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Before the Bordens: Notorious Fall River homicide remains unsolved

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FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) — If you live in Fall River, you’ve likely heard the tale of Lizzie Borden.

But 60 years before her family’s death rocked the Spindle City, another homicide sent chills through the community.

Nearly 200 years ago, an ordinary mill girl’s life took a horrible turn. Her name was Sarah Maria Cornell.

Local historian and author, Rory Raven, wrote the book “Wicked Conduct” about Cornell’s death, and described her as “one of thousands of young women who got jobs in the mills throughout New England.”

“In December 1832, a farmer was driving cattle across his land and he discovered the body of Sarah Cornell hanging from a pole in a haystack yard,” Raven said.

That haystack yard is now part of Kennedy Park in Fall River, but at the time, it was the farmland of John Durfee in what was then Tiverton, Rhode Island.

“At first, there was talk she had committed suicide, but pretty quickly, that appeared to not be the case,” Raven explained. “She was the victim of a murder.”

The prime suspect, according to Raven, was her minister, Ephraim K. Avery.

“They definitely had this tortuous on-again-off-again kind of relationship, and it was revealed, or discovered, that she was pregnant,” Raven said. “Clearly, he’s a married minister and [if anyone finds out] he’s been having a relationship with a mill girl, he’ll be ruined.”

Evidence quickly began stacking up against Avery, including a note of Cornell’s that warned, “If I should go missing, inquire of the Reverend Mr. Avery of Bristol. He will know where I am.”

That note was dated Dec. 20 — the same day she was killed.

Avery ultimately stood trial for murder, but Raven said the defense called twice as many witnesses and assassinated Cornell’s character.

He eventually walked free, and no one else was ever tried in her death.

“Everything points to [Avery] so completely,” Raven said. “There’s no doubt in my mind this guy was guilty as sin. He just beat the rap and he shouldn’t have.”

Avery left town after the trial, having been convicted in the court of public opinion.

Cornell was eventually laid to rest in Oak Grove Cemetery, the same graveyard where Lizzie Borden and her family would be buried decades later.

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