Death Outside the Battlefield: Lida Beecher

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Last month, I posted a tribute to World War I veterans. The war made people realize death can come too easily in the 20th century. However, not all deaths in 1914 took place on the battlefield. Some, in fact, happened in the backwaters of America and were just as, if not more, shocking than those happening in Europe. 

I’m fascinated by classic true crime, especially crimes that shifted people’s perspectives about the true capacity of human nature for evil (and good). I love giving my newsletter subscribers an inside look at a classic true crime and picking it apart to see its effect on the 21st century. 

Book 2 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries, coming out next month, is about the death of a schoolteacher. During my research, I stumbled upon the case of Lida Beecher which both horrified and intrigued me. I wasn’t the only one. Residents of Herkimer County, New York where the murder took place were so devastated by the crime that a history of the area written in the 1970s completely excludes any mention of it. 

The story involves many complex angles. To begin, there is the victim: Lida Beecher, a young and lovely schoolteacher whose eagerness to help her students usurped her experience in dealing with troubled students. Then there is the perpetrator: Jean Gianini, a sixteen-year-old who came from a very troubled and unstable family that included alcoholism, mental disabilities, and physical abuse. Gianini lured Beecher into the woods, hit her with a monkey wrench, and then stabbed her to death, hiding her body in the brush. 

The case is an example of the limitations of education and medicine in the early 20th century. Often, schools at this time, especially in rural towns, were a one-room affair (think: Little House on the Prairie). Students of all ages attended and the teacher had to accommodate different learning levels, from the six-year-olds to the fifteen and sixteen-year-olds. Teachers were then, as they are now, grossly underpaid and they were also undertrained, especially in dealing with special needs children or children with disabilities. 

Photo Credit: Herkimer County Courthouse where the trail of Lida Beecher’s murder took place, Herkimer, NY, 19 September 2009, taken by Doug Kerr: Pubdog/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY SA 2.0

All the sources on the case agree Gianini was both intellectually and mentally below average. During the trial, he went through several intelligence tests, including the Binet Test, which was used at the time to assess the mental age of children, and was found to have the intellectual capacity of a ten-year-old even though he was sixteen. He also showed signs of mental disabilities and some have said if Gianini were examined today, he would probably be diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Accounts of his time at school clearly showed neither his teachers nor the principal was equipped to understand or help him. Beecher tried but when he misbehaved, she called in the principal, who resorted to the same kind of humiliation and violence Gianini experienced at home. This set off feelings of resentment in Gianini and vows of revenge and, indeed, he gave his reason for killing Beecher as vengeance. 

There’s a lot more to this case, including a surprising ending and precedence that set the stage for the insanity plea later on. I’ll be talking about the Beecher murder case in detail in the next month up to the release of A Wordless Death in my newsletter. So if you haven’t signed up yet, I encourage you to do so here, as you’ll not only get the fascinating story of the Lida Beecher murder but you’ll also get a free Adele Gossling Mysteries novella not available anywhere else.

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