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The Town & the City: Lowell before and after The Civil War

Originally created to be a digital archive for Lowell documents from 1826 to 1861, this website has grown to cover many periods and events in Lowell's history.

Sarah Maria Cornell

While the death of Sarah Maria Cornell (1803 - 1832) in 1832 took place in Fall River, and the 1833 trial of Rev. Ephraim K. Avery (1799 - 1869) for her murder took place in Rhode Island, they first met in Lowell where Avery was Pastor of the First Methodist Episcopal Church and Sarah was a “mill girl” employed at the Hamilton Corporation. The minister briefly returned to Lowell after his acquittal, but it did not go well for him.

“Avery having had the impudence to preach to his old society in Lowell, shortly after the murder, a party of gentlemen, not altogether blind to all moral distinctions, prepared to bear him from the town on a rail. But before their preparations were completed, Avery fled. His pursuers gave expression to their resentment by hanging him in effigy."

 - from A History of Lowell
by Cowley, Charles (1868)


These events were notorious at the time, interest in them continued throughout the 19th century, and they are still are examined up to the present.

The purpose of this webpage is to focus on the Lowell connections of the story and provide resources for those interested in further study. There will not be an attempt to explain or unravel the complexities of the story here, as others have done that.

The themes and events, and the public’s reactions to them, that make this story an enduring one are many and much can still be learned from them.

Letters from a Mill Girl

The four letters transcribed below were written by Sarah Maria Cornell while she lived in Lowell. There were printed along with letters written from other location in the book Fall River: an authentic narrative by Catherine Read Williams published in 1834. The images from the book below are the pages that precede the collection of letters.


[Letter] No. 13.                                                           Lowell, Jan. 11th, 1829.
To Mrs. Cornell,

My dear Mother — It seems a long time since I have heard from you, and I almost begin to think you have forgotten me or you would have written before this. I have written two letters, and sent two papers since I have resided in this place, and not received a line from any of you. I hope you will consider 1 am a stranger in a strange land, exposed to sickness and death. Last Saturday night, about twelve o'clock, I was called a second time to witness a five story factory with all its machinery enveloped in flames. It was a bitter cold night, and with great difficulty they made out to save the others which stood on each side — there were five of the same bigness in the yard. The middle one caught at the furnace, and in less than three hours it was burned to the ground. I expected to have seen the whole thirteen, with the whole Corporation swept by the flames. But through the goodness of that God who rules the elements — although the air was keen and cold — it was still as in midsummer. The damage is great, but the distress is nothing to what it was in Slatersville — as each factory supported itself. — No one was personally injured. It was my lot to remove on the other side of the river, about half a mile distant.

        I feel measurably happy and contented, but do long to return to Connecticut to see my friends — but when 1 shall is unknown at present — think I shall never set any time to come, but hope I shall next summer if health and strength permits.
        I want you should write as soon as you receive this — if you never do again — and inform me how they all do at Norwich. My best respects to my brother and sister — I hope they are doing well — and the children; with the sincerest affection I am your unworthy daughter.

                                                    MARIA CORNELL


[Letter] No. 14.    Sabbath morning, Lowell, May 3d, 1829,
Mrs. Lucretia Rawson.

        Dear sister and friends — I take up my pen once more to inform you, that through the mercy and goodness of God, I am spared to see one more anniversary of my birth. Twenty-seven years of my short life has rolled on to eternity, and I am still on the shores of time, a probationer of hope, and enjoy the day and means of grace. More than two years have past by since I have seen any of you, or indeed scarce seen one individual that I ever saw before, but still I am contented and happy. I am surrounded by many dear friends who are near and dear by the ties of friendship and grace, and I feel much attached to the place and people here, and the religious privileges I enjoy are much greater than they have ever been before. But still I often look back and think of my natural connections in Connecticut and Rhode-Island, and long to be with you. I have been
thinking of coming to see you for two summers — I feel a greater desire to see you now than I ever have done. I begin to think if I do not come to Killingly this summer I never shall. I received a letter from mother about four months since in which she mentioned she thought I was a moving planet, but I would tell my dear mother that I do not think I have moved much for two years past. I staid in Dorchester more than a year, and it will be a year the 17th of this month since I came to Lowell — and more than all this tell mother she must remember that I am connected with a people that do not believe in tarrying in any one place longer than a year or two years at most at any one time — and I am with them in sentiment believing with the Apostle that we should be as strangers and pilgrims having here no continuing city or abiding place, but seek one to come.

With regard to my views and feelings respecting religion, they are the same as they have been for two years past. I was a great sinner but I found a great Saviour. Tis true I had made a formal profession of religion, but when I was brought to see and feel the necessity of being deeply devoted to God, my views and feelings were vastly altered. I am satisfied for one that a form of godliness will never prepare a soul for the enjoyment of heaven. For “great is the mystery of godliness. God manifest in the flesh — justified in the spirit — believed on in the world, and received up into glory.” Perhaps my friends may think strange that I chose a people different in their views and opinions from that which any of my friends have embraced. But let me tell you my dear sister that the Methodists are my people — with them by the grace of God I was spiritually born — with them I have tried to live, and if ever permitted to enjoy the happiness of the blest in heaven shall probably praise God to all eternity. I see my beloved sister a fulness in the Saviour, and I believe it is the privilege of the child of God to enjoy all the depths of humble love.

It seems inconsistent to me for the professed followers of the meek and lowly Jesus, who have said by their profession that they have bid farewell to the world to follow its customs and fashions. It has appeared to me some time that it was good for the proud heart to be adorned with the modest livery of God's dear children, and to have a daily evidence that our witness is in heaven and our record on high. The bell rings for meeting and I must draw my letter to a close. If nothing more than what I know of prevents I shall be in Killingly some time between the middle of August and first of Sept. I do not know why you or Mr. Rawson have not written to me. I want one of you to answer this previous to the first of June and let me know what your wishes are, and I shall act accordingly. I am affectionately your sister,               

            P. S. I am obliged to write where there are 30 or 40 boarders a gabbling — so excuse mistakes.

[Letter] No. 15.                                                            Lowell, Jan 17th, 1830.

To Mrs. Cornell,

        My dear Mother, - After waiting for more than eight long months for an answer to a letter that I wrote to you last spring, I once more take up my pen to address you. You wrote me then you were going to visit your friends at Norwich, and that you would write me immediately on your return, but as 1 have never received a line from that time, 1 have concluded that you were there or were sick or dead, for it appears to me if you were in the land of the living and possest a parent's feelings you would have written before this. When 1 last wrote to you that if the Lord spared my life and health I should visit Connecticut in August last past. A long time I waited for your return from Norwich, thinking you would write and let me know, but at length concluded it was neither your wish nor that of my brother and sister that I should visit Killingly — but enough of this — I will cease to trouble your minds with such painful feelings. Not a day has rolled over my head since I left you but what I have thought of home, and the dear friends I have left many miles from this. I can tell you that although deprived of every earthly connexion or even of a correspondence with them, and one hundred miles lies between me and the friends of my youth, still I am contented, still I am happy, the present witness of an indwelling God fills my soul, and I am walking hand in hand with a large circle of dear friends to Mount Zion the city of the living God.

        My situation is as pleasant as I could expect. I have daily blessings heaped upon me. I am fed from day to day like the ravens, and I can say to you to day I am happy in the enjoyment of the love of God and I anticipate one day though separated from the society of my friends here below, meeting them in the kingdom of God. Glory to God for religion that makes the soul happy, a religion that brings peace and tranquility will prepare the soul in the language of the Psalmist to say — “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil — for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff comfort me.” I left Lowell last May on account of my health and staid until Oct. in Boston and worked at my trade, except what time I was gone down on the water to Cape Cod. I went to Camp Meeting in August, as usual was gone ten days, cast anchor three days — went ashore three miles from where we set sail, having in company upwards of two hundred, fourteen of which were Methodist Ministers. Had about twelve sermons preached on board, and one on the shore — dug clams — had plenty of good codfish, crackers and coffee — and on the eleventh day reached Boston wharf in better health and better spirits than when I left — having had about six good hours sleep in ten nights. Just at this moment one of brother Rawson's Camp Meeting stories has popt into my head and methinks I hear him say, “Well Maria this is one of your Camp Meeting scrapes.” Let me tell you my dear brother I love them now as well as I did five years ago. Yea far better — for I have known real good produced by them.

        Time reproves me and I must draw to a close by saying dear mother do write me immediately, dear brother and sister do write and let me know whether you are in the land of the living, whether you live in Killingly — whether you prosper in spiritual and in temporal things. As to myself I have enough of the good things of this life. I brought nothing into this world, and I expect to carry nothing out, a stranger and a pilgrim here.

        My best wishes and most fervent prayers will ever attend my dear parent. Once more I say dear mother write to me, direct to Lowell, Mass.
        Your daughter,

                            MARIA CORNELL


[Letter] No. 16.                                                           Lowell, July 4th, 1830.

To Mrs. Cornell,

        My dear mother — I take this opportunity to acknowledge the reception of two letters one of which I received last week. You say you should like to have me come to Killingly this summer. Last summer I made my calculations to visit you, and should have done so if you had written — but I have not thought very seriously of visiting you this summer, until I received your last letter. I then thought I should come immediately, but finding my engagements such that I could not be absent from here more than a week or ten days at most — I have concluded that the. time I should stay would be so short — the expense would be more than it would gratify either of us. I am now preparing to go down on the water to camp meeting where I went last year. My health is tolerably good for the season, I never enjoyed my health better than after I went on the salt water, although I was very sea-sick. It is my intention now to spend two or three weeks with you in the spring, if life, health and strength are spared me.

        I have been in Lowell so long that I should feel lonesome anywhere else. My love to my sister, tell her I long to see her and the children. I shall write to Mr. Rawson as soon as I return from the Cape, though I never received a line from him or Lucretia since they were married, but I expect my sister's time is pretty much taken up with her children.

        You will please inform me in your next if you have heard any thing from my brother James. — The bell is ringing- for meeting and I must close. I will send this piece of paper, it was thought it resembled me when it was taken — but I wear my hair in my neck short now, and it does not look so natural.

        I am your affectionate, though absent child,
                                                MARIA CORNELL