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Ephraim Avery Trial: 1833

A Victim Of Questionable Morals?

The victim had lived in Fall River, Massachusetts, just one-half mile away from where her body was found. Raised in a small, rural Connecticut community by her mother as a member of the Congregational Church, Sarah Cornell wanted more out of life than what her surroundings gave her, so she left home at age 18 and worked as a weaver and loom-operator in a number of mill towns across New England. Also while a teenager, Cornell converted to Methodism.

The person suspected in her death, the Reverend Ephraim Avery, was a 33-year-old Methodist minister with a wife and children who resided 16 miles away in Bristol, Rhode Island. He and Cornell had known each other since July 1830, when Avery was assigned to a church in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Cornell was a member of his congregation. (The pastor was reassigned to Bristol, and she moved to Fall River, in 1832.) For a brief time, Cornell lived in the pastor's home as a servant, but was cast out when the minister's son reported to his mother that "Pa kissed Maria." In October 1830, Avery excommunicated Cornell when she was accused of, and confessed to, numerous sexual affairs.

The Methodist Church was the center of Cornell's life, so she moved to other towns and joined other congregations, but the Reverend Avery always found out and forced her to leave those parishes as well. Realizing that she needed Avery's approval to rejoin the church, Cornell met him at a Methodist camp meeting in August 1832. Cornell later told her sister that it was there the pastor had his way with her and she became pregnant.

Cornell's murder, however, was more than just the alleged attempt by a married man to hide the fact that a single woman was carrying his child. Several major social changes were also going on at the same time that caused Avery's trial to receive national attention.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Ephraim Avery Trial: 1833 - A Victim Of Questionable Morals?, A Crime In A Changing New England, Suicide Or Murder?