Home / Massachusetts / Methodists vs. Millgirls in the Murder Trial of the Century (Pt. 1)

Methodists vs. Millgirls in the Murder Trial of the Century (Pt. 1)

On one thing, everyone agrees: On December 21, 1832, Sarah Cornell was found dead. A Fall River, Mass., mill girl, she was discovered hanged in a farmyard in neighboring Tiverton, R.I. – so stiff from the cold that her body would not lie flat on the ground after a farmer cut her down.

That’s about where the consensus ends.

Within a week, a gang of Fall River vigilantes was crossing into Rhode Island to the town of Bristol. They surrounded the home of Methodist Pastor Ephraim Avery, demanding to take him to Fall River -- and justice.

And within a year, the entire country was talking about this unlikely pair as Avery was tried for the murder of Sarah Cornell. How did they become connected at all? Why had their lives gone so terribly wrong?

As in most stories that catch fire as this one did, the characters represent more than just themselves. They were case studies—cautionary tales—of just what was wrong with the times. They were glorified beyond reason by their supporters and simultaneously vilified by their detractors. Both sought a larger meaning to the tragedy.

To those who sided with Sarah, the murder was the expected result of the country handing the spiritual and moral reins of power to Methodists. To those who sided with Ephraim, Sarah’s death was the expected result of young girls leaving the family to work in the mills seeking freedom and advancement.

Industrial Revolution

In 1832, the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution was tearing through Fall River.  From 1820 to 1830, the population of the town boomed by 160 percent to more than 4000. Investors in Fall River — and all around New England – raced to build and staff factories to churn out cloth.

New England was rushing headlong into its heyday as the fabrics maker for the world. The technology for weaving cloth on a massive scale had been expropriated from Europe, and favorable tariffs and exchange rates protected the nascent industry. The region was also armed with an underemployed, overgrowing farm population.

Hundreds of thousands of girls would be swept up in the manufacturing boom over the coming century. The life of a mill girl in the early 1800s offered the freedom to explore the world and pursue education, camaraderie, and a livable wage.

Mill Girl in Winchendon, Mass.

Mill Girl in Winchendon, Mass.

The tension between those who thought girls belonged at home and the advocates of millwork was a constant undercurrent in New England at the time. Critics of the mills emphasized the sometimes on-again off-again nature of the work and the dangers of the cities. But still the mills attracted girls by the thousands who either wanted—or needed—some opportunity other than farm life, a husband or work as a servant. Sarah Cornell was one such girl.

Methodists

While the Industrial Revolution transformed New England attitudes about work, long-held religious beliefs were being challenged as well. The Methodist movement was steamrolling the established religious traditions of the country and causing a tremendous stir.  Somewhat more progressive in their attitudes toward slavery and women in the church, the Methodists reached out to include the working poor in their churches. The church’s message was that salvation was there for the asking, no matter your background or sins.

The ability of a man to move up in the ranks of the Methodist clergy at that time owed little to his schooling or family ties. Rather, charisma and zeal were the hallmarks of the successful Methodist ministers.

Methodists limited local friction within churches by routinely rotating clergy every year or two. This meant that ministers largely carried a uniform message, and did not frequently get entrenched in local personality conflicts and politics. Thus they were markedly separated from the dominant Congregationalists--for whom church was political, as well as spiritual and social. They were also differentiated from the numerous Quakers in Rhode Island, who eschewed hierarchy in their churches.

Methodism’s appeal to the growing nation was apparent in its numbers. In 1775, 2 percent of churchgoers were Methodists. By 1850, 34 percent of people attending church were Methodists.

All the while, opponents used rumor and innuendo to try to slow the Methodists’ growth, branding them as fanatics or, in some cases, an outgrowth of Freemasonry. But the scare tactics did nothing to dull the appeal of the vigorous, welcoming church.

The Methodist’s growing market share brought with it tremendous opportunity, as the church was constantly in need of new ministers. Though not usually highly paid, the ministers were revered by their flock.  It was not uncommon in the early 1800s for a Methodist minister to arrive at the profession after a good deal of casting about for his mission in life. Ephraim Avery was one such man.

Sarah Meets Ephraim

Methodist Minister Ephraim Kingsbury Avery

Methodist Minister Ephraim Kingsbury Avery

In July of 1829, the two met for the first time. Sarah Cornell, then 27, applied for work as a housekeeper at the Lowell, Mass., home of the 30-year-old Reverend Avery. It was a departure for her, as she had spent most of her working life in the textile mills or as a tailor. Sarah had moved through a succession of jobs, relocating to different mill cities, finding work and then moving on when the work dried up or she wore out her welcome.

The year 1829 finds her working in Lowell. She had recently lost her job at the Appleton Mill there because she had damaged a loom. And when the new pastor, Ephraim Avery, came to the city, housekeeping seemed to her a good opportunity.

Sarah had renounced her Congregational beliefs and become a Methodist in 1825. She was a woman for whom Methodism’s promise of salvation and redemption would hold great appeal. She was a woman frequently in need of redemption based upon the social codes of the day.

Put simply: Sarah Cornell liked men. Though there are instances in her history of her having rebuffed advances of men, there are several documented cases of her acknowledging sexual relationships with them, as well.

While in her early 20s, she was frequently under suspicion for having been seen at night alone with men. And these suspicions were a serious problem for her on two fronts. The church frowned on extramarital sex, and, perhaps more importantly, so did the mill operators. Mill girls were required to be women of high moral standing. Mill owners were often criticized for employing women and desperately averse to any hint that they were contributing to a decline in morality.

Moral unfitness was cause for termination from the mills and expulsion from the church.

Modern psychiatry would probably make quick work of Sarah Cornell. Her childhood does not seem especially happy. She was abandoned by her father shortly after she was born in Rupert, Vt., in 1802. She was impoverished by her grandfather, Christopher Leffingwell, because he despised her father, and raised eventually by an aunt. By the time she was 20, she and her elder sister had engaged in a rivalry for the affection of the same man, and her sister Lucretia won.

Lucretia married the object of their affections, tailor Grindall Rawson, and Sarah moved to Rhode Island for the first in a series of mill jobs that eventually led her to Lowell.

Ephraim arrived in Lowell by his own circuitous route. Born in Connecticut, he first tried working as a farmer, then a clerk, then salesman and finally embarked upon a medical education before settling on the ministry in 1822. He started out as an assistant and proved to be an able minister. Each year he won new posts from the Methodist Episcopal Conference of New England, which oversaw the postings. Pleased with his work, the Conference sent him to Lowell in 1829.

A Checkered Career

The first meeting between Sarah and Ephraim is somewhat murky. As he told the story, she applied for work as a housekeeper, but he did not hire her. A contemporary of his testified much later that he had hired the girl to work in his home, but dismissed her within a week.

In both tellings of events, it was Ephraim’s wife who put an end to any prospect of Sarah working in their home. Ephraim reports that she simply didn’t like the look of the girl. His colleague reported that it was Ephraim’s excessive attentions paid to Sarah that prompted the quick dismissal.

In either case, Sarah took the idea of working as a housekeeper with her to Lynn, Mass., where Lowell’s former Methodist pastor had recently been assigned. In that city, the pastor arranged work for her, but she was quickly fired on suspicion of thievery. It was a new blotch on Sarah’s record that already included an instance of shoplifting in Providence.

Forced to leave Lynn or face legal action, Sarah returned to Lowell and the Appleton Mill, where she persuaded the manager to give her another chance. She was reinstated on probation, but her problems soon worsened. As bad as breaking the equipment was, it was not nearly as serious as bringing scandal on the mill. And soon after returning to the mill, the management heard a new story of Sarah’s recklessness with men.

This instance involved a particular suitor, a reputable counting-house clerk who Sarah hoped to marry. The relationship foundered, however, and stories spread of Sarah and the man being seen in taverns, in Andover and in Lowell’s wealthy Belvidere neighborhood. When confronted, Sarah acknowledged to Ephraim Avery that she had been involved with multiple men. She spelled out her transgressions in several letters to him in hopes the confession would prompt mercy from her church. The admission, however, resulted in a church trial, and by September of 1830 she was expelled from the church and fired from the mill.

Sarah moved to New Hampshire, seeking work first in Dover and then Somersworth. She was denied admission to the Methodist church in both communities, however, when word from Ephraim Avery reached the local ministers. Adding to the past difficulties, he now told the ministers that Sarah had left Lowell owing a local doctor payment for treatment she received for gonorrhea.

During this time, some friends say Sarah began to express anger at Avery for injuring her reputation when she sought a fresh start. She was aided in returning to a more normal life in May of 1832 by her sister and brother-in-law. By this time, Lucretia and Sarah had made up their differences and Lucretia invited Sarah to take a position with her husband, Grindall, in his tailor’s shop in Woodstock, Conn. She thrived in this job, winning Grindall Rawson’s confidence.

Now, with the imprimatur of the Rawson family behind her, Sarah was again allowed to join the Methodist community, this time in Woodstock. Though not a full member of the church, it gave her standing to participate in church social and religious activities. With her affiliation renewed and her fortunes restored, Sarah announced her plans to attend a Methodist camp meeting in August at Thompson, Conn.

Later today: Did Connecticut Methodist Camp Meeting Frolic Lead to Massachusetts Murder?

This story was updated from the 2013 version.