Everyone agrees on one thing about the Methodists and the mill girl: 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.
Methodists and Mill Girls
Within a week, a gang of Fall River vigilantes crossed into Rhode Island to the town of Bristol. They then surrounded the home of Methodist Pastor Ephraim Avery, demanding to take him to Fall River — and justice.
And within a year, the entire country talked 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. Their supporters glorified them beyond reason and their detractors simultaneously vilified them. Both sides sought a larger meaning to the tragedy.
To those who sided with Sarah, the murder resulted from the country handing the spiritual and moral reins of power to Methodists. To those who sided with Ephraim, Sarah’s death resulted from young girls leaving the family to work in the mills seeking freedom and advancement.
In 1832, the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution tore 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 rushed 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. Favorable tariffs and exchange rates protected the nascent industry. The region also had 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.
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. These girls wanted something other than farm life, a husband or work as a servant.
Sarah Cornell was one such girl.
While the Industrial Revolution transformed New England attitudes about work, long-held religious beliefs were 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. The church preached 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, the successful Methodist minister needed charisma and zeal.
Methodists limited local friction within churches by routinely rotating clergy every year or two. This meant ministers largely carried a uniform message. They rarely got 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 also differed 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. They brand them as fanatics or an outgrowth of Freemasonry. But the scare tactics did nothing to dull the appeal of the vigorous, welcoming church.
The Methodists’ growing market share brought with it tremendous opportunity, as the church constantly needed new ministers. Though not usually highly paid, the ministers were revered by their flock. Often in the early 1800s a Methodist minister arrived at his profession after a good deal of casting about for his mission in life. Ephraim Avery was one such man.
Sarah Meets Ephraim
In July of 1829, the two first met. 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 a good opportunity.
Sarah had renounced her Congregational beliefs and become a Methodist in 1825. Methodism’s promise of salvation and redemption held great appeal to her. She was a woman frequently in need of redemption because of the social codes of the day.
Put simply: Sarah Cornell liked men. Though she sometimes rebuffed their advances, 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 had to be women of high moral standing. Mill owners often received criticism for employing women. Thus they had a desperate aversion to any hint they contributed to a decline in morality.
If At First…
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. Her father abandoned her shortly after her birth in Rupert, Vt., in 1802. She was impoverished by her grandfather, Christopher Leffingwell, because he despised her father. Eventually an aunt raised her. By the time she turned 20, she and her elder sister had engaged in a rivalry for the affection of the same man. Her sister Lucretia won.
Lucretia married the object of their affections, tailor Grindall Rawson. Sarah then 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. Finally he embarked upon a medical education before settling on the ministry in 1822. He started out as an assistant and proved 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, Ephraim’s wife 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 Ephraim’s excessive attentions to Sarah prompted the quick dismissal.
In either case, Sarah took the idea of working as a housekeeper with her to Lynn, Mass. There, Lowell’s former Methodist pastor had recently been assigned. In that city, the pastor arranged work for her, but she quickly lost her job on suspicion of thievery. It was a new blotch on Sarah’s record that already included an instance of shoplifting in Providence.
Back to Lowell
Forced to leave Lynn or face legal action, Sarah then returned to Lowell and the Appleton Mill. She persuaded the manager to give her another chance. He reinstated her 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. Stories of sightings of Sarah and the man in taverns began to spread.
When confronted, Sarah acknowledged to Ephraim Avery her involvement 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. By September of 1830 the church expelled her and she lost her job at the mill.
Sarah then moved to New Hampshire, seeking work first in Dover and then Somersworth. She couldn’t gain admission to the Methodist church in either community, however, because of word from Ephraim Avery. Adding to her past difficulties, he now told local ministers that Sarah left Lowell owing a doctor for gonorrhea treatment.
Back To Normal?
As she sought a fresh start, some friends say Sarah began to express anger at Avery for injuring her reputation. Her sister and brother-in-law helped return her to a more normal life in May of 1832. By then, Lucretia and Sarah had made up their differences.
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 could again join the community of Methodists, 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 camp meeting of Methodists in August at Thompson, Conn.
This story about Methodists and mill girls was updated in 2022.