Gender, murder, & knots

From Caleb Crain’s “In Search Of Lost Crime” (Legal Affairs: July/August 2002):

… the 1833 trial of Rev. Ephraim K. Avery … discovered Sarah Maria Cornell’s body hanging from a stake among his haystacks …

Consider, as a final example of the pleasures to be had in trial pamphlets, the knot in the rope around Sarah Maria Cornell’s neck.

A coroner’s jury inspected Cornell’s body the day after its discovery. “At first I did not observe the cord about her neck, it was so imbedded,” testified Williams Durfee, who served on the jury. “On looking closer, I observed the knot under her right ear. The cord passed twice round the neck. It was what farmers call two half hitches, and sailors, a clove hitch…. To tighten a clove hitch, the ends must be drawn apart horizontally. If the ends be drawn upwards it will not tighten.” If Durfee was correct about the kind of the knot and the way it tightened, Cornell could not have hanged herself unassisted.

The witness Benjamin Manchester also considered this knot to be a damning clue. Cornell had been a weaver. And yet the knot at her neck seemed to be an unusual one-more typical of a sailor, in Manchester’s opinion. According to Durfee’s testimony, a farmer would also have been familiar with the knot. But in both men’s comments, the implication is that a woman would not have known how to tie it.

The implication stood, unchallenged, until the defense called Louisa M. Whitney, its final witness before the rebuttal phase. Like the late Cornell, Whitney worked in a textile factory, and she performed a remarkable demonstration in the courtroom. She showed “the jury a harness knot and how it is made.” As the impressed stenographer noted in brackets, “It proves to be the same as a clove hitch”-the kind of knot around Cornell’s neck. Whitney testified that weavers tied such knots routinely in the course of mending their harnesses: “We call them harness knots. I never heard any other name.”

In other words, factory women knew how to tie the same knots that farmers and sailors did, but because men and women used different terms and did not work together, the men had underestimated the women’s rope-handling knowledge. The prosecution scrambled to find weavers who mended their harnesses with simpler knots and were willing to swear ignorance of clove hitches, but the damage was done. The moment a woman tied a clove hitch before the jury’s eyes, an important part of the case against Avery unraveled.

The clove-hitch testimony hardly proved Avery’s innocence. While it was easy for his lawyers to discredit much of the evidence against him, the note in Cornell’s bandbox and a few letters she received from him cast a long shadow. Not guilty? In the best trial pamphlets, the lapse of a century and a half has done nothing but sharpen the doubts.