|Cousin Lizzie Borden with her mom, who died when Lizzie was three|
It appears that Lizzie Borden is my seventh cousin, five generations removed. Lizzie was acquitted of murdering her stepmother and father with an hatchet in 1892.
Lizzie's sixth great-grandfather and my 11th uncle, Thomas Cornell Jr., was convicted of burning his mother in 1673, based on second-hand testimony from his mother's spirit.
The History Channel connected the dots between Borden and Cornell in a 2018 show.
You may be familiar with Lizzie from the old folk rhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an axeLizzie was a 32-year-old spinster in Fall River, Massachusetts, who was accused of murdering her father, a wealthy casket maker named Andrew Jackson Borden, and her stepmother, Abby Durfee Gray.
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty one.
On Aug. 4, 1892, Lizzie alerted the family maid to her father's mutilated body. He had been hit 10 or 11 times with a hatchet-like weapon while sleeping on the sofa. Her stepmother was found in the family guest rooom and had been struck 18 or 19 times.
Lizzie was arrested, gave contradictory statements to police, and was indicted for murder. At her trial in 1893, she fainted when her parents' crushed skulls were presented as evidence, and she was acquitted in just 10 minutes by a jury of 12 men. She lived until 1927, dying at age 67.
At least she didn't have to face the spectral testimony of her mother, like Thomas Cornell Jr. Born in England, he was 46 years old and his wife Sarah was expecting their third child when his mother, Rebecca, burned to death in the family home on Acquidneck Island, Rhode Island.
According to an account published by the New England Historical Society:
On the night of February 8, 1673, Thomas Cornell rushed into the sitting room where he had earlier left his mother Rebecca Cornell. On the floor he found a body, badly burned. He suspected he'd found a drunken Indian who had fallen into the fire.Thomas Cornell Jr. was convicted and hanged in 1673, shortly after his wife gave birth to a daughter named Innocent, who married into the Borden family.
But as he rushed close, he declared: "Oh, Lord! It is my mother!" And so began the strange case of the murder of Rebecca Cornell.
The Cornells were a well-respected family in Portsmouth, R.I. Thomas and Rebecca, originally from England, ran an inn in Boston. They left Massachusetts in the wake of Ann Hutchinson's expulsion for her religious beliefs. The Cornells sympathized with the more tolerant society Roger Williams was creating in Rhode Island.
Thomas Sr. died in 1655. Both Thomas Cornells, senior and junior, were well-regarded citizens, serving public office. By 1673, Rebecca had entrusted her estate to her son Thomas.
On the day she died, Thomas spent more than an hour talking with his mother in her sitting room. Then he was called to dinner. The evening dinner was salt mackerel, which Rebecca did not eat. She said it made her dry in the night.
Thomas sent his son Edward to ask Rebecca if she wanted boiled milk or some other supper. As Edward tried to rouse his grandmother, he was alarmed by a dog bounding from the sitting room. Something was amiss and Edward ran to fetch a candle and raise an alarm. When Thomas returned to the sitting room with Edward, he found the body on the floor.
Kneeling down, Thomas first tried some Indian phrases to communicate with the injured person. On closer inspection he recognized his mother. The first coroner’s inquest was quick and to the point. Rebecca Cornell had died in a fire. She had probably fallen asleep, dropped ash from her pipe on herself and burned to death. But four days after the death, Rebecca's brother John gave a strange testimony.
He was asleep in bed when "he felt something heave up the bedclothes twice, and thought somebody had been coming to bed to him, where upon he awaked, and turned himself about in his bed, and being turned, he perceived a light in the room, like to the dawning of the day, and plainly saw the shape and appearance of a woman standing by his bedside where at he was much affrighted, and cried out, 'in the name of God what art thou?'
The apparition answered, 'I am your sister Cornell,' and twice said, 'see how I was burnt with fire.' And she plainly appeared unto him to be very much burnt about the shoulders, face, and head."
The vision reinvigorated the investigation. Rebecca's brother interpreted the vision to mean that his sister accused someone of burning her intentionally. Rebecca's body was inspected a second time, and this jury found a suspicious wound in her stomach. A new version of events began to take shape, and Thomas Cornell was charged with murdering his mother.
At trial, witnesses painted an unpleasant picture of life in the Cornell home. Rebecca Cornell had complained about her treatment. She had to work on the farm. She went to bed without her bed made up or warmed. And she complained that Thomas was skimpy in heating the home and would not provide a good fire.
Her son declined to hire a maid to look after her. And she and Thomas argued over whether rent should be paid for staying at the house and whether he should pay her or vice versa.
Rebecca Cornell, two witnesses testified, had contemplated killing herself, either by stabbing herself or drowning herself. Further, she had told some, she planned to leave Thomas' house and move in with her son Samuel in the spring. Of particular concern to Rebecca: Thomas' second wife, Sarah, who she disliked.
Patience Coggeshall testified: "She was afraid there would be mischief done. Her daughter-in-law was of such a desperate spirit, for not long since, said she, she ran after one of the children of his first wife, with an Axe, into her house; but she prevented her striking the child. Yet she did not live with any of her other children because she had made over her estate to her son Thomas. If she had thought her son Thomas first wife would have died before her, she would not have made it over to him."
Meanwhile, other witnesses questioned Thomas' story about his mother refusing mackerel, charging that she had been known to eat it. John Pierce suggested Thomas Cornell was glad his mother was gone. He testified: "Thomas Cornell said that his Mother in her life time had a desire to have a good fire, and further said, that he thought God had answered her ends, for now she had it."
The jury convicted Thomas Cornell of murdering his mother with virtually no evidence that he had done so. Two years after he died, his widow Sarah was charged with assisting in the murder, along with a local Indian, though she was not convicted and the case of Rebecca Cornell caused the people of Rhode Island to debate whether spectral evidence should be used in criminal cases at all.
This branch of our family tree is not without honor. Thomas Cornell Sr., my 12th great-grandfather, is the ancestor for a number of prominent Americans, including Bill Gates and Edith Stuyvestant Dresser (who married George Vanderbilt and became matron of the Biltmore House), presidents Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, the first ladies of James Monroe and Grover Cleveland, aviator Amelia Earhart, Declaration of Independence signer William Ellery of Rhode Island, and Ezra Cornell, who gave the original endowment for Cornell University.
I'm indebted to my co-worker (and newfound cousin) Terry Harmon for much of this information. Terry also pointed out that on the family tree of English clergyman William Eddy (1550-1616), Lizzie was the sixth cousin of George Stoneman, the namesake for my Civil War newspaper, The Stoneman Gazette. That tree also includes Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and actress Jane Fonda.
If ancestry.com is correct, I am descended from Thomas Cornell Sr. (1593-1655) and his wife Rebecca Briggs (1600-1673), their daughter Rebecca Cornell Woolsey (1629-1713), her daughter Sarah Woolsey (1650-1727), her son Joseph Josiah Hallett (1678-1750), his son Samuel Hallett (1722-1796), his daughter Jemima Bruce (1759-1846), her son David Moore (1770-1830, the first to settle in South Carolina), his son Alfred Moore (1799-1877), his daughter Mary Alice Moore (1860-1943), her daughter Minnie Barnette Clark (1883-1971), her daughter Essie Layton (1904-1972), and her son Dwight Layton (1928-2017). I am aware of a couple of weak links in that lineage.