Sacrificing Edith (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One

At a special session of the Supreme Court on January 1880, a sanity hearing was held and several medical experts argued that Freeman was fit to stand trial.  John Davis Long, who was governor of Massachusetts at the time, then ordered Freeman sent to the nearby Danvers Lunatic Hospital where he would be held for the next three years.   In a new sanity hearing held in 1883, Freeman insisted that he fully recognized killing his daughter in a  fit of madness.  Stating that his stay in Danvers taught him enough about mental illness to recognize it in himself, he pointed out in his testimony:

"When I got to Danvers, I found a condition of things with which I was wholly unfamiliar.  I found people there who saw God and had communication with Christ, who believe that they were with Christ, who believed they had special revelations, who interpreted signs.  The question arose in my mind, knowing as I did, that these men were insane, unreliable men, many of them filthy and others treacherous, knowing them to be insane, the question arose in my mind whether I was also not insane."  

During his testimony, Freeman wept openly on the witness stand as he described what had led him to kill his daughter.  "I was sent to the insane hospital. and, as I have just stated, I saw my error," he said. "I regret it as the most dreadful act that was ever perpetrated.  I feel that I have been victimized.  I do not blame any person or persons, but I consider it an unfortunate affair from the beginning and for which perhaps no one person has been responsible." 

The prosecutor questining him was very careful to point out the legal implication of Freeman giving in to his religious visions.  To that,  Freeman replied that "I thought we ought to obey God rather than man."   As for the question of remorse, Charles Freeman's answer was likely less than what the courts deemed acceptable: "I can not conceive of an honest man feeling remorse if he acts up to the very highest concept of his duty at the time."   He did feel that he had enough of religion and vowed never to return to Pocasset or the Second Adventists   All that his release plan involved was to find a job and to support his wife and remaiing daughter. 

Harriet Freeman described her husband as being kind to his children and being a good provider for this family.  After his religious conversion in 1879, everything changed.  Not only did he neglect his business and devote himself to Second Adventistism, he also began experiencing visions telling him to send a message  to the world.. His newfound religious enthusiasm certainly caused problems with the rest of his family (his brother-in-law threatened to shoot him at one point due to his proselytizing).  

The presiding judge declared that he had no doubt over Charles Freeman's fitness to stand trial.   That trial was then held in December of  the same year and the outcome was never in doubt.  Not only did the court hear evidence from several medical experts that Freeman had been insane at the time of the murder but even his defense attorney wholeheartedly agreed that he was insane.   

In her own testimony,  Harriet Freeman provided more details about the vision in which he had been told to sacrifice Edith came after several days of going without food and sleep.  Though she admitted to agreeing with her husband that he needed to sacrifice their young daughter, she defended herself by saying that she could not believe that he would ever hurt Edith.   She regarded it as a test of faith, much like Abraham and Isaac, and that God would stop him from going too far.  Describing how her husband had acted on previous occasions, she said that his faith had been tested in the past and that he would not be allowed to do anything to endanger their children. 

On the night that Edith died however, she was told by her husband that God had asked him to make a great sacrifice.  She then saw him "leave the room, and when he came back he had the child in his arms; it was dead; he walked the room with it and prayed and wept; he took it to bed with him and kept it with him all night; the whole scene is like a terrible dream, which one remembers, but can't distinctly connect, and which, when I try to think of it, seems like an awful recollection." 

Weighing all the evidence, Judge Morton declared that he had never seen such a case in which there was no conflict in the testimony.   Since Charles Freeman faced the death penalty for Edith's murder, the judge fully recommended that the jury find him not guilty by reason of insanity.    The jury agreed and returned that verdict after only ten minutes of deliberation.   Charles Freeman was  sentenced to the Danvers Lunatic Hospital for the rest of his life. 

What little information there is on the Freeman case seems to end with his sentencing.  During his trial, he indicated that he functioned well in the Danvers hospital and seemed resigned to work there in one of the jobs assigned to inmates.  I have been unable to find out what became of him and how long he lived after his sentencing.   As well, the fate of Harriet Freeman and her surviving daughter isn't given either.  

While religious fundamentalism is still widespread, the case of Charles Freeman continues to resonates today.   The religious hysteria that apparently drove him to kill his young daughter has its parallels in similar cases, often involving exorcism to "drive out" evil influences.  Still, the death of Edith Freeman provides important lessons in avoiding other tragedies    Not only in terms of watching for the kind of hallucinations and delusions that can lead to murder, but also the bizarre enabling behaviour shown by Harriet Freeman and her husband's fellow believers.  Would Charles Freeman have committed murder without the support provided by Harriet and the others?  And where to draw the line between religious mania and mental illness?

Questions that need to be asked, time and again.


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