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Spinning local history into fiction

Library of Congress

The woman was found hanging from a post on a farm outside Fall River, in what was then Tiverton, R.I., on a cold December morning in 1832. The cord around her neck cut into her flesh. Her bare toes rested on the ground.

Horrified, farmer John Durfee first checked her face to make sure she was not known to him, then raised the alarm. Locals identified her as Sarah Maria Cornell, a worker in a Fall River textile mill. One of the many who rushed to the scene was a physician who knew something about her that the others did not. She had come to see him weeks earlier because she was pregnant. And she had identified a Methodist preacher in the area, Ephraim Kingsbury Avery, as the father.

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With news of her condition, officials first suspected suicide. But the type of knot in the cord made that unlikely. The local women who prepared her body for burial found bruises and other signs of a struggle. And at the house where she boarded, a note was found among her possessions that said, according to one account: “If I am missing enquire of the Rev. E. K. Avery. S.M.C.”

Avery was charged with her murder, and his trial in Newport became a cause célèbre, less because people cared about Cornell than because of wider social issues.

“It was the O.J. trial of its day,” says David Richard Kasserman, a professor at Rowan University in New Jersey. “It was of interest much beyond the simple issue of one woman dying.”

The idea of young, independent women working in the mills was a major societal shift at the dawn of America’s industrial era, Kasserman notes in “Fall River Outrage: Life, Murder, and Justice in Early Industrial New England,’’ his 1986 book about the case.

Avery’s murder threatened “the social acceptability of the primary mechanism by which the cotton mills got their labor,” Kasserman said. “ ‘Don’t send your daughter to the mill town — see what happens to them?’ ” As a result, mill owners were eager to see Avery convicted to show they were protecting their workers.

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“On the other side, the Methodists were seen as a very radical form of religion. It seems weird to think of Methodists as radical, but they were in Presbyterian-centered New England. But they were criticized because they were fired by emotion,” Kasserman said. “So the Methodists were as much threatened by the implication of the trial as the mill owners were” and rose to Avery’s defense.

Other issues raised by the trial remain vital to this day.

“The thing that blew me away when I was reading the testimony was, the defense of the person accused of murder depends on tearing apart the reputation of the woman murdered,” said writer Patricia O’Brien. “That’s what happened with Sarah Cornell, and that got to me.”

O’Brien was researching a novel about the mill girls of Lowell — writing under the pen name Kate Alcott — when she came upon the story of Cornell’s murder in “Fall River: An Authentic Narrative,” an 1834 account by Catherine Read Williams available via Google, and in Kasserman’s history.

O’Brien moved the story from Fall River to Lowell for her novel, “The Daring Ladies of Lowell,” but retained the names and the forensic detail. Her heroine is 20-year-old Alice Barrow, who escapes the grim life on her father’s New Hampshire farm to join the young women flocking to Lowell’s mills. Barrow finds her work and budding romance with mill owner’s son Samuel Fiske thrown into turmoil by the murder of her friend Cornell.

The mill workers were girls and young women aged roughly 13-30, says Jack Herlihy, a museum specialist at Lowell National Historical Park. If they were not married, they were required to live in a boardinghouse. “They had to have a system in place where the parents of these girls would feel that they would be safe,” Herlihy said.

O’Brien was looking for a follow-up to her first novel under the Alcott name, 2012’s “The Dressmaker,” when she came across the Lowell Offering, a periodical published by the mill girls themselves in the 1840s, featuring their own stories, poems, and essays.

“These girls were working 13- or 14-hour days and attending lectures at night and educating themselves, and I found it kind of remarkable,” she said by phone from her home in Washington D.C. “I’m always drawn to strong women.”

She took a one-day research visit to Lowell, where she visited boarding houses and a weaving room at the Lowell National Historical Park. “It was a very cold winter day. I went with a friend, and we were pretty much the only ones there. I tried to reimagine the rooms that are still there and fill them with busy people, all of them trying to wash their faces at the same time and finish their breakfasts and then run to be at the looms at the same time.”

O’Brien transposed the Cornell story to Lowell largely intact, although her independent Sarah Cornell is perhaps more appealing than the real-life one and bears the nickname “Lovey.” The real Cornell, born in 1802, had a troubled personal history that involved petty theft and affairs that would be unremarkable today but then branded her as surely as a scarlet letter.

Cornell worked on and off as a tailor and weaver, including in Lowell’s mills in 1828-30, and also served as a domestic in then-Lowell resident Avery’s home for a few days. In Kasserman’s detailed account, by late August of 1832, she and Avery met again at a Methodist camp meeting in Rhode Island. Before she died, Cornell confided to an acquaintance that a private walk to discuss her outcast status with the church left her pregnant. Avery denied they had met at all; the version Cornell recounted to a third party described a rape.

That fall she worked in a Fall River mill, while he ministered in Bristol. She saw a doctor for her pregnancy. To him, she identified Avery as the baby’s father and said Avery had given her a medicine to induce abortion. This turned out to be poisonous oil of tansy, and the doctor realized that Avery’s suggested dose would have easily killed Cornell as well as the fetus. But still she would not go public with her accusation against the respected minister and that may have doomed her.

The ugly trial resulted in acquittal, but Avery was widely reviled, hounded by a public who believed him guilty, and soon left the area entirely to become a farmer in Ohio.

“At the time it was unbelievably shocking because it was a Methodist minister who was accused of the crime,” said Fall River Historical Society curator Michael Martins. “We do have people come in from time to time that are researching the Avery case. But obviously it is completely overshadowed by the Borden case.”

That, of course, would be the iconic Lizzie Borden, who was charged with the murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River 60 years after Cornell’s death. There are links between the two cases. A leader of the Fall River committee that pushed the investigation of Avery and aided his prosecution was Nathaniel Briggs Borden, a state representative and onetime Fall River mayor with business interests in the mills, said to be a distant cousin of Lizzie.

Lizzie Borden and Sarah Cornell have one other thing in common: They’re both buried in Fall River’s Oak Grove Cemetery, along with several others connected to their cases.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

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