The following is the second in a two-part series. To read the first part, click here.
Methodist Camp Meetings were key to the expansion of the Methodist church. Part retreat, part homecoming, they often were lively events. A campsite would be chosen and churches from all over would attend, setting up a tent in which the members of that community would spend the week.
Attendees would immerse themselves in a flood of stem-winding sermons, prayer meetings, singing and religious discussion. Religious visions and epiphanies happened often, and attendees got little sleep as they made the most of the occasion. Many reserved New Englanders, including Sarah Cornell’s brother-in-law/employer, found the camp meetings ridiculous. But the mill girl enjoyed this form of worship immensely. It was a great relief to her that she was now allowed to attend the camp meetings again, as we mentioned in part one of this story.
Ephraim Avery attended the Camp Meeting at Thompson, Conn., as well. For clergy, the camp meetings offered fellowship with other ministers. Because ministers relocated so often, the meetings provided a welcome chance to socialize with parishioners from past assignments. Ephraim, though not preaching at the meeting, looked forward to it for that reason.
By August of 1832, Ephraim had been re-assigned from Lowell. His new parish was Bristol, R.I., an oceanfront community connected to Portsmouth and Newport by ferry. Ephraim inherited an active flock of more than 200 in the long-established Methodist community.
When he returned to Bristol, Ephraim reported that little of note happened at the Thompson meeting. He called it a success. It renewed the spirits of those who attended and brought perhaps 20 new congregants into the Methodist fold. He noted seeing many colleagues and friends, and he did catch sight of Sarah Cornell, he later reported. He said he mentioned to others that she was not fit to attend the meeting, but did nothing to expel her. The two did not speak to each other.
The Methodist Camp Meeting
Sarah Cornell told a very different story about what happened at Thompson. At the meeting, she sought out Ephraim, she would later tell her doctor. She asked Ephraim to destroy letters she had written to him that detailed the scandals that she confessed to in Lowell. Ephraim agreed, she said, but he had a price for complying. She had to have sex with him. Despite initially refusing, she says he persisted and they did have sex in the woods near the tavern where Ephraim stayed.
By the end of September, Sarah knew she’d gotten pregnant. She discussed the pregnancy with her sister and brother-in-law. Collectively, they decided she should go to work in the Fall River mills, near to Ephraim Avery in Bristol. Once situated, she would approach Avery and seek a financial settlement.
Sarah had two goals, to keep her child and to preserve the reputation of Ephraim Avery. Though Avery’s defender tried to paint her as vindictive and hateful toward him, the best evidence suggested that she did not want to injure him or his family.
Prosecutors pieced together the following story of the final weeks of Sarah’s life. In Fall River, they said, she did reach out to Ephraim via mail. She informed him of the pregnancy and he suggested she seek an abortion or find a place to discreetly have the baby and then surrender it for adoption. She would agree to neither. They ended their conversation with the agreement to wait a bit to be sure Sarah was actually pregnant. Whether he agreed to settlement terms, prosecutors did not know.
Ephraim himself mentioned this meeting. But he recalled that they met by chance while he was in Fall River and her intent in talking to him was to ask that he not reveal her past scandals to the local church. He agreed to this request provisionally, but warned he would tell all if her behavior warranted it.
On the night of October 8, Sarah went to visit a doctor. He shared her opinion that she was pregnant. In discussions with him over the course of several visits, she named Ephraim Avery as the father. The doctor was appalled, but said he accepted her plan to seek compensation.
In late November, prosecutors said Sarah and Ephraim again exchanged letters and agreed to meet – on the night of December 20. The following morning, she was found hanged.
Initially, an inquest concluded Sarah had killed herself, and that her actions were the result of her involvement with an unscrupulous married man. But within days, that opinion was reversed as an examination showed bruises on Sarah’s body. Experts also questioned whether the rope, as tied, was consistent with her death, and suspicious letters were found when her belongings were examined.
The most damning note left behind simply said:
“If I should be missing, enquire of the Rev. Mr. Avery of Bristol, he will know where I am.”
From virtually the moment Sarah’s body was discovered, the battle lines were drawn. Defenders of the working-class girl formed committees and immediately started looking for any evidence they could find linking Avery to the death.
Vigilantes from Fall River initially ferried over to Bristol to try to pull Avery from his home, ostensibly to be taken to Massachusetts for justice. The Bristol sheriff, backed by local Methodists, stood against them and blocked their way until they left.
The anger stayed at a boiling point for months. Avery decamped to Rindge, N.H. He said later it was at the urging of his lawyers. Outraged public officials called on the governor to put a bounty on the minister for his return, and eventually a band of vigilantes tracked him down in New Hampshire and he ‘accompanied them’ home.
The Fall River committees searched high and low for evidence to use against Avery. They dug into his past, uncovering details of minor disputes he had earlier in his career as a preacher.
But most potent of all, the statements that Sarah’s doctors gave at her inquest — implicating Avery — were made widely available. This included details about Avery pressing Sarah to take oil of tansy, a potentially lethal drug, to induce an abortion. It was, to most of the public, a case that was already solved.
On the other side, the Methodist community immediately began undermining Sarah’s reputation. The Methodist minister of Fall River initially identified the girl as a member of his church in good standing. But within hours, he changed his story, declaring she was not of good character, and the church wouldn’t bury her.
Ephraim’s supporters began revealing the seamy details of her past. They found people to testify that she had threatened suicide. They found two innkeepers to testify that she had extorted money from a man in Connecticut by pretending to be pregnant. And they suggested she had committed adultery with her own brother-in-law.
And, perhaps most helpfully to Avery, they scoured the countryside for witnesses who could help him build an alibi for the night of December 20, for he was not at home then. His story, of taking the ferry to Portsmouth and getting delayed until it was too late to return, seemed weak. But the Methodists found people willing to report that they had seen the minister at various times, leading to one conclusion: Either they were lying, or he would have been hard pressed to be at the site of Sarah’s death.
Avery’s detractors charged that the Methodists operated as a cabal, conspiring, lying and twisting facts to win his freedom.
In the end, the prosecutor’s case proved to have too many holes to persuade the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The letters found in Sarah’s belongings that arranged for the meeting on the 20th were not signed. Nor could they be definitively linked to Avery. It wasn’t certain who sent them. Her reputation for dishonesty and history of threatening to kill herself helped persuade the jury. And, most harmful to the prosecution, her statements to her doctor were not allowed into testimony.
The jury ruled that Avery was not guilty. The verdict astounded nearly everyone. Avery’s wife swooned when he walked into their house and informed her he was free. Among members of the public, there seemed to be a sense of acceptance at first. But it turned out to be more like a temporary stunned silence.
For 27 days, the country had been transfixed by the trial. The public was fascinated as lawyers teased out facts, such as the color of the paper used in letters to Sarah, and as they picked away at every minor inconsistency in a witness statement. The verdict, at last, seemed to clear the way to the heart of the matter.
The furor over Ephraim Avery’s not guilty verdict started slowly. And to the Methodist hierarchy, long-tired of this minor minister being the face of their church, it almost seemed as if the storm had passed with the jury’s decision on June 2.
The church had paid Avery’s legal bills, which eventually ran into the thousands. And while urging Avery to tell the truth, church officials clearly didn’t want scandal. In meeting with his superior at the start of the case, Avery reported the man told him:
If you have disclosures to make, I do not ask that you make them to me, or to any of your brethren in the ministry; it would be too much for such to witness against you, which must be done; but to some other person.
But he admonished Avery not to cover things up: “I must warn you not to add sin to sin. Don’t do so — on your peril.”
In some ways, it would have been better for the church had Avery been convicted. The hierarchy could have disowned him and moved on. As it was, they owed him loyalty.
The Methodist Episcopal Conference of New England was meeting the same month the court exonerated Avery. The conference launched a review of the case. On June 11, they exonerated Avery too, finding that he had no role in Sarah’s pregnancy nor her death. And on the next day, he gave a sermon at the First Methodist Church in Boston.
Ephraim returned to Bristol by July, and was again preaching. But the anger over his acquittal was incubating. The Bristol Methodist community largely supported Avery, with some dissenters. But the outside world viewed him as a murderer. Whenever he left the safe confines of Bristol, the protests would erupt. Effigies of him hung in Fall River and Newport. In Lowell, effigies depicted him murdering Sarah Cornell. In Providence, a coffin bearing his name floated downstream. And in New York, a play was performed about the murderous minister. And in taverns, songs depicted him as a murderer.
The people of Fall River had no doubt that Rhode Island had committed an injustice on the working classes, that there were two versions of the law: one for the working classes and the other for the powerful who could afford a 27-day trial. Methodist ministers throughout New England were subject to insults and public confrontations over the case.
In Providence and Newport, Avery’s name was treated with disgust. The Republican Herald newspaper was the most outspoken in pursuing Avery after the trial, putting out a book shouting their belief that the minister was guilty. Published under the pseudonym Aristides, they needled the hypocrisy that shot through the case.
Why, if Sarah Cornell was nothing more than a prostitute, did Avery agree to let her continue in association with the church in Fall River?
Why, if the men of the church were happy to believe that Sarah Cornell had had sex with three men when dismissing her from the church in Lowell, had they balked at believing her when she claimed to have had sex with a fourth – Ephraim Avery — when the evidence was every bit as convincing?
And why, when confronted with the stories of her improper relations with men, had the church not bothered to turn up any of the men’s names? Where was their interest in moral fitness when it came to her partners?
In the end, the church had little defense, but could not eliminate Avery from the ministry without appearing hypocritical – again.
After trying, and failing, to continue preaching, Ephraim stepped back from his duties as minister in 1834. He eventually moved to Richmond, Mass., for a time. Then he permanently relocated to Pittsfield Township in Lorain County, Ohio, where he died at age 70 in 1869.
While his case temporarily cooled the fervor of the Methodist movement, the damage was temporary. The church continued its rapid growth for 50 more years.
And whatever damage was done to the reputation of the mill girls didn’t last long, as they populated New England mills for another century.
This article owes much to the many excellent resources on the history of Ephraim Avery and Sarah Cornell. You’ll find a few at these links:
Catherine Read Williams’ distills the story in a very readable text:
Fall River: An Authentic Narrative (Complete text)
Ephraim Avery’s defense, and related court proceedings can be found in:
Trial of Rev. Mr. Avery (Complete text)
Aristides’ Strictures on the case of Ephraim K. Avery (Complete text)
A report of the trial of the Rev. Ephraim K. Avery, before the Supreme Judicial Court of Rhode Island, on an indictment for the murder of Sarah Maria Cornell (Complete text)
This story was updated in 2022.