Rebecca (?Briggs?), Wife of Thomas Cornell, Pro and Con

Many Cornells believe that Rebecca, wife of their ancestor Thomas Cornell (1594-1655/6), was a Briggs. Arguments in favor come from the trial of their son, Thomas (Jr.), who was hanged in 1673 for murdering his mother, then living in his home. The primary evidence which convicted Thomas (Jr.) was from John Briggs who testified of a vision he had in which Rebecca came to him and said, "I am your sister Cornell..." and told him how she died.

The safest position, presented by noted researcher Dr. George McCracken in his article, "Who was Rebecca Cornell?" which appeared in "The American Genealogist," (TAG) Vol. 36, p. 16-18, is that not enough information or proof exists to conclude Rebecca was a Briggs. His main argument is that "sister" has several possible meanings as well as a religious one. Even in some churches today, adult members who are not blood related call one another "sister" and "brother."

Those who feel Rebecca was a Briggs believe her to have been the daughter of Henry (Henrie) Briggs of London and baptized 25 Oct. 1600 at St. James Church, Clerkenwell. This date seems very satisfactory for Rebecca Cornell. A John Briggs, son of Henry, was also baptized there. A major missing ingredient to this story, however, involves the considerable distance between London and northwest Co. Essex where Thomas Cornell is said to have lived. The roughly 40 miles between the two places would be quite an impediment to a young man courting a future bride in the 1600s.

The solution to this would seem to be provided by "The Ancient Family of Palmer of Plymouth Colony" by Carlton A. Palmer (Jr.), which provides an account of the Briggs family, unfortunately without sources. According to Mr. Palmer, Henry Briggs had a country home in Co. Essex. It's also implied that the Briggs family came originally from Essex.

Given this possibility, Henry and his family would logically spend some of the year in this home and thereby become acquainted with locals. Having two separated homes implies the Briggs family had some wealth. Considering the likely class consciousness of the English at this time, it is reasonable to conclude there are implications for the status of the Cornell family if these Cornell-Briggs marriages did occur.

The large Briggs genealogy, "History and Genealogy of the Briggs Family, 1254-1937," by L. Vernon Briggs, Goodspeed & Co., Boston, 1938, 3 vols., does not mention John or Henry.

John Briggs, but not Henry, is the ancestor described in "The Briggs Genealogy Including The Ancestors and Descendants of Ichabod White Briggs 1609-1953. Also Other line descendants of his immigrant ancestor John Briggs b. 1609, York England, and Some The Descendants of Ichabod White" by Bertha Bortle Beal Aldridge, Victor, NY, 1953. It indicates John came to Boston in 1635 or 1636 "following his sister Rebecca, who married Thomas Cornell ..." but does not provide any supporting sources or evidence. Also as noted by Dr. McCracken, it does not help its credibility by its title which indicates John Briggs was born in Yorkshire and then stating later he was born in Co. Kent. Both places are somewhat removed from London where he was supposedly baptized and also from one another. In addition, there are serious questions about the discrepancy in birthdates between the English John Briggs and the man who testified against Thomas Cornell, Jr.

A pertinent comment applicable to the above and provided by my Cousin Lynne: "Genealogy without proof is mythology" by anonymous.

Some questions:

1. Is there evidence Thomas Cornell had a sister Sarah (who could have married John Briggs)?

2. Are there sources supporting the Palmer account of the Briggs family having a country home in Co. Essex and perhaps being wealthy?

Your comments on the above are welcome. I'll be happy to add them to this discussion so other may benefit.

Tom Cornell (mail link below)

Followup comments:

A couple of comments on the Briggs discussion....

One is that the term "sister" might refer to either a sister or sister-in-law, if the intention were to refer to a familial relationship.

A second comment is that I have read somewhere that Henry Briggs's son John was at least 10 years different in age from the John Briggs in RI (older, I believe) and that he died in England. I may have the reference around somewhere in my files. (Mfernest)

The McCracken article cited above (TAG36, p. 16-18) lists several Briggs burials, baptisms and weddings from the registers of St. James Church, Clerkenwell, London. Among them are:

    25 Oct. 1600, Rebecca, daughter of Henry Briggs
    8 Apr. 1618, John & Joyce, children of Henry Briggs

In his discussion which follows, Dr. McCracken comments, "the John Briggs baptized there in 1618 is about ten years too young to have been the Portsmouth settler, since his age was given when he testified in 1673, showing that he was born in 1608 or 1609."

Dr. McCracken also described a Briggs genealogy purported to state that Rebecca was a Briggs and that her brother John married a sister of Thomas Cornell. He named it as follows: "New York Descendants of John Briggs of R. I. and County Essex, England, with 16 Allied Families," by Pearl Leona Heck of Washington, D. C. (1933).

Patti Metsch was able to obtain this book/manuscript and reported to me, "Not a source noted anywhere!!! Or even an indication of where the information might have been obtained! What a waste of time -" (Tom Cornell)

A correspondent has mentioned books by Jane Fletcher Fiske, one of which contains the transcript of the Thomas Cornell (Jr.) trial. These are titled "Rhode Island General Court of Trials, 1671-1704 and Gleanings from Newport Court of Files, 1659-1783." Be forewarned that the language and archaic spellings are retained which make reading quite difficult. See link below for on-line version.

More musing of my own:

The Crane book provides a layout of the room in which Rebecca Cornell died and was based on the trial testimony. It was on the main floor of the Cornell Homestead and shared a wall with the larger room in which the rest of the family was located at the time of her death. This wall contained a chimney which served Rebecca's fireplace as well as that of the other room. This chimney and noises from the fireplaces might have concealed sounds from Rebecca's room from being heard by the family, but there was also a door in this same wall providing entry to her room.

There is nothing in the trial testimony indicating anything unusual about the demeanor of Thomas, Jr. after he left his mother to have supper with his family. Can you imagine anyone killing a person -- particularly their mother -- and then calmly sitting down for a meal with their family?! Further, can you conceive of a father sitting there as his son is asked by his step-mother to inquire of his grandmother in the next room if she would like something for supper knowing he would instead find her body burning on the floor?!

Examination of Rebecca's body revealed a puncture wound, but this would not neccesarily be fatal unless a major organ was behind it. It also does not sound like a way to quietly kill someone. Instead, I suspect a surprise whack over the head would occur to most people intent on murder. In any case, Thomas would have been a fool to stay around after committing such a crime and then implicate himself by being the last person with his mother at the time of her death.

Useful Links:

A page at contains a partial transcript of the Cornell trial by Jane Fletcher Fiske in 1998. Fiske Transcript

A link to Bradley Bone's page and comments on Rebecca. Bradley Bone's page

Send E-mail to Tom Cornell

Return to Cornell Home Page.

Page updated May 13, 2011