Murder in a Mill Town: Sex, Faith, and the Crime That Captivated a Nation

Image of Murder in a Mill Town: Sex, Faith, and the Crime That Captivated a Nation
Release Date: 
August 29, 2023
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: 

“in his precise writing and masterful contextualizing, Dorsey doesn’t offer an opinion. He lets the horror of our culture speak for itself.”

A reader could be excused for looking up after the first few pages of Murder in a Mill Town by Bruce Dorsey and wondering what the rest of the book will hold. Within a few pages of revealing the body, Dorsey provides the motive, all the requisite evidence, and the killer in quick strokes.

What makes this work so worth reading has very little to do with the murder. This is a snapshot of how cultural upheaval laid waste to the promises of the American Revolution on the eve of the Civil War. What makes the reading so compelling is Dorsey’s coverage and contextualization of the murder, trial, and fallout.

Sarah Maria Connell, a “factory girl,” was raped and murdered by Methodist rising-star preacher Ephraim K. Avery in the late fall and early winter of 1832. Avery was tried in a “crime of the century” case that sparked plays and pamphlets before the ink on the verdict was dry.

Methodism was barely 100 years old at the time and struggling with the perception that young men on horseback roaming the country preaching was a recipe for sexual impropriety. While its legitimacy was still tenuous in some circles, its role in the anti-slavery movement and the westward expansion gave it more clout than it would have had in less tumultuous times.

Here are some other salient historical facts:

Employment opportunities related to the factory boom in New England drew young women by the thousands for employment.

The cultural implications of women living on their own in or near cities was a phenomenon both religious and civic organizations struggled with.

Camp Meetings were the height of fad and fashion among factory girls and other post-millennials in the trow between the First and Second Great Awakenings.

What the book ties together as a whole is nearly impossible to capture here. There are so many moving parts synthesized so artfully that no cultural shift from this time of upheaval is extraneous.

“Since the investigation of Maria Cornell’s body centered on sex and reproduction, it was no surprise the defense turned to men who led this effort to supplant midwives,” Dorsey writes in part of his trial account in one of a thousand nods to the mass vocational regendering underway as agrarian life crumbled.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the primary conflict is between the rise of industrialism and early American evangelicalism. Think of today’s looming fights between, say, birth control manufacturers and the conservative religious, and you’ll recognize a fight and reconciliation that continues on and off, as if between a drunken, mutually abusive married couple.

Avery, who is almost cartoonish in his bullying and hypocrisy, had a long track record of abusing his parishioners and colleagues alike, but particularly women. His success, Dorsey shows, was only possible because he had the complete backing of the Methodist Church, which was greedy to participate in the westward expansion.

Avery literally derived his influence from the church. Ministers had the power of admission, banishment, and readmission to the faith. He wielded that ability to induce Cornell, a single woman in her late 20s, to have sex with him. Cornell, who had a “reputation,” was utterly devoted to the Methodist way, particularly the camp meetings, and was desperate for her membership’s restoration.

Let that sit. The guy who kicked women out of the church for having sex forced women to have sex with him to get back in. This is a man upon whom the sun rose and set for the Methodist Church. When Avery tried to perform an abortion on Cornell (possibly after raping her) and failed, he killed her, dragged her to a nearby farm, and hung her body, staging what he hoped people would take for suicide.

By the time he had his day in court, the Methodist Church had spent a blue fortune on a slander campaign against Cornell and retained some of the most expensive lawyers available. The dichotomy of the church fighting to repress women in the east as it funded its anti-slavery campaign in the west isn’t lost on Dorsey as he illustrates the church’s quest for legitimacy and dominance.

Early in the prologue, Dorsey describes the opening scene from one of the many “ripped from today’s headlines” plays that cropped up after the verdict. It’s an effective choice, acknowledging humanity’s fascination with true crime stories even as it prepares to unfold a terrible tale of sex and violence.

A perennial problem for true crime writers and readers is the disconnect between fascination with the facts and the victim’s humanity. It is an unanswerable problem, but the mark of great true crime is whether it elicits genuine affection for the injured. Dorsey accomplishes this with clean prose that never dips into emotional appeal.

It is a document of women’s second-class citizenship stifling the rise of female empowerment and how swiftly any movement toward equal rights is and always has been punished. It reminds us how easily (and often over-enthusiastically) Americans bow to holy writ over morality or civic duty.

At its core, Murder in a Mill Town highlights how little we’ve learned or changed since the 1830s. It almost reads as an indictment about America’s petty fears about sex, women, and undermining religion—“almost an indictment” because, in his precise writing and masterful contextualizing, Dorsey doesn’t offer an opinion. He lets the horror of our culture speak for itself.