When Ghosts Kill
5 August 2013
Joe Occhi, whose family owns the restaurant, recently recounted the story of Rebecca Cornell and her son, Thomas.
however, Occhi, is skeptic that the accounts of what happened one night in February 1673 are accurate. "I'm not entirely sure a ghost really appeared," he said.
Occhi's family has owned the Valley Inn since 1957, when they purchased the property from the Rev. John Cornell, a direct decedent of the Portsmouth branch of the Cornell's.
The original building was known as The Cornell House and had been home to many generations of the Cornell family," according to the Valley Inn's Web site. "It was from the Portsmouth, RI, branch of the Cornell family that sprang the late Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University."
The first settler of the property was Thomas Cornell, husband of Rebecca and father of Thomas, who was given the same name.
Cornell was granted the land through a deed, which was issued by the king of England in 1646. The original Cornell house featured nine bedrooms and seven fireplaces, including three on the second floor.
"This building is the site of the only time, anytime in the history of the United States that someone has been convicted and executed on the testimony of a ghost," Occhi said.
The story of Rebecca Cornell, based on Occhi's recounts, begins on a cold night in February, 1673.
Rebecca, the matriarch of the family, whose husband had died years back, was 73-years-old. In the 1600s, to live to the age of 73 was quite an accomplishment, according to the Valley Inn operator.
"Seventy-three back then is probably the equivalent of 100 today," Occhi said.
Rebecca lived in the house she owned with her son, Thomas, and his wife, as well as their two daughters and four sons from a previous marriage.
That one particular night, Rebecca "didn't feel quite right and chose to not have dinner with the family," Occhi said.
She retired early to one of the bedrooms on the first floor. To this day, no one knows exactly which room she visited, Occhi said.
A little while later, Thomas and his wife heard a noise. They went to check on Rebecca, who was found in her room dead on the floor. "
It appears she had tripped and fell into the fireplace," Occhi said. Rebecca was found lying halfway in the fireplace, partially burned.
Rebecca's time (the late 1600s) was filled with superstition, belief of the supernatural, religious extremism and fear brought on by isolation and other factors. The Salem Witch Trials would only occur 19 years later in Massachusetts.
"A week or so later, Rebecca's brother in Newport had a dream, a very vivid dream, where Rebecca appeared to him and told him she was murdered by her son, Thomas," said Occhi. "Well, they chose to exhume her remains for an autopsy. But this doesn't mean exhume like we think today."
Remember, Rebecca died in February in New England. The grounds were too cold then to bury the dead, so they would freeze the deceased's body in an ice box or cold locker of sorts. "When they started to cut her, she started to bleed after death. Bleeding after death was a specific sign of the supernatural," Occhi ,said.
The townspeople soon arrested Rebecca's son, Thomas. He was later hung after being convicted of his mother's murder based on only the testimony from the ghost in the dream and the bleeding remains.
Thomas' last dying request was to be buried alongside his mother in the family plot, according to Occhi. A judge denied this request, but granted permission to be buried at an unmarked grave 10 feet away from the house at the furthestmost point of the property. Thomas' is believed to have been buried under the driveway at the Valley Inn, about 10 feet from West Main Road.
The location of Rebecca's tombstone is also a mystery. Rebecca is believed to be buried in the family plot, now a historical cemetery covered in overbrush behind the Bay View Estates. However, in the 1600s, people didn't engrave tombstones with names like they do today.
Historians know she is buried in the family plot. However, her slate gravestone was placed without a name, leaving the exact location of her final resting place unknown.
A number of books, including "Killed Strangely" by Elaine Forman Crane, have been written about this strange tale. The Travel Channel runs a special on the Cornell case every Halloween.
One would think this tale has concluded here, but wait! There's one more piece to this mysterious, chilling story.
Thomas' wife at the time of his trial was pregnant. Shortly after Thomas' execution, she gave birth to a girl and named her Innocent Cornell as a testimony to her husband.
Innocent Cornell would grow and give birth to her own family, a family that would one day have another famous name heard every Halloween, especially in Fall River, MA.
That's right. Innocent Cornell is the great-great-great-great grandmother of one Lizzie Borden.
Article By Sandy McGee