An Account of a Murder Committed by Mr. J—- Y—-, upon His Family, in December, A.D. 1781

23 Feb

Hey everyone!

In light of the story Wieland that we’ve been reading recently, I thought it interesting and eye-opening to post this apparent account of the murders committed by James Yates in Tomhannock, New York (near Pittstown) in 1781. Wieland, according to strong speculation and a revealing statement by the author himself, was based off the true story of these murders committed by a man under the apparent influence of fanatical religious delusions. When Yates was arrested, he expressed no remorse for his actions in court.

Brown stated, “most readers will probably recollect an authentic case, remarkably similar to that of Wieland”.

Little was published in the papers regarding the murder in the years following the tragedy. “An Account of a Murder Committed by Mr. J—- Y—-, upon His Family, in December, A.D. 1781” was posted in the newspaper fifteen years after the murders. The authenticity to the story is often questioned due to the detailed information and suspicious time frame.  The full account was presented in the New-York Weekly Magazine in two parts, the first on July 20 of 1796 and the second on July 27 of 1796. This account was written to the editor by someone named “ANNA”, who states that she received the information from a woman that knew James Yates. Before relating a very detailed first-person narrative of the murders, the woman acknowledges that James Yates was not incredibly wealthy, yet his family was respected.

This account claims that on the night of the murders, the Yates family had some community members over for a religious get-together. His sister stayed longer than most guests that night. Yates was his usual self and was described as being particularly loving toward his wife. She had a desire to go to New Hampshire, so he intended to take her there the next morning. His sister then left, and Yates and his wife continued to read the Bible together. His wife held their infant, his oldest child sat nearby, and the two other children were asleep.

Yates saw a light, and a Spirit appeared that told him to rid himself of his idols. Yates began his night of destruction by throwing the Bible into the fire. Grabbing his axe, he went out to the family’s sleigh and hacked it to ruins, only to do the same to the family’s animals. The account claims that Yates once again heard the voice telling him, “you have more idols, look at your wife and children”.  He proceeded to his children’s room and followed the voice’s instructions by throwing his two sons against the wall and fireplace, resulting in their deaths. Noticing that his wife and remaining children had fled, he grabbed the axe and searched for them outdoors. He noticed his wife running in the direction of her parents’ house, but he was able to hit her with the axe, causing her to drop their baby. The baby’s life came to an end as Yates threw her against a fence.

His wife was injured, and seeing her in agony caused Yates to come to his senses. He began to lovingly embrace his wife, but the voice haunted him once more. He grabbed a stake from the fence, repeatedly stabbed his wife and then placed the dead infant on top of her. Soon after, Yates found his last child in the barn, attempting to hide.  He brought her over to where her mother and sister laid and instructed her to dance around the bodies as he debated killing her. He eventually took an axe to her forehead.

After ridding himself of the last of his idols, he reflected on his actions and realized that consequences such as prison or even death would follow. He pondered placing the bodies in the house, lighting his house on fire, and blaming Indians, but he decided against lying as he had a “good motive for [his] actions”.  Yates appeared at his sister’s house early in the morning, and she took notice of the blood on his hands. He was in a crazed state and tried to grab a knife. She not only was able to resist him, but she tied him down and ran to her brother’s house. The neighbors were informed of the situation, and Yates was taken to Tomhanick. A religious man, referred to as “Mr. W”, attempted to counsel Yates while at Tomhanick, but he “[refused] to confess his error”.Next, Yates stayed with a woman named “Mrs. B”. He disclosed the events of that night to her, but still felt that the directions from the Spirit were meant to be followed. Yates was eventually imprisoned at Albany. It is said that he escaped two times

2 Responses to “An Account of a Murder Committed by Mr. J—- Y—-, upon His Family, in December, A.D. 1781”

  1. Jim July 15, 2015 at 12:28 am #

    I grew up in the house where the Yates family was buried and assumed it was their home as that was what we were told when my parents purchased the home. Without a doubt, the house was haunted and a wonderful place to spend a childhood.


  1. Considering History: What Early American Writers Knew about Our Scariest Stories - My Blog - October 31, 2022

    […] and four children. Narrated by Theodore’s impressionable sister Clara, and based in part on a horrific 1781 crime in Tomhannock, New York, Wieland presents various possible reasons for Theodore’s descent, from a family history of […]

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