By the opening of the American Revolution, William Beadle was a successful Connecticut merchant and patriot. Before the end of it, he wasn’t. But he did earn distinction as the first documented mass murderer-suicide in North America.
He had acquired more wealth than most merchants, and most merchants acquired more wealth than ordinary people, according to Beadle’s biographer, James Smart.
He did so well that he could send money for the relief of Boston when Parliament closed the port after the Boston Tea Party.
But then he found himself no longer among Connecticut’s elite, and the reality horrified him.
Beadle was born in London in 1730. He had come to Fairfield, Conn., and married into a well-established family. His wife Lydia and he moved to Wethersfield in 1773. By 1780, they had a son and three daughters.
In 1776, with the Revolution under way, the Continental Congress declared that Continental currency would be its official paper money. It enjoined businesses from inflating prices, and ordered people to accept Continental currency at face value.
Within five years, the Congress would print so much of the money to pay for the costs of the war that it would have to devalue it. The official devaluation ruined anyone who held large amounts of the currency. And that was what happened to William Beadle.
A great many businesses wrestled with whether or not to raise prices during the war. Most did, to some degree at least. Beadle, an ardent patriot, did not. And he continued to honor Continental currency at its face value. As a result, he accumulated a great pile of currency.
After 1780, when Congress officially devalued the currency so that 40 dollars equaled one dollar, the value of the Continental currency continued to plunge. Eventually, it stopped circulating.
The free fall in the value of the Continental currency and hyperinflation in the American war years would have left Beadle much worse off – if he had lived long enough to see it through. Instead, he took matters into his own hands.
With the war dragging on and his fortunes in ruins, Beadle began to formulate a plan. He thought it preferable to die rather than to go on living in abject poverty. As he had failed to provide for his children, he thought it better that they should die as well.
William Beadle began constructing an unusual set of deistic religious beliefs to justify, or at least excuse, his plans. For nearly three years Beadle brooded over the best course of action. He convinced himself that he did have the right to kill himself and his children, but he was unsure about whether he had the right to kill Lydia, his wife.
On one occasion Lydia left on a trip to Fairfield and William Beadle thought this was his chance to end it all. He began drafting his will. But she returned earlier than expected. Beadle saw it as a sign that she should join the family in death. He wrote in his journal:
“I mean to close the Eyes of six persons thro’ perfect Humanity, and the most endearing fondness & Friendship, For never did mortal father feel more of these tender Ties than myself. I really believe that the true God supports me. For while I am writing these very words and meditate on this intended deed, no singular anguish of mind affects me, and why should it? For my intentions are of the purest kind.”
William Beadle, Murderer
In November of 1782, Lydia told her husband of a dream she had. The dream included a great many important papers, dotted with blood, that seemed to bear on her future. In another dream, she saw a vision of her children, all dead.
William Beadle took the dreams as signs that God approved his plan. On December 11, 1782, he wakened the family maid and asked her to go fetch the doctor. With her out of the house he slit the throats of his wife and children. With the family dead, William Beadle went to his study and placed a pistol in each hand. Pressing the muzzles of the two pistols against his temples, he pulled the triggers and ended his life.
In his will, Beadle directed that his useless pile of Continental currency be retained for seven years in case it ever regained its value.
Had he lived, Beadle would have seen what value his currency retained. Congress would eventually pay its war debts in the 1790s, exchanging Continental currency for Treasury notes, paying one penny on the dollar to buy back the currency.
Connecticut was outraged at Beadle’s actions. His fellow townsmen refused him a burial in the cemetery, instead dumping his body by the Connecticut River. Ministers sermonized his story many times as an example of the evils of Deism.
This story about William Beadle was updated in 2023.