PORTSMOUTH — Did Thomas Cornell kill his mother one winter’s evening in Portsmouth 340 years ago, or was he brought to trial merely because he was a neglectful son?
You’ll be the jury in Portsmouth Community Theater’s (PCT) latest production, “The Ghostly Witness,” which explores the trial that followed the “untimely and uncertain” death of Rebecca Cornell, a 73-year-old widow who was found burned to death near her bedroom fireplace on Feb. 8, 1673. There will be only three performances at the Aquidneck Island Christian Academy on Saturday and Sunday. The performance, which will end with stories “from Portsmouth’s dark side,” is not suitable for younger children. (See bottom of story for details.)
The idea of putting on a play about one of the most infamous trials in the town’s history came from Doug Smith, chairman of the Portsmouth 375th Committee, who approached fellow committee member — and PCT actress — Gloria Schmidt, a member of the Portsmouth Historical Society.
“I though it would make for a great dinner theater at the Valley Inn,” said Mr. Smith, referring to the West Main Road restaurant on whose property the Cornell home stood those many years ago.
(Mr. Smith also got roped into appearing in the play as John Russill, one of the witnesses. “I’m no actor,” said Mr. Smith.)
Ms. Schmidt, a former librarian at Elmhurst School and a self-proclaimed “history geek,” loved the idea and talked it over with her husband Richard and Cindy Killavey, president of PCT’s board of directors. They decided to present a play based on the trial of 46-year-old Thomas Cornell, who had a tempestuous relationship with his mother.
“We started with the transcript, which is a big plus,” said Ms. Schmidt, adding that she found a text of the trial that had been put together by Jane Fletcher Fiske in 1998. (“Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell,” a 2009 book by Elaine Forman Crane, was also used as a guide for the play, she said.)
The script was written by the Schmidts and Ms. Killavey, the director, who simplified the trial transcript so it would be accessible to a modern audience.
“There were tons of witnesses; there were 15 people involved in this,” said Ms. Schmidt. “But we tried to look at what the important testimony was. What were the points that we needed to get in? We kind of weeded it down to that.”
They also tinkered with the trial transcript’s often-archaic language, such as replacing “quill” to “spindle.”
“We changed some wording so people could understand it,” said Ms. Schmidt.
Besides one scene of the coroner’s inquest, the play is set entirely in the “courtroom,” which some cast members believe may have been at the White Horse Tavern in Newport. (Called American’s oldest tavern, it opened the same year as the trial.)
“We have a judge and witnesses who are giving the actual testimony,” said Ms. Schmidt.
There is also a narrator who comments throughout the play. “We’re not just presenting the testimony; we’re trying to clue people into, ‘Why was that important?’ We have it staged so that the audience gets to function as the jurors. They get to listen to the testimony and then make their decision,” she said.
And what does she think?
“I have an opinion that’s a little different from everyone else,” said Ms. Schmidt. “I think it was an accident. But most of the actors on this set kind of feel he was guilty.”
That includes Myles Winter, who plays the ghost of Rebecca Cornell — a fitting role since she leads ghost tours in Newport. She points to trial testimony that there were drag marks in the ashes of his mother’s bedroom as proof that Thomas Cornell is guilty.
As for how a ghost became involved in a murder trial: Two days after Rebecca was buried, she visited her brother, John Briggs, while he slept. “See how I was burnt with fire!” the ghostly apparition exclaimed.
At least, that’s what John Briggs said. The town elders took him seriously enough to dig up Rebecca’s body for further inspection. It was then that a puncture wound the size of a spindle was found, further making the case for murder.
“We have to try to think back with 1673 minds, and you have the odd occurrence of the body being disinterred because of the (ghost’s) appearance in a dream. In those days, if there had been an injustice of some sort, then someone will have an apparition come to them,” said Ms. Schmidt.
There are other theories about Rebecca’s death — one cast member believes the unhappy woman committed suicide — but it’s clear that Thomas Cornell — played by Ron Marsh — was certainly to blame for at least one thing, said Ms. Schmidt.
“I think what he was guilty of was not taking care of his mother,” said Ms. Schmidt, who plays Mary Almy, a neighbor who testified to how cruel Thomas was. “In the testimony you hear a lot about how he didn’t feed her properly, how he didn’t provide her with a servant, how he didn’t take care of this, and I think that swayed a lot of the people.”
You, the jury
Although PCT members realize that some attending the play may already know Thomas Cornell’s fate, they’re hoping that no one gives the verdict away beforehand.
“We would like to keep the audience in suspense until we announce it in act two,” said Mr. Schmidt, also a co-director. “We want them to be able to participate in the voting.”
Whatever you already know about the trial, this will be the first chance to see one of Portsmouth’s darker chapters acted out on stage.
“What I like about this play,” said Niall Tarrell, who plays the magistrate, “is that it brings history to life.”
Details on show
Portsmouth Community Theater presents the historical drama, “The Ghostly Witness: The Untimely and Uncertain Death of Rebecca Cornell,” at the Aquidneck Island Christian Academy Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 5-6.
There are three shows: 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets at the door are $10 for adults and $8 for seniors and military personnel.
The performance is not suitable for young children.