Friday, September 28, 2012

Family Annihilators

Tragic news from Virginia today — a man named Albert Peterson killed his family and himself because he "felt that our God-given rights were being taken away." Family friends are also telling the press that Peterson feared that government spending would "be on the backs of his boys."

The whole incident has me thinking about family annihilators in the Early Republic, who were also faced with a profound shift in political power during their lifetimes. Like Americans in the Early Republic, modern Americans are seeing traditional structures of patriarchal power crumble, and some of them are reacting with violence. I'm reposting a piece I wrote several years ago on the deaths of the Beadle family of Wethersfield, CT:

For a brief intro to the "101 Ways to Say 'Died'" series, click here.

On December 11, 1782, William Beadle of Wethersfield, CT attacked his family with a knife and an axe, killing his wife and all four (or five?) of his children. He then committed suicide by shooting himself with a pistol. The family's maid was the only survivor of the household — William sent her to bring a letter to a neighbor just before the attack. The letter turned out to be a confession, but by the time the neighbors arrived at the house, it was too late.

William Beadle was not the only 18th-century American to murder his family. Many modern readers will be familiar with the Purrinton murders, a case publicized by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Midwife's Tale. Between 1780 and 1840, at least seven American men committed acts of familicide, crimes that were widely publicized in sensational (and very popular) pamphlets. Daniel Cohen, author of "Homicidal Compulsion and the Conditions of Freedom," argues that family annhilators "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."

Most of the family annihilators, like Beadle, committed suicide and were not given "decent" burials. I'm not sure whether they were denied the honors of burial in consecrated ground because they were murderers or because they committed suicide. Here's the Connecticut Journal (12/12/1782) on the subject:
I have not been to the graveyard in Whethersfield, so I don't have a picture of Lydia Beadle's grave. I don't want to steal other people's photos, but I will link to them (here and here).

Here lie interred Mrs. Lydia
Beadle Age 32 Years
Ansell Lothrop Elizabeth Lydia & Mary
Beadle her Children: the eldest aged
11 and the youngest 6 years Who
on the morning of the 11th day of Decr AD 1782
Fell by the hands of William Beadle
an infatuated Man who closed the
horrid sacrifice of his Wife
& Children with his own destruction.
Pale round their grassy tombs bedew's with tears,
Flit the thin forms of sorrow and of fears;
Soft sighs responsive swell to plaintive chords,
And Indignations half unsheath their swords.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bless You, Thomas Lechford

That's probably not something that has been said very often. Thomas Lechford was a lawyer in 17th-century England (so maligned right off the bat). He was exiled to America around 1637 for some vaguely Nonconformist views on church government. He spent 3 or 4 years in New England, but was driven out of Massachusetts Bay for . . . nonconformist views on church government. As far as I can tell, he did not have many friends.

But bless him anyway. When he returned to England in 1641, Lechford wrote a book called Plaine Dealing or Newes from New-England, which detailed all of the new and dangerous ideas being practiced in the colonies. There are hundred of inscrutable treatises on church government from the early 17th century, but Plaine Dealing lives up to its name as the most straightforward of any of them. Not only is language colloquial (hallelujah!) and uncluttered (miraculous!), Lechford writes with the exasperation of a reasonable person whose life has been upended by the ceaseless demands of religious fanatics who are fundamentally beyond appeasement. Here is how he describes the feeling of being caught in the ever-shifting tide of Puritan grievances as expressed in congregational church government:
Some have well compared the humour of the people in this kind, to a merry relation of an old man and his sonne, passing through the streets of a City, with one horse between them: First, the old man rode, then the people found fault with his unkindnesse, in that he did not cause his son to ride with him: then the young man gets up too, now the people say they are both unmercifull to the beast: downe comes the old man, then the young man is unmannerly to ride, and his father walk on foote: at last downe goes the young man also, and leads the horse, and neither of them to ride. Well, but alter the inconstant vulgar will; if so, God grant it be for the better. But then consider stories, one alteration follows another; some have altered sixe times, before they were setled againe, and ever the people have paid for it both money and bloude.
This is, by the way, the grand finale of Plaine Dealing. And it was written in 1641, when the "money and bloude" of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms were just beginning to flow.

So bless you, Thomas Lechford. I don't think you'd like modern democracy very much, but I admire your commitment to calling out everyone around you for making unreasonable demands. And for writing clearly. Mostly the writing clearly.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

1812 Girl

There's a new American Girl doll, and she's from . . .

. . . the War of 1812?

Ok. Wevs.

Apparently, her father owns a shipyard on Lake Ontario and there will be some Great Lakes naval battles in her books. Which is kind of awesome? And unexpected.

Look, I know there are a lot of problems with the American Girl dolls and their stories. They argue that childhood is ahistorical, with the same storylines iterated with minimal alterations for girls living in four different centuries. But I also loved those dolls and read every one of their books 100 times when I was in elementary school. Anything that gets girls interested in history is a good starting point, even if it is pretty bad history in the long run. At the very least, they're better than the Elsie Dinsmore dolls and books.

And there is also the small matter of my now being able to purchase these teeny shield back chairs and federal-style table. Well played, Pleasant Company. Well played.