Autumn leaves decorate a grave in Portland's Evergreen Cemetery in 2019. Goodwife Cornish, the subject of Maine's first death penalty case, was executed in 1644 for killing her husband. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

YORK, Maine — Richard Cornish’s lifeless corpse was found floating in the York River in the fall of 1644. It was obvious to onlookers that he had not died of natural causes.

His skull was bashed in and someone had driven a wooden stake through his torso. Cornish’s canoe was found nearby, sunken under a pile of rocks.

It was murder, for certain.

Before the year was out, Cornish’s wife would be tried, convicted and hanged for the killing in the first government-sponsored execution on Maine soil. There was no physical evidence against her, nor did she confess her guilt. Instead, she was condemned on the basis of a supernatural investigative method from the Middle Ages known as “trial by touch.”

The year of the killing, 378 years ago, York was a bustling English settlement then known as Gorgeana. Sir Fernando Gorges, the territory’s proprietor, had incorporated it into the New World’s first city just two years before. It was among the largest and most important early Maine communities, first as a fishing village and then as an early lumbering center.

Being an up-and-coming place, Cornish and his wife moved to York in 1636 from Weymouth, Massachusetts. No historic record gives us her actual first name. She is only referred to by the generic term “Goodwife” Cornish.

An unhappy match, they quarreled often and everyone seemed to know it. Richard is said to have been a hard worker. Goodwife is remembered as a woman of loose morals with several lovers on the side. Despite her reputation, suspicion first fell on the local American Indian population when Richard’s body was discovered. But that did not last long.

“No one could imagine an Indian being so wasteful as to purposefully sink a good canoe,” wrote Daniel Allen Hearn in his book “Legal Executions in New England 1623-1960.”

Once the Native American theory was dismissed, all fingers pointed at Goodwife.

When arrested, she openly admitted to detesting her husband. Goodwife also confessed to several extramarital affairs, as well. She even named a few names, including local man Edward Johnson. But Goodwife denied killing Richard.

Without a confession, or even a circumstantial case, local authorities then turned to the peculiar evidentiary method of “trial by touch.”

“The murdered person was placed upon a bier, and the suspected assassin desired to approach and touch the corpse,” read an article about the paractice in an 1842 edition of the The Penny Magaizine. “If blood flowed from the wounds, or the position of the body became changed, the charge of murder was considered as proven.”

It was based on a scriptural reference to Cain, who killed his brother Abel in the Bible’s book of Genesis. Chapter four, verse 10 of that book reads, “And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.”

The practice was apparently common in Europe during the Middle Ages. It was little used by the 17th century. Why it was employed in Maine that year is unknown but 50 years later, the Salem Witch Trials got underway a few miles south.

In York, both Goodwife and her lover Johnson were forced to put their hands on Richard’s rotting remains.

“As they did so, fresh blood oozed from the dead man’s wounds,” Hearn wrote.

The damning “trial by touch” evidence was used in the official court case. Also admitted into evidence was Goodwife’s admitted adulteries and poor reputation in town.

At the trial’s conclusion, Goodwife was convicted of murder. Johnson was acquitted. There are no surviving court transcripts recording how authorities believed Goodwife bashed in her husband’s head, then impaled his body and sank his canoe on her own.

Goodwife was hanged in York in December 1644. Her gravesite, like her first name, remains unknown.

She was the first of 26 people eventually executed by various governments in Maine before the Legislature abolished the death penalty in 1887. Several of the subsequent trials were problematic. A few of the executions were botched. But no court has ever heard evidence from “trial by touch” again.

This story is part of an occasional series examining Maine’s historic use of the death penalty.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.