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Homicidal compulsion and the conditions of freedom: the social and psychological origins of familicide in America's early republic.

Something strange and horrible happened in a number of American households of the early republic. In a series of curiously clustered incidents, spaced over a period of six decades, a handful of men, loving husbands and affectionate fathers, took axes from under their beds, or off their mantelpieces, and slaughtered their wives and children. The family-killings (or familicides) occurred over a wide geographic area: in the Northeast, the South, and the Midwest. The social settings of the crimes also varied widely. A couple took place in long-settled rural communities, a few others in frontier districts just being cleared for cultivation; one occurred in a flourishing little post town, another in a booming midwestern city. The murderers pursued a variety of occupations; they included a few independent yeomen, a merchant, a tenant farmer, a skilled craftsman, and a grocer. They ranged in age from their mid-twenties to mid-fifties. In many respects they seem to have constituted a representative cross-section of American men of the early republic. What set them apart from their neighbors were a series of appalling crimes.

The stories of the family-killers were told in a number of contemporary crime publications, including trial reports, third-person accounts, and short autobiographies. The cluster of family massacres described in that ephemeral literature seems to have been unprecedented in the annals of early American crime. Thomas M. McDade's admirably thorough bibliography of books, pamphlets, and broadsides on American murders between 1680 and 1900 lists publications on only seven cases (one probably fictional) of husbands killing their wives and one or more children. Not one of those multiple homicides took place during the colonial period; all seven occurred between 1780 and 1850; and none is listed by McDade thereafter through 1900. Of course, McDade's compilation only records crimes that evoked publications; he does not claim to provide a comprehensive listing of all American murders.(1) Yet the concentration of publicized familicides in the early republic is certainly suggestive, though the number of cases is much too small to venture any sort of quantitative argument. Equally curious is the clustering of individual cases within the early national period. Three took place between 1781 and 1784, one late in 1805 followed by another in 1806, and one late in 1835 followed by another early in 1836. By 1838 the early American psychiatrist Isaac Ray had observed that such cases were of "painful frequency."(2)

In trying to explain the shocking events that they described, the authors and editors of the familicide pamphlets of the early republic filled their pages with circumstantial and biographical details - material that lends itself to social-historical analysis. At a time when it has become fashionable to analyze many types of documentary narrative as essentially "fictive" cultural constructions, such empirical use of popular crime accounts may seem somewhat heretical.(3) Yet the familicide pamphlets are part of a long Anglo-American tradition of crime literature that has generally received high marks for factual accuracy when checked against other types of documentary evidence.(4) Several studies have affirmed the accuracy of such genres in early modem England.(5) Research into eighteenth-century American crime narratives has also tended to confirm their social-historical reliability.(6) In regard to the familicide pamphlets, the issue is made somewhat more complicated by the fact that several fictional narratives were published on family-killings during the same period, including a famous Gothic novel by Charles Brockden Brown, loosely based on one or more of the real cases.(7) However, most of the fictional accounts can be distinguished rather easily from the factual narratives. And, as will be demonstrated by the notes to this article, much of the material in the nonfictional familicide narratives can be confirmed from other sources, such as newspaper reports, court documents, and local records. The familicide accounts may not be entirely "transparent" documents, but they are far from opaque as social-historical sources.

Relying on the conscientious empiricism of the literary sources - bolstered in many cases by independent documentary evidence - the following essay explores the psychological and social-historical origins of familicide in the early republic. It consists primarily of seven case studies of somewhat uneven depth, reflecting the varying quality of the literary sources and the varying availability of corroborating evidence on each case. On the level of formal psychology, I argue that the cases can be tentatively categorized in accordance with three clinical diagnoses familiar to modern criminologists: acute psychosis (or schizophrenia), depression, and delusional jealousy. The close fit between the modern categories and the empirical evidence in the popular literature - compiled long before the existence of modern psychology - has interesting implications for the ongoing debate over the applicability of twentieth-century psychological categories to people in earlier periods. On the level of social history, I argue that the family-killers were profoundly traumatized by the radical new "conditions of freedom" experienced by common Americans in the early republic, particularly the new geographic mobility, economic instability, and religious liberty. The claim is not that any specific set of social circumstances are invariable preconditions for such crimes; to the contrary, similar familicides have been committed in different periods under very different social conditions.(8) Rather, my claim is that when such crimes do occur, they are frequently triggered by tensions endemic to their social setting. As one prominent criminologist has argued: "multiple murder in any society is a reflection of the social tensions resulting from the conflicts and frustrations peculiar to that age."(9) The familicides of the early republic may thus provide insights not only into individual pathology but also into much broader social-historical conditions. In order to make that argument, it may be helpful to briefly review some of the salient social characteristics of the early republic as sketched by modern scholars.

Evidence continues to mount that the successful break with Great Britain marked only the beginning, not the end, of revolutionary change in late eighteenth-century America. It now seems clear that a "contagion of liberty," to use Bernard Bailyn's suggestive phrase, continued to pervade and transform society during the decades following independence.(10) The gradual shift from deferential to mass democratic politics is perhaps the most famous of the many innovations of the post-Revolutionary decades, but it is by no means unique.(11) Between 1780 and 1840 the early republic actually experienced an almost comprehensive social transformation. Religious life was transformed by a chaotic new denominational pluralism;(12) the economy was commercialized by a market revolution;(13) the pace of geographic expansion and mobility quickened dramatically;(14) and young people exercised a new autonomy in their choice of marriage partners and timing of marriage.(15) There was hardly a significant aspect of the society that was not profoundly reshaped, resulting in new institutional and behavioral patterns that would continue to characterize American culture into the late twentieth century.(16)

If there was one unifying element in those varied developments, it may have been that most of the changes of the period served, in one way or another, to expand the boundaries of individual freedom. The average American of the early republic - or, at least, the average white American male of the early republic - found himself increasingly free to make the various decisions that would shape his destiny. He elected his own leaders, selected his own church, pursued his own fortune, located (and often repeatedly relocated) his own home, and built his family with a wife of his own choosing. There seemed to be few remaining barriers to personal choice and achievement - and correspondingly few excuses for personal failure. "The remains of older eighteenth-century hierarchies fell away," Gordon Wood has concluded of America by 1830, "and hundreds of thousands of common people were cut loose from all sorts of traditional bonds and found themselves freer, more independent, more unconstrained than ever before in their history."(17)

It should not be surprising, given the close correspondence of that new pattern of autonomy with enduring national values, that American historians have tended to describe the emergent culture of the early republic in implicitly celebratory terms. James Willard Hurst, for example, in his classic Law and the Conditions of Freedom, brilliantly evoked the legal spirit of a culture in which "the release of individual creative energy was the dominant value." John Higham elegantly characterized the early nineteenth century as an "Age of Boundlessness" when the limits of history, ascribed status, human reason, and nature itself seemed to dissolve in "an egalitarian celebration of the self-made man." Most expansively of all, Robert H. Wiebe has described a veritable "Revolution in Choices" in the new nation, a massive breakdown of social hierarchies and inhibitions that "infected individuals everywhere with a heady feeling of command over their destinies, a sense of marvelous potential in their lives."(18) The rest of this essay takes a rather different tack, following on the work of a number of other scholars who have suggested that the expansion of individual autonomy in the early republic was only achieved at significant psychic cost.(19) My findings suggest that the new conditions of freedom could be terrifying and debilitating not only for the elites that they occasionally displaced but also for the common Americans who are often portrayed as their chief beneficiaries.

James Yates, 1781

The first of the family killings was committed by James Yates in the frontier community of Tomhanick, New York, in mid-December 1781. Tomhanick was a village in the township of Pittstown (now in Rensselaer County), about twenty miles northeast of Albany. It was in a section of upstate New York that was being rapidly settled during the late 1770s and 1780s. According to a later account of the case, James Yates was a man "universally esteemed" by his neighbors for "the natural gentleness of his disposition, his industry, sobriety, probity and kindness." He came from "one of the most respectable families" in the state. Although not wealthy, he supported his family "very comfortably." On the afternoon before the tragedy, several of his neighbors, including his sister and brother-in-law, came to his house to read Scripture and sing psalms. There was no evidence that Sunday evening of familial discord. To the contrary, Yates used "endearing expressions" toward his wife, "caressed his little ones alternately," and "spoke much of his domestic felicity."(20)

When the last of the guests left, shortly before nine o'clock, Yates took his wife upon his lap and opened the Bible to read to her. Then, according to Yates's own account, a "light shone into the room" and he saw "two Spirits," one at his right hand, the other at his left. The spirit on the left ordered him to destroy all his "idols" and to begin by throwing his Bible into the fire. When Yates obeyed the command, his wife immediately snatched the book out of the flames; but he threw it in again, holding his wife until it was consumed. Then he rushed out of the house, grabbed an axe, destroyed his sleigh, and slaughtered one of his horses. When he returned excitedly to the house, his wife begged him to sit down, but the spirit again intervened. "You have more idols," it said, "look at your wife and children." Yates obediently grabbed his two young boys and smashed them to death against the wall and fireplace. He then proceeded to murder his wife, infant, and daughter with similarly sadistic brutality.(21)

Having slaughtered his wife and four children, Yates sat ruminating in his doorway. It hardly seemed fair to him that he should be seized, imprisoned, and executed simply for destroying his "idols" and obeying the "mandate" of his "father." He thought he might carry his victims into the house, set it on fire, and blame the massacre on Indians, but decided it would be wrong to lie. "No, let me speak the truth," he concluded, "and declare the good motive for my actions, be the consequences what they may." So Yates went to his sister's early the next morning and confessed. He was held for two days in Tomhanick at the house of Mrs. Bleecker, where he was exhorted to pray and repent by an elderly Lutheran preacher. Yates rejected the pious man's admonitions with contempt and ridicule, "refusing to confess his error" or join in the prayers of his captors. Instead, he repeatedly addressed God himself, saying: "my father, thou knowest that it was in obedience to thy commands, and for thy glory that I have done this deed." Yates also "expressed much sorrow for the loss of his dear family, but consoled himself with the idea of having performed his duty." The killer was taken to the jail in Albany, where he was confined as a lunatic.

William Beadle, 1782

According to the published Narrative of his life, William Beadle was born in a village near London in about 1730. While in England, he sustained "a fair character for integrity and honesty," though he reportedly frequented a club of deists. He emigrated to America in 1762, settling initially in Stratford, Connecticut, then successively moving to Darby, Fairfield (where he married and remained for some years), and finally Wethersfield in about 1772. He probably operated country stores in each of those towns. Beadle was a small man, with striking and expressive features, a contemplative mind, and tenacious opinions. "He possessed good sense, loved reading, and delighted in intelligent conversation," Timothy Dwight, the President of Yale and a personal acquaintance of Beadle, later recalled. "His manners were gentlemanly, and his disposition hospitable." Known as an "affectionate husband" and an "indulgent parent," Beadle himself claimed that no father ever experienced more "tender ties" of "fondness and friendship" than those he felt toward his family. As a merchant, he enjoyed a reputation for "strict honor and integrity," never descending to "any low or mean artifice to advance his fortune."(22)

By the time of his arrival in Wethersfield, about ten years before his death, he had acquired property worth about twelve hundred pounds, including "a very handsome assortment of goods for a country store." Although he had formerly sold on credit, Beadle accepted only cash in Wethersfield, wanting to "keep his property within his own reach." During the course of the Revolutionary war, Beadle gradually sold off his stock, shifting his wealth into the form of continental currency. Rather than replacing the goods immediately, Beadle put the money aside, expecting it to increase in value. But the bills instead depreciated. As it gradually became clear that his cash would not regain its former worth, Beadle was "thrown into a state little better than dispair." In the economically turbulent period of the Revolution and its aftermath, the tight-fisted merchant had learned painfully that "wealth could take to itself wings and fly away: Notwithstanding all his vigilance."(23)

With his estate diminished by the unfavorable fluctuations in paper currency, Beadle "adopted a plan of the most rigid family economy," while at the same time trying to maintain "the outward appearance of his former affluence." He also turned toward gloomy reflections and speculations, many of them recorded in his private writings. Beadle was a proud man, determined to avoid the "mortification" of poverty and dependence. He raged against the indignity of his reduced circumstances. It seemed inconceivable to him that a man who had "once lived well, meant well and done well" should fall "into poverty" and submit "to be laughed at." As one who considered himself "above the common mould," Beadle had no intention of falling so low. He was convinced that every man had a right to take his own life; indeed, he thought suicide "the height of heroism." Surely, he reasoned, God would not punish a man for being impatient to meet his deity. Beadle also believed that the right of self-destruction extended to offspring, although he had doubts about the propriety of killing his wife.(24)

The merchant's grim speculations were facilitated by his religious and philosophical beliefs. He rejected the notion of "future punishment" as "inconsistent with the goodness of God"; thus he could be confident that his family would face a happy fate after death. Further, his deism entailed a behavioral determinism that made the very concept of sin meaningless. Man, he argued, was a "perfect machine," incapable of any action except as operated upon by some "superior power." A tyrant drenching the world in blood, the killing of his family, the destruction of a fly - all were equally determined by "the hand of heaven" and none, consequently, was blameworthy. "I really think there never was any thing done wrong in the world," he concluded, "but believe that all is right."(25)

Beadle wrestled with the idea of killing himself and his family over a period of three years. "Any man that undertakes any great affair," he declared, "ought to be very deliberate indeed; and think and reflect again and again." At first he looked for some way out, a reason to spare himself and his children. "I was determined not to hasten the matter," he noted, "but kept hoping that yet Providence would turn up something to prevent it." Gradually, though, he became convinced that every circumstance, down to "the smallest trifle," was conspiring against him. "I have borne 'the stings and arrows of outrageous fortune' long enough," he fumed. He was determined to put an end to his suffering - and increasingly certain that such a fate was divinely ordained. "In fine clear days, when I am most chearful . . . I seem to be convinced in a steady, calm and reasonable way, that it is appointed for me to do it - that it is my duty and must be done," he wrote. "That it is God himself that prompts and directs me, in all my reflections and circumspection, I really believe."(26)

Beadle made at least three abortive attempts to murder his family in November and early December 1782 but was still inhibited, in part, by the absence of a direct command from God.(27) Then, on December 10, Beadle was seen by a friend at a local blacksmith's shop, sharpening his carving knife and repairing his pistols. That evening household guests found him "chearful and serene as usual." When the company left at about nine o'clock, he urged them to stay longer. Early the following morning, Beadle awoke the maid and sent her off with a note to the family physician. He had probably already killed his wife, smashing her head with an axe, pulling her over the edge of the bed, draining her blood into a vessel so as not to stain the linen, and tying a handkerchief over her wound. After sending off the maid, the merchant then went to his children's chamber, struck each on the side of the head, slit their throats from ear to ear, and laid them out in a row on the floor, covering their corpses with a blanket.(28)

Beadle then walked down to the ground floor, leaving a trail of bloody footprints on the stairs. He sat down in a Windsor chair by the fireplace in the kitchen, placed the muzzle of a pistol into each ear and fired them simultaneously, splattering his brains against the walls and wainscoting. The physician and others who discovered him shortly afterwards noted that Beadle's face was distorted by a shocking expression of horror. "Thus ended the miserable Beadle;" the narrator concluded, "a man respected through life, by all that knew him; a victim to pride, distrust of Providence, and a fatal indulgence of gloomy ideas - not a subject of poverty, or an endurer of hunger or want, but a victim to fearful apprehension that his circumstances would reduce him to the endurance of distress, and the horrors of poverty at some future time."(29)

Matthew Womble, 1784

Matthew Womble, a small planter of Isle of Wight County, Virginia, murdered his wife and four sons in July 1784. He apparently intended to kill his two daughters as well, but one managed to hide and the other escaped. The murderer came from an old local family with roots in the county running back to the 1640s.(30) Newspaper reports described Womble as "an industrious, sober, and well disposed citizen" who owned "a small tract of land," but concluded that liquor had "deprived him of his senses."(31) County records confirm that Womble probably owned two horses, four head of cattle, and about 100 acres of land at the time of his crime.(32) The most complete account of the case is contained in a narrative poem by John Leland, a well known Baptist clergyman from Massachusetts who was living in Virginia at the time of the killings. Leland's verses describe the mass murder and its aftermath but provide no background information on Womble and his family.(33)

According to Leland's poem, the tragedy began one evening when Womble got into a drunken quarrel with a visiting neighbor named Deford.(34) After the enraged host grabbed an axe and threatened to kill his guest, the other man ran out the door. When Womble's wife rebuked him for abusing his friend, the drunken husband responded by attacking her with the axe, splitting her skull, and cutting off her head. Womble then butchered his four sons - two of them while they slept, the other two despite their pleas for mercy. While one daughter managed to hide under a bed, another escaped from the house and spread the alarm. Womble was soon apprehended and sent to prison in Richmond, where he claimed to hear the ghosts of his murdered children flying about and calling out to him. He was executed in October 1784. After his arrest, Womble explained that he had killed his family in obedience to the commands of a supernatural emissary, "Satan in disguise." Here is Leland's rendition of the killer's confession:

"My wife and children I have slain," He said, "and mock'd their dying pain . . . "I saw a man exceeding bright, "Like to an angel of the light; "A splendid guard attend around, "He stood in air above the ground, "Clad with a bright celestial robe, "I thought it was the son of God." "Womble, said he, "I'm come to you, "To let you know what you must do, "If you to heaven would e're attain, "Your wife and children must be slain; "To win that prize, no man but you, "The meritorious work must do." "Obedient to the orders giv'n, "I kill'd them all to get to heaven."(35)

Abel Clemmens, 1805

According to his autobiography, Abel Clemmens was born on the eve of the Revolution in the township of Waterford, New Jersey, to parents of middling social status. At about the age of twelve, he went to work for a blacksmith. But he soon returned to his parents, "fearing the ferocity" of his "master's disposition." His second venture into the world proved even more traumatic when his new master, a merchant, abused Abel cruelly. At about that time, his father apparently committed suicide. Abel finally left the merchant and fled to his mother, begging for release from the "human monster." She convinced him to go back to his master but, after the merchant relapsed to his "former barbarity," Abel returned home once again.(36)

At the age of fifteen, Clemmens ignored the "reproofs, warnings, and admonitions" of his mother and embarked on a career of fornication and adultery, courtship and seduction. Within a few years, he was reportedly engaged to seven young women in the vicinity of his mother's home in Redstone, Pennsylvania.(37) At least one of them was pregnant. Abel later claimed that he would have married then had he not, as a minor, been prevented by his mother. Instead, he was forced to flee the state to avoid prosecution, settling in nearby Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). There he engaged in a new round of dissipation, even as his conscience reproached him. At the time Clarksburg was a small frontier town with about two hundred inhabitants, forty houses, a courthouse, and a jail. A contemporary of Clemmens later recalled that the inhabitants consisted of two distinct classes: a small, elite group of merchants and professionals and a lower order of "mechanics, journeymen and employees, a reckless, drinking swearing, gambling class, who spend all their leisure and every night at the tavern." Young Abel presumably belonged to that latter group. The village was surrounded by rugged, densely-forested countryside, still populated by wild animals but rapidly being settled and cleared for cultivation.(38)

In June 1794, at the age of nineteen, Clemmens married Barbara Carpenter, a woman whom he had met in the vicinity of Clarksburg.(39) Local records indicate that Barbara was the daughter of Nicholas Carpenter, a prominent pioneer settler and early officeholder in the county, killed by Indians several years earlier.(40) When Barbara became pregnant, the young couple returned to live at Redstone (Abel's fourth such return). There he farmed his mother's land and, under her vigilant supervision, "led a moral life." Although Abel resumed his adulteries upon the couple's return to Clarksburg, he took the sight of a brilliant meteor that passed over the county in 1800 as "a message from God to alarm the wicked." Clemmens thereupon resolved to abandon all sexual and related transgressions. Near the end of his life, he claimed to have "adhered strictly" to that resolution.(41)

In abandoning his dissolute lifestyle and pursuing religious goals, Clemmens later explained that he sought to "obtain the pardon and favor" of God and "obey the mandate of the heavenly monitor." Perhaps he had simply shifted a yearning for lost paternal authority to a higher plane. In any case, he "strove to progress" spiritually, attending "Methodist meeting day and night."(42) Although a true conversion experience eluded him, his "taste for religious society increased daily" and he became "earnestly intent on hearing every argument on the subject." Clemmens later concluded that doctrinal divisions among the various denominations had caused his own religious delusions. He particularly recalled the arguments of "a well dressed stranger" who came to Clarksburg espousing the tenets of "Deism," especially the belief that the souls of the dead would all return to God.(43)

It was during that period of heightened spiritual commitment that Clemmens visited the Miami region of Ohio, where he decided to move with other family members. During the summer of 1805, he agreed to sell his crop to his landlord Colonel Jackson, in anticipation of his imminent departure. Although the matter is not discussed in his narrative, it seems quite possible that Abel's desire to leave the Monongahela Valley in 1805 may have been influenced by the chronic difficulties involved in acquiring secure land-holdings in that region. Among the barriers were rampant speculation, absentee ownership, hoarding of prime lands, and prolonged land-title disputes. In fact, one major challenge to existing holdings by a group of Philadelphia merchants known as the Indiana Company - potentially affecting the property of some twenty or thirty thousand settlers in northwestern Virginia - was brought in 1802 and continued to threaten landowners over the next few years. In response, numerous petitions were circulated in the region, including one dated as late as December 4, 1805. At least one mass meeting was held in Clarksburg early that same year. It may be worth noting that George Jackson, Abel's landlord, actually led the struggle to defend the property of the local settlers.(44) Although there is no direct evidence to establish the point, the Indiana Company case - and the broader problems of land ownership in northwestern Virginia that it reflected may well have helped to discourage Abel from putting down permanent roots in the vicinity of Clarksburg. In addition, the general atmosphere of potential crisis and collective insecurity provoked in the region by the drawn-out land case may also have served, in less tangible ways, to exacerbate Abel's personal anxieties over a period of many months.

As the time to move drew near, Abel grew increasingly uneasy. He had expected his mother to move with him to Ohio, but she steadfastly refused. In addition, Abel's wife was far along in a pregnancy and he had heard that the Miami country was often fatal to women in such a state. As his mother pressed him to stay in Virginia, Abel's "melancholy and perplexity increased daily." Finally Abel went to Colonel Jackson to overturn their previous bargain. Clemmens agreed to return the money he had received for his crop and took a three-year lease on his farm. Far from relieving Abel of his anxieties, the new agreement only made things worse. "I repented my bargain immediately: I had not walked twenty steps, until I was struck with an unaccountable horror," Abel recalled in prison. "I know not the reason, but such is the fact, that from that moment . . . I never enjoyed a moments pleasure, my reasoning faculties were gone, my disordered mind was past the cure of patience." He felt as though beset by "fiends of Hell" and was tortured each day by "new terrors." His anguish was closely related to his unfulfilled desire to achieve pious obedience and hence obtain divine pardon. In abandoning his plans to move to Ohio - and acceding to the wishes of his wife and mother - Clemmens believed that he "had acted contrary to the will of God." Perhaps he was simply rationalizing his own failure of nerve in the traditional language of Protestant authority. Or he may have intuitively perceived his persistent failure to break away from his mother as a trespass upon his late father's proper conjugal sphere. In any case, despairing of "the mercy of God," Abel conceived the idea of killing himself and his family.(45)

Clemmens continued to wrestle with his demons, as those around him gradually became aware of his mental deterioration. Convinced that all his "misery" resulted from "disobedience" to his "maker" in refusing to leave for Ohio, Abel rejected the contrary pleas of his mother and again decided to go. But when he "begged" Colonel Jackson to cancel the new lease, his exasperated landlord declared that Abel had "grown childish" and "utterly refused" to annul the agreement. Thereafter Abel's emotional state worsened to the point that his mother "threatened to have . . . [him] confined."(46) Past personal traumas, religious speculations, economic uncertainties, and fears for the future well-being of his family then converged to torment him. "I became frantic with the thoughts of being torn from my family, and considered my property inadequate to their support," he later explained. "I saw my children already (in prospect) torn from the fond embraces of their mother, and scattered over the country." In that context he recalled the treatment that he had received, when removed from his own parents, at the hands of his "cruel master." He also remembered the compelling arguments of the well-dressed deist: "I now believed his opinion correct: I thought it would be much better if my dear family were in the hands of their God; but, whenever I reflected on the means of dispatching them, my mind revolted, my blood froze, and I became stupified with horror."(47)

Still struggling to free himself from his dilemma, Abel managed to sell his crop and lease the farm to another man. But that relieved him only briefly. "The torment of my mind returned, and, like the impeded current, gathered strength from its cessation," he recalled. Abel grew absent-minded and began talking to himself; his usually understanding wife reproved him for his conduct and condemned him as more sinful than ever. As he sold off his stock and completed final preparations for his journey, Abel began to fear that he had "sinned away" his "day of grace." No longer did he find any pleasure in contemplating his children, in whom he had "formerly taken much delight." Conceiving of his wife and children as "so many celestial beings," Abel developed a plan to kill them with an axe and then take his own life.(48)

Abel made more than half a dozen attempts to slaughter his family during a series of miserable, largely sleepless nights. Again and again, he stood over his slumbering family, axe in hand. But he was not yet able to go through with it. "My wife awoke, and enquired why I was up so long, and asked what I was doing," he recalled of one such incident. "I told her, I was admiring her beauties while sleeping." After another abortive effort, he threw aside his axe, intending to swear that he would never again attempt such a crime. But he was "restrained" from the vow by "an invisible and irresistible impulse."(49)

An incident which occurred around that time illustrates the extent of Abel's immobilizing ambivalence and hemorrhaging anxieties. One day he traded wagons with his brother but immediately became unhappy with the exchange. He rose at midnight, awoke his son, hitched his oxen to the wagon, and set off for his brother's house ten miles away. What followed was a nightmarish excursion in which Abel was mysteriously and repeatedly drawn off the familiar road by "a guide unseen and unheard, though irresistible." He did not arrive at his brother's till more than twenty-four hours later. When his alarmed wife arrived the next morning, he fearfully inquired whether "the sheriff, constable, or overseers of the poor had been at . . . [his] house."(50)

One Sunday in November 1805, Abel's wife was engaged in singing hymns. She pressed him to join her in the religious exercises, but he refused. In the afternoon, she asked him to accompany her to his mother's. He first resisted but then agreed to go. As soon as he arrived, he wanted to go home, but his wife and mother insisted that he stay. That evening his mother, sister, and brother-in-law accompanied Clemmens and his wife back to their house. When Abel's mother pressed him to join them in singing hymns, he again refused, but eventually made a languid attempt. His relatives finally left around nine o'clock, accompanied part of the way by his wife; but she soon returned and retired for the night. Abel recalled in prison what happened next:

. . . the agonizing emotions of my mind were intolerable. My heart grew hard; the many recent symptoms of insanity, which I displayed, occurred to my mind. I knew they were observed by many, and concluded, that if I let that opportunity slip, I should be prevented from perpetrating my design, by being hurried into the mad-house. The impending misery, which I fancied awaited them in case I was torn from them, was a consideration too poignant for my troubled mind to endure. The opinion I had imbibed, that the moment the spirit was dislodged from the body, it would return to God, who gave it, was unimpaired. Having sold our bedsteads, our beds were placed on the floor. I had lain down, but could not sleep: I arose, resumed the (for some time) neglected axe, lighted a candle, fixed a rope for my own purpose, and made many unsuccessful attempts as usual. . . . I strove to abandon my project, threw away the axe, and thought I would go to bed; but the same power which baffled my effort on the road to my brother's, was ready at hand. I got the axe and prayed to God to receive the spirits of my family. . . . They all died easy, except my two little girls, Betsy and Parthenia; the struggles of whom, added to the already indescribable horrors and tortures of my mind. . . . After their struggles had ceased, I took some pains in placing them strait in bed - locking their hands, and closing their eyes. . . . a tremulous and convulsive horror struck my guilty soul."(51)

As with every other decision that he had made in recent months, Abel immediately regretted his bloody act: "I now, for the first time, felt alive to the impropriety of my conduct, and the enormity of a crime, which I had before considered at most, as a painful duty." And, once again, he was immobilized by invisible constraints and tormented by vain regrets. "I felt no fear to perpetrate the dreadful act of suicide, but was unable to accomplish it, being restrained by an invisible hand," Abel recalled. "I went to the fire, sat down; and at that moment, had I possessed ten thousand mountains of gold, I would have given them all to have my family restored to life."(52) Unable to act, Clemmens did manage to offer some advice to his niece, who had been staying with Abel's family, and who remained in the house throughout the carnage: "I took occasion to admonish my niece, to be obedient to her parents, and strive to obtain christianity." Ironically, his own deluded attempt to follow the same advice had just culminated in a massacre.(53)

Clemmens's slaughter of his wife and eight children was discovered the next morning by his brother Isaac, who quickly assembled other members of the family. His brother and mother urged him to flee. After a last desperate plea from his mother that he not take his own life, Abel went off listlessly. He eventually wandered up a hill, where he attempted to pray to God "for mercy and pardon." Seized by the impulse of fear, he hid himself under a rock, longing to return to the "womb of untreated night"; only suicide seemed to promise "deliverance." Several days later, after many unsuccessful attempts at taking his own life in impotent defiance of his mother's parting admonition, tormented by thirst and hunger, he returned yet again, in pathetic defeat, to his mother's house. Abel's relatives arranged for their kinsman's arrest, sending him out, one last time, into a hostile world.(54)

While in jail awaiting execution, Clemmens received frequent visits and spiritual guidance from ministers and laymen, one of whom probably transcribed the narrative of his life and crimes.(55) Finally, at an evening prayer session of "spiritual friends," Abel experienced "the pleasures of redeeming love," thus achieving the conversion that had long eluded him. In the end, through the very act of recounting a life of tormented alienation, Abel was able to express his obedience, and make his peace, with a figure of paternal authority. "The Lord discovered to my mind the necessity of an ample confession of my many crimes, in order to make his mercy the more conspicuous in the salvation of so unworthy an object," he concluded his account. "I have given a faithful narrative of all my evil deeds, the recapitulation of which were painful to my mind; but their remembrance now haunts my imagination no more: I feel a load removed."(56)

James Purrinton, 1806

James Purrinton was born in Bowdoinham, Massachusetts (now Maine) in 1760 and married at the age of twenty. The couple had twelve children, eight of whom survived infancy. According to a pamphlet on his life, Purrinton received a "handsome patrimony from his father" and pursued "a long course of industry and frugality." As a result he became "a rich and independent farmer." He was "steady and correct" in his habits, uniformly "tender and affectionate" toward his wife and children, and "obliging" toward his neighbors. Enjoying the confidence of the men of Bowdoinham, he commanded the town's militia for several years. But there was another side to Purrinton's character. "It is said by those who knew him best, that he was easily elated or depressed, as his affairs were prosperous or adverse," his biographer reported. "He was also not a little avaricious, and therefore a diminution of his property or prospects, was a disappointment he seemed to want fortitude to support." Although "obstinately tenacious" in his opinions, Purrinton repeatedly altered his religious sentiments. He joined a Calvinist Baptist church in his mid-twenties, later shifted to the Freewill Baptists, and reportedly died a fatalist and Universalist.(57)

In August 1805 Purrinton moved with his family to a new farm outside the prosperous and rapidly growing town of Augusta, Massachusetts (now Maine).(58) "By his unremitting attention and industry, he was rapidly improving his estate, and was apparently contented and happy," the narrative reported of his initial months in Augusta. But a change in the weather the following spring - the arrival of an "uncommon drought" - quickly altered Purrinton's state of mind. He became depressed, often telling neighbors of fears that "his family would suffer for want of bread - that his crops would be cut off - that his cattle would starve."(59) Soon his wife and children became alarmed by hints that Purrinton intended to kill himself; when he tried to comfort and reassure his wife, she remained disconsolate. It was only then, the pamphleteer speculated, that Purrinton decided not only to take his own life but those of his spouse and children as well: "Finding . . . his intentions suspected by his wife and family, and seeing their distress, and anticipating how poignant it would be on his death, he no doubt determined to take them all with himself; believing they would thus lose their sorrows, suffer but a momentary pang, and be with him eternally happy."(60)

Late in the day on July 8, 1806, Purrinton was seen sharpening his axe. When his family retired to sleep, they left him reading a Bible. Early the next morning, at about two or three o'clock, he embarked with "coolness and deliberation" on his bloody work. He hacked or slashed his wife and six of his offspring to death (apparently intending to behead several of them), mortally wounded a seventh child, and then cut his own throat with a razor. His eldest son managed to flee the house with only minor wounds and ran to neighbors for help. When they arrived the "whole house seemed covered with blood." They discovered Purrinton's Bible on a table, open to the ninth chapter of Ezekiel: "Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women. . . . And, behold, the man . . . reported the matter, saying, I have done as thou hast commanded me."(61)

John Cowan, 1835

John Cowan was born in 1806 in Allegheny County, nine miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. According to his autobiographical Life and Confession, he endured an unsettled childhood, repeatedly shuttling between various schools and relatives. Although the precise circumstances are unclear, Cowan noted that his mother was "faulty" and implied that she betrayed - and deserted - her husband. For whatever reason, his parents separated while he was still a young child and John initially remained with his father. But soon he was placed, along with his sister, in a school on the Monongahela River, some twenty miles outside of Pittsburgh. Although their mother took the children back after a year, the boy's father insisted that John be removed from her custody. Thereafter John lived successively in Maysville, Kentucky; West Union, Ohio; Shawneetown, Illinois; and Danville, Kentucky. He suffered much from the enforced mobility. Years later he looked back on his "forlorn" and "heart-broken" childhood with bitter regret, suggesting that the "destitution and cruelty" of his early life had permanently "soured" his "temper."(62)

Cowan's adolescence and early adulthood were hardly more stable, or less traumatic, than his childhood. At the age of fifteen, he was bound as an apprentice to a cabinet maker in Harrodsburgh, Kentucky. When that first master dismissed him, John's uncle arranged for him to serve under another master in Lexington, Kentucky. There he was treated as a "drudge" and regularly whipped. After three years of abuse, he ran off to his uncle in Danville, where he worked for about a month at a shop. Cowan then moved yet again, this time to Somerset, in Pulaski County, Kentucky. There he labored for about a year, probably as a cabinet maker. Next he worked his way down the Mississippi on a flatboat to New Orleans, where he arrived in May 1825. After falling ill for several weeks, he managed to gain employment loading boats on the levee. Later, after another illness, Cowan contracted to work on a sugar plantation for a year. Finally, in March 1827, at the age of twenty, he returned north to Danville.(63)

Cowan stayed in Kentucky till the winter of 1827-28, when he returned to Pittsburgh to rejoin his mother and sister. His mother died the October following his arrival, while his father died in Paterson, New Jersey, during the course of the same year. Having lost both his parents and settled in Pittsburgh, Cowan gradually constructed the semblance of a normal life. He lived with his sister, found stable employment as a journeyman with a kindly cabinet maker, and joined a Methodist Church. He also began courting Mary Susannah Sinclair, a lovely young woman of about eighteen. John married her in December 1830, despite the objections of her father and her own prior engagement to another man. Cowan later recalled: "If I had not loved her as man seldom ever loved woman - more than my own life - I should not have married her."(64)

The couple's first year of marriage was prosperous and happy; they were industrious, managed to save some money, and even planned to buy a small house. Nine months to the day after their wedding, John's wife gave birth to a boy. But problems began when Cowan noticed that his wife was in the habit of conversing with another young man. Despite his remonstrances, she persisted. Rather than quarrel with his wife, whom he still loved "devotedly," John turned to billiards and drink. As Mary became cold and ill-tempered, Cowan in turn began to mistreat her. Soon their "domestic hearth became an earthly hell." His "giddy" wife "neglected to attend to her household duties." Because his meals were not cooked regularly, Cowan lost time at work. The affairs of the once happy family went from bad to worse. "There then appeared but one way to make myself happy; and that was to drown my griefs in liquor," Cowan recalled. "I became a sot and a brute." After a particularly "severe quarrel," his wife took their son and returned to her father. The father-in-law even had Cowan briefly jailed, presumably for beating his wife. But Mary later impressed upon her husband the "destitute situation" that would face their young son should his parents be permanently separated. Given his own sad childhood experiences, John probably had little need to be reminded. He agreed to reunite the household if Mary would leave her father and go with him to Cincinnati.(65)

Now Cowan and his wife seemed to replicate the agonizing experiences of his parents - and of his own troubled childhood - with repeated quarrels, movements, separations, and abortive reunions. The couple first moved to Cincinnati, arriving in April 1832. However, they stayed only till the end of August, when John took work as a pattern-maker in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), while Mary returned to Pittsburgh. When Cowan received a letter from her, informing him that she and their child were "in the utmost misery," he returned to Pittsburgh. Here the couple again began to quarrel and Cowan made one or two unsuccessful attempts at suicide before they agreed to separate. Mary moved to her father's home, then in Ashtabula County, Ohio, while he set off again for Cincinnati. But when Mary wrote again, complaining that she and her boy were "in the most deplorable state of poverty," Cowan agreed to rejoin them in Ashtabula. There they remained for a year and had their second child. John recalled that their stay was characterized by "constant quarrels." In May 1835 they returned to Cincinnati. "This was the sixth time that we had commenced house keeping, and we had been but little more than five years married," Cowan recalled. "These frequent derangements in our household matters always kept me poor." By his own account, Cowan was almost constantly on the move not because he was poor, trapped in a floating and permanently impoverished underclass; rather, he was poor because he was so often on the move.(66)

Back in Cincinnati Cowan again became obsessively jealous of a man with whom he believed his wife was having an affair. He began openly to threaten the lives of his family; he later claimed to have considered the idea over the preceding three years. In September 1835 he tried to poison himself and his family by placing arsenic in their water cask but the attempt was foiled. On another occasion he was seen "whetting his axe for the purpose, as he said, of putting his threats into execution." Two or three weeks after the attempted poisoning, on October 10, Cowan confronted his wife after her return from market with a neighbor; he believed that he had narrowly missed catching her with her paramour. Cowan was reported to have been slightly drunk for the preceding two days. As husband and wife quarreled in the kitchen, he reached for an axe on the mantelpiece.(67)

Neighbors heard "the cry of murder" coming from the house. "There is Cowan whipping his wife again," one commented. "He is chopping up his family," another reportedly exclaimed. "I struck her, I believe, eight times," Cowan himself recalled. "Just as she was about to receive the last blow, she exclaimed - 'Oh, John! I am guilty!'" While blood gushed from his dying wife's throat, he next turned to his two young children, whom he killed instantly with blows from the same weapon. Cowan later claimed that "he was neither drunk nor crazy" when he acted - that he "had committed the deed coolly and in pursuance of calm deliberation." But surely he was unleashing a lifetime of mental anguish and frustration. Perhaps the infuriating image of his philandering wife converged in his rage with that of his similarly unfaithful mother, the person that he held most responsible for his own unsettled upbringing.(68) As for his two helpless children, Cowan explained that he took their lives to save them from "his infamy" and from being "left to be knocked and cuffed about by the world." In other words, he had saved his young son and daughter from just the sort of painful childhood and adolescence that he himself had been forced to endure.(69)

The whole episode took no more than half a minute. Cowan looked back in agony at the "horrid scene" as he escaped by the back door. "I then started leisurely down the road, with my hands behind my back," he recalled, "meditating on the deed I had committed, and occasionally taking a pinch of snuff." He was soon apprehended without a struggle. At his trial he declined the court's offer of counsel and insisted on pleading guilty to the capital crimes. To the end Cowan insisted that he was not a heartless monster but a sensitive human being, the tragic product of a sorrowful and unsettled upbringing, an unhappy marriage, fanatical jealousy, and the destructive consequences of intemperance. The publisher of his Life and Confession seemed to agree, noting that Cowan's character was "a singular compound of ferociousness and benevolence; of impetuous and baleful passions and generosity of feeling." After a life of constant, restless movement, conflict, and trauma, Cowan found religious consolation and personal peace in prison awaiting execution. "Cold and gloomy as are these walls that now surround me, I have found more happiness within them than I ever found without," he wrote. "Liberty would be more horrible to me than death."(70)

Isaac Young/Heller, 1836

Isaac Young was born in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, in 1809, the son of a "respectable farmer." At about the age of seventeen, while living in the household of an older brother, Young was frightened one night by a noise. For the next several years, he was afraid to spend the night alone and was frequently alarmed in his sleep. He believed that the devil was watching, pursuing, and tormenting him. Young was also subject during that period to "gusts of passion," during which he would "swear very profanely." At the same time, his life was taking a religious turn. About two weeks after his initial fright, he was much impressed by the discourse of a preacher named Winebrenner. Thereafter he prayed frequently, participating in a family religious circle that met nightly in his brother's household. Two years later he was baptized and joined Winebrenner's independent church. Despite his persistent fears of the devil, Young believed he enjoyed "the gift of prophecy" and felt "far superior to ordinary christians." While living in the village of Middletown with a tavernkeeper named John McCammons, Young began preaching in the neighborhood and visiting families belonging to his church, exhorting them to obtain sanctification. He carefully kept his fears of the devil secret from the church brethren, lest they doubt his spiritual claims.(71)

Young eventually felt obliged to "travel throughout the world," carrying his religious message from house to house. He refused any financial assistance from his brother and set out on his mission, beginning in his own neighborhood. He went from place to place for a few days, by his own account alarming many people with his "predictions" and leaving them weeping yet thankful for his warnings of impending "calamity." But on the fourth day of his travels it began raining very hard. In addition, members of one family that he exhorted warned him that he might be "laboring under a delusion." Young returned to his brother's house that very evening, discouraged and ashamed. The following day he went out to plow his brother's field, concluding that it was time to calm himself and go to work.(72)

Although Young was very tired that evening, he was afraid to go to bed. He finally went upstairs and fell asleep but awoke shortly, alarmed by the sound of a person climbing the stairs and entering his room. "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," Young shouted, convinced that he was confronted by the seven-headed beast described in Revelation. After reasoning with the vision for some time, he suddenly sprang from the bed, striking violently at the "monster." But the creature eluded him and Young felt "forcibly impelled" to attack a little orphan girl, attached to his brother's household, who was sleeping in the same room. When Young's brother and his wife rescued the child, Young became incensed with them because he felt it was his "duty" to "destroy" the girl. He pursued them with a club throughout the house, smashing down doors along the way. After his brother and sister-in-law had fled through a window, Young found the girl hiding under a bed, began beating her with the club, and finally cut off her head with a knife.(73)

Young hurried from the house, his pants under his arm, and headed toward a neighbor's home, intending to continue his "work of destruction." But he began wandering erratically and finally fell into a sink hole. After clambering out of the hole, he decided to kill himself by cutting his own throat. He was interrupted in that procedure by the momentary sound of "the most beautiful music" he had ever heard. The knife fell from his grasp and he began crawling on hands and knees, singing, "Ho every one that thirst come ye to the waters, & c." He later returned to his feet and set out to warn others of "the approaching dissolution of the world." When he saw fox fire scattered along the road, he thought that "the stars . . . had fallen from the firmament," as described in Revelation. Arriving at his brother's house, Young believed it was his "duty" to murder one of his sisters. But his brother stepped in, took him to the fire, washed off the blood, dressed him, and put him to bed.(74)

Young was imprisoned the following day. While in jail, he attentively read the Bible and had a series of "strange and extravagant" delusions. "At one time I imagined myself a great king - the people of the world . . . were passing in review before me; all bowing with reverence," he recalled. "At another time, I thought I was immortal; and had all the perfections of an Angel." He later decided that he was to command a band of 144,000 men and women to "destroy . . . the lukewarm from the face of the earth." Young was tried for murder in November 1830 but was acquitted by reason of insanity. He was confined in chains in a dark cell in the poor house, where he prayed, issued commands "in a loud voice, as the comma[n]der of a large army," and was attended regularly by a physician.(75)

After about two months, Young began to calm down. He was allowed a bit more freedom of movement within the poor house and was later permitted to leave it for limited periods, working in a stable. Soon thereafter his brother gave the superintendent of the poor house $273.50 for Isaac's use, due him from his late father's estate. Two days later Young left the institution and set off for Indiana. The evening before his departure, the superintendent prayed with him and advised him to adopt his mother's maiden name of Heller, so as to escape the infamy of his crime. Young eventually settled in the thriving little post town of Liberty, Indiana, in April 1831. There he operated a grocery store in partnership with another man.(76)

Not long after arriving in Liberty, Isaac met and married Elizabeth McCollam, who proved "a loving and affectionate wife." The couple eventually had three children. "It is not known that the least difficulty had ever occurred between him and his family," witnesses affirmed. "The wife and children were fond of him, and he of them." About two years after his marriage, Isaac joined the United Brethren and was again baptized. He once again became convinced that it was his "duty to preach the gospel" and began speaking often in public. Isaac also began "reading incessantly," principally in the book of Revelation. He read till he "did not know right from wrong." Then he decided, despite the remonstrances of his wife, that he should travel to his home state to continue his preaching. "I was, at that time, embarrassed and in debt, having, from neglect of business, necessarily expended all my money in supporting my family," he recalled. "I therefore started in the night, lest my creditors might arrest me."(77)

He had gone about five miles, when a shooting star signalled him to return to his family. He concluded that he should settle down and "go to work." But Isaac soon felt himself "endowed with the spirit of prophecy" and was subject to a new round of delusions. "At one time I thought I was to be a great king, and was to command a mighty army," he recalled. "I . . . was to oppose a mighty army in the East, . . . press forward to the tree of life, . . . and . . . live forever." He became convinced that those he had "formerly most esteemed" were now his "most inveterate enemies" and also concluded that "the bible was false." Those delusions "wore away" after about a month, but a year later he again resumed his attempts to speak in public. This time, however, when he announced a meeting, his neighbors refused to attend, claiming that he "was not fit to preach." Isaac thereupon withdrew from the United Brethren, resumed his readings in Revelation, and experienced a new series of delusions, during the course of which he burned his Bible.(78)

Sometimes Isaac acted "like a wild man or a raving maniac." At other times he would withdraw into a sort of stupor. "He would chop a little wood and place it on the fire, and then sit by it for hours at a time, by night and day, with his head down, apparently in a deep study," witnesses testified. "Thus sitting he was in the habit of picking his finger nails, and sometimes the flesh of his hands, until the blood would come." For six months he "almost entirely neglected to provide for his family," forcing them to rely upon the charity of neighbors. Over the preceding months, Isaac had also begun to experience "frequent strong temptations" to murder his wife and children. During his last series of delusions, in late November 1835, he particularly wanted to behead his favorite child, John Wesley. Just as "John the Baptist was beheaded, at the coming of our Saviour," Isaac reasoned, so ought his son likewise die to herald his own coming as "the second Saviour." But external forces threatened to intercede and disrupt his fantasy life. On two previous occasions he had been taken to the Overseers of the Poor and confined "as an insane person." Now some of his neighbors warned him that he "would be taken to the poor house" again - a prospect that horrified Young - unless he provided better for his family. "Yet my energies were unaroused," Isaac recalled, "and although it seemed to me that my family was dear to me, and that I could not bear to be separated from them, yet, strange and unaccountable as it may seem, I determined to kill them."(79)

Six times he tried unsuccessfully to carry out his plan.(80) Once he went to the bed with a butcher knife and raised his hand against his wife, but her "tenderness" subdued him. Then one morning in late February 1836 a neighbor called upon Isaac and found him unusually cheerful: "Heller seemed much more free to talk, and did talk considerably about his feeling much better than he had for some time past, and about renting some land and going to work on it." Later that same morning, after breakfast, his wife "was sitting by the fire with her sun bonnet on, suckling her infant, the other two children were under the bed getting apples." At that moment Isaac took an axe and slaughtered them all, beheading "little John Wesley" and his infant sister in the process. Young was soon apprehended, confessed to the murders, "expressed no regrets," and was executed in April 1836. "To give a reason for the enormous crimes I have committed is more than I can do," he explained. "I do believe, however, that I have been led on by indulging in cruel thoughts and temptations without taking the proper measures to restrain them, . . . until my cruel propensities gained the ascendency, and until my mind was seared and entirely incapable of good or humane feelings."(81)


The familicide pamphlets of the early republic were, in large part, a literature of empirical inquiry that sought to understand or explain the atrocities they described. One of the pamphlets went so far as to offer a general typology for such crimes. In Horrid Massacre!! Sketches of the Life of Captain James Purrinton, a pamphlet published in 1806 by Peter Edes of Augusta, Maine, the anonymous author (quite possibly Edes himself) appended some explanatory remarks to the main narrative. "Except total derangement of mind," the author argued, "there are but three sources . . . from which, conduct, like that recorded in the preceding pages, could proceed." He then went on to describe the following categories: (1) "Religious fanaticism," characterized by "wild and incoherent" views; (2) "Violence of passion," typically involving "envy, malice, or revenge"; and (3) "Systematic calculation upon erroneous principles," generally pertaining to "future punishment." Although he acknowledged that individual cases might contain elements of more than one factor, the author concluded that the Purrinton case belonged squarely in the third category. In fact, the author's typology provides for a relatively neat sorting of all the family-killers explored in this essay: Yates, Womble, and Young fit into the first category; Cowan fits into the second; Beadle, Clemmens, and Purrinton fit into the third.(82)

Significantly, modern psychological categories allow for an identical sorting of the family killings, though the terminology and criteria are quite different. While modern scholars have not yet developed a typology for familicides per se (the first attempt follows), they have established applicable categories for somewhat similar crimes.(83) For example, in his study of murder followed by suicide in modern England, D. J. West described murder-suicides committed by (1) depressive offenders, (2) schizophrenic offenders, and (3) morbidly jealous offenders. West's first group experienced "irrational melancholia," the second suffered from delusions and hallucinations, and the third were driven by extreme, irrational jealousy. In an article on parental filicide, Phillip J. Resnick somewhat similarly found that the largest group of child murders were altruistic in motivation, often conceived in conjunction with suicides - roughly corresponding to West's "depressive" category. The next most common type found by Resnick were "acutely psychotic," sometimes involving hallucinations - as in West's "schizophrenic" category. Like West, other scholars have also noted the prominence of "morbid delusions of jealousy" in spouse murders, with at least one author linking the pattern to chronic alcoholism.(84)

Acute Psychosis

There is a striking correspondence between West's and Resnick's categories and the crimes under study here; the modern types coincide with fairly clear groupings among the seven cases of early national family-killing - the same groupings suggested by the typology of 1806. One group, including those of Yates, Womble, and Young, seem to have been of the type designated as schizophrenic (West) or acutely psychotic (Resnick). Delusions with hallucinations were prominent in all three instances and provided direct motivation for the slayings. James Yates slaughtered his wife and four children in response to the commands of a visible "spirit" who insisted that he destroy his "idols." He apparently believed that he was obeying the "mandate" of his divine "father." Similarly, Matthew Womble murdered his family in obedience to a luminous, angelic figure who ordered him to slay them in order to get to heaven. Womble continued to hallucinate in prison.(85) Because background information on the lives of Yates and Womble is so sparse, it is difficult to offer even a tentative psychological diagnosis; but their hallucinations and resulting actions certainly suggest acute psychosis or schizophrenia.

The confession of Isaac Young offers a good deal more material to work with. Young's two murderous outbursts both took place in the context of an elaborate delusional structure featuring both auditory and visual hallucinations. He believed that he had prophetic powers and later became convinced that he was the second messiah. His murder of the adopted girl in his brother's household directly followed an apocalyptic hallucination. The beheading of his oldest child, John Wesley, was conceived as a parallel to the similar execution of John the Baptist. Both of the murderous outbursts also followed upon challenges to his prophetic pretensions and bizarre behavior by concerned neighbors. Not only did Young experience hallucinations and delusions of grandeur, he also endured feelings of persecution (such as his belief that he was being stalked by the devil) and exhibited moods of "flat apathetic detachment from surrounding realities" (as when he sat for hours with his head down before the fire). Those traits are, of course, all classic symptoms of schizophrenia - a modern clinical designation for the condition from which Young probably suffered.(86)

In addition to the common pattern of hallucinations, a number of other factors distinguish the cases of Yates, Womble, and Young from the other family killings. First, although Young did make one passing attempt to cut his own throat, none of those men exhibited strong or sustained suicidal impulses.(87) Second, none of them offered altruistic rationalizations for their crimes.(88) Third, their killings seem to have been characterized by extreme rage, brutality, even sadism. James Yates destroyed one son by throwing him against the wall "with such violence . . . that he expired without a groan" and murdered the second by grabbing him by the feet and dashing "his scull in pieces against the fire-place." He then reportedly killed his wife by striking her with a fence stake until he "could not distinguish one feature of her face" and split his daughter's skull after forcing her to sing and dance over her mother's corpse.(89) Matthew Womble took an axe in a drunken rage, split his wife's skull, and cut off her head; he then slaughtered his four sons, two of them despite their pleas for mercy. According to Leland's poem, Womble "mock'd" his family's "dying pain." Isaac Young repeatedly struck and bludgeoned a young girl with his fists and a club and then cut off her head with a knife. Several years later he axe-murdered his wife and then decapitated two of his young children and nearly decapitated the third. Those men were clearly driven by intense, outwardly-directed anger.(90)


The cases of Beadle, Clemmens, and Purrinton were very different. None of them seems to have experienced either auditory or visual hallucinations. However, all three suffered from severe and persistent depression, particularly in response to stresses or setbacks in their lives. When his continental currency depreciated in value, Beadle was "thrown into a state little better than dispair." Over the following years, he brooded over his financial and other reverses, indulging in bitter personal prognostications and gloomy philosophical speculations. Purrinton was described as a man who "was easily elated or depressed, as his affairs were prosperous or adverse." A severe drought that reportedly struck during the spring and summer of 1806 "seemed greatly to depress him." He frequently expressed "apprehensions, that his family would suffer for want of bread." Clemmens was tormented by his uncertainty over whether to move to Ohio. After first deciding to go, he "grew melancholy and restless." Following his decision to remain, he was beset by "a heavy heart and bitter reflections." After his second determination to leave, he suffered still greater mental "torment" and "melancholy." In addition to severe melancholy, Clemmens also suffered such classic symptoms of depression as (1) "difficulties in sleeping"; (2) "loss of interest and pleasure in usual activities"; (3) "negative self-concept; self-reproach and self-blame, feelings of worthlessness and guilt"; (4) "complaints or evidence of difficulty in concentrating, such as slowed thinking and indecisiveness"; and (5) "recurrent thoughts of death or suicide."(91)

Suicidal impulses figured prominently in all three of those cases. Beadle wrestled with the idea of killing himself (along with his family) over a period of three years, decided that suicide was "the height of heroism," and blew out his brains after slaughtering his family. Purrinton decided to kill himself after becoming depressed over a severe drought; his determination to take his family along with him was apparently an afterthought. Upon killing his wife and children, he cut his own throat with a razor. Although Clemmens did not succeed in committing suicide, he had originally planned to do so after executing his family. Immediately after slaughtering them, he tried to kill himself but "was unable to accomplish it." During the following days he made repeated if unsuccessful efforts at taking his own life, including attempts at slitting his wrists and hanging himself.(92)

The altruistic motives that the depressives offered for their crimes (or that were attributed to them) were similar to those described in the modern study by Resnick - and were closely linked to their suicidal impulses. "As he was much out of temper with the world, he was unwilling any of his family should stay behind to encounter its troubles," Beadle's biographer concluded, "and since 'tis a father's duty to provide for his flock, he chose to consign them over to better hands." Beadle particularly concluded that it would be "unmerciful ... cruelty" to leave his wife behind were the rest of the family to die. Similarly, Clemmens became "frantic" at the thought of being separated from his family, feared that his "property" was "inadequate to their support," and had visions of his children being "torn from the fond embraces of their mother." He decided that it "would be much better if ... [his] dear family were in the hands of their God." Purrinton also agonized over the prospects for his family after the arrival of a severe drought, fearing that they "would suffer for want of bread." The author of his narrative speculated that he decided to kill them only after realizing how miserable they would be following his own demise.(93)

The altruistic motives (or rationalizations) of the killers may have also been reflected in the way they carried out the executions and disposed of the bodies of their victims. Although Purrinton's massacre seems to have resembled the brutality of the psychotic group, Beadle and Clemmens each showed an almost fastidious care in the disposition of his family's remains. After striking his wife's head with an axe, Beadle carefully drained the blood into a vessel and covered her wound with a handkerchief. Upon slitting his children's throats from ear to ear, he neatly laid them out in a row on the floor, covering their bodies with a blanket. Similarly, after slaying his children, Clemmens "took some pains in placing them strait in bed - locking their hands, and closing their eyes." Those actions suggest a deliberate respect for the remains of their loved ones that contrasts sharply with the sadistic, uncontrolled rages of Yates, Womble, and Young.(94)

Delusional Jealousy

The case of John Cowan may be distinguished from the two types already discussed. Although the murderer generally appeared rational and did not experience the sort of hallucinations characteristic of the psychotic group, the editor of his Life and Confession believed that Cowan's fanatical jealousy constituted a "decided and unequivocal monomania."(95) That assessment neatly coincides with West's claim that "in some male patients, jealousy amounts to a monomania and may be present in extremely irrational forms, without signs of schizophrenic disorder of thinking in other respects." Cowan's alcoholism also fits the conclusion of another modern criminologist, Manfred S. Guttmacher, that the "pathological jealousy reaction that one sees in chronic alcoholics is an important factor in uxoricide." However, in regard to his suicidal impulses and his motivation for killing his young children, Cowan closely resembled the depressive group. Over a period of three and a half years, he made "several attempts at suicide," once using a musket and on another occasion employing laudanum. Later he tried to kill both himself and his family by mixing arsenic into their water cask. His justification for finally slaughtering his children with an axe was altruistic. He murdered them, he explained, to save them from "his infamy" and from a hard life.(96)

As suggested by those depressive features in the case of John Cowan, the psychological labels employed in this essay are not offered as immutable or mutually-exclusive categories but rather as useful analytical devices for identifying suggestive clusters of characteristics in the crimes and criminals. More than one label may be applicable to a given case; thus, for example, social scientists recognize the phenomenon of depression with psychotic features.(97) It is particularly necessary to be cautious and tentative given the extremely limited evidence available in several of the familicide cases. For example, additional evidence might reveal that Matthew Womble, who acted in the context of a drunken quarrel with a neighbor, had as much in common with the alcoholic Cowan as with the psychotic Yates and Young.(98) Similarly, it may be that Purrinton, whose extremely violent assault on his family resembled the brutality of the psychotic group, was motivated by prophetic voices or visions about which we know nothing because of his suicide.

In addition, it must be kept in mind that psychological conditions or emotional states are not themselves timeless but rather take forms that are, in part, historically determined. For example, as Carol Z. and Peter N. Stearns have shown, emotions like "anger" and "jealousy" are both experienced and perceived in different ways in different historical periods, even within a single society.(99) Thus John Cowan's feelings toward his mother and wife were undoubtedly influenced by the new social conditions of the early republic in which, Peter Stearns explains, the potential for explosively violent jealousy was enhanced by "the redefinition and heightened valuation of heterosexual love and of family affection in general" in a setting where "declining community cohesion made traditional enforcement of sexual fidelity less reliable."(100) While modern psychological labels - themselves historically constructed - cannot magically "solve" the familicides of the early republic, they can provide useful tools for organizing and conceptualizing the surviving evidence.


Tentative diagnoses of acute psychosis or schizophrenia, depression, and delusional jealousy may help us understand those seven men in modern clinical terms, but they do not by themselves adequately explain their actions. After all, most people with such conditions do not slaughter their wives, or their children, or themselves. In order then to understand the crimes, it is essential to reexamine the social stage upon which the fears and fantasies of the murderers were played out. Whether finally driven to kill by hallucinations, depression, or jealousy, the men all shared in the fluid social conditions of their age. Their experience with American freedom was not simply incidental to their tragedies but created a matrix of social insecurity and psychological stress that is crucial to any adequate explanation of their crimes.(101) In particular, their lives expose some of the dark sides of the changing familial relations, geographic mobility, economic opportunity, and religious ferment that have often been celebrated by modern scholars of the early republic. And while the gruesome outcomes of their experiences were certainly exceptional, there is every reason to believe that similar doubts, dilemmas, and anxieties were experienced by countless other Americans in similar social circumstances.

Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority

The domestic mass murders of the early republic took place in a period of profound transition in the history of the American family. By the mid-eighteenth century cultural arbiters throughout the Anglo-American world were advocating a major change in marital and parental roles, involving the replacement of coercive or authoritarian norms of familial relations by those based on mutual love and affection. That "revolution against patriarchal authority," as it has been described by one of its leading historians, gained still greater momentum during and after the American Revolution, when the very idea of coercive authority went out of fashion, whether the tyranny of a British King over his American subjects, or the tyranny of a household patriarch over his wife and children. By the early nineteenth century, the ideal of mutual romantic love had largely triumphed over patriarchal authority as the basis of relations between husbands and wives, while gentle persuasion and tender affection had become popular norms for interactions between parents and their children.(102)

One might intuitively assume that the familicides of the early republic must have been desperate attempts by failed or failing patriarchs to reassert their lost authority. Indeed, one or two of the men did express proprietary attitudes toward their children that might be interpreted as throwbacks to a vanishing patriarchal regime.(103) However, the evidence suggests that most of the family-killers were extremely receptive toward the new domestic ideals. Several were explicitly described as loving husbands and affectionate fathers. James Yates reportedly offered "endearing expressions" toward his wife and "caressed" his little children on the very night that he killed them. William Beadle appeared to be an "affectionate husband" and a "tender, fond parent." Abel Clemmens described himself as "a loving husband and tender father." Purrinton's relationship to his family was described as "uniformly tender and affectionate." Isaac Young was reportedly "fond" of his wife and children and "was never known to treat them roughly."(104) Further, with the exceptions of Womble and Cowan, there is no evidence that overt familial conflicts played any role in instigating the crimes.(105) To the contrary, in the cases of the depressive killers at least, the very intensity of the new affective ties between the men and their wives and children may have helped to transform simple suicides into mass murders. That intensity of familial relations seems to have become particularly volatile in the lives of psychologically vulnerable men when combined with several of the broad social instabilities and insecurities characteristic of the early republic.

Geographic Mobility

Americans of the early national period were a people on the move and the men under study here were no exception.(106) William Beadle emigrated from England and, over a period of twenty years, lived successively in the Connecticut towns of Stratford, Darby, Fairfield, and Wethersfield. Abel Clemmens was born in Waterford, New Jersey, moved with his mother to Redstone, Pennsylvania, left there for Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), and was about to move to the Miami region of Ohio at the time of his crime. James Purrinton lived most of his life in Bowdoinham, Massachusetts (now Maine), but had recently moved to a new farm in Augusta, Massachusetts (now Maine) at the time of his death. John Cowan's life is a study in almost perpetual motion. During his childhood, he lived successively in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania; Maysville, Kentucky; West Union, Ohio; Shawneetown, Illinois; and Danville, Kentucky. During adolescence and early adulthood, he moved between Harrodsburgh, Lexington, Danville, and Somerset, all in Kentucky, then down to New Orleans, back up to Danville, and then to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After his marriage, he lived successively in Pittsburgh; Cincinnati, Ohio; Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia); Pittsburgh (again); Ashtabula, Ohio; and finally Cincinnati (again). Isaac Young was born in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, where he lived in a number of households. After his first murder, he changed his name to Heller and moved to Liberty, Indiana, where he eventually slaughtered his wife and children.(107)

Connections between murderous impulses and the stresses of mobility are most evident in the lives of Clemmens, Cowan, and Young. As described in his autobiographical narrative, Clemmens's fatal bout with anxiety and depression began with his uncertainty over whether to move to the Miami region of Ohio. He initially decided to go but grew uneasy over his mother's refusal to accompany him and his fear that the move might prove fatal to his pregnant wife. As his mental state deteriorated, Clemmens became frantic at the prospect of his children being ripped "from the fond embraces of their mother, and scattered over the country." Torn by the conflicting desires of family members as well as by his own tormented ambivalence, Abel first decided to go, then to stay, then to go, and finally escaped the issue completely by slaughtering his family on the eve of departure.(108)

The early separation of John Cowan's parents forced him to endure an unhappy and unsettled childhood in which he was repeatedly shuttled between various relatives and schools. He later suggested that the experience had permanently "soured" his "temper." Cowan's adolescence and early adulthood were apparently just as unstable and traumatic. During his first twenty years he lived in nearly a dozen communities in at least five different states. When his own marriage seemed to replicate that of his parents - with frequent quarrels, movements, separations, and suspicions of infidelity - Cowan was driven to end the agony by murdering his wife and children. He thereby saved his offspring from being "knocked and cuffed about by the world," that is, from just the sort of unsettled existence that he himself had endured.(109)

After Isaac Young's first murderous outburst in Pennsylvania, he changed his name and moved to Indiana. Given the fluidity of American society, he was easily able to adopt a new identity, marry a woman, and build a new life. However, when things began to go sour, Young was unable to fall back on the support of sympathetic family members, as he had in his home state of Pennsylvania. The troubled man thereupon responded to personal adversity and the threatened intervention of neighbors by slaying his wife and young children. Much like Clemmens and Cowan, Young was, on the one hand, repeatedly tempted to travel (as in his brief flings of itinerant proselytizing) and, on the other, tormented by images of separation. Near the end he claimed that "he would rather die than be separated from his family."(110) As illustrated by those three otherwise very different cases, the geographic mobility of the early republic could easily become a detour to anxiety, instability, and tragedy.

Economic Opportunity

The family-killers examined here reflected not only the mobility of American society but also its economic opportunity. James Yates was esteemed by neighbors for his "industry"; although not wealthy, he "maintained his family ... very comfortably." William Beadle was a successful retail merchant in a number of Connecticut towns. Known for his "strict honor and integrity" in business, he at one point had accumulated property worth about twelve hundred pounds. Abel Clemmens was a farmer who worked his mother's fields and later raised crops on rented land. At the time of his mass murder, he was on the verge of moving to a rich agricultural region of the midwest. James Purrinton was a man whose own steady "industry and frugality," along with a "handsome patrimony from his father," enabled him to achieve the status of "a rich and independent farmer." John Cowan was an artisan and laborer who seemed able to find profitable employment wherever he went. During his first year of marriage, he and his wife were "industrious," managed to save money, and even planned to buy a small house. Although he never accumulated much property, it was not for want of opportunity but because of the frequent disruptions in his household. Isaac Young was able to parlay an inheritance from his father into a grocery store in Liberty, Ohio. It was only due to his own "neglect of business" that he was beset by creditors and threatened with the poor-house.(111)

In a society that placed high value on industry and independence, most of those men need not have viewed themselves as failures. But such an assessment ignores the high psychic costs of economic freedom, particularly for men prone to anxiety and depression. After Beadle's estate was diminished by the depreciation of his holdings in continental currency, the proud merchant was tormented by bitterness and insecurity. As his friend and biographer explained, he was finally destroyed not by actual "hunger" or "want" but by the galling fear that he and his family might have to endure "the horrors of poverty at some future time." Abel Clemmens was likewise tormented by concern that his "property" was "inadequate" for the "support" of his family. He also seemed fearful of falling into the hands of "the sheriff, constable, or overseers of the poor." In fact, trial testimony suggests that Clemmens had once been arrested for debt--and that the debt still had not been paid at the time of his family's murder. James Purrinton was an "avaricious" man whose moods shifted with fluctuations in his economic fortunes. When a drought struck at his new farm in Augusta, he became deeply depressed by the possibility that "his family would suffer for want of bread - that his crops would be cut off that his cattle would starve." Thus economic insecurities were central to the altruistic rationalizations for murder offered by all three of the depressives. Concern over the poverty of his wife and child also motivated John Cowan's repeated and eventually disastrous efforts to reunite with his spouse, while Isaac Young's "horror of the Poor House" helped precipitate his second murderous outburst. To judge by those cases, gnawing economic worries and insecurities constituted the dark underside of economic freedom in the early republic.(112)

Religious Ferment and the Flight from Freedom

The religious beliefs and experiences of the family-killers were also reflective of their age. In fact, religious themes are so prominent in the familicide publications that a skeptical scholar might discount the pamphlets as social-historical sources and consider them instead as a conservative literature of religious controversy designed to combat various antinomian or rationalist heresies generated by the new religious freedom of the early republic.(113) While it contains an element of truth, that view ignores the conventions of the crime genres to which those pamphlets belong - which were increasingly secular and empirical during that period. There is very little evidence that the authors or editors of early national trial reports, criminal autobiographies, or third-person crime narratives intentionally fabricated information, either for polemical purposes or for any other reason.(114) To the contrary, an abortive attempt to attribute religious motives in one of the familicide cases where it evidently had no empirical basis was quickly refuted in the popular press.(115) If religious factors appear prominently in many of the familicide pamphlets, it is probably because religious motives were in fact prominent in the minds of the murderers.

The religious experiences of the family-killers can be divided into two distinct groups. One group consists of Yates, Womble, and Young, all of whom thought that they had achieved direct sensory contact with the supernatural. As already described, the religious visions or hallucinations of those men led directly to their crimes. The "two Spirits" that appeared to Yates and the angelic retinue viewed by Womble were horrible realizations of the religious sensibility of an age in which common men aspired, as Gordon Wood has put it, to "literally and physically 'see bright angels stand."'(116) Isaac Young's elaborate complex of prophetic pretensions and apocalyptic expectations - and their reportedly favorable reception by at least some of his neighbors - are likewise inexplicable without an appreciation of the millennial hopes that pervaded much of American religious life during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.(117)

The spiritual beliefs of Beadle, Purrinton, and Clemmens were rather different from those of the deranged visionaries but were equally central to their homicidal acts. In each of the three cases the killer's altruistic rationalizations were reportedly based upon his belief in universal salvation - an unorthodox tenet popularized during the last decades of the eighteenth century. Given that belief, each had no reason to doubt that his wife and children would face happy futures after death. Beadle believed that "future punishment" was "inconsistent with the goodness of God." Clemmens accepted the arguments of the well-dressed deist who came to Clarksburg espousing the doctrine that all souls returned to heaven. And Purrinton reportedly died a Universalist, convinced that, once dead, all members of his family would be "eternally happy." In those three cases, strong suicidal impulses and the novel doctrine of universal salvation seem to have combined with intense feelings of paternal responsibility to set off extreme episodes of domestic violence.(118)

Despite the striking differences between them, both the visionaries and the depressives saw themselves as agents of forces beyond their control. Indeed, they perceived their crimes as acts of duty and obedience. James Yates claimed to have slaughtered his wife and children in "obedience" to the "commands" of his heavenly "father." William Beadle concluded that he was prompted and directed by "God himself." Matthew Womble was "obedient to the orders giv'n" by his angelic vision and killed his family to "get to heaven." Abel Clemmens strived for years to achieve obedience to his heavenly father, believed it his "painful duty" to slaughter his family, and repeatedly testified to his subservience to "a guide unseen and unheard, though irresistable." James Purrinton apparently acted in obedience to the divine command appearing in the ninth chapter of Ezekiel: "Slay utterly old and young." Isaac Young believed it was his "duty" to kill the young girl in his brother's household and felt "compelled" to do so.(119)

The religious strivings of those men - and their attitudes toward spiritual authority - reflected the radical bipolarity of their thoughts and impulses. After an evening of reading Scripture and singing psalms, Yates was confronted by two spirits: one on his left, the other on his right. Yates threw his Bible into the fire, obeying the one on his left (literally, the sinister one), while disregarding the objections of the one on the right. The other cases indicate a similarly polarized ambivalence. "That it is God himself that prompts and directs me ... I really believe," Beadle noted. "But if it should at last prove Mr. Devil, or any other evil spirit, all that I can say about it, is, that I was born a very unlucky fellow." Womble first thought he was directed by a heavenly angel but later concluded it was "Satan in disguise." Isaac Young was subject to outbursts of "profane swearing" but felt "far superior to ordinary christians" and assumed he enjoyed "the gift of prophecy." He declared the Bible "accursed" but believed he was "a second Saviour." Abel Clemmens experienced a similar polarization of impulse - and a paralyzing ambivalence - in regard to almost every decision he faced: to move to Ohio or not; to renew his lease or not; to obey his "maker" or not; to trade his wagon or not; to visit his mother or not; to sing hymns or not; to slaughter his family or not; to kill himself or not.(120)

The efforts of those men to submit to supernatural authority were less single-minded pursuits of spiritual perfection than desperate attempts to evade seemingly irresolvable personal conflicts, most importantly between moral demands (or social obligations) and destructive urges or desires. It was ultimately less important for them to avoid sin than to resolve dilemmas or evade choice. When the breathless individual freedom of the early republic collided with the relentless responsibilities of paternal stewardship, the result was an implosion of self-destructive violence. Although it might be tempting to conceptualize the early national familicides as anachronistic perversions of a disintegrating patriarchal order, it must be remembered that they represent the beginning not the end of a disturbing national tradition.(121)

Just as the familicides explored here reflected the new "conditions of freedom" of the early republic, so have subsequent clusters of family-killings probably been influenced by social conditions and tensions peculiar to their own time. Tantalizing evidence to that effect may be found in newspaper accounts of three familicides (followed by suicides) committed over a period of several months in 1986. One was the case of a Farmers Home Administration supervisor from South Dakota despondent over the prospect of having to foreclose on the property of local farmers; the second involved a former serviceman from New Hampshire depressed over government insensitivity toward Vietnam veterans (he was particularly concerned about the impact that the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act would have on benefits); and the third featured an injured and unemployed pipe welder from Connecticut whose disability payments had recently been cut off or reduced.(122) Those cases all seem to have reflected tensions associated with the attrition or failure of twentieth-century government programs designed to protect vulnerable individuals from the vagaries of life in a free society.(123) If those recent cases illustrate the fraying of our modern social safety net, the familicides examined in this essay reflect the anxieties and uncertainties of an earlier era of radical freedom unmediated by the welfare state. Many social barriers had fallen in post-Revolutionary America, but several unhappy men could still not control the rain, or the currency, or their own darker impulses. Where others may have perceived boundless opportunities, they experienced gnawing fears and terrifying compulsions. Situations of free choice did not inspire them with a "heady feeling of command" or a "sense of marvelous potential," to use Robert Wiebe's expansive phrases, but drove them instead to desperation.(124) Physical unsettlement, economic insecurities, and religious speculations all combined to baffle and torment them. Unable to cope with the perplexities of life in a free society, they constructed internal imperatives to evade and annul that very freedom. In their troubled hands, "release of energy" became a whirlwind of destruction. By their actions, each tacitly endorsed John Cowan's conclusion in prison: "Liberty would be more horrible to me than death."(125) Thus did a handful of troubled Americans confront freedoms profound enough to transform sober Christians into deluded visionaries, loving husbands into axe-wielding assassins, and tidy republican households into slaughterhouses.

Department of History Miami, FL 33199


The author would like to thank Morris L. Cohen, John P. Demos, John M. Muffin, Thomas R. Pegram, Darden A. Pyron, Erika D. Rappaport, Shirley Samuels, Peter N. Steams, and Donald E. Worster for their helpful advice, criticism, and encouragement.

1. See entries in Thomas M. McDade, The Annals of Murder (Norman, OK, 1961), pp. 24-25, 56-57, 68, 137-38, 202-3, 232-33, and 248-50. It should be noted that McDade does not list publications on the Yates and Womble cases discussed below. Conversely, one of the factual cases listed in McDade, that of Edward Ruloff, is not discussed in this article. My own research has uncovered only one family-killing from the colonial period, as well as several others from the late eighteenth through late nineteenth centuries not listed in McDade. Neil King Fitzgerald locates a total of eleven "multiple family murders" between 1780 and 1839 (including five of the ones discussed in this essay); however, he defines that category a bit more broadly than mine and includes at least one case that is probably pure fiction; see Fitzgerald, "Towards an American Abraham: Multiple Parricide and the Rejection of Revelation in the Early National Period" (Masters thesis, Brown University, 1971).

2. Isaac Ray, A Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity, ed. Winfred Overholser (Cambridge, MA, 1962), p. 147. Since the familicides were widely covered in contemporary newspapers (as well as in pamphlets and broadsides), it is certainly possible that the small clusters of cases during the 1780s, 1800s, and 1830s represent early variants of the so-called "Werther effect," noted by modern criminologists, whereby violent deaths increase in the aftermath of highly-publicized suicides or murder-suicides. On the "Werther effect," see David P. Phillips, "Suicide, Motor Vehicle Fatalities, and the Mass Media: Evidence toward a Theory of Suggestion," American Journal of Sociology 84 (March 1979): 1150-74; Phillips, "Airplane Accident Fatalities Increase Just After Newspaper Stories About Murder and Suicide," Science 201 (Aug. 25, 1978): 748-50; Phillips, "Motor Vehicle Fatalities Increase Just After Publicized Suicide Stories," Science 196 (June 24, 1977): 1464-65; Phillips, "The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect," American Sociological Review 39 (June 1974): 340-54. Of course, it is also possible that the clustering of familicide publications within the early national period represents a literary "Werther effect" operating upon the authors and printers who produced the pamphlets and broadsides rather than on the murderers themselves.

3. Since the familicide narratives are governed by genre conventions and employ literary motifs and formulas, it would certainly be possible (and no doubt fruitful) to analyze them as cultural artifacts; my point here is simply that they can also be used as social-historical sources - precisely because of the conventions by which early national crime genres were governed. In regard to criminal autobiographies, my assumption is not that they were generally written by the criminals themselves, or that they were simple transcriptions of oral statements made by the criminals, but that they were more often drafted by printers, ministers, lawyers, hack writers, or others, using information obtained from the criminals during jailhouse interviews. The extent of each criminal's active involvement in the process of literary construction undoubtedly varied from case to case.

4. For a general survey of early American crime literature, see Daniel A. Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860 (New York, 1993).

5. See Peter Linebaugh," The Ordinary of Newgate and His Account," in J. S. Cockburn, ed., Crime in England, 1550-1800 (Princeton, 1977), pp. 246-69; Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1991), pp. xix-xx and 88-91; Linebaugh, "Tyburn: A Study of Crime and the Labouring Poor in London During the First Half of the Eighteenth Century" (Ph.D. diss., University of Warwick, 1975), pp. 256-325; John H. Langbein, Prosecuting Crime in the Renaissance (Cambridge, MA, 1974), pp. 45-47; and A. D. J. MacFarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (New York, 1970), p. 85.

6. See Daniel A. Cohen, "A Fellowship of Thieves: Property Criminals in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts," Journal of Social History 22 (Fall 1988): 65-92; most of the same material also appears in Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace, pp. 117-42.

7. For examples of fictional accounts, see Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland: or the Transformation, Bicentenial Edition (Kent, OH, 1977); Henry Mills, Narrative of the Life and Dying Confession (Boston, 1817); Narrative of the Pious Death of the Penitent Henry Mills (Boston, 1817); A Faithful Account of the Massacre of the Family of Gerald Watson (Boston, 1819). On the relationship of Brown's novel to the Yates case, see note 20 below. On its possible relationship to the Beadle case, see Fitzgerald, "Towards an American Abraham," pp. 65-66.

8. For a perceptive discussion of similar crimes recounted in the popular literature of early modern England and Germany, see Joy Wiltenburg, Disorderly Women and Female Power in the Street Literature of Early Modern England and Germany (Charlottesville, 1992), pp. 213-32, passim. Some of the popular accounts described by Wiltenburg may not be as reliable, in a social-historical sense, as those utilized in this essay. For a brief discussion of late twentieth-century familicides, see Ronald M. Holmes and Stephen T. Holmes, "Understanding Mass Murder: A Starting Point," Federal Probation 56 (March 1992): 57-58.

9. The quoted passage is Philip Jenkins's summary of Elliott Leyton's approach in Compulsive Killers: The Story of Modern Multiple Murder (New York, 1986); it should be noted that Jenkins is fairly critical of Leyton's particular historical formulations concerning serial killers; Jenkins, Book Review of Elliott Leyton, Compulsive Killers, Journal of Criminal Justice 16 (1988): 151-54.

10. See Bailyn, Ideological Origins, pp. 230-319.

11. See Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York, 1992); Ronald P. Formisano, The Transformation of Political Culture: Massachusetts Parties, 1790s-1840s (New York, 1983); Formisano, "Deferential-Participant Politics: The Early Republic's Political Culture, 1789-1840," American Political Science Review 68 (1974): 473-87.

12. See Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, MA, 1990), pp. 225-88; Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, 1989); Stephen A. Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England (Cambridge, MA, 1982); Gordon S. Wood, "Evangelical America and Early Mormonism," New York History 61 (1980): 359-86; William G. McLoughlin, The Role of Religion in the Revolution, in Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson, editors, Essays on the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, 1973), pp. 197-255; Bailyn, Intellectual Origins, pp. 246-72.

13. See Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (New York, 1992); Sean Wilentz, Society, Politics, and the Market Revolution, 1815-1848 (Washington, 1990); Steven Watts, The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790-1820 (Baltimore, 1987), pp. 6-9 and passim; Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women (New Haven, 1982), p. 12; Sidney Ratner, James H. Soltow, and Richard Sylla, The Evolution of the American Economy (New York, 1979), pp. 103-249; Stuart Bruchey, The Roots of American Economic Growth 1607-1861 (1965; rpt. New York, 1968), pp. 74-91; Douglass C. North, The Economic Growth of the United States 1790-1860 (1961; rpt. New York, 1966), pp. 1-203; George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860 (New York, 1951); Percy W. Bidwell, "The Agricultural Revolution in New England," American Historical Review 26 (1921): 683-702. On the relationship between literacy and commercialization, see William J. Gilmore, Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life: Material and Cultural Life in Rural New England, 1780-1835 (Knoxville, 1989).

14. See Marini, Radical Sects, pp. 25-28; Wood, "Evangelical America," pp. 365-66; Marvin Meyers, The Jacksonian Persuasion (1957; rpt. Stanford, CA, 1966), pp. 44-50; Lois Kimbell Mathews, The Expansion of New England (1909; rpt. New York, 1962).

15. See Ellen K. Rothman, Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America (New York, 1984), pp. 25-30; Carl N. Degler, At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present (New York, 1980), pp. 9-12; Daniel Scott Smith, "Parental Power and Marriage Patterns," in Michael Gordon, ed., The American Family in Social. Historical Perspective, 2nd ed. (New York, 1978), pp. 93-97; Robert V. Wells, "Family History and Demographic Transition," in Gordon, ed., American Family, p. 527; Daniel Scott Smith and Michael S. Hindus, "Premarital Pregnancy in America 1640-1971: An Overview and Interpretation," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4 (1975): 537 and 555-57.

16. For a provocative overview of the transformations of this period, see Gordon S. Wood, "The Significance of the Early Republic," Journal of the Early Republic 8 (Spring 1988): 1-20.

17. Wood, "Evangelical America," p. 361.

18. James Willard Hurst, Law and the Conditions of Freedom in the Nineteenth-Century United States (1956; rpt. Madison, 1979), p. 7 and passim; John Higham, From Boundlessness to Consolidation: The Transformation of American Culture 1848-1860 (Ann Arbor, 1969), pp. 5-15; Robert H. Wiebe, The Opening of American Society (New York, 1984), pp. 143 and passim.

19. See, for example, Watts, Republic Reborn; Wood, "Evangelical America," p. 366; W. J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York, 1979), p. 212 and passim; G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 1976), p. 50; Meyers, Jacksonian Persuasion; Page Smith, "Anxiety and Despair in American History," 'William and Mary Quarterly 26 (1969): 420-23; Fred Somkin, Unquiet Eagle: Memory Desire in the Idea of American Freedom, 1815-1860 (Ithaca, NY, 1967); David Hackett Fischer, The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy (New York, 1965), pp. 1-28.

20. This and the following two paragraphs are drown from "An Account of a Murder Committed by Mr. J - Y -, upon His Family, in December, A.D. 1781, Philadelphia Minerva, 2, nos. 81 and 82 (Aug. 20 and 27, 1796), unpaginated. "An Account" features a first-person narrative of the crime taken from Yates "upon his examination" but, unfortunately, contains little information on his life prior to December 1781. It may have been written by Ann Eliza Bleecker, an author from upstate New York. For brief newspaper reports on the case, see Connecticut Courant, Dec. 25, 1781, p. [3]; Connecticut Journal, Dec. 27, 1781, p. [1]. Fitzgerald also discusses a follow-up story in the December 31, 1781 issue of the Pennsylvania Packet; see Fitzgerald, Towards an American Abraham," p. 2. For discussion of "An Account," see James C. Hendrickson, "A Note on Wieland," American Literature 8 (1936-37): 306-07; as described in Hendrickson's "Note," the Yates case was apparently an inspiration for Charles Brockden Brown's novel Wieland (1798); on the relationship of the Yates case to Wieland, see also Alan Axelrod, Charles Brockden Brown: An American Tale (Austin, 1983), pp. 53-59; Fitzgerald, "Towards an American Abraham, pp. 62-68 and 84. On the location and history of Tomhanick (also spelled Tomhannock) and Pittstown, see George Baker Anderson, Landmarks of Rensselaer County, New York (Syracuse, NY, 1897), pp. 468-80. Of all the narratives discussed in this essay, the Yates account of 1796 is the one of whose details I am most skeptical and for which I have the least independent corroboration. However, I have no firm reason to doubt the general outlines of the story. For a contrary view of that narrative as "fictitious" and "fictionalized," see Fitzgerald, "Towards an American Abraham," pp. 2-8.

21. It is quite possible that some of the more horrific details of the account, omitted here, reflect literary embellishment on the part of the anonymous narrator; for such an interpretation, see Fitzgerald, "Towards an American Abraham," pp. 2-8.

22. [Stephen Mix Mitchell], A Narrative of the Life of William Beadle (Hartford, 1783), pp. 6, 12-14, and 18. At the time, Mitchell was a local lawyer, judge, and friend of the killer; he drew heavily upon letters and papers left behind by Beadle, some of them discussing his long-planned crime. Mitchell later became a U.S. Senator and Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. On Mitchell and his account, see Henry R. Stiles, The History of Ancient Wethersfield, Connecticut, 2 volumes (New York, 1904), I, 695-700; II, 506-7. Other contemporary publications on the Beadle case include A Poem Occasioned by the Horrid Crimes of William Beadle (n.p: [1782?]), broadside; A Poem Occasioned by the most Shocking and Cruel Murder ([Hartford]: [1782]), broadside; Providence, January 1, 1783. The Following is the Most Particular Account of the Late Cruel Murders (Providence, [1783]), broadside; James Dana, Men's Sins Not Chargeable on God, but on Themselves (New Haven, [1783]); John Marsh, The Great Sin and Danger of Striving With God (Hartford, [1783]). For complete bibliographic information, see Ritz, American Judicial Proceedings, pp. 229-31. Timothy Dwight, who claimed to have known the Beadle family "intimately," provided a lengthy sketch of the tragedy in his Travels, drawn mostly from Mitchell's account; Dwight, Travels in New England and New York, ed. Barbara M. Solomon, 4 volumes (Cambridge, MA, 1969), I, 164-68. For a very useful undergraduate thesis on the life of Beadle that seeks to reconstruct the texts of the letters and papers that he left behind, see James R. Smart, "A Life of William Beadle" (Senior thesis, Princeton University, 1989).

23. [Mitchell], Narrative, pp. 6-7. For a painstaking assessment of Beadle's shifting economic status in Wethersfield, see Smart, "Life of William Beadle," pp. 95-124. Smart concludes that Beadle fell from wealthy to "middling" status.

24. [Mitchell], Narrative, pp. 7, 13-14, 16-16 [sic; actually 17], and 20.

25. Ibid., p. 20.

26. Ibid., pp. 19 and 21-22.

27. Ibid., pp. 7-9, 13-14, and 19. Beadle also had doubts about the propriety of killing his wife that stemmed from the fact that, unlike the case of his children, "he had no hand in bringing her into existence and consequently had no power over her life." (13)

28. Ibid., pp. 8-9; [Mitchell], Narrative (Windsor, [VT.], 1795), pp. 17-20 (this later edition of Mitchell's Narrative contains some material not included in the original).

29. (Mitchell), Narrative (1783), p. 9; [Mitchell], Narrative (1795), pp. 20-21. According to Dwight, Beadle died with an estate valued at "three hundred pounds sterling"; Dwight, Travels, I, 168. For a careful assessment of Beadle's economic status at the time of his death (which places his "net personal wealth" at 253 pounds), see Smart, "Life of William Beadle," pp. 99-103 and 118-24.

30. See "Isle of Wight County Records," William and Mary College Quarterly 7 (April, 1899): 292 and 299; "Patents Issued During the Regal Government," William and Mary College Quarterly, 9 (January, 1901): 143.

31. Virginia Gazette, June 26, 1784, p. [2], quoted; Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser, July 1, 1784, p. [2]; Connecticut Journal, July 28, 1784, p. [4].

32. See Isle of Wight County, Virginia, Deed Book No. 11, 1761-1765, pp. 343-45; Deed Book No. 13, 1772-1778, pp. 303-5; Deed Book No. 15, 1782-1786, pp. 668-70; Personal Property Tax Book, 1784, p. 19; all located at the Virginia State Archives, Richmond.

33. John Leland, A True Account, How Matthew Womble Murdered His Wife (Stockbridge, MA, 1793). For complete bibliographic information on this edition and a second of 1797, see Ritz, American Judicial Proceedings, p. 218.

34. The neighbor may have been John Deford, listed in Isle of Wight County, Virginia, Personal Property Tax Book, 1784, p. 5. Deford seems to have been a small planter much like Womble; the tax book indicates that he owned one horse and seven head of cattle. John Deford's will, written a few years after the murders, suggests an ongoing relationship between the Deford and Womble families; see Isle of Wight County, Wills & Accounts, Book No. 10, 1785-1796, pp. 87-88.

35. Leland, True Account, pp. 2-8, quoted at 7-8. In October 1785 the state legislature of Virginia provided that Womble's estate should be sold for the benefit of his creditors and surviving children; see William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large (Richmond, 1823), XII, 201.

36. Cruel Murder!! A True Account of the Life and Character of Abel Clemmens (orig. publ. Morgantown, WV; rpt,. Philadelphia, [18067]), p. [3]. Cruel Murder!! is a first-person narrative of the criminal s life; it almost certainly is a reprint of A Succinct Narrative of the Life and Character of Abel Clemmens (Morgantown, WV, 1806), listed in McDade, Annals, #181; however, I have not been able to locate any copies of the Morgantown edition. Neither A Succinct Narrative nor Cruel Murder!! is available on the microcard edition of Early American Imprints; the only known copy of Cruel Murder!! is at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. Other publications on this case include Murder - Horrible Murder!! Clarksburg, Virginia, November, 1805 ([Morgantown, WV, 1805]), broadside; Horrid Murder! Abel Clemmons Murdered His Wife and Eight Children ([Augusta, ME.: 1806]), broadsheet (on verso of Horrid Murder!, account of Purrinton case). For a frequently reprinted newspaper report of the murder, see Petersburg Intelligencer, Nov. 26, 1805, p. [3]; New-York Evening Post, Nov. 26, 1805, p. [3]; Connecticut Journal, Nov. 27, 1805, p. [3]. A fairly detailed trial report that originally appeared in the [Washington, Pa.] Western Telegraphe also survives; see Trial of Abel Clements, Petersburg Intelligencer, July 15, 1806. That report corroborates many of the details contained in Cruel Murder!! I am very grateful to Michael L. Nicholls for bringing it to my attention. For other brief historical sketches of the case, see Henry Haymond, History of Harrison County, West Virginia (1910; rpt. Parsons, WV, 1973), p. 226; Otis K. Rice, The Allegheny Frontier: West Virginia Beginnings, 1730-1830 (Lexington, 1970), pp. 184-85; Dorothy Davis, History of Harrison County, West Virginia, edited Elizabeth Sloan (1970; rpt. Parsons, WV, 1972), pp. 92-93; Earl L. Core, The Monongalia Story: A Bicentennial History, 2 volumes (Parsons, WV, 1974-76), II, 345-46. Both Davis and Core quote from the Harrison County Court Minute Book on Clemmens's initial arraignment.

37. The claim of seven engagements sounds like a storyteller's exaggeration.

38. For accounts of Clarksburg and vicinity during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see Haymond, History of Harrison County, pp. 254-73, 280-82, 352-68, 438-39, and passim, quoted at 260; Claude G. Bowers, ed., The Diary of Elbridge Gerry, Jr. (New York, 1927), pp. 121-26; Harvey W. Harmer, One Hundred and Fifty Years of Methodism in Clarksburg, 1788-1938 (n.p.: n.d. [ca. 1938]), unpaginated; Davis, History of Harrison County, pp. 65-68, 278-84, 545-46, 607-18, and passim. The figures on houses and population are both from 1797, a few years after Clemmenss initial arrival.

39. According to Cruel Murder!!, Abel married Carpenter on June 24, 1794; local records suggest that the date was either June 19 or 24, 1794; see Cruel Murder!!, p. 4; Earle H. Morris, ed., Marriage Records: Harrison County Virginia - (West Virginia), 1784-1850 (Fort Wayne, Indiana: Fort Wayne Public Library, 1966), p. 20; Haymond, History of Harrison County, p. 451. The earlier date probably marks the issuance of the marriage bond (a key source in Morris's compilation), while the latter is probably the date of the actual ceremony. This is one of the many verifiable details that tend to confirm the reliability of Cruel Murder!! as a social-historical source.

40. See Haymond, History of Harrison County, pp. 19, 24, 116-17, 188, 195, 198, 205, 209-10, 231, 365-67; Lucullus Virgil McWhorter, The Border Settlers of Northwestern Virginia from 1768 to 1795 (Hamilton, OH, 1915), pp. 190-96; Core, The Monongalia Story, I, 198 and 219.

41. Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 4-5; on the meteor, see Haymond, History of Harrison County, p. 185. Harrison County Personal Property Tax Books for the years 1799 through 1805, located on microfilm at the Virginia State Archives in Richmond, confirm Abel Clemmens's continuous residence in the county during those years. The Tax Book for 1798 also identifies a resident named "Abraham Clemmons," which is probably a mistaken reference to Abel.

42. The Methodists had begun to organize in the vicinity of Clarksburg by the mid-1780s. A Clarksburg Circuit was established in 1787 and Bishop Asbury himself preached there as early as 1788. See Harvey W. Harmer, Methodism in Clarksburg, unpaginated. In Cruel Murder!!, Clemmens claimed to have been affected in a most extraordinary degree under the preaching of a sermon by Mr. Davis, a Methodist circuit rider." The chronology of his narrative suggests that this took place sometime between 1800 and 1803. Sure enough, a Methodist minister named P. B. Davis rode the Clarksburg Circuit in the year 1802; see Harmer, Methodism in Clarksburg, unpaginated. Once again, an incidental detail in Cruel Murder!! is corroborated by independent documentation.

43. Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 5-6 and 9. Otis Rice has stressed the prominence of denominational divisions in the early culture of western Virginia and has noted that the first book published in the region, in 1797, was the Christian Panoply, a vigorous attack on Deism by a prominent British theologian. See Rice, Allegheny Frontier, pp. 264-65, 303-4, and passim; Rice, West Virginia: A History (Lexington, KY, 1985), p. 77.

44. See Rice, Allegheny Frontier, pp. 69, 133-34, and passim; Rice, West Virginia, pp. 28-29 and 54-55. For more on the eminent George Jackson, who served in the state legislatures of both Virginia and Ohio and in the U.S. Congress, see Davis, History of Harrison County, pp. 156-57.

45. Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 6-8. The rich Oedipal implications of Clemmens's life have been explored in another paper; see Daniel A. Cohen, "The Agony of Abel Clemmens: Family Killing and Freedom in the Early Republic" (unpublished paper delivered at the Ninth Annual Meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July, 1987).

46. Trial testimony confirms that his mother thought Abel was "out of his head" or "crazy"; see "Trial of Abel Clements," pp. [1-2].

47. Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 8-9.

48. Ibid., pp. 9-10.

49. Ibid., p. 10.

50. Ibid., p. 11. For testimony indicating that Clemmens had been seen riding a cart in a listless or disoriented manner, see "Trial of Abel Clements," p. [1].

51. Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 12-13. Apparently on the basis of his examination of the scene of the crime, Col. George Jackson expressed his belief that all of the members of Clemmens's family "had received instantaneous death, except two of the children who had struggled a little"; see "Trial of Abel Clements," p. [1].

52. Along very similar lines, a fellow prisoner testified at Clemmens's trial that the murderer told him in jail: "If I had my family as they were this time last year, ten thousand mountains of gold should not part us." From "Trial of Abel Clements," p. [2]. This is yet more corroborative evidence that Cruel Murder!! was indeed extracted from Clemmens while in jail awaiting execution. The only alternative possibility, that some creative author mined the trial transcript for motifs to integrate into his essentially fictive narrative, seems more far-fetched.

53. Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, p. 13.

54. Ibid., pp. 13-18. Clemmens was eventually tried and convicted of the murders and executed on June 30, 1806; for a report of the trial, see "Trial of Abel Clements."

55. According to McDade, Annals, p. 57, A Succinct Narrative is signed "George Deibler" on the last page; "Mr. Deibler" is identified in Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, p. 19, as one of the "christians" who visited him frequently in prison; perhaps Clemmens narrated his story to Deibler in prison.

56. Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 19-20.

57. Horrid Massacre!! Sketches of the Life of Captain James Purrinton (Augusta, [ME.], 1806), pp. 3-4 and 18. Other publications addressing this case include Horrid Murder! ([Augusta, ME., 1806]), broadside; Horrid Murder! Committed by Captain James Purinton [sic] (Baltimore, [18067]), broadside; Timothy Merritt, Discourse on the Horrid Murder of ... Purrinton's Family (Augusta, [ME.], 1806). For a modern scholarly account of the case, see Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard (New York, 1990), pp. 286-308. Ulrich is more skeptical than I concerning the factual reliability of the pamphlet narrative. On the rise of the Freewill Baptists and Universalists in northern New England, see Marini, Radical Sects.

58. On the prosperity of Augusta and vicinity during that period, see Nathan Weston, Oration at the Centennial Celebration of the Erection of Fort Western (Augusta, ME, 1854), p. 15; James W. North, History of Augusta (Augusta, ME, 1870), pp. 301-2.

59. Horrid Massacre!!, p. 4. A few bits of fragmentary circumstantial evidence tend to confirm that there was indeed a drought in the vicinity of Augusta during the spring and summer of 1806. Two entries in the diary of Martha Ballard, a neighbor of the Purrintons, suggest an unusual concern over rainfall during that period. In her entry for June 24, Ballard wrote: "We had a shower near night, for which we ought to thank the author of our mercies." And on July 8, she noted: "We had fine showers, for which we ought to be thankfull." Judging from the extensive excerpts of Ballard's diary in Nash's History of Augusta, such statements of gratitude were not typical of Ballard's references to rainfall during earlier years, suggesting that there might have been a drought during that particular season. For the entries just quoted, see Charles Elventon Nash, History of Augusta (Augusta, ME, 1904), p. 430; for more neutral references to rainfall during earlier years (between the months of April and October), see Nash, pp. 345, 356, 366, 384, 419, 421; for another exception, see 425. Additional confirmation of agricultural scarcity during that period is provided by John Merrick, member of a local committee on agriculture, in an address to farmers in June 1807. Merrick declared that "hay is now dearer in Kennebec than in London" and recommended measures to preserve grain for future seasons of hardship. He concluded: "New measures are required from the repeated scarcity lately occurring in our food for horses and cattle." Quoted in North, History of Augusta, p. 343.

60. Horrid Massacre!!, pp. 7-8. That is the author's speculative explanation.

61. Ibid., pp. 5-6 and 9. The biblical passage is Ezekiel 9:6, 11.

62. John Cowan, The Life and Confession, ed. James Allen (Cincinnati, 1835), pp. [9]-10 and 12. That work consists primarily of a first-person narrative of the criminal's own life but also includes a brief address to the reader by Allen, along with a short synopsis of the proceedings at Cowan's trial. Without going into any detail, Cowan also refers to his mother's "errors" and "transgressions"; see Cowan, Life, p. 12. I am very grateful to the Cincinnati Historical Society for providing me with a photocopy of that rare pamphlet.

63. Cowan, Life, p. 11.

64. Ibid., pp. 11-14. Cowan seems to have remained a Methodist at the time of his death; see Catholic Telegraph, Nov. 20, 1835, pp. 452-53.

65. Cowan, Life, pp. 14-15.

66. Ibid., pp. 15-17.

67. Ibid., pp. [v]-vi and 17-19.

68. In this sentence, I am trying to convey Cowan's own probable subjective perceptions and emotions; in fact, it is not at all clear that either his wife or his mother was unfaithful to her spouse.

69. Cowan, Life, pp. vi-vii and 18.

70. Ibid., pp. [iii], [v], [9], 12, 14, 18-21. It should be noted that similar assertions of happiness in prison were a standard feature of early modern criminal conversion narratives.

71. Isaac Young, The Life and Confession of Isaac Heller alias Isaac Young (Liberty, IN, 1836), pp. [3]-6. That work, probably compiled by S. W. Parker, a local newspaper editor who also served as one of Young's lawyers, consists of a first-person narrative by Young, a synopsis of testimony from his second trial, and a transcript of the judge's sentencing speech. For a later sketch of the case, see O. H. Smith, Early Indiana Trials and Sketches (Cincinnati, 1858), pp. 261-64. That volume also includes sketches of S. W. Parker and of the presiding judge, Samuel Bigger. As is so often the case with 19th-century crime pamphlets, a number of the circumstantial details of Young's account tend to be confirmed by independent documentary evidence. For example, a preacher named John Winebrenner did, in fact, gather an independent sect or church in the vicinity of Middletown during the late 1820s and early 1830s. And a man named John McCammon did keep a hotel and stage office in Middletown before his death in 1838. Incidentally, Winebrenner and McCammon, Young's two older associates, were said to have been "warm friends." See William Henry Egle, History of the Counties of Dauphin and Lebanon (Philadelphia, 1883), pp. 517-18; Luther Reily Kelker, History of Dauphin County (New York, 1907), pp. 246-47, quoted.

72. Young, Life, p. 6.

73. Ibid., pp. 6-8 and 17-18.

74. Ibid., pp. 8-9.

75. Ibid., pp. 9-10. Many of the details in the previous five paragraphs are confirmed by newspaper reports in Pennsylvania at the time of Young's trial for the murder of the girl; see Harrisburg Chronicle, Nov. 22, 1830, p. [3], quoted below; Pennsylvania Intelligencer, Nov. 23, 1830, p. [2]; Pennsylvania Reporter, Nov. 26, 1830, p. [3]. Testimony at that trial suggested that Young's father "had been deranged for several months immediately before his death."

76. Young, Life, pp. 10-11. On the town of Liberty and Union County during this period, see The Indiana Gazetteer, 2nd edition (Indianapolis, 1833), pp. 106 and 175-76.

77. Young, Life, pp. 11 and 18.

78. Ibid., pp. 11-12.

79. Ibid., pp. 13 and 18-19.

80. The precise number of six sounds like a storyteller's device.

81. Young, Life, pp. [1], 13-14, and 20. The jurors at Young's trial rejected his lawyer's plea of insanity, perhaps because "the bloody clothes of the wife and children lay on the table before the jury." From Smith, Early Indiana Trials, pp. 261.

82. See Horrid Massaere!!, pp. 14-18. It is noteworthy that the three categories offered in the Edes pamphlet provide a more effective typology than that formulated by the pioneer American psychiatrist Isaac Ray, who lumps all such cases into the relatively undifferentiated category of "homicidal monomania"; see Ray, Treatise, pp. 147-72.

83. Although Holmes and Holmes have recently proposed a typology for mass murders that includes family killings as one category, no one has established a typology for the varieties of familicide; see Holmes and Holmes, "Understanding Mass Murder." Also see Park Elliott Dietz, "Mass, Serial and Sensational Homicides," Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 62 (June 1986): 480-82.

84. Jack Levin and James Alan Fox, Mass Murder: America's Growing Menace (New York, 1985), p. 230, quoted; D. J. West, Murder Followed by Suicide (Cambridge, MA, 1966), pp. 67-94 and passim; Phillip J. Resnick, "Child Murder by Parents: A Psychiatric Review of Filicide," American Journal of Psychiatry 126 (1969): 328-30; Donald T. Lunde, Murder and Madness (Stanford, CA, 1975), p. 101; Manfred S. Guttmacher, The Mind of the Murderer (New York, 1960), p. 33. For discussion of a psychopathological concept potentially useful in explaining familicides but not used in this essay, see Frederic Wertham, "The Catathymic Crisis: A Clinical Entity," Journal of Neurology and Psychiatry 37 (1937): 974-78; also see Suzanne Reichard and Carl Tillman, "Murder and Suicide as Defenses Against Schizophrenic Psychosis," Clinical Psychopathology 11 (Oct. 1950): 149-63. It should also be noted that I have not fully pursued a number of other promising "leads" in one or more of the cases, such as the possible impacts of heredity and childhood/adolescent abuse or trauma.

85. "An Account"; Leland, True Account, p. 7.

86. Young, Life. On the symptoms of schizophrenia see West, Murder Followed by Suicide, pp. 75-76; Gerald C. Davison and John M. Neale, Abnormal Psychology, 3rd edition (New York, 1982), pp. 398-406; Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd edition - Revised (Washington, D.C., 1987), pp. 187-98.

87. That absence would be consistent with a diagnosis of schizophrenia; see West, Murder Followed by Suicide, pp. 76-81.

88. Young did say "that he would rather die than be separated from his family" (Young, Life, p. 19) - a sentiment similar to those sometimes expressed by altruistic filicides (see Resnick, "Child Murder," p. 329) - but did not offer that as a rationalization for his murders.

89. "An Account." It is possible that some of those gruesome details are the product of literary embellishment.

90. Leland, True Account, pp. 3-7; Young, Life, pp. 7-8, 14, and 17-20. For discussion of similarly brutal characteristics in murders committed by schizophrenics, see Reichard and Tillman, "Murder and Suicide," p. 161 and passim.

91. [Mitchell], Narrative (1783), p. 7; Horrid Massacre!!, p. 4; Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 6-12. Symptoms of depression described in Davison and Neale, Abnormal Psychology, p. 230; also see, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, pp. 213-33.

92. [Mitchell], Narrative (1783), pp. 7-9, 13-14, and 16-[18]; Horrid Massacre!!, pp. 4-11; Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 10, 13, and 17-18.

93. [Mitchell], Narrative (1783), pp. 14 and 16 [sic; actually 17]; Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 8-9; Horrid Massacre!!, pp. 4 and 8.

94. See Horrid Massacre!!, pp. 5-6; [Mitchell], Narrative (1783), p. 9; [Mitchell], Narrative (1795), pp. 18-19; Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, p. 13. My claim that Beadle, Clemmens, and Purrinton suffered from depression by no means precludes the possibility that their murders were committed in the context of psychotic episodes; on depression with "psychotic features," see Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, p. 223.

95. Cowan, Life, p. iv. For a contemporary "scientific" account of "homicidal monomania," see Ray, Treatise, pp. 147-72; also see Davis, Homicide in American Fiction, pp. 57-116.

96. Cowan, Life, pp. vi and 19; West, Murder Followed by Suicide, p. 81; Guttmacher, The Mind of the Murderer, p. 33. In current clinical terms, Cowan may have been suffering from a Delusional (Paranoid) Disorder, Jealous Type; see Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, pp. 199-203.

97. See Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, p. 223.

98. That possibility was suggested to me by John Murrin.

99. See Carol Zisowitz Stearns and Peter N. Stearns, Anger: The Snuggle for Emotional Control in America's History (Chicago, 1986); Peter N. Stearns, Jealousy: The Evolution of an Emotion in American History (New York, 1989).

100. See P. Stearns, Jealousy, pp. 21-65, quoted at 21.

101. For a provocative discussion of the influence of American freedom on twentieth-century mass murderers of a very different type, see Elliott Leyton, Compulsive Killers: The Story of Modern Multiple Murder (New York, 1986), pp. 294, 298, and passim.

102. See Jay Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800 (Cambridge, 1982); Nancy Woloch, Women and the American Experience, 2nd ed. (New York, 1994), pp. 84-87; John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York, 1988), pp. 41-48 and 73; Elizabeth Pleck, Domestic Tyranny: The Making of Social Policy Against Family Violence from Colonial Times to the Present (New York, 1987), pp. 34-48; Rotundo, "Patriarchs and Participants: A Historical Perspective on Fatherhood," in Michael Kaufman, ed., Beyond Patriarchy: Essays by Men on Pleasure, Power, and Change (Toronto, 1987), pp. 64-70; Rothman, Hands and Hearts, pp. 17-55, passim; Mary P. Ryan, The Empire of the Mother: American Writing about Domesticity, 1830-1860 (1982; rpt. New York, 1985), pp. 41-42; Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Boston, 1980), pp. 228-55, passim; Degler, At Odds, pp. 3-110; Christopher James Perry, "From Patriarch to 'Dad': Fatherhood in the AnteBellum North" (Senior thesis, Amherst College, 1979); Nancy E Cott, "Eighteenth-Century Family and Social Life Revealed in Massachusetts Divorce Records," Journal of Social History 10 (Fall 1976): 20-43; Herman R. Lantz, et al, "Pre-Industrial Patterns in the Colonial Family in America: A Content Analysis of Colonial Magazines," American Sociological Review 33 (June 1968): 413-26; and other works cited in note 15 above. However, for a perceptive discussion of "affection" as central to the "the traditional family paradigm of patriarchal authority," see Melvin Yazawa, From Colonies to Commonwealth: Familial Ideology and the Beginnings of the American Republic (Baltimore, 1985), pp. 12-7.

103. See, for example, [Mitchell], Narrative (1783), p. 13. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has offered a speculative "patriarchal" interpretation of the Purrinton murders; see Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale, pp. 301-3.

104. "An Account"; [Mitchell], Narrative (1783), pp. 14 and [18]; Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, p. 6; Horrid Massacre!!, p. 4; Young, Life, p. 18. On Clemmens's relationship to his family, also see the testimony of witnesses in "Trial of Abel Clements."

105. In both of the exceptional cases, the conflict was between husband and wife, not between father and children.

106. That is in sharp contrast to the "typical" family-killer of the late twentieth century, who is a "lifelong member of the community" in which he commits his crime; see Holmes and Holmes, "Understanding Mass Murder," pp. 57-58.

107. See [Mitchell], Narrative (1783), pp. [5]-6; Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. [3]-12; Horrid Massacre!!, pp. [3]-4; Cowan, Life, pp. 9-17; Young, Life, pp. [3]-5 and 10-14.

108. See Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 6-13, quoted at 9.

109. See Cowan, Life, pp. vi and [9]-18, quoted at vi and [9].

110. See Young, Life, pp. [3]-14 and 17-19; quoted at 19.

111. See "An Account"; [Mitchell], Narrative (1783), pp. 6-7 and 12; Cruel Murder!!, pp. 5-12; Horrid Massacre!!, pp. [3]-4; Cowan, Life, pp. 11-17; Young, Life, pp. 10-13.

112. See [Mitchell], Narrative (1783), pp. 7 and 20-21; [Mitchell], Narrative (1795), pp. 20-21; Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 8-9 and 11; "Trial of Abel Clements," pp. [1-2]; Horrid Massacre!!, p. 4; Cowan, Life, pp. 15-17; Young, Life, 13 and 18-19.

113. For a perceptive analysis along those lines, relying heavily on a number of published sermons on the familicide cases (which I largely ignore), see Fitzgerald, "Towards an American Abraham."

114. It should be noted that a number of essentially fictional crime narratives were published during that period, but they are generally fairly easy to distinguish from the non-fictional pamphlets.

115. That attempt took place in the case of John Cowan; see The [Cincinnati] Catholic Telegraph, Nov. 20, 1835, pp. 452-53.

116. See "An Account"; Leland, "True Account," p. 7; Wood, "Evangelical America," p. 371.

117. See Young, Life, pp. 4-13. On millennialism in antebellum religion, see Wood, "Evangelical America," pp. 360-61 and 376-77; J. F. C. Harrison, The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism, 1780-1850 (New Brunswick, NJ, 1979), pp. 163-206; Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (1950; rpt. New York, 1965), pp. 287-321.

118. [Mitchell], Narrative (1783), p. 20; Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 9 and 12; Horrid Massacre!!, pp. 4, 8, and 18. On the doctrine of universal salvation in the early republic, see Marini, Radical Sects, pp. 68-75, 144-48, and passim; Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (Boston, 1955), pp. 185-99.

119. See "An Account"; [Mitchell], Narrative (1783), pp. 15 and 21-22; Leland, True Account, p. 7; Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 5-13, quoted at 11 and 13; Horrid Massacre!!, pp. 6 and 9-10, n. 2; Young, Life, pp. 7 and 9.

120. See "An Account"; [Mitchell], Narrative (1783), pp. 22; Leland, True Account, pp. 7-8; Young, Life, pp. [3]-6 and 12-13; Clemmens, Cruel Murder!!, pp. 5-20. Polarization of thought and impulse is characteristic of obsessive-compulsive personalities; see Wilhelm Stekel, Compulsion and Doubt, transl. Emil A. Gutheil (New York, 1949), pp. 4, 90, 99-100, 114, and passim.

121. As recently as 1985, two leading experts claimed that the "annihilation of an entire family by one of its members" is the most frequent form of multiple homicide; see Levin and Fox, Mass Murder, p. 230. For more on my skepticism concerning "patriarchal" interpretations of the early national familicides, see discussion in text above.

122. See New York Times, Jan. 10, 1986, p. A8; Des Moines Register, Jan. 26, 1986, pp. 1B-2B; Boston Globe, March 6, 1986, pp. 1 and 18-19; Boston Globe, March 7, 1986, pp. 17 and 20; New York Times, May 16, 1986, p. A19 (early edition only).

123. Those cases also illustrate the tendency of familicides to occur in clusters, suggesting the possibility of a "copycat syndrome" or "Werther effect"; see note 2 above.

124. Wiebe, Opening of American Society, p. 143.

125. Cowan, Life, p. 21.
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Author:Cohen, Daniel A.
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Date:Jun 22, 1995
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