Husband & I were awake at 3h ys morn by mrss Heartwel and Gillbard who brot us ye horrible tydings that Capt Purington had murdered all his famely Except his Son James who must have Shared the Same fate had he not been So fortunate as to make his Escape ....
--From the 1806 diary of Martha Ballard
On those occasions when it does occur, it generates a lot of media attention. Invariably the media publishes nonsense about how this crime is becoming more common today. These sentiments are usually mouthed by ignorant reporters asserting guesswork as fact; these folks also (coincidently?) tend to take a narrow view of the Second Amendment.
Unfortunately, American history is rife with examples of the phenomenon. We have always experienced this form of homicide, and we have struggled for hundreds of years to understand it. Centuries before the FBI developed the science of “behavioral profiling,” students of such crimes have tried to classify the phenomenon according to motive.
The most infamous family annihilator from early U.S. history is James Purrinton (sometimes Purrington), who slaughtered his wife and children in 1806 -- the oldest boy escaped (just as in the Charlie Lawson case). The crime is well known today because the story was a bestseller at the time and many copies of Horrid Massacre!! Sketches of the Life of Captain James Purrinton still survive today, easily available at dozens of libraries across the country, and a second contemporary book on the case (which went into three editions) is also easy to find in libraries. The famous Horrid Massacre cover is above.
A much more personal account of the crime also survived the centuries. Purrinton's neighbor was Martha Ballard (Wikipedia), a midwife whose daily diary was the subject of A Midwife's Tale, a Pulitzer-winning book a few years ago by famous historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
Purrinton's massacre is not the sole early example. Social historian Daniel Cohen wrote a fascinating article about early annihilators that appeared in The Journal of Social History more than a decade ago. Thanks to this miraculous internet of ours, the article is online and free.
Cohen studied the stories of seven familicides between 1780 and 1850 and comes to some interesting conclusions. I happen to disagree with some and wonder about the rest. Cohen found seven early broadsides and pamphlets detailing family murders in:
- 1781 (Yates, New York);
- 1782 (Beadle, Connecticut);
- 1784 (Womble, Virginia);
- 1805 (Clemmens, Virginia);
- 1806 (Purrinton, Maine);
- 1835 (Cowain, Ohio);
- 1836 (Young, Pennsylvania).
Cohen lays out the "profiles" of a family annihilator generated 200 years ago and then adds a list of common denominators that he has found in these early cases. Cohen says the murders evince "extreme rage, brutality, even sadism." Each man suffered either (1) hallucinations (i.e. psychosis) or (2) severe depression and suicidal thoughts or (3) delusional jealousy. I think it an appropriate framework, but it seems to be incomplete.
No one, as of yet, has come up with a definitive typology for this crime, and Cohen's proposed typology does not explain them all. Unfortunately, some cases fit nowhere in this theoretical structure, such as the Jeffrey MacDonald case, where none of the classic signs and symptoms of the family annihilator -- psychosis, religious delusion, severe depression, suicidal history and so on -- make their appearance. (Disagree with me? Read the accounts of these 7 early annihilators and tell me how MacDonald compares to these men.)
He also expresses some wonder that these crimes were "curiously clustered" in certain time periods, and expresses the view that cultural forces played a strong role in the crimes. I'm not so sure that's true at all; there are dozens more examples of this crime in American history than Cohen has mentioned. But the article is a fascinating exploration of the nature of this crime and a reminder that the full expression of the deepest human cruelty is not a new phenomenon, and we are still struggling, hundreds of years later, to fully understand it.