“Wonderfully Cruel Proceedings”: The Murderous Case of James Yates
In 1781, James Yates, a farmer in upstate New York, brutally murdered his family while suffering from a “religious delusion.” Fifteen years later, in 1796, The New York Weekly Magazine published an anonymously authored account of this episode, which in turn inspired Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland. Previously unexamined newspaper reports of the original massacre uniformly link Yates’s violence to his religious identity as a Shaker. Shakerism’s emphasis on gender equality and rejection of patriarchal familial structures prefigured, in many ways, the republican ideological investment in women (particularly mothers) as repositories of virtue; thus, Yates’s crime can be understood as an early manifestation of a broader “crisis of masculinity” in the period. The 1796 account makes no mention of Yates’s Shakerism, but nevertheless participates in discourses of gender and nationhood; it memorializes the female victims, containing Yates’s “treasonous” violence against the family within an orderly narrative that privileges female heroism.