Thomas was baptized in Saffron Walden, Essex, on 21 Oct 1627
The name of Thomas Cornell’s first wife is not known. His second wife was Sarah Earle.
From The Genealogy of the Cornell Family:228
1655, March, 17, Portsmouth; he is called Thomas Cornell, Jr.. was chosen with three others to prize land and buildings of John Wood, deceased. 1657, Dec. 10, had a grant of 10 acres.
1663, Aug. 24, He, eldest son of Thomas Cornell, confirmed a deed his mother had made two years previously to Richard Hart.
1664-72, several times Deputy to the General Assembly of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
1670, May 4, he and three others appointed to audit colonies’ accounts.
1671, June 7, his bill to Assembly for further encouragement of a troop of horse was referred to next Assembly (and there is no further record of the bill); At the same meeting ordered that Thomas Cornell be desired to be a messenger from this court to carry a letter to the Governor of Plymouth, and that he be supplied with twenty shillings in silver by the treasurer, Mr. John Coggeshall, towards bearing his charge.
1672, April 2, ‘Voted that some persons be employed by this Assembly to goe over to Narragansett and take a view of such places there or thereabouts that are fit for plantations and make inquirie of English and Indians who are the owners of, or who “laie claime”to such lands and signify unto them that the colony doeth intend such lands shall be improved by peoplinge the same, and that the personds doe make return of what they doe therein to the next General Assembly.’ On this committee Thomas Cornell was appointed for Portsmouth.
1673, May 23, was executed for the murder of his mother, concerning the injustice of this, and
the lack of any proper evidence to convict him. Records found bear out that he was innocent of the murder of his mother, She died of a fall and hit her head on an Aniron on the fireplace.
1674, March 7, ‘Ordered by the Assembly, whereas, Thomas Cornell of Portsmouth, who was lately executed for murdering his mother, Mrs. Rebecca Cornell, whereupon according to law, this court of Tryalls have made seizure of his estate. This Assembly (in consideration of the matter, and for the supply of the wife and children of the said Thoinas), doe see cause to release the said seizure and empowere the council of the towne of Portsmouth to take care and order that the estate of the said Thomas be soe secured and improved that just debts and other charges
be first paid and discharged, and that then his wife and children be supplyed and relieved and to that end to order and appoint an executor or executors for the true performance thereof, and that this said Towne Council doe make a will according to law, divide the estate to this wife and children of the said Thomas.’
1674, July 4, a writing was presented to the court of Plymouth by William Earle, of Dartmouth, which was by some termed the will of Thomas Cornell of Rhode Island, late deceased, in which is inentioned the disposal of some estate in our colony. The court deferred accepting it for the present and appointed William Earle, and John Cornell, brother of the deceased, to take care of the estate that it be not squandered.
1674, Oct. 29, the court ordered that such part of estate as deceased left in Plymouth colony, should be divided as follows: to widow and three children he had by her, one-half; to four eldest children of said Cornell, the other half, which they were to have in land, being sons. The right of widow Sarah for life, in the lands, was to be paid her out of the personal, if she require it.
Inventory, £77, 19s., 6d., of real and personal estate in Darthmouth, viz.: 8 mares, 4 geldings, 2 two years, 3 colts, 4 heifers, 4 steers, 5 yearlings, house and land, £41, gun, pair of old wheels, scythe, pair of bandoleers, &c. (An inventory of his estate in Portsmouth was made by John Albro and John Sanford, amounting to £452.18.5. Inventory, 22 acres land, loo sheep, cattle, horses, &c.)
1679, Jan. 4, differences having arisen between Thomas Cornell, eldest son of Thomas Cornell, deceased, and David Lake of Nunaquaquit (a neck in New Plymouth), now husband to Sarah, late widow to Thomas Cornell of Portsmouth, concerning right of dower belonging to said Sarah in estate of late husband, and more especially in farm said Thomas Cornell possesseth, the said differences being in a friendly manner compromised a full discharge is now given by said Lake except a bill of £20.
Thomas first married [Cornell].
(The Thomas Cornell who married Elizabeth Fiscock at New Amsterdam in 1642 was not the son of Thomas of Portsmouth, but another man
Thomas Jr. was a Deputy to the General Assembly of RI and held other government posts.
Cornell was convicted of matricide on the testimony of a man who said
that the late Mrs. Cornell had come to him in a dream and accused her
son of having killed her. Thomas Cornell almost certainly was not guilty.
He was found guilty and executed 1673 in Portsmouth, RI
Regarding the strange case of Thomas Cornell's conviction for
matricide, The Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island has the
following, which is from The Friends' records of 8-Feb-1673:
"Rebecca Cornell, widow, was killed strangely, at Portsmouth, in her
own dwelling house, was twice viewed by the Coroner's Inquest, digged
up and buried again by her husband's grave in their own land.' Her son
Thomas was charged with her murder, but although the jury's verdict in
regard to this affair was, that 'he did murder his mother Rebecca, or
was aiding or abetting thereto;' yet the evidence in the case would
seem to have been in no way conclusive. There was much evidence taken.
The son said in his own defence that having discoursed with his mother
about an hour and a half he went into the next room and staid
three-quarters of an hour. His wife then sent his son Edward to his
grandmother to know whether she would have some milk boiled for her
supper. The child saw some fire on the floor and came back and fetched
the candle. Then Henry Straight, myself and the rest followed in a
huddle. Henry Straight saw what he supposed was an Indian, drunk and
burnt on the floor, but when Thomas Cornell perceived by the light of
the candle who it was, he cried, 'Oh Lord it is my mother.' Her
clothes and body were much burned, and the jury found a wound on
uppermost part of stomach.
"John Briggs [Rebecca's brother] testified as to an apparation of a
woman that appeared at his bedside in a dream, and he cried out 'in
the name of God what art thou,' and the apparition answered, 'I am
your sister Cornell' and thrice said 'see how I was burnt with fire.'
"John Russell, of Dartmouth, testified that George Soule told him
(since the decease of Rebecca Cornell), that once coming to the house
of Rebecca, in Portsmouth, she told him that the spring she intended
to go and dwell with her son Samuel, but she feared she would be made
away with before that. Thomas, Stephen, Edward and John Cornell (sons
of Thomas), gave testimony as to their grandmother's death, saying
their father was last with her.
"Mary Cornell, wife to John, aged twenty-eight years, testified that
three or four years past being at her mother-in-law, Rebecca
Cornell's, and meeting her on returning from the orchard to the house,
she said to deponent that she had been running after pigs and being
weak and no help and she being disregarded, she thought to have
stabbed a penknife into her heart, that she had in her hand, and then
she should be rid of her trouble, but it came to her mind 'resist the
Devil and he will flee from you' and then she said she was well
Common-Place asks Elaine Forman Crane, professor of history at Fordham University and the author of Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell (Ithaca, N.Y., 2002), whether seventeenth-century Anglo-Americans had a keener sense of justice than modern Americans.
"[I]f justice-holding the guilty accountable-is actually a social priority, is it not possible that knowledge of a defendant's past might further that end?"
In Praise of Hearsay
Elaine Forman Crane
We will probably never know whether Thomas Cornell committed matricide. He was accused of stabbing his mother and burning her body in their Rhode Island home on a February night in 1673, although only circumstantial evidence pointed to his guilt. His trial left an assortment of unanswered questions, and eventually an unsatisfied community tried two other people for the same crime. To modern Americans this probably borders on perversion, since Cornell had long since swung from a rope by the time an Indian servant and Cornell's widow were separately prosecuted in 1674 and 1675. Those left with a lingering uneasiness in the aftermath of Cornell's execution, however, were not convinced that the person responsible for Rebecca Cornell's death had been punished. If the actual murderer had successfully evaded the law's reach, justice had not been served. So they sought out another potential killer. And then another.
Today's standards suggest that such zealous attempts to redress a wrong were excessive. At the same time, the premise on which they acted is no less compelling today than it was three hundred years ago: justice demands punishment for wrongdoing. The quandary that survives the centuries—and defies resolution—is how to establish legal procedures that will rout the guilty without jeopardizing the innocent. In Thomas Cornell's case, the victim's ghost tried to help but provided only ambiguous testimony. The body bled in the presence of the defendant, but such evidence was hardly failsafe. The Anglo-American legal system was steeped in ancient traditions that had evolved over time, but jurists on both continents were aware that no rules, no guidelines, no laws could guarantee an equitable result each time. Sometimes a guilty person was acquitted; sometimes an innocent person was convicted. The real questions, then and now, are how to minimize those risks, safeguard defendants' rights, and make certain that the result is "just." And if those early Anglo-Americans resolved these issues differently than we have in the twenty-first century, it doesn't necessarily mean that the modern American judicial system is any better equipped to ensure that justice prevails.
It was probably a good idea to dispense with spectral evidence, since ghosts routinely resist cross-examination. And a bleeding corpse lends itself to several possible interpretations, only one of which might divulge a murderer. In the interest of a fair trial, therefore, we no longer rely on such indicators of guilt or innocence.
But there are other rules of evidence that have been abandoned since the seventeenth century—rules that, despite their archaic foundations, might lead to a more accurate assessment of a case and reduce the possibility of an erroneous verdict. Thomas Cornell's jury may have had it right the first time. And they had a better chance of getting to the truth of the matter because of a seventeenth-century convention that we've since discarded: the notion that hearsay mattered.
If the men who composed Cornell's jury were not his peers—he was, after all, an elite member of the community—they were still folk who had rubbed elbows with him on any number of occasions. They had served alongside Cornell on committees, they owned nearby property, they traded cattle, they drank together, and they sued each other in court. By the standards of early Rhode Island they were acceptable jurors precisely because they knew Thomas Cornell, or, at the very least, they knew about Thomas Cornell. Before his trial began they had heard the gruesome details of the case, and may have already leaned toward one verdict or another. Local jurors frequently knew more about a high publicity case than either the attorney general or the superior court judges, but how much of that private information was aired in open court or shared during deliberation is beyond retrieval. We do know, however, that hearsay—the gossip and rumors that our legal system reviles but theirs prized—received considerable attention as the jury weighed testimony that eventually led to Cornell's conviction. Indeed, Cornell's background and character were matters of public knowledge, and he was judged on that record as much as on any other evidence introduced during his trial. Before her death, Rebecca Cornell told anyone who would listen that she was "neglected" and "disregarded." She confided to friends that her son had reneged on his promise to provide her with a maid and to pay her rent. He owed her money and denied her food. Thomas's unkindness extended to language: he was always "very cross," Rebecca complained to her neighbors. He "nasht" his teeth at her. She was convinced that her life was in danger and she shared that fear with others. Such were the rumors that circulated in the community and were introduced at trial as evidence of his bad character.
If it is true that twenty-first century jurists would reject such testimony as hearsay not to mention a deprivation of Sixth Amendment rights—it is because our modern sensibility interprets those rights from the perspective of current realities and concerns that favor the individual over society. In modern America's densely populated communities, the likelihood that a juror will know a defendant is minimal. Moreover, information about a defendant's background and character is rarely communicated to a jury (and only in special circumstances) on the assumption that such revelations might negatively influence the verdict. Criminal behavior in the past, so the theory goes, is not indicative of future guilt. Although it is true that information about a previous conviction might be prejudicial, it is no less true that criminal behavior is often repetitive. In other words, arsonists continually set fires, robbers repeatedly steal, and rapists are not usually satisfied with a single victim. Thus, if justice—holding the guilty accountable—is actually a social priority, is it not possible that knowledge of a defendant's past might further that end? Since recidivism is widespread, information about a defendant's criminal behavior might bring about a more equitable ratio of guilty verdicts to guilty defendants, while simultaneously reducing the crime rate by taking such culprits out of circulation. Conversely, affirmative evidence about a suspect's character could be beneficial: positive testimony about a defendant's life might persuade a jury to acquit, rather than to convict.
In a country that sanctions the death penalty and occasionally executes innocent people it is, perhaps, gratuitous to suggest a legal device that could boost the conviction rate. Nevertheless, since the American judicial system stands on an English foundation, we should not ignore the way in which our British cousins are attempting to renovate their constitutional framework in an effort to trim a rising crime rate. In July 2002 they proposed far-reaching changes that will all but transform the English judicial process. They are very open about their motives: to rebalance the system in favor of victims and society at large. At the same time, Home Secretary David Blunkett denies that such changes will erode a defendant's right to a fair trial. Whether this is true or not will depend on how they redefine a fair trial. That definition has always been a function of time and place, an ephemeral concept that reflects the collective mood at any given moment, just as the notion of cruel and unusual punishment cannot be extricated from its social context. An impartial jury is just as vague an ideal since impartiality is more a fictional aspiration than a fait accompli.
The many procedural changes that are being considered in England (one can't really say "introduced" since they are merely lapsed components of the legal tradition) include the use of testimony relating to a suspect's criminal past. Hearsay evidence will be permissible once again. This seems to imply that the sorts of gossip and rumors that led to Thomas Cornell's conviction will merit consideration in the modern courtroom.
Cornell was convicted against the weight of material evidence. No weapon was found, and there were no witnesses. Other possibilities to account for his mother's death, such as suicide or an intruder, were dismissed. Cornell was a respected member of the community, a sometime legislator, and possibly the highest ranking colonist to have been hanged for a capital crime. But his reputation as a bad head of household dishonored him, and his undutiful behavior toward his mother followed him into the courtroom. Friends and neighbors testified that his mother spoke of threats: hearsay in contemporary language.
Was Cornell denied a fair trial? Not in his time and place, surely. Maybe not in ours, either, if we are willing to reexamine seventeenth-century jurisprudence with a little more respect and a lot less hubris about our own modern superiority. Those of us who confess to a Whig disposition subconsciously cling to the belief that change and progress are transposable concepts. We have unhesitatingly accepted the idea that the constitutionally mandated impartial jury is one that knows less, rather than more, about a defendant. But in the ongoing tug of war between individual interests and the common good, maybe the British have it right. Again.
Event: Cornell University Misc
Thomas had another descendant (a 4th great-grandson) named Ezra
Cornell; Ezra Cornell donated the original endowment for Cornell