On May 1, 1879, Charles F. Freeman plunged a knife into his five-year-old daughter, Edith, apparently believing that it was God's will. As his wife would later testify, he then walked the room with her dead body as he prayed and wept Afterward, he took the body to bed with him and kept it with him all night. On the following day, Freeman then gathered his fellow worshipper together and proclaimed that God would raise her up on the third day. He didn't.
Charles Freeman was a farmer who lived with his wife and two children in the tiny village of Pocasset, Massachusetts (now part of the township of Bourne). Having converted to Second Adventistism a year before, Freeman had become a leader among the local believers and was well-known for his fiery sermons. The Second Adventism movement was a radical offshoot of the Adventist church founded by Willliam Miller in 1844. After the Great Disappointment, when Miller's apocalyptic predictions failed to materialize, the sect which Charles Freeman joined continued to preach the imminent coming of Christ. Along with their message of salvation, the Second Adventists also fanatically proclaimed that God would send signs to announce Christ's Second Coming.
As for Charles Freeman, he became convinced that God had a special purpose for him, both as a missionary to the unbelieving and to rally those believers whose faith was lagging. Believing that he needed to make a great sacrifice to prove God's power, Freeman became inspired by the story of Abraham being called on to sacrifice his son Isaac. He wouldl later report that two weeks before Edith's murder, he had heard God commanding him to sacrifice a member of his family. After discussing this command with his wife (whom he ordered not to "stand in the Lord's way"), the only question remaining was who was to be sacrificed. As Freeman would later report, though he prayed that he would be the one chosen, he was told in a dream that his daughter, Edith, was the one who had to be killed. Edith was the youngest in the family and the favourite child which presumably made her the ultimate test of her father's faith.
While his wife Harriet objected to Edith's death, she gave in eventually when Freeman insisted that God would either reconsider at the last moment (as in the story of Abraham and Isaac), or else Edith would be resurrected on the third day. After the older daughter, Bessie, was taken out of the room by her mother, Freeman then carried out his murder plan.
On the following day, Charles Freeman called together all of his fellow sect members and told them what he had done. While he had described his plan for a great sacrifice, nobody had any idea what he had intended to do. Amazingly enough, the fellow-worshippers declared that Freeman had been right to carry out such an act of faith and praised him for it. They also agreed that God would raise Edith up on the third day as a sign for the unbelievers.
What followed was a bizarre "wake" (in every sense of the word) as Freeman and his followers waited for Edith to be resurrected. In an interview with a local newspaper, Edith's grandmother asked the reporter not to say anything to the surviving child about her sister's death. The rationale appeared to be that Edith would be resurrected soon enough with no harm done. When nothing happened on the third day (or afterward), the sect members were genuinely astonished. Some even went so far as to accuse God of breaking His promise with Freeman by not raising Edith. Not surprisingly, Charles Freeman had already been arrested for his daughter's murder.
The funeral for Edith Freeman was widely attended. According to the newspaper description, the Methodist church where the funeral was held was packed to capacity with hundreds more standing outside the building. The Adventists were all in attendance, most keeping an eye on Edith's coffin hoping for a last-minute miracle, and the tension between the Adventists and the rest of the community was understandably high. After the pastor lectured the Adventists on their false beliefs, the new Adventist leader (replacing Freeman who was in jail), Alden P. Davis, was prevented from making a speech under threat of arrest.
Not deterred, Davis managed to make his speech in the churchyard after the service. The speech, whch contained a stirring endorsement of Charles Freeman and his sacrifice, stirred up the crowd even further and many in there talked about killing him. While no violence broke out, it was likely a near thing. Even other evangelists expressed their horror at the murder. An editorial in the New York Evangelist published shortly afterward stated that,
"We hope that this murderer would be treated as all murderers should be, and that it will not be admitted that religious fanaticism is to justify human sacrifices. The law expressly holds that crime committed while a man is intoxicated as if the man was sober; and so Mormons, Adventists, and Spiritualists should be held responsible for offences against law, notwithstanding their pretended revelations of a higher law. There is no safety in society if any other principle prevails.
All that remained was to decide what to do with Edith's parents. Though his wife was regarded as a willling participant in Edith's death, she was later released and Charles Freeman was indicted for murder.
To be continued