The first documented mass murder-suicide in North America? Wethersfield, Connecticut, 1782

August 11, 2015 · Collections, Manuscripts ·

By Barbara Austen

Broadside Detail

Detail from a December 1782 broadside (one-sided newspaper) with a poem about and a description of the murder/suicide of William Beadle of Wethersfield. The broadside was printed and distributed in Boston. Connecticut Historical Society (CHS) collection Broadsides Medium 1782 P7440o

What goes through the minds of those who murder groups of people, often our youngest and most vulnerable, for no apparent reason? While these horrible actions continue to haunt our nation, they are not new in our history.

Did you know that the first documented mass murder-suicide in North America occurred in 1782 in Wethersfield, Connecticut? That rather morbid topic was exactly what David Thomas of Temple University was researching during his four-week stay with CHS. David’s research trip was funded by the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium of which CHS is a member. Repositories across New England pool their resources to fund the important work of 10 to 13 fellows over a calendar year.

David Thomas at brown bag lunch

New England Regional Fellowship Consortium fellow David Thomas presents his findings on William Beadle to CHS members and staff.

Here is what David discovered and presented recently during a brown bag lunch for CHS members and staff.

William Beadle, a fairly recent immigrant from England, made a name for himself in Wethersfield as a merchant and a person who knew the important men in town. So why would a well-connected and fairly successful merchant murder his wife and four children and then kill himself?

Based on Beadle’s own writings (left at the scene of the crime), comments from those who knew him (many found in our manuscripts here at the CHS), and broadsides and newspaper reports, several theories present themselves.

One theory is that Beadle was a deist, not a Christian, and therefore did not believe in heaven, hell, or free choice. He felt everything was ordained by a supreme being. Since Beadle was suffering financially during the war, he felt he had no options left open to him. He may have felt that he was doing a kind thing for his family by killing them, and himself.

Another theory is that Beadle felt like an outsider. He was usually referred to as an Englishman or English immigrant. His newspaper advertisements lauded his patriotism and even tried to sell his strict reliance on hard currency rather than credit as a sign of that patriotism. He was not going to be indebted to the cursed British the way other merchants were!

A broadside in our collection provides visual and textual representations of general reaction to the murders. I can’t help but wonder what the media and tabloids of today would do with the same story. Or, given the mass murders we have been subjected to in the last ten years, would they focus on it for a week, then move on to the next story?

Barbara Austen believes that managing the stuff of history makes it come alive. An 11 year employee of the Connecticut Historical Society who holds an M.A. and M.L.I.S with a certificate in archives, she is the organization’s Florence S. Marcy Crofut Archivist.

While Barbara’s area of expertise is colonial American history, even yesterday’s history fascinates her. Responsible for acquiring and making available manuscript materials that illustrate Connecticut’s history in the far and recent past, she also answers research queries, manages conservation activities and supports CHS exhibits.

Barbara still gets chills when she reads about an event that has national significance when it is written in a diary or in a letter. She believes these very personal documents put the historic events we learn about in school in context, humanize the participants and help us empathize with the challenges, successes, joys and sorrows they faced.

About the Connecticut Historical Society

A private, nonprofit, educational organization established in 1825, the Connecticut Historical Society is the state’s official historical society and one of the oldest in the nation. Located at 1 Elizabeth Street in Hartford, the CHS houses a museum, library, and the Edgar F. Waterman Research Center that are open to the public and funded by private contributions. The CHS’s collection includes more than 4 million manuscripts, graphics, books, artifacts, and other historical materials accessible at our campus and on loan at other organizations.

The CHS collection, programs and exhibits help Connecticut residents connect with each other, have conversations that shape our communities, and make informed decisions based on our past and present.

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