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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 373-401

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"Indelicate Exposure":
Sentiment and Law in Fall River: An Authentic Narrative

Jeanne Elders DeWaard

In one of the many pamphlets published in the nineteenth century about the infamous "haystack murder" of a young female factory worker, the following song appears, set to the melody of "The Star Spangled Banner":

Oh, list the sad tale of the poor factory maid,
How cheerful she went when the day's work was over
In cloak and bonnet all simply array'd
To meet a dark fiend in the shape of a lover.

While such funeral ballads were not uncommon at the time, the use of a patriotic anthem as a melody suggests that some of the concerns raised by the case had to do with national public values. 1 As with many sensational crime stories of the early- to mid-nineteenth century, details about the case swept the region through the popular press and gripped the public imagination. The new penny press thrived on crimes involving sexual scandal, and this event was full of sordid details: the victim, Sarah Maria Cornell, was thought at first to have committed suicide, but when it was discovered that she was pregnant at the time of her death, clues led to a local Methodist preacher as the prime murder suspect. These circumstances took on additional meaning in light of the industrial and religious institutions with which the victim and the suspect were associated. The victim's pregnancy out of wedlock as well as her death confirmed suspicions that industrial labor degraded moral character, and the evidence pointing to the Reverend Ephraim K. Avery as a murder suspect fueled concerns about the social dangers of religious revivalism. In the protracted social controversy [End Page 373] that followed the incident, both factory girls and Methodists would alternately be figured as threats to the republic.

In addition to the social tensions manifest in the murder, the song's "sad tale" also points to the meaning such tensions acquired by assuming the form of a seduction plot. Popular laments for the fate of the "poor factory maid" responded not just to the facts of her death but also to the subsequent murder trial and acquittal of Avery. The song's characterization of Avery as a "dark fiend" challenges the jury verdict that found him innocent. Similarly, popular Rhode Island author Catharine Williams chose a seduction theme to protest the legal verdict in her Fall River: An Authentic Narrative (1833), published shortly after the trial. A mixture of journalism, social tract, true crime, and semifiction woven together in a sentimental narrative, the text of Fall River can be used to investigate larger issues of gender and national identity that arise in the conjunction of sentimental discourse and law.

As her subtitle suggests, Williams intends to provide an "authentic" account of the murder case that will correct the distortions the trial created. "A fair and candid statement of facts" is called for, she asserts, after the "indecent manner" in which both the affair and the victim were treated. Medical experts, lawyers, and trial witnesses had inspected and interpreted as evidence the body and character of Sarah Maria Cornell. Due to its salacious detail and the fact that "none but what is called legal evidence is admissible," the record of these proceedings, which was distributed publicly in several forms, was "not fit," Williams claims, "for any body to read"; it "does not treat of things in their proper order, nor cannot." 2 By rewriting Cornell's murder as a sentimental narrative—the seduction of a beautiful, virtuous heroine by a hypocritical preacher—Williams attempts to gain sympathy for the victim and to refute the charges of Avery's defense counsel, whose strategy had been to attack Cornell's reputation in order to maintain the possibility of suicide rather than murder. Denouncing the trial's "indelicate exposure" of the victim, Williams claims a privacy for Cornell beyond the reach of law (374). Her sentimental construction of Cornell's intimate life as a private domain free from...


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pp. 373-401
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Archived 2005
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