J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Seeking Meaning in a Murder

The latest issue of the Journal of American History includes Christopher Grasso’s article “Deist Monster: On Religious Common Sense in the Wake of the American Revolution”. It begins:

In Wethersfield, Connecticut, on December 11, 1782, William Beadle, a respected merchant known as a doting father and husband, cut the throats of his wife and four young children and then fired two pistols into his head.
Now that I’ve got your attention, I’m going to repeat one of my favorite observations: we humans, whether in the past or looking back at the past, often look for external motivations to explain behavior that might have arisen mostly from internal, irrational psychiatric conditions.

As Grasso’s title reflects, many of Beadle’s contemporaries linked his crime to his interest in deism. On 17 Dec 1782, the Hartford Courant said Beadle had “renounced all the popular religions of the world, [and] he intended to die a proper Deist.” Ministers used him as a cautionary example in their sermons. Of course, orthodox New Englander applied the label of “deism” to Unitarianism, Universalism, and any other religion that didn’t accept the notion of divinely inspired scripture (and the labels of “heresy” or “error” to religions that didn’t interpret scripture as they did).

Beadle’s letters on religion survive not in the original manuscripts, but in the papers of the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles of Newport and New Haven. He was one of three eminent men entrusted with the material, but the authorities determined that the letters were too dangerous to release publicly. The letters show that Beadle still believed in God when he died; indeed, he was certain that God was guiding his last acts.

Not every contemporary explained Beadle’s insanity through religion, however. As Grasso discusses, former Continental Congress delegate Stephen Mix Mitchell anonymously published A Narrative of the Life of William Beadle in 1783. This pamphlet emphasized the man’s business difficulties as the large quantities of Continental and Connecticut money he had accumulated lost their value and he feared his family would fall into poverty.

Of course, everyone in New England was dealing with the same economy, and most men didn’t kill their families. Similarly, most deists and Unitarians, including some of the most eminent men in the new republic, died without killing their families. Grasso’s topic is the different interpretations of Beadle at the time, so the adequacy of either of those explanations is less important than how adequate the people of the time considered them.

As we learn more about psychiatric conditions and the biological factors that contribute to them, it might be possible to study Beadle’s writings and actions in a different way. Was he struggling with the manic-depressive swings of bipolar disorder, or some other serious mental ailment? Such a disorder could have fueled his enthusiasm for deist ideas, his business drive, and his final fixed idea that murder and suicide was a good idea. But would the historical record offer enough information to support such a diagnosis, even a tentative one?

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