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. This idea is based on the trial of their son, Thomas (Jr.), who was hanged in 1673 for murdering his mother, then living in his home. The primary evidence that convicted Thomas was the testimony of one John Briggs who told of a vision he had in which Rebecca came to him and said, "I am your sister Cornell..." and told how she died.

The safest position is that of noted researcher Dr. George McCracken in his article titled "Who was Rebecca Cornell?" appearing in "The American Genealogist," Vol. 36, p. 16-18. Examining the several meanings of the word "sister," he concluded that not enough information or proof exists to say with certainty Rebecca was a Briggs. But, he overlooked an additional possibility that could apply in this case. Even today, adult members of some conservative churches call one another "sister" or "brother" even though not blood related.

Dr. McCracken's article also listed the baptisms at St. James Church, Clerkenwell that included Rebecca, daughter of Henry (Henrie) Briggs of London on 25 Oct. 1600 and John and Joyce, children of Henry Briggs on 8 Apr. 1618. While this would seem to strengthen the Briggs idea, Dr. McCracken pointed out that this John Briggs was "about ten years too young to have been" the one who testified at the Thomas Cornell (Jr.) trial.

The McCracken article might also explain why some people claim that the wife of John Briggs was Sarah, sister of Thomas Cornell. No evidence has been presented to show Thomas had such a sister, and this dual Cornell-Briggs connection seems unduly convenient.

If Rebecca was a Briggs and the one baptized in 1600, yet to be explained is how Thomas Cornell who lived in northwest Co. Essex, some 40 miles from London, could court a future bride there in the 1600s. "The Ancient Family of Palmer of Plymouth Colony" by Carlton A. Palmer (Jr.) provides an account of the Briggs family and states that Henry Briggs had a country home in Co. Essex and implies the Briggs family originated there. Unfortunately no sources were offered as evidence.

Briggs genealogies were examined to see if any mentioned Rebecca, John or Henry. The largest in three volumes, "History and Genealogy of the Briggs Family, 1254-1937, " by L. Vernon Briggs, Goodspeed & Co., Boston, 1938, made no mention of John or Henry. Several others were examined with the same result, and John Briggs did not appear until one of those named by Dr. McCracken was found.

This was "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 Descendants of Ichabod White" by Bertha Bortle Beal Aldridge, Victor, NY, 1953. Mrs. Aldridge wrote that John came to Boston in 1635 or 1636 "following his sister Rebecca, who married Thomas Cornell ..." But, she provided no supporting sources or evidence and, as noted by Dr. McCracken, does not help her credibility by her book's title indicating John Briggs was born in Yorkshire and later stating he was born in Co. Kent. Both places are well removed from London where he was supposedly baptized and also from one another.

A second Briggs genealogy cited by Dr. McCracken not only stated that Rebecca was a Briggs but also that her brother John married a sister of Thomas Cornell. This is the manuscript titled "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). Like the Aldridge book above, these claims are made with no sources whatever.

A pertinent comment (by anonymous) applicable to the above and repeated to me by my Cousin Lynne: "Genealogy without proof is mythology." The following should be evident. No sources are needed if you are writing fiction. But, if you want to be considered a serious researcher and expect others to use your work, evidence is mandatory.


  1. Does any evidence exist that Thomas Cornell had a younger sister who could have married John Briggs)?
  2. Are there sources supporting the Palmer account of the Briggs family origination from and having a country home in Co. Essex?

Your comments on the above are welcome. I'll be pleased to add them to this discussion so others may benefit from your thoughts.

-- Tom Cornell (mail link below)


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.

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)

Researcher Patti Metsch was able to obtain the Heck manuscript some years ago and reported to me, "Not a source noted anywhere!!! Or even an indication of where the information might have been obtained!"

Update: You may find and download both the Aldridge and Heck works from and verify the characterizations made of them above are correct. (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.

The 2002 book, "Killed Strangely -- The Death of Rebecca Cornell," by Elaine Forman Crane provides a layout of the room in which Rebecca Cornell died and was based on the trial testimony. Located on the main floor of the Cornell Homestead, it shared a wall with the larger room where the rest of the family was present at the time of her death. This wall contained a chimney serving Rebecca's fireplace as well as that of the main room. The chimney and noises from these 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 in her room to have supper with his family. Can you imagine him killing his mother and then calmly sitting down for a meal with his family?! Further, what sort of fiend would sit there as his teenage son was requested by his step-mother to go ask his grandmother in the next room if she would like some supper knowing full well the boy would encounter the gruesome scene of her body burning on the floor?!

Exhumation and reexamination of Rebecca's body revealed a puncture wound, but it would not neccesarily be fatal unless a major organ was behind it. This also does not sound like a way to quietly kill someone. If Thomas did commit this crime, he would have been a fool to stay around knowing that he implicated himself by being the last person known to be in her room before her death.

Rev. John Cornell, author of the 1902 "Genealogy of the Cornell Family," bluntly stated in his book (p. 24) that "son Thomas was charged with murder, and after a trial that now reads like a farce, was convicted and executed."

USEFUL LINKS: has a partial transcript of the Cornell trial by Jane Fletcher Fiske in 1998. Fiske Transcript

Send E-mail to Tom Cornell
Page updated August 28, 2019