“Lizzie Borden took an axe,” and the rest as they say, is history. In 1892, a young girl named Elizabeth “Lizzie” Borden was put on trial in her home state of Massachusetts for the brutal killings of her father & stepmother. What became of it was a child-like rhyme that parents still pass on to their children.
Despite the increased media coverage in more recent decades, the concept of familicide is no new phenomena. Extreme cases of these killers–commonly referred to as “family annihilators”–have received news coverage in the US as far back as the 1800s.
So what exactly is the awful history of familicide, and how does it fit in with the infamous case of the 2018 Watts family murders?
Familicide: What you need to know
Familicide is categorized by the killing of several or all members of one’s own family. It is a truly heinous and disturbing crime that has made headlines more than once in all-too-recent years.
The National Criminal Justice Reference Service uses statistics to make predictions and assumptions about familicide, some of its underlying causes, and its perpetrators in the United States.
According to the NCJRS: perpetrators are often white males enacting violence against women–specifically wives and daughters. Risk factors for those who carry out these crimes can often stem from economic circumstances like the loss of a job or incurring debt.
It’s reportedly not uncommon for these “annihilators” to be susceptible to jealous rage, and those with substance abuse issues who also have easy access to weapons can be very likely perpetrators. But as usual, not every suspect fits any exact mold.
Familicide: An awful case history
As we know, familicide is not uncommon throughout history–even Shakespeare wasn’t opposed to framing plays around the tactful removal of family members. But in the United States, it can sometimes feel like these murders are becoming more frequent with passing time.
As far back as California in 1896, a man named James Dunham got into an argument with his wife Hattie Wells. Dunham’s rage grew, leading him to kill the family’s maid with an axe, strangle his wife, and to axe his mother-in-law. He also shot & killed his wife’s brother and stepfather before fleeing into the night.
Fast forward to 2001 and the case of Christian Longo; he had fallen into financial troubles after being caught forging checks to support his family. When he was released on probation, Longo was out of money and forced to find work in the service industry. Soon after, the bodies of his three children and wife, Mary Jane, all washed ashore in a bay. He was charged with all four murders and sentenced to death.
A similar instance occurred when a former bank executive named Steven Sueppel from Iowa City, Iowa was charged with embezzling money in 2009. While out on bail, he decided to leave and take his family with him. Sueppel beat and killed his wife, then proceeded to do the same to all four of his adopted children–all ten years of age or younger.
That leads us to one of the most recent and notorious cases: Christopher Lee Watts.
Familicide: What were the Watts family murders?
In August 2018, a friend of the Watts family reported that Shannan Watts–wife, mother of two, and pregnant at the time–was missing in Denver, Colorado along with her children.
Husband Chris Watts appeared on a local news station in Denver pleading for the safe return of the women of his family, but his behavior on TV was reportedly suspicious enough to attract the attention of agents of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
Chris Watts confessed after failing a lie detector test and admitted to his interrogators that he was romantically involved with a coworker named Nichol Kessinger. Although he initially lied about the killings, Watts led authorities to the dead bodies of his wife and two daughters at the oil field where he worked.
Chris Watts took a plea deal to avoid the death penalty, and instead pleaded guilty on all five counts of first-degree murder. It took Watts until November 2019 to officially disclose the details of how he killed his family–strangling his pregnant wife while she slept, putting her body in a pickup truck with his two daughters, and smothering his two daughters when they arrived at the oil field.
Familicide: How the Watts family fits in
When transcripts from Watts’s confessions to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the FBI were released, he came clean about arguments he had with Shannan about accusations of his adultery. Apparently, Shannan had even threatened to take their children away from Chris.
These threats from Shannan and the possible recognition of Chris’s own actions built into a jealous rage– the only release from which was taking the lives of his family.
Chris Watts was a middle-aged, white male who succumbed to a jealous rage, had access to the right tools, and with a dangerous impulse, ended the lives of his pregnant wife and daughters. If anyone were to fit the profile of a “family annihilator,” Chris Watts was a clear contender. What was missing were the warning signs.
Chris Watts will go down in history as another murderer who got his weeks of shame in the media. The husband and father of what would have been three children, added another case in the long, awful history of familicide. It can’t always be determined who or why a terrible crime is committed, but in cases like the Watts family murders, the shoe just fits.