cover image KILLED STRANGELY: The Death of Rebecca Cornell

KILLED STRANGELY: The Death of Rebecca Cornell

Elaine Forman Crane, . . Cornell Univ., $24.95 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-8014-4002-1

If this book consisted only of the first chapter, it would be a satisfying account of the mysterious death in 1673 of a 73-year-old Rhode Island matriarch (and ancestor of Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University), for which her son, Thomas Cornell, was hanged. Rebecca Cornell was at home with her family—including 46-year-old Thomas, still dependent on mom's largesse—but remained in her chamber at suppertime; while the others dined, she died and her body caught fire from the hearth. But the author, a Fordham University professor who's written several books on colonial history, doesn't stop there, and subsequent chapters about Rhode Island society of the time will be of most interest to scholars and local historians. Even those readers may question Crane's methods and intent as she resorts to anthropology, psychohistory and fashionable experimentation with "narratives" to try to fulfill a mission she never clearly articulates. In one bizarre aside, she turns to three 19th-century cases of violent death, each involving Cornell descendants (one, the infamous Lizzie Borden) to demonstrate... what? If Thomas's guilt were unassailable, arguing for violence as a family trait might be useful, but his guilt, despite his conviction, remains in doubt, with such evidence as the appearance of a ghost to the victim's brother and neighbors' gossip. Without clear answers to whodunit or why, perhaps the author's extensive research into "the society in which this grim episode played out" and her proven scholarly track record could have been put to better use. (Oct.)