The following article is excerpted from “A Life of William Beadle” by James R. Smart. The complete work with footnotes and bibliography is available from the Library of the Wethersfield Historical Society.
The poems illustrating this article are a broadside by William Woods followed by an account from the Connecticut Courant of December 17, 1782 and an article from The London Chronicle respectively.
William Beadle was born in London England around 1730. He and his wife Lydia moved to Wethersfield Ct. from Fairfield, Ct. in April 1773 with their son Ansell (1771) and Elizabeth (probably 1772). Two more daughters – Lydia (1774) and Mary (1776) were born soon thereafter.
In Wethersfield Beadle became a highly successful merchant – “wealthier than most Connecticut merchants. And merchants, generally speaking, were wealthier than most citizens….Moving freely in elite social circles, wed to a woman possibly from an elite family, and ranking among the elite financially, the adult Beadle, it seems, amply fulfilled the aspirations of Beadle, the youth. But during the American Revolution things changed for the worse.
Following the Boston Tea Party, the British Parliament passed a law that closed the Port of Boston to all ships, preventing supplies from reaching the citizens of Massachusetts. Beadle gave money for the relief of Boston.
In exchange for his goods Beadle continued to accept Continental currency (which depreciated badly during the war) at face value. “After the continental paper currency began to diminish in value, almost every trader sold his goods at an enhanced price. Beadle however continued to sell his products at the original prices, and to receive the depreciated currency in payment.”
Why did William Beadle do this? He was obeying the law of both the Continental Congress and the Connecticut government that required citizens to accept the Continental currency at face value. This was a regulation, however, that most other merchants disregarded – to their financial gain. Beadle’s patriotic ardor ultimately cost him his fortune – and more.
When he no longer ranked among the wealthiest men in town, but only among the “middling sort,” the reality horrified him. He began to carry a carving knife and an ax to his bedside every night.
Shortly before his death Beadle wrote to John Chester. “I am in such a Situation that I cannot procure food, raim’t [raiment] nor fuel for myself and family. Is it not time to die?”
What, then, made Beadle feel that it was “time to die”? We have already seen the answer: He no longer ranked among the very wealthiest of citizens. He now ranked among the middling sort and the notion abhorred him. He wrote.
“If a man who has once lived well, meant well, and done well, falls by unavoidable accident into poverty; and then submits to be laughed at and dispised and trampelled upon by a set of wretches as far below him as the moon is below the sun, I say is such a man submit he must become meaner than meanness itself.”
He would not be able to continue accumulating luxury furnishings. The breadth of his business would be constricted. His son and daughters would not marry well. Possibly he would even be unable to continue his friendships with men like Thaddeus Burr, Stephen Mix Mitchell, and Colonel John Chester. In brief, his sojourn at the top of the social ladder was over.
His life work undone, it was indeed “time to die.”
Beadle states that his plan to kill himself and his family was “three years in Contemplation.” Probably he decided to end it all when Congress officially devalued the Continental currency to one-fortieth its face value in March, 1780.
He loved his children too much to leave them to face life without the security of the wealth he had hoped they would enjoy. He wrote, “[A]s it is a father’s duty to provide well for his Flock, I choose to consign them over to better hands.” He would kill them, too.
On the question of whether to kill his wife, he was less certain. On the one hand, he “had some doubts whether it was my duty to destroy my Wife as I had no hand in bringing her into the world.” On the other hand, he could not help but “consider her excellent heart that wishes to cause happiness to every Thing that breathes:…her Incapacity of gaining a livelihood or proper partner after what will be called a Shocking Disaster…and…her extreme fondness for her children…that must cause Distraction or a state of mind that would be worse.” He decided that he and his wife should “take our Leaves of Life together.” But his doubts persisted.
Beadle could not go through with his plan until he had resolved doubts of another kind: spiritual doubts. He was afraid of going to Hell. Even at the time he composed his writing, after developing a protective theology, spiritual anxiety tormented him. He wrote: “If anyone in this case is culpable or punishable it must be myself and I must submit to the highest power.” In another passage, he wrote: “If it should at last prove Mr. Devil or any evil spirit [that prompts me in my plan to kill myself and family] all I can say about it is, that I was born a very unlucky fellow.”
For strength he turned to a system of ideas he had encountered in his youth: deism. He might have long forgotten about the deists’ writing, or he might have continued privately to ponder their ideas while professing Christianity in public. At any rate he embraced the deistic system with sincerity now. He summoned to mind all the standard deist arguments and tenets – as related in an earlier chapter – and pronounced himself “a proper Deist.”
Insofar as conventional deism refuted Christianity, with its disturbing concept of eternal punishment, adoption of the deistic creed probably helped Beadle to overcome his spiritual anxiety. But it was not enough. He pushed beyond deism.
Most likely with a few deistic beliefs – and perhaps Calvinistic theology – as starting points, Beadle developed a theory of harsh determinism. The deists believed that natural forces govern the universe and that God was sole creator of natural forces. From these ideas some of them evolved what Basil Willey calls Cosmic Toryism – -the Panglosian belief that all is for the best. However, Beadle, in his spiritual extremity, went far beyond them, developing a concept of determinism so stern that it precludes moral responsibility for all actions. He wrote:
“I mean to die a proper Deist; I really think there never was anything done wrong in the World; but like my friend Pope believe that all is right: that we are all impelled to say and act all that we do Say and act – That a Tyrant King or 2 or 3 fierce Republicans deluging three quarters of the World in blood, that my killing my family, that a man destroying a nest of Wasps or a fly escaping from another man that means to kill it, is as much directed by the Hand of Heaven as the making this whole world was. And if this is the case there is no such Thing as Sin.”
From another deistical notion Beadle developed a second unique way of deflecting moral responsibility for his intended action: the belief that in killing his family he acted as an agent for God. His starting point here was the deists’ firm conviction that through rational contemplation of nature, one could determine what constituted moral action. Nature, being a rather inscrutable phenomenon, the deists could never say with precision where or how one should read morality. The best they could do was to suggest that individuals look within, to their own feelings. Looking within himself to determine the morality of his contemplated action is precisely what Beadle did:
“I really believe that the true God supports me. While I am writing these very words and meditating this intended Deed, no singular Anguish of Mind affects me.”
Because of his calmness he determined his intentions were right. Once again, though, Beadle pushed beyond his deistical starting point, determining, as well, that God actively supported his intentions. In other passages this latter thought is more obvious. For example, it is clear in this one:
“I can handle and look on the Weapons of Destruction and the dear objects that are to fall by them, without Tremor and without Fear, because I function in the will of God.”
From this point it was but a small step to Beadle’s wildest idea and the one furthest from the rationalistic deist creed: that God communicated directly to Beadle His approval of the scheme. In the passages just cited, Beadle attributes his calmness to God’s support. Thus, in contemplating his intended deed and finding himself calm about it, he received from God a direct message. Beadle never indicated in his writings that he interpreted his experiences of quietude during meditation on the murders as divine communication. Probably though, the experiences prepared his mind for interpreting things as direct signs from God.
It would be fascinating to know the nature of the signs Beadle thought he received. However, of his communication with God he writes only this: “I have lately had Sundry Intimations I really think from Gd. to convince me I am right but these I shall not define.”
By 1782 this peculiar theology had allayed his spiritual anxieties. Beadle was ready to carry out his plan.
The final impetus was his wife’s removal from the household on what was supposed to be an extended visit to Fairfield. He had doubts about his right to kill her. Now he would not have to.
She left on November 7. 1782. Shortly thereafter Beadle began to compose his will. He also wrote at least part of his first letter to Chester although he probably had begun it earlier.
He set November 18 as the date on which he would commit the murders. His wife, as he writes, “returned 10 days sooner than I or she expected.” However, his mind was now made up. He would go ahead with the deed. He decided that “Unless the Fates change faster than the wind she is to go with us.”
On November 17 his wife told him “her Dream that she thought I had wrote many papers and was earnestly concerned about her, that theses papers were spotted with Blood. That she also saw a man would himself past recovery and blood guffle (as she expressed it) from different parts of his body.” Beadle found, not in the dream itself, but in his steely reception of its telling, indication that God stood behind his plan. He wrote: “I am unappalled and think the hand of Heaven is really with us.”
In the evening of November 18 Beadle wrote, “I have prepared a noble supper of Oysters that my flock and I may eat and drink together, thank God and die. After supper, according to Mitchell,
“[H]e sent the maid with a studied errand to a friend’s house at some distance, directing her to stay until she obtained an answer to an insignificant letter he wrote his friend, intending she would not return that evening.”
But she did return and Beadle, who, in his words, felt he “had no right to kill or even to frighten her.” could not execute the deed.
He was now determined to realize his intention, however. He shortly formulated a new scheme. Beadle would take the lives of his wife and children in the morning, while they lay asleep. He began, as Mitchell puts it, “carrying to his bed side every night an ax and a carving knife.”
Perhaps because of perturbation over this unusual behavior by her husband, Lydia had two more morbid dreams. One she had on Thanksgiving night, November 28. In Beadle’s words, “she dreamed that her three daughters all lay dead, and that they froze in that Situation.” Beadle does not mention the date of the other dream, but he does report its content. Lydia dreamed “that she was suddenly seized and liable to Great Punishment, that it created great Confusion, but she afterwards got free and was happy.” Beadle commented about the dream, “From her Excellence of heart I have no doubt that this will be the case with her.” Again he was not emotionally troubled by the dream, and again he attributed his calmness to God’s sanction of his plan: “Even yet I am little affected. O my God! Wonderful indeed are thy Works…[M]en may rely on it that tis he [God] alone that now directs me and supports me.”
On December 6 Beadle rehearsed the massacre: “I rose before the Sun, felt calm and left my wife between Sleep and wake, went into the Room where my Infants lay, and found them all Sound asleep.” He stood over them clutching “the means of Death,” and contemplated killing them. The whole time he marveled at his self control. He decided not to do it.
Four days later, though, on December 10, Beadle felt he was ready. He wrote to Chester, “Thank Heaven for I believe the day is now come, this is a glorious one, and Providence seems to smile on the deed.” In the afternoon, according to one report, Mitchell saw “Mr. Beadle grinding a large carving knife” He entertained guests at his house that evening, giving no indication of what he planned for the morrow. When they left at nine o’clock, Mitchell reports “…he was urgent as usual for their stay…”
Early the next morning Beadle awakened the maid. Explaining that Mrs. Beadle had been ill all night, he sent her to fetch the family physician, Dr. Joseph Farnsworth. He turned directly to the dispatching of his family. With the axe he kept by the bed he smote his wife twice in the head. He drew her body to the side of the bed, leaving her head and shoulders dangling over the side. Then with the carving knife sharpened for this purpose the day before, he slit her throat. Before proceding to the room of his children, he placed a handkerchief over her face.
In the children’s room, he repeated his handiwork with the axe and the knife on each of his four offspring. “The three daughters,” Mitchell says, “were taken from their bed and laid upon the floor side by side like three lambs, before their throats were cut.”
Leaving tracks of his family’s blood, he made his way to the lower floor. He brought with him the knife used to slash the throats of his family. He seated himself in a Windsor chair and laid the knife on the table beside him. Then, propping his elbows on the arms of the chair, he raised to his temples the muzzles of two pistols.
Instants later, as the balls from the pistols passed through his skull in opposite directions, the life of William Beadle ended.
The inscription reads:
Here lie Interred
Mrs. Lydia Beadle,
aged 32 Years,
Ansel Lothrop, Elizabeth,
Lydia & Mary Beadle, her Children;
The eldest aged 11 and the youngest 6 years,
On the morning of the 11th of Dec’r 1782,
Fell by the hands of William Beadle,
an infatuated Man,
who closed the horrid sacrifice
of his Wife and Children
with his own destruction.
Pale, round their grassy tomb bedew’d with tears,
Flit the thin forms of sorrows, and of fears;
Soft sighs responsive swell to plaintive chords.
And Indignations half unsheath their swords.
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