Familicide Essay

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The word familicide refers to various forms of mass killing within familial or kinship networks or among those connected through bonds of sexual intimacy. The term is usually reserved for those killings that occur in a relatively short time period, often within 24 hours. However, it is conceivable that someone could kill a significant number of family members over a period of years and that such acts might be construed as a form of familicide. Compared with other forms of homicide, including those involving family members, familicides are relatively rare events. In part because of their rarity and in part because they offend common understandings of what families are supposed to be like, familicides attract considerable media attention. However, there is relatively little substantive research on this phenomenon.

Researchers recognize that perpetrators of familicide may or may not subsequently commit suicide. There is no agreed upon number of victims that a perpetrator must kill for the act to constitute a familicide. Indeed there is a great deal of variation in those forms of familial or kinship mass killings that potentially qualify as familicides. A few examples help illustrate this point.

One form involves a parent, nearly always the father, killing the entire family and then killing himself. For example, on January 12, 1999, Terry M. Jones of Anderson, Indiana, killed his wife and two children then committed suicide. He allegedly did so because he thought his wife was having an affair on the Internet. In this case the perpetrator had a previous conviction for domestic violence against his wife.

The historical record contains very few cases of women killing their families and then killing themselves. One such example is a familicide in Cadillac, Michigan, perpetrated by Mrs. Daniel Cooper who shot and killed her husband and six of her seven children before taking her own life. According to newspaper accounts, Mrs. Cooper had been “mentally unsound” for more than a year prior to the killings.

The concepts of familicide and homicide–suicide are sometimes used interchangeably. Some writers use the term familicide to describe, for example, a case where a parent kills his or her children and then commits suicide. Others might use the term homicide– suicide to describe the same killings. Some criminologists reserve the word familicide for only those mass killings in which all the children are killed. Others still use the term if only a proportion of the children are murdered. These inconsistencies speak to the range and complexity of some of the various forms of mass killing that occur within familial or kinship networks. At this point it is safe to say that the word familicide is usually used to describe mass killings where perpetrators kill a significant proportion of family members, to the extent that the family, as a unit or network, is no longer recognizable.

There is also some overlap between familicides and other forms of mass killing. Clearly, the term familicide includes cases where a perpetrator kills his current or ex-wife or partner, most or all of their children, and other relatives. However, it sometimes happens that the killing of kin accompanies the murder of community members, bystanders, or other persons significant to the perpetrator. The following examples illustrate this overlap.

On September 25, 1982, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, George Banks killed five of his own children and four women with whom he had had intimate relationships. At the same time, relatives of these women and a passerby also were killed by Banks. In a comparable case, Mark Barton, angered by losing money through day trading on the Internet, murdered his wife and two children before opening fire at two Atlanta brokerage houses killing nine people and wounding twelve more before committing suicide.

The research into familicide is in its infancy and dwells mostly on male offenders. Margo Wilson and Martin Daly identify two types of male familicidal offenders. The “angry” perpetrator has various grievances against his female partner, many apparently associated with his perception of her sexual infidelity or her desire to exit their intimate relationship. In these cases the perpetrator may have battered his female intimate on one or more occasions prior to the familicide. The second type of familicidal offender they term despondent. This man is more likely to suffer depression, much less likely to have battered his partner prior to the familicide, and much more likely to commit suicide after killing his family members. However, as Wilson and Daly acknowledge, the validity and usefulness of this taxonomy have not yet been established. In both types of cases they note the common strand of male entitlement in taking the lives of family members. Specifically, they point out that the reason the killer gives for his actions is that his wife and children belong to him, and that he feels entitled to make decisions about their fates.

Charles Ewing does not emphasize the anger/ despondency typology proposed by Wilson and Daly. Instead he focuses on the notion of “control” or control that is ebbing. At one point he notes that the typical family killer usually is afraid of losing control not only of his wife and/or family, but also of the aspects of his life that matter most to him and of becoming a failure.


  1. Ewing, C. P. (1997). Fatal families: The dynamics of intrafamilial homicide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Insane mother kills seven: She first took them to a show, then shot them and herself. (1908, June 14). New York Times, p. 16.
  3. Jealous over Internet, man kills family, self. (1999, January 16). Herald Bulletin (Anderson, IN).
  4. Wilson, M., & Daly, M. (1998). Lethal and nonlethal violence against wives and the evolutionary psychology of male sexual proprietariness. In R. E. Dobash & R. P. Dobash (Eds.), Rethinking violence against women (pp. 199–230). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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