Thanks to the Easter Holiday, I've had three days off. When not eating or sleeping, I've had my nose buried in a book given to me as a belated birthday present: David Richard Kasserman's Fall River Outrage: Life, Murder and Justice in Early Industrial New England.
Sixty years before Lizzie Borden and her legendary axe splashed blood over the name of Fall River, Massachusetts, the growing industrial community was the site of a murder whose social implications affected the industrial revolution and an emerging form of Christianity.
In December 1832, unmarried and pregnant mill worker Sarah Maria Cornell was found hanging from a haystack support pole outside Fall River. A prominent Methodist minister named Ephraim Kingsbury Avery was accused of seducing and then murdering her. When Avery went to trial, two large and opposing institutions faced off.
The Fall River industrialists portrayed Sarah Cornell as an innocent victim of a "wicked married man". Kasserman wrote, "In trying to clear her name, they protected their own." Their concerns were valid: in 1832 more women were leaving their parents' homes to take jobs in mills and factories, and if these workplaces became known as hotbeds of immorality, parental intervention could deprive them of badly needed workers.
The Methodist Episcopal Church supported the opposite impression of the victim: the more lascivious she appeared to have been, the less likely it was that Avery alone had a reason to kill her. Methodism, with its emphasis on emotionality and easy salvation, was regarded with suspicion in a society dominated by the austere Calvinist Congregational Church. The Methodist leaders could ill afford to have a scandal topple the precarious position the church occupied in Jacksonian America. Apparently Avery's lawyers, in condemning Sarah Cornell as a harlot, were the first to use the character of the female victim as a defense strategy.
I'm half-way through, and impressed by what I've read so far. Good writers like Kasserman, in reminding us what made these cases so important during their day, contribute greatly to our understanding of early American society.