VIDEO: Haunting Tales From Aquidneck Island
Lifelong Middletown resident, author and paranormal historian Christopher Rondina traces several murderous legends of Aquidneck Island and the spectral evidence interwoven over centuries by either a wicked curse or grisly family coincidences.
Editor's Note: The following article appeared in October of 2010.
Looking for creepy local legends and tales of the macabre to pass around the hearth this Halloween?
With the help of Middletown-based author Christopher Rondina, as well as Dark New England Productions, producers of this year's "Fort Adams' Fortress of Nightmares," Middletown Patch assembled a summary of several local legends involving several murder cases spanning 300 years, seemingly linked…by blood...
Did the 1673 death of Rebecca Cornell in Portsmouth result in the conviction and execution of an innocent man?
Is his restless spirit somehow linked to a series of bizarre murders in Newport, Tiverton and Fall River over the last 300 years—which have implicated other Cornell descendants, involved a sitting President at the time, and set off the most infamous unsolved axe murder case in U.S. history?
And if that doesn't get the spine tingling enough, we've added a few more "unrelated" local legends to stoke those Aquidneck Island campfire tales a little longer into the night…
1. The February 1673 Death of Rebecca Cornell, Portsmouth
Today's Valley Inn restaurant in Portsmouth stands where this unusual murder case took place—the only case in U.S. history where "spectral evidence" or ghost testimony offered at trial resulted in the conviction and hanging of the accused killer. One cold winter night in 1673, Rebecca, 73, was found dead on her bedroom floor lying halfway in the fireplace, partially burned. Did her adult son Thomas Cornell kill her? An unusual witness accused him as such, and right up until his execution, he proclaimed his innocence.
Portsmouth Patch Local Editor Sandy McGee recently interviewed today's Valley Inn owners who recounted the tale and gave her a personal tour of the old Cornell family house. Read that story here.
2. The 1819 Shooting Death of William Kane, Fort Adams, Newport
Is the unsettled ghost of an early 1800s Army private mischievously throwing pebbles? Some visitors say so. During some "Ghost Hunt" paranormal investigation tours guided by Dark New England Productions over the summer, some guests inside the old military installation reported being hit by pebbles, turning and finding no one there. (Crumbling walls and piles of debris are abundant throughout the ruins.)
When local paranormal researcher and author Christopher Rondina heard this, he recalled a similar encounter decades ago when he visited the fort at night, as adventure-seeking youths used to do back then, he recalled. At the time, he and his buddies figured other youths must have been inside and were "messing with them," but they never found anyone else there that night.
The recent "Ghost Hunt" reports set Rondina off on a research project that dug up the following murder case at the fort. The trial would later involve a sitting President at the time and—you guessed it—resulted in a defendant named "Cornell."
On July 4, 1819 around 10 p.m., after an Independence Day party had begun to wind down, Private William Cornell had just been relieved from duty for the night and was returning to his barracks, after indulging in a bit of rum himself, when Private William Kane threw a handful of pebbles at Cornell, according to Rondina.
Seeing it was Kane, with whom he had a running feud, Cornell reportedly spun around, drew his pistol and shot Kane. A witness shouted that he thought Cornell had killed Kane, to which Cornell reportedly replied, "By God, I hope I have."
Private Kane was dead within three minutes and Cornell was arrested, tried and convicted of the cold-blooded murder.
"However, in a strange miscarriage of justice, President [James] Monroe fully pardoned Private Cornell," said Rondina, noting that in his research, he could not find a reason or explanation for the pardon, but only a record that it had occurred.
Whether thrown by ghosts or not, the detail of thrown pebbles involved in both the murder case and the recent "Ghost Hunts" reports is, at the very least, a very interesting coincidental fact that has unearthed an interesting historical murder case related to yet another Cornell from the area, says Rondina.
Rondina currently is researching this case, he says, and looking for ties, if any, to the other Cornell families involved in other murders over the last 300 years.
On December 21, 1832, John Durfee of Tiverton, Rhode Island, discovered the frozen dead body of a pregnant woman hanging from a pole on his farm on a tall stake used to dry hay.Born in Vermont, 28-year-old mill worker Sarah Maria Cornell, lived in Fall River, MA and worked in local textile mills, according to several histories found on the internet.
After investigators ruled out an earlier finding of suicide and found a note from Sarah written the day she died implicating Ephraim Kingsbury Avery, a married Methodist minister, he was arrested and brought to trial for murder, only to be later acquitted following a highly sensationalized trial at the time.
Cornell was said to have been born into affluence but fell on hard times in her young adult life after the patriarchal figure in her household abandoned her family. She was reportedly 4 1/2 months pregnant at the time of the murder.
The Durfee Farm in Tiverton where Sarah's body had been discovered is today part of Kennedy Park in Fall River.
Remember Rebecca Cornell back in 1673? The accused son, Thomas, had maintained his innocence to his untimely end and his wife had been pregnant at the time of his trial. Shortly after his execution by hanging, his daughter was born and Thomas' surviving wife named her Innocent Cornell.
Innocent Cornell eventually had her own children whose later branches on the family tree eventually produced another infamous name recounted every Halloween, especially in nearby Fall River, MA.
Innocent Cornell is the great-great-great-great grandmother of Lizzie Borden, who had been the defendant in the most sensational murder trial of the U.S. Victorian era and was later acquitted of killing her elderly father and stepmother.
Oh, but the connections don't stop there…
Remember the Sarah Maria Cornell murder in Tiverton at the hand of the methodist Minister just 60 years earlier?
After Sarah's murder, local authorities were without an organized police force and did what was customary at the time; The communities of Fall River and Tiverton formed two committees, or posses, to investigate the crime, according to the 2009 book "Wicked Conduct" by Rory Raven.
Nathaniel Briggs Borden, an antecedent of Lizzie Borden, served on the Fall River committee investigating that crime.
More Local Legends
Purgatory Chasm, Middletown
It is said that in the 1500-1600s, a young Native American was chasing a young woman, perhaps the unrequited object of his affections, and as they reached Purgatory Chasm, she leapt across safely but he did not and fell to his death. Some say his ghost is trapped there, searching for the woman and chasing visitors through the wooded trails there…
Many grown adults in Middletown still recall the eerie sign that had once hung in one section of the cemetery adjacent to Saint Columba's Chapel off Indian Avenue. It read "Babyland," noting a special section reserved for infant burials. Likely posted with the sweetest of intentions in the early 1900s, toward the end of the recent century its awkward title became a magnet for teens' pop culture and media-inspired imaginations to wander the grounds at night in search of ghostly adventures.
Still, local folklore includes claims of hearing mournful, unearthly cries some nights. Rondina himself recalled one unusual and "inexplicable" encounter one night in his early 20s, although he hesitates to label it as "proof" of disembodied spirits without any direct evidence. One night, a thick fog abruptly rolled in shortly after he and some friends arrived.
"I heard a strange and plaintiff sound," recalled Rondina. "It was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was a high-pitched mournful sound. At first we thought maybe it was an injured animal, or perhaps a bird that we had never heard before."
The group tried to find the sound's source, which appeared to be emanating from the fog. "It sounded like it was right in front of us. But no matter how far we walked into the fog, it sounded like it was receding from us from all directions at once."
Suddenly, the fog dissipated and the cries stopped, Rondina recalled. "To this day, I have no explanation," he said. "But I'll never forget that."
Today, the resting grounds, which bare no above-ground grave markers, is labeled "Garden of Angels."
The Legend of Gravelly Point, Newport:
In July of 1720, a crew 26 men accused of piracy from aboard the ship The Ranger were hung publically at Gravelly Point in Newport and then tarred to preserve their bodies for display. The authorities at the time wanted to send out a strong signal to others that piracy would not be tolerated. "They also wanted these pirates to suffer into the afterlife," said Rondina.
Do those 26 pirates endure suffering in the afterlife and continue to haunt Gravelly Point?
That, dear readers, is the subject of Rondina's "Ghost Ships of New England" and also will be investigated further in a film-based project between Rondina and Dark New England Productions that's currently in development…
About Middletown Author Christopher Rondina
Lifelong Middletown resident, author and local paranormal historian Christopher Rondina is also available for guided ghost tours and historical paranormal consultations.
For more information, email Rondina at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Dark New England Productions, click here.
View the special Halloween video produced by Middletown Patch at above right.