On a frosty December morning in 1832 a Rhode Island farmer visiting his fields approached a haystack and encountered a gruesome sight. A stake had been stuck into the earth and from it dangled a cloaked figure, rigid with the awful explicit stiffness of death. The stake was only a bit more than five feet in height. The knees of the corpse that hung from it were bent and the toes just brushed the frozen ground. One arm was folded beneath the cloak, the other thrust out in a final, cryptic gesture. A cord about the neck held the body to the stake.
When the farmer had summoned help and the body had been taken down, it was found to be that of a young woman, small and pretty, with dark, disheveled hair. The cord was twisted about her neck not once, but twice, and fastened with a clove hitch. When the body was faid out, there were further discoveries: the young woman's bips and abdomen were horribly bruised. An autopsy showed she had been three or four months pregnant.
As we learn from "Avery's Knot," Mary Cable's novel based on historical records, the dead woman was identified as a "mill girl," one of a new class of women who, due to one or another unfortunate circumstance usually related to lack of a man to provide for them, worked 12-hour days at the looms of New England's busy textile factories. Her name was Sarah Maria Cornell. Soon another name was linked to hers. In a bandbox in her boardinghouse in Fall River, Mass., where Sarah worked, her landlady found a penciled note: "If I should be missing, inquire of the Rev. Mr. Avery. He will know where I am gone."
The Rev. Mr. Ephraim Avery was a Methodist minister of Bristol, R.I., a short distance from Fall River. The possibility that a minister might have committed not only murder, but murder compounded by fornication and attempted abortion; was too horrifying to be believed, or if believed, acknowledged. From the moment Sarah's body was taken down the men called upon to deal with the unpleasant matter tended to deny, as if prompted by a deepseated instinct of self-preservation, that anyone but the girl herself could be to blame. A coroner's jury reached the preposterous conclusion that Sarah, driven by shame, had committed suicide. Thus began what would today be called a "cover-up," and Sarah was quickly buried.
But the scandal was not so easily put to rest. In those theocratic times morality was a burning issue, a force that shaped all lives. Sarah's death went to the heart of the question of whether ministers lived by the stern principles they dished out to their flocks. Public clamor arose and demanded an answer. Avery was called before two magistrates in Bristol. He denied the crime in a few words and then, with eloquent sanctimony, put the dead girl on trial. She was a known fornicator, he said, and afflicted with a foul disease. The court absolved him.
Still many folk remained unconvinced and the uproar continued. At length Avery was brought before a jury in Newport, the first clergyman to be tried for murder in the United States. Again the ghost of Sarah shared his place in the dock. Had she been unchaste, vile and unrepentant, as Avery claimed? Was it conceivable that a man of God could lie? Such questions overshadowed all other evidence.
Using the detailed facts brought out at the trial as the basis of her story, Mary Cable presents her own version of what took place between Sarah and Ephraim. She has filled in gaps with invented thoughts and dialogue -- a tricky business that sometimes cheapens history, but that in Cable's skillful hands heightens our understanding of it. Whatever the mix of fact and fiction, Cable has written a study of love and sex and frailty so convincing in psychological terms that we cannot imagine the tragedy could have happened any other way. We feel as moved by sympathy and indignation as if Sarah had died just yesterday instead of 150 years age lind read on in suspense to the moment of the jury's verdict at Avery's trial.
It is hardly news that in 1832 women had few rights, but "Avery's Knot" brings their condition into a sharp focus that has the impact of revelation. Sarah Cornell's life is a case history of what can happen to a woman in a society totally dominated by men. Her story shows us male supremacy in full flower: sanctimonious, self-serving, arbitrary and pitiless when challenged. Sarah was a woman who had the bad luck to deviate from the prescribed road along which most women plodded with the obedience of yoked oxen. Once she had strayed her helplessness was pathetic -- or were we in her place, terrifying.
A modern woman, accustomed to the comparative freedom of the 20th century, reads Sarah's story with some of the emotions blacks must feel when they read about slave days, and in addition recognizes the ancestors of ideas that are alive today as we debate abortion, ERA and other aspects of women's place in society. In bringing Sarah Cornell back to life on the page, Mary Cable has awarened a troubling ghost. The social conspiracy against her was so maddening in, its hypocrisy, so blandly cruel, that the reader longs to see justice done at just. If Sarah has a message for us, it may be a warning never to allow one group of people to have total power over another group, and to guard against those who seek to blame victims in order to absolve the perpetrators of crime.