A Ghostly Testimony Leads To A Murder Conviction—A Centuries Old Mystery Of The Portsmouth Valley Inn

Original Cornell Home (photo courtesy of the New England Historical Society)

In the quiet town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island lies an old home. Known today as the Valley Inn Restaurant, it sits on the original footprint of a sight where a mysterious death took place. It isn’t so much the age of the Inn that draws people to it. Or the mysterious death that happened. It isn’t even the knowledge of a man once convicted of murder once lived there. What draws people to this old, historic structure is the fantastic story of a ghost’s testimony that led to the conviction and execution of a man.

In 1673, Rebecca (Briggs) Cornell was found in her room. Her son, Thomas Cornell Jr., lived with her and found her lying dead on the floor. It had appeared that she had fallen and hit her head. The fall landed the upper part of her body in the fireplace. She was burned from the shoulders up. What seemed to be an unfortunate accident quickly turned into a murder investigation.

A Visit From Beyond The Grave

A few days later, Rebecca’s brother, John Briggs, who also lived in Portsmouth, awoke in the middle of the night. He claimed that the apparition of his dead sister stood in his room. The frightening visit from his sister prompted Mr. Briggs to go to the authorities and demanded an investigation into the murder of Rebecca.

With it being the time of the witch trials, people were, understandably, in a frenzy over the story that John Briggs told. His nephew, Thomas, the only plausible suspect during that time, was arrested and put on trial. And remarkably, he was convicted, solely on the extraordinary testimony of his dead mother.

Thomas Briggs, Jr. was hanged a short time later. He was buried on the property in an unmarked grave. And for 35o years, it has been believed that John Briggs saw his dead sister, who told him her son was her killer. That is until a paranormal investigation team recently went in and uncovered details about the case and the family that went unnoticed for over three centuries.

Family Controversy Leads to Ulterior Motive?

Upon the paranormal investigation conducted by the Kindred Spirits Crew from the Travel Channel, it was discovered that John Briggs was an important figure in the community. Anything he said would have been believed. It was also discovered that there might have been some bad blood between Rebecca and her son, leading John and others within the community to think that he had a motive to commit murder and take his mother’s life.

However, when studying the original court transcripts, the shocking revelation of John Briggs' true statement was discovered. In his testimony, he never stated his sister named her killer. The documents only state that he had seen Rebecca in his room, where she said, “Look at how I am burned.”

Secrets And Betrayal

During the investigation of the Inn, the crew believed they were communicating with the spirits of Thomas Cornell, Jr. and John Briggs. In a surprising twist of events, it seems the spirit of Thomas outed his uncle by confirming that he was put to death by hearsay—gossip in the time of deep spiritualism and fear of the devil drove the townspeople mad with a desire for revenge. Revenge for a crime that most likely never took place.

During the same investigation, the spirit of John Briggs became angry when he was told the truth would come out. Everyone would finally know that he wrongfully aided and allowed his nephew to be hanged for a murder that never happened.

From the amount of evidence captured, it seems fair to conclude that John Briggs caught wind of tension between his sister and nephew, possibly lending credibility to a motive that Thomas wanted to get rid of Rebecca. Perhaps the spirit of Rebecca did visit John, but the fact remains, he never once stated she named her killer or even that she was murdered.

So what drove John Briggs to allow the execution of his sisters son? Could he have been afraid of backlash from the community after the rumors had already begun to spread? After all, it was not acceptable during that time to go against the status quo. Was he afraid of being implicated himself if he came to his nephew’s defense? Or was there indeed a belief hidden within all of the speculations that Thomas did commit murder? We may never know for sure, but the truth remains, Thomas Cornell, Jr. was convicted and executed on nothing more than circumstantial evidence, backed by the incredible otherworldly witness.

Visit A Three Hundred Year Old Crime Scene

There aren’t many places in the United States where you can visit a suspected crime scene over three centuries old. However, The Valley Inn in Rhode Island is a historical destination not to be missed. Although the original home of the Cornell’s burned down in the mid-1800s, it was rebuilt by the Cornell family, using the original blueprints of the first home, and it sits on the same foundation. In 1892, two hundred years after Rebecca Cornell’s death, the house was reconstructed to replicate the original.

Today, visitors can see the property and dine in the restaurant. The Cornell family cemetery is there as well, situated not far from the main house. And Thomas Cornell, Jr.’s grave is believed to have been located recently, using ground-penetrating radar.

The property owner has said that not too many paranormal events happen. Stating that, “periodically, strange things do occur.” The spirits that reside at the location seem to be pretty tame and keep to themselves. It’s evident that the captivating story linked to the home draws many people to dine at the Inn. The atmosphere alone transports people to another time. The stone walls and old wooden beams are original to the 19th-century rebuild. It’s truly a destination that should be experienced. And the striking resemblance to the Amityville House, with its arched upper floor windows, are sure to attract anyone's attention and intrigue. It’s no wonder it’s on many paranormal enthusiasts' bucket lists. After learning about it, it’s definitely at the top of mine.

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