. 27 -- Thanksgiving Holiday (no class)

 

Week 13:

Dec. 2 -- Lecture: A REVOLUTION IN TIME

Dec. 4 -- Reading Assignments:

Documents:

1. Hallett, A Full Report of the Trial, pp. 21, 51 (William Hamilton) - 65, 83 (Abner Tallman) - 89 (George Davol), 132 (John W. Elliot) - 134 (Phineas Crandall), 141-53 (Samuel Palmer).

2. Hallett, Supplementary Edition, pp. 5, 8 (George Brownell) - 9 (Russell Anthony), 14 (William D. Fales only).

3. The Lowell Offering -- "Gold Watches," (1842).

Readings:

1. E.P. Thompson, "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism," Past and Present (1967), pp. 56-97.

 

Week 14:

Dec. 9 -- Lecture: HISTORY AND FICTION

Supplemental Readings:

1. Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, ch. 1.

 

FINAL PAPER DUE IN CLASS, DURING SCHEDULED FINAL EXAM.

(Also: A Visual Tour of Fall River and Avery/Cornell Case.)