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Ephraim Avery Trial: 1833

A Victim Of Questionable Morals?, A Crime In A Changing New England, Suicide Or Murder?

Defendant: Ephraim Avery
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Jeremiah Mason, Richard Randolf, George Turner, Henry Cranston, Joseph Hathaway, Joseph Blake (Nathaniel Bullock assisted with pretrial matters)
Chief Prosecutors: Albert C. Greene, Dutee J. Pearce(William Staples assisted with pretrial matters)
Judges: Samuel Eddy, Charles Brayton, Job Durfee
Place: Newport, Rhode Island
Date of Trial: May 6-June 2, 1833
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The "moral character" of the victim was as much on trial as the man accused of her murder. Because the man was a Methodist minister with a wife and children, the long trial also garnered the attention of New England Puritans suspicious of the relatively new religion of Methodism.

On the bitterly cold morning of Friday, December 21, 1832, John Durfee made a horrifying discovery on his father's farm in Tiverton, Rhode Island. Hanging by the neck from a cord lashed to a five-foot haystack post was the frozen body of 30-year-old Sarah Maria Cornell. At first, it was believed that the young lady had committed suicide, but then a note, in her handwriting and dated the day of her death, was found among her effects. It said, "If I should be missing, enquire of the Rev. Mr. Avery of Bristol, he will know where I am." Other incriminating letters were found, suspicions were aroused, and an autopsy was performed, which uncovered that the unmarried woman was four months pregnant when she died. Thus began an affair that received national attention and led to one of the longest murder trials in Rhode Island's history.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882