Fiends of the Early Republic
WILLIAM BEADLE, FAMILY ANNIHILATOR
The different eras in our nation’s social history have been distinguished not only by their specific fads and fashions—the kinds of clothes people wore, food they ate, music they listened to, slang they spoke, and so on—but also by the particular criminal types that captured the public imagination: the tommy-gun-toting gangsters of the 1920s, the switchblade-wielding juvenile delinquents of the 1950s, the sex-crazed psycho killers of the 1970s, and—in our own post-9/11 age—the suicidal mass murderers, whether school and workplace shooters or apocalyptic terrorists.
During the early years of the Republic, for reasons that historians and sociologists have been at pains to understand, America was gripped by fears of a new kind of killer: the so-called family annihilator, the formerly loving father and husband who, in a sudden fit of homicidal frenzy, hideously slaughtered his children and wife. And of these nightmarish figures, perhaps the most infamous was William Beadle, perpetrator of what one contemporary described as “a crime more atrocious and horrible” than any ever committed in New England “and scarcely exceeded in the history of man.”
Born in England in 1730, Beadle emigrated to America at the age of thirty-two and eventually settled in the village of Wethersfield, Connecticut, where he operated a country store stocked with an unusually “handsome assortment of goods.” Surviving documents show him to have been possessed by the sort of overweening egotism typical of family annihilators. Though acknowledging his unprepossessing looks, he regarded himself as far superior to the run of humanity. “My person is small and mean to look on,” he wrote in one journal entry, “and my circumstances were always rather narrow, which were great disadvantages in the world. But I have great reason to think that my soul is above the common mould.” In his self-conceit, he likened himself to “a diamond among millions of pebbles.”
For several years his business thrived. Fiercely proud of his success, he maintained a handsome residence and entertained guests in grand style. He was held in high esteem by his neighbors, who saw him as an honorable tradesman, generous host, loving husband, and doting father.
In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, however, Beadle suffered reversals that left him in dire financial straits. Unable to “bear the mortification of being thought poor and dependent,” he struggled to keep “up the outward appearance of his former affluence.” Eventually, however, he succumbed to despair. The thought of being perceived as a failure by his townsmen was more than he could tolerate. “If a man, who has once lived well, meant well, and done well, falls by unavoidable accident into poverty and submits to be laughed at, despised, and trampled on by a set of mean wretches as far below him as the moon is below the sun; I say, if such a man submits, he must become meaner than meanness itself.”
Concluding that suicide was less shameful than poverty, he decided to kill himself and his family. Like other killers of his psychopathic breed, he justified his intended atrocity as an act of kindness, even love. “I mean to close the eyes of six persons through perfect humanity and the most endearing fondness and friendship; for mortal father never felt more of these tender ties than myself.” Initially, he thought he might spare his wife. After much deliberation, however, he concluded that it would be cruel “to leave her behind to languish out a life in misery and wretchedness.” With her entire family suddenly gone, death would be a mercy for her.
As he began to mull over his plan, he “kept hoping that Providence would turn up something to prevent it, if the intent were wrong.” Instead, “every circumstance, from the greatest to the smallest trifle,” only served to convince him that destroying his family was the only sensible course. For a while, he prayed that his twelve-year-old son and three little daughters might perish accidentally, thus sparing him the necessity of killing them. To facilitate that end, he removed the protective wooden cover from the backyard well. He also encouraged them to swim in the deepest and most treacherous parts of the nearby river. When the children stubbornly survived these perils, he resolved to take more direct action.
Though uncertain at first as to when and how he would accomplish his “great affair” (as he described the intended massacre), he had no doubt that he would not quail when the time came. “How I shall really perform the task I have undertaken I know not till the moment arrives,” he wrote in his journal. “But I believe I shall perform it as deliberately and as steadily as I would go to supper, or to bed.”
He eventually fixed on the eighteenth of November for the execution of his plan. He first “procured a noble supper of oysters, that my family and I may eat and drink together, thank God, and then die.” He was forced to abandon his plan, however, when the maid—who had been sent off on an errand—returned unexpectedly and “prevented him for that time.”
A few weeks later, he made another aborted attempt that he described in his journal:
On the morning of the sixth of December, I rose before the sun, felt calm, and left my wife between sleep and wake, went into the room where my infants lay, found them all sound asleep; the means of death were with me, but I had not before determined whether to strike or not, but yet thought it a good opportunity. I stood over them, and asked my God whether it was right or not now to strike; but no answer came: nor I believe ever does to man while on earth. I then examined myself, there was neither fear, trembling, nor horror about me. I then went into a chamber next to that to look at myself in the glass; but I could discover no alteration in my countenanced of feelings: this is true as God reigns, but for further trial I yet postponed it.
Five days later, in the early morning hours of December 11, 1782, Beadle finally carried out his atrocity. Tiptoeing into the second-floor bedchamber shared by his four children and the housemaid, he shook the latter awake, then “ordered her to rise gently without disturbing the children” and meet him downstairs. When she appeared several minutes later, he handed her a note for the family physician, Dr. Farnsworth, who lived about a quarter-mile away. His wife, Beadle explained, had been “ill all night.” The housemaid was to proceed to Farnsworth’s home at once, give him the note, and remain there until he “should come with her.”
No sooner had she left on this errand than Beadle hurried into his bedroom, where he had stashed a newly sharpened ax and carving knife. After crushing his sleeping wife’s skull with the ax, he slit her throat with the knife, taking care to drain the blood into a vessel so as not to stain the bedsheets. After covering her face with a handkerchief, he proceeded to the children’s room, where he committed the same butchery upon them. He left the little boy lying in bed. The slaughtered girls were placed side by side on the floor, “like three lambs,” and covered with a blanket.
Leaving a trail of bloody footprints on the stairs, Beadle then descended to the kitchen, placed the ax and knife—“reeking with the blood of his family”—on a table, and seated himself in a Windsor chair by the fireplace. Several weeks earlier, in preparation for this moment, he had brought his two flintlock pistols to the village gunsmith for repair. He now took a pistol in each hand and, supporting his elbows on the arms of the chair, pressed the muzzles against his ears and pulled both triggers simultaneously, “splattering his brains against the walls and wainscoting.”
By then, Dr. Farnsworth had been roused from his bed by the maid and handed the note, which “announced the diabolical purpose of the writer.” Though Farnsworth “thought it impossible that a sober man could adopt so horrible a design,” he immediately alerted his neighbor, the Hon. Stephen Mix Mitchell, later chief justice of the state. The two men then rushed to the Beadles’ house, where they were greeted by the “tragical scene.”
Before long, news of the atrocity had spread throughout the village. “Multitudes of all ages and sexes” overran the house for a firsthand look at the carnage. The scene was described by Judge Mitchell, whose narrative account of the “horrid massacre” became one of the best-selling true crime pamphlets of its day:
The very inmost souls of the beholders were wounded at the sight and torn by contending passions. Silent grief, with marks of astonishment, were succeeded by furious indignation against the author of the affecting spectacle, which vented itself in incoherent exclamations. Some old soldiers, accidentally passing through the town that morning on their way from camp to visit their friends, led by curiosity, turned in to view the sad remains. On sight of the woman and her tender offspring, notwithstanding all their firmness, the tender sympathetic tear stealing gently down their furrowed cheeks betrayed the anguish of their hearts. On being showed the body of the sacrificer, they paused for a moment, then muttering forth an oath or two of execration, with their eyes fixed on the ground in silent sorrow, they slowly went their way. So awful and terrible a disaster wrought wonderfully on the minds of the neighborhood. Nature itself seemed ruffled and refused the kindly aid of balmly sleep for a time.
“Frantic with indignation and horror at a crime so unnatural and monstrous,” the inhabitants of Wethersfield refuse...