‘The Terrible Haystack Murder’

The 1833 murder trial of Rev. Ephraim Avery was one of the great 19th century American criminal trials. Resulting in a nearly-unprecedented amount of media interest, it became one of the first trials of its kind to achieve national, and even international, coverage. Did the good Reverend seduce, impregnate and then murder the attractive, unmarried young woman who worked in a local factory, staging her death to look as a suicide? A jury acquitted him, but there is enough evidence to suggest that Rev. Avery was culpable. The narrative of the trial allows us a window into many defining issues common to the period, such as gender, religion, sexuality, and social mores.

‘The Terrible Haystack Murder’: Prudery, Piety and Paradox in Antebellum America
40 American Journal of Legal History 1 (1998)


‘The Terrible Haystack Murder’ — 9 Comments

  1. Hi– Is it OK if I go a bit off topic with a technical question? I am trying to view your website on my Blackberry but it doesn’t display properly, do you have any suggestions? Thanks! Kylie

    • hi Kylie– this website is brand new and still being revamped. Maybe revisit it in a few days? I’ll look into the issue in the meantime.

  2. hi Ian– I found your article very interesting, especially your discussion of hypocrisy and fanaticism and the ‘gender continuum’ you set out, and the undercurrent of prudery that ran throughout the trial. Your analysis of the religious debate raging around the Methodist Church that was also a key feature of this trial also resonated with me. As you point out, this trial certainly implicated so many issues related to industrialization, gender and sexuality, religion and piety, etc– really a rich harvest for one trial. I notice on your Famous Trials syllabus that it doesn’t appear, however, and I wondered why not given its richness and the research you have done on it? Also, out of curiosity, do you have an opinion on Rev. Avery’s guilt or innocence? Matthew Barnes

    • hi Matthew– thank you for your post. I must admit to having struggled with the issue of whether to include the Avery trial in my class. I can only ‘do justice’ to 12 trials in a 13 week semester–otherwise we would have to cover them too superficially– and it can be a bit of an anguishing decision about which ones to include. I try to factor into it the trials’ timeframe (to offer historical representation from different periods), whether the issues raised in it are also raised in other trials, the accessibility of materials, the trials’ role in popular culture, and other factors. If in the future I am able to post supporting materials from this trial on my website, than I would be more likely to use it in my course but at the present time it has lost out to others.
      With respect to your second question: well, the first answer I would give is that ultimately the question of Avery’s guilt or innocence is somewhat unimportant relative to the significance of the trial for other reasons. A jury acquitted him, and we of course cannot provide justice for the victim at any rate even were we able to arrive at a ‘finding’ of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt now– and separated so far in time and place from the evidence it seems highly unlikely that we can reach a more dispositive answer than they did. I agree however that it is an interesting question regardless– and based on the historical record I am quite sure that Avery was guilty of something even if not murder: it does appear probable that he had an intimate relationship with Cornell, and he seems to have lied about his alibi and other facts which certainly leads to suspicion. There is also some evidence that Cornell did not commit suicide. As such, I am quite sure he was guilty of obstruction of justice, am fairly sure he impregnated Cornell or at least had an inappropriate relationship with her, but am less sure he was implicated in her death (either directly, through proxies, or after the fact). The issue of whether Cornell was confused with another woman with a similar name also further muddies the waters. As such, whether Avery actually met Cornell that fateful night and killed her, staging the scene to look like a suicide, is a question about which I cannot be sure. Ultimately, the fact that it remains a bit of a mystery just adds to the mystique and impact of the case!

  3. Thanks for the interesting read on the Avery trial. Looks like a lot of issues were wrapped up in that one case!

  4. Hi– I’ve never heard of the Avery case before but now I’m thinking of using it in one of my papers. Thanks for posting the article it was very helpful. Best, H.B.

  5. Hi–I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought your website was interesting. I don’t know much about American or Canadian law but you will definitely be a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

  6. hello– My brother recommended I might like this web site. He was totally right. I enjoyed the jokes section, of course, but found your information on famous US trials very helpful for a presentation that I am doing. thanks!

  7. The heading of this post – The Terrible Haystack Murder – caught my eye, so I came by to have a look. Glad I did. An interesting case that I had never heard of. Couldn’t pick a more sordid storyline: a married minister allegedly impregnating and killing a young unmarried woman. Interesting, thanks.

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