Brown University Library

"She is more to be pitied than censured"


Rev. Ephraim Avery / Sarah Cornell


The Meeting

Sarah Cornell, an unmarried 30 year old factory worker in Fall River, Massachusetts, was found hanging near a haystack on a local farm. She was identified by a Methodist minister to whose church she belonged. Initially considered a suicide, the case was reopened when a note in Cornell's handwriting was found among her possessions implicating Rev. Avery.

Cornell had been a member of Avery's church in Lowell, Massachusetts, when she worked in a factory there, but had been expelled from the church for "lewdness and lying." Cornell met with Avery at a Methodist camp meeting in Thompson, Connecticut, in an effort to persuade Avery to destroy the letters of confession she had written, which were preventing her joining any other local Methodist churches. According to a later report of Cornell's brother-in-law, Cornell said that Avery had agreed to destroy the letters on the condition that she have sex with him, which she did. Cornell later discovered that she was pregnant.

The Murder

Based on the existence of the note, Cornell's body was exhumed and an autopsy performed. It was discovered that she was five months pregnant; there were signs of violence on the body indicating that an attempt had been made at abortion. A warrant for Avery's arrest was issued, but after a much-publicized, extensive, and extremely controversial preliminary hearing, it was ruled that there was not enough evidence against Avery, and he was freed.

John Durfee, the farmer who had found Cornell's body, was dissatisfied with the finding, and convened a Committee of Vigilance; an official complaint was sworn out and filed with a magistrate in Newport. Threatened with arrest, Avery fled Rhode Island, but was traced to his hiding place in Rindge, New Hampshire by the Bristol County sheriff and arrested there.

The Terrible Hay-Stack

Press coverage of the trial was extensive, making it difficult to empanel a jury. Avery's trial was a long one for the period, 27 days, during which 196 witnesses were examined. The defense strategy was to point to Avery's respectable position in the community and to Cornell's bad character as proof that there could never have been any "connexion" between the two. Cornell's history of shoplifting and venereal disease was exposed. The jury deliberated for 16 hours, after which Avery was acquitted.

Some weeks later, a Methodist church hearing cleared Avery of all blame in Cornell's death, and he returned to the ministry. Despite this, and despite the acquittal, popular opinion was against Avery, and the scandal continued to follow him. Two years later, Avery left the ministry and moved to Ohio.

The illustrations are from The terrible hay-stack murder. (Philadelphia: Barclay & Co., 1878?), in the Sidney S. Rider Collection.


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