The slaughter of an entire family is a deeply disturbing crime because at its heart is a betrayal by the one person who is supposed to protect the family. Some commentators seem to believe that this type of mass killing is a phenomenon of recent vintage, or at least is becoming more common of late. But I would argue that the opposite is true: mass murders--specifically the killing of an entire family--were much more common throughout history than some criminologists seem to think. Indeed, in 1893, there were two such cases in the United States within a week.
Centuries before the Amityville Horror or John List's murders, women and children have been slaughtered en masse by the head of the household. One of the earliest such cases in North America was described in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife's Tale : The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. Ballard wrote of the wholesale murder of a family in Massachusetts. Even my small town of Northville, Michigan, has not been untouched by this sort of crime. On February 22, 1889, Frank L. Silver killed his entire family here.
There was a clear pattern to these types of family murders in decades past. Many took place at night when the victims were in bed and were achieved with hammer-blows to the head. The murderer was always the husband and father of the victims--on rare occasions, a male son/sibling (I have yet to find an exception to this rule)--and the crimes were often motivated by a long-held delusion that the family would starve or go to Hell and all were better off dead. Did some of these men, prone to depression or mental illness to begin with, simply crack under the weighty obligations of the traditional male role?
This list is hardly comprehensive, but all contain elements typical of the phenomenon.
October 1831 – After attending a four-day religious revival, Stephen Miller beat his two children to death and nearly murdered his wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in what the papers described as a “religious phrenzy” and “melancholy occurrence of fanaticism.”
July 1843 – A man living near Bowling Green, Kentucky, despondent over his debts, killed his child and nearly killed his wife and himself.
December 1869 – George Barton, a saddler and drunkard, killed his wife and three small children near Nashville, Tennessee, cutting their throats as they lay in bed.
June 1875 – After losing his mill job and going west on a fruitless trip to find work, John Kemmler returned home to Springfield, Massachusetts. He was immediately ordered to vacate his company-owned apartment. After sending his wife on a shopping errand, he tried to poison, and then shot and killed, his three children. He then went to a tavern, where he was arrested. He admitted the crime and said he was unable to support the family, did not want his daughters to grow up to become prostitutes, and that they were better off in Heaven.
January 1882 – A farmer living near Lancaster, Kentucky, killed his wife, mother, and daughters, then hung himself. He feared that his family was going to die of starvation, though he owned a 250-acre farm and was worth quite a bit of money.
August 1890 – A man who had been placed in an insane asylum for paying “too close attention to the details of his business” escaped the asylum, went to his home in Dwight, Illinois, and shot and killed his wife, two children, and himself.
January 1893 – A cigar dealer from Memphis, Fred Schuman, melancholy over the death of his wife and suffering from “financial embarrassments,” poisoned himself and his two children with arsenic.
January 1893 - A man described as a “Bohemian ex-priest” murdered his two small children in Baltimore.
May 1893 – In Connellsville, Pennsylvania, John Hoy killed his wife, two children, and himself. He had been suspended from his railway job six weeks before for drunkenness and was heavily in debt.
April 1896 – A Chicago railway driver named John Lehman feared that his family would starve to death, and he killed his three children and himself. He had $1,500 in the bank.
October 1897 – A farmer who lived near Blue Earth City, Minnesota, encountered business troubles and killed his wife, sons, and himself.
March 1903 – A farmer near St. Louis killed his wife and six children with a sledgehammer, then slit his own throat and died the next day.
Given the frequency with which these kinds of crimes occurred in the past, I wonder whether the phenomenon hasn't become more rare of late rather than less... and wonder, too, if changing gender roles have any part of it...