Category Archives: Thriller Thursday

Thriller Thursday – Poor Little Thomas Bechtel

Are you up to date with all your vaccinations and immunizations? Are your children? Today’s Thriller Thursday posting is a reminder that life in the 19th century was fraught with hidden dangers. It was a time when even a minor scratch or cut could cause horrible suffering and even death…

It was late August of 1876 and eleven year old Thomas Bechtel, son of Thomas Sr. and Annie,  was enjoying the dog-days of summer. He and his younger brother were outside playing in their yard in East Coventry Township, Chester County, PA. The younger boy was holding a stick and chasing his big brother. Thomas stopped short and his younger brother accidentally poked him just above the ankle with his stick. It was a minor cut and neither the brothers nor their parents gave it much thought until a couple of days later. At that point Thomas’ leg began to swell and become inflamed. Thomas suffered terrible pain for the next few days, finally dying of lockjaw (now known as tetanus) on August 31, 1876.  His obituary was published in the Montgomery Ledger (a Pottstown newspaper) on September 5th. He was just shy of his twelfth birthday.

Thomas was my 3rd cousin, 3 x’s removed. His parents were Thomas and Annie (nee unknown) Bechtel and his paternal grandparents were Charles Bechtel and Isabella Jack. If you also have connections to this family, feel free to contact me.

Thriller Thursday – the Life and Death of G.O.P. Shaner

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a Thriller Thursday post about lightning striking of the home of John Shaner and killing his wife Rose and daughter Lizzie [link]. Today’s Thriller Thursday posting is about the life of John’s nephew – George Oliver Prutzman Shaner.

George Oliver Prutzman Shaner was born July 27, 1850 at Ringing Rocks, Pennsylvania (near Pottstown).  He was the son of George H. Shaner and Susannah Prutzman. He was their only known child. When he was just 13 years old, his mother died. About a year and a half later his father married Sarah Levengood and had three more children.

As a young man, George appeared to have a bright future. He attended preparatory school at Mount Pleasant Seminary in Boyertown and in September of 1871 entered the freshman class of Muhlenberg College at Allentown. He left there in December 1872 to pursue a teaching job. He followed this profession most of his life. He taught at a school in Schuylkill Township and was also a principal at a school in Marshalton, near West Chester, Pennsylvania. It was said that he was a well-known Prohibitionist.

There were, however, breaks in his teaching career where he sought alternative employment. And to a casual observer, George’s life appears to be a series of ups and downs. From 1875-1877 he was a station agent for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and in 1885 he was a shipping clerk for Pencoyd Iron Co. At the time of his death he was living in Bridgeport, PA, apparently unemployed and seeking a job at a glass factory in Spring City.

In 1874 George married Catherine “Kate” Hartenstine. Together they had at least 9 children, but seven died young with six of them predeceasing their father. In 1886 his oldest child, Mary Alice, contracted diphtheria and died at the age of 12. By that time the family was apparently experiencing hard times as two of her younger siblings, a sister Bertie and brother George, had been “adopted out” to the family of Israel Scheffey. Bertie and George visited their sister Mary Alice when she was sick and they also died of diphtheria several days later. In addition, two other children are known to have died as infants in 1889 and 1890.

George’s life ended on January 17, 1894. By that time he was no longer employed by the school in Marshalton, Chester County and had moved his family to Bridgeport, near Norristown. Earlier in the day he had gone to Spring City looking for work in a glass factory. He was presumably returning to his home in Bridgeport, walking along the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was a short distance above the borough when he was hit by a passenger train. It was reported that he was run over by the locomotive and that his body was “badly mangled.” He was killed instantly.

George was 43 years old when he died. He was survived by his wife and 3 children. The youngest was Ida, a baby of 6 months. She died February 2 – just a couple of weeks after her father.  Shortly thereafter George’s widow Catherine moved to Pottstown, PA. She died in June of 1909. George and Catherine are buried in Pottstown in Edgewood Cemetery. George was my second cousin, 4x’s removed. Feel free to contact me if your are also related.

Thriller Thursday – Lightning Strikes!

With summer here I’ve been a little lax about posting on this blog. But when I woke up and saw the headlines about the devastation caused by a severe storm that passed through our area yesterday, I knew that I had to write about another storm that wreaked havoc some 136 years ago…

It was Sunday evening, June 27, 1875 when severe thunderstorms hit southeastern Pennsylvania. The next day the Reading Eagle led the story with this description: “The elements were in high glee in this vicinity last evening. About seven o’clock the heavens became overcast with inky black clouds, and a few minutes later such a storm of wind, rain, lightning and thunder broke upon us to cause the strongest to tremble and the weak to quail with fear. At times the sky would be one sheet of fire, and the next moment the earth would be shrouded in Egyptian darkness. Rain fell as though the very flood gates of Heaven were open, and our streets were turned into miniature rivers. The lightning was sharp, vivid and blinding, and at time terrifically grand. The electric fluid leveled trees, destroyed buildings, scattered fences to the four winds, and left death in it’s wake.”

One of the casualties of the horrific storm was the Shaner family of Limerick in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Their house was destroyed and two family members left dead. The June 30th edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer provides these details. ” When the storm commenced Mr. John Shaner was at the barn. His wife, Mrs. Rose Shaner, his father, Mr. George Shaner, his two daughters, and a nephew, were in the kitchen of the house. The mother sat near the middle of the room, and the youngest daughter, Lizzie Shaner, about 12 years old, sat near the fireplace. The bolt of lightning that struck the house seemed to divide in the second story, one portion passing down near the fireplace and killing the little girl, and the other coming down through the floor above Mrs. Shaner, and striking her. The peal of thunder that followed the flash of lightning was terrific. The other inmates of the room were slightly stunned, but not hurt. The death of Mrs. Shaner was instantaneous; that of her daughter nearly so.”

The Reading Eagle account claims the lightning bolt struck an upstairs window, shattering the shutter and setting fire to a bed. There was also a hole two inches in circumference in the ceiling above where Mrs. Shaner was standing, presumably where the bolt of electricity passed through from the upper story before striking her dead. The walls on one side of the house were cracked and broken and the posts holding the porch roof were “forced from their places.”

John Shaner, the husband and father of the two who died, was my first cousin, 5x’s removed. The maiden name of his wife Rose was Hetzel. She was 48 years old when she died. In addition to 12-year old Lizzie the other daughter mentioned in the article was 15 year-old Ida. The Shaners also had three sons: Franklin H., William Milton and Henry Warren. They were older than the girls and were not at the house when the tragedy occurred.

George Shaner, John’s father, was my 5x’s great-uncle. He was married to Mary Hartenstine who had passed away in 1850. George died March 22, 1881 – less than 3 months from his 90th birthday. He had just turned 84 at the time of the lightning strike.  John Shaner died in Pottstown, PA at the home of his daughter Ida and her husband John Gensch in July of 1892. He was 69.

As always, if you have any connection to this family, I would love to hear from you.

Thriller Thursday – The Accidental Shooting of Walter Pennypacker

Here’s the latest installment for Thriller Thursday, a prompt suggested by members of Geneabloggers.

It was Saturday the fourth of July in 1896 and Walter Pennypacker was anticipating spending a pleasant afternoon taking a carriage ride with his betrothed, Mary Finkbiner. Walter, who lived in Royersford, Pennsylvania, was about 21 years old. He was a son of the late Isaac Pennypacker and nephew of James Pennypacker, a well-known resident of Parkerford, PA. He was employed by Frank Eppehimer at the Royersford sand quarries.

It was about noon when Walter drove his carriage up to the Finkbiner residence which was in near-by East Vincent Township, near Latshaw’s nursery. When Walter arrived Mary’s younger brother, Winfield Finkbiner, was outside target shooting with his revolver. Mr. and Mrs. Finkbiner were not home at the time as they were attending a funeral. Walter entered the Finkbiner residence to let Mary know he was there. He then came back outside to talk to Winfield while he waited for Mary.

At some point, Walter apparently asked Winfield “to shoot off his revolver to see if his horse would scare at it.” But when Winfield tried, the revolver became jammed. As he was trying to fix it, the revolver suddenly discharged. Unfortunately, Walter was standing directly in the line of fire. The bullet hit him in the heart. As he fell, he reportedly said, “you have shot me.” Mary’s older brother, John, caught Walter as he fell. Blood was rushing from his mouth and nose. John and Winfield carried Walter into the Finkbiner home and quickly summoned their uncle, Dr. S. S. Finkbiner. But it was too late as Walter died almost immediately.

Coroner Howell, of Phoenixville, PA, was sent for and he empanelled a jury. The witnesses to the shooting were the three siblings, John, Mary and Winfield Finkiner. The jury questioned them and determined that “Walter J. Pennypacker came to his death by a pistol wound inflicted by Winfield S. Finkbiner accidently.” The Coroner censured Winfield for careless use of a firearm, but he was exonerated from blame in the death.

Walter’s funeral took place on Wednesday, July 8th. Services were held in the Baptist Church at Parkerford and he was buried in the adjoining cemetery. His death cast a pall over the entire region – from Parkerford to Spring City to Royersford – as both the Pennypackers and the Finkbiners were well-known and highly-regarded families. There was much sympathy for all the young people involved in the accident.

I have connections to both the Pennypackers and the Finkbiners. The siblings Mary, Winfield and John Finkbiner, were my 4th cousins, 3 times removed, and Walter Pennypacker was my 5th cousin, 3 times removed. As always, if you have connections to these families, I would love to hear from you!

Thriller Thursday – John A. Bechtel’s Accident

It time for Thriller Thursday, a prompt suggested by members of Geneabloggers. This week I have the story of the tragic train accident that took the life of John A. Bechtel of Reading, Pennsylvania.

John A. Bechtel was born March 6, 1843 in Pennsylvania. While I do not know who his parents were, according to census data, his father was born in Germany and his mother in Pennsylvania. In August of 1861 he enlisted in Company H of the Pennsylvania 88th Infantry and served in the Union Army in the Civil War.

In the mid 1860s John married Salinda Klemmer. Their four known children were William, Charles, Daniel and George. Per census data, there were also three other children who presumably died young. The family lived in Reading, Berks County, Pennsylvania.

John was a long time employee of the P&R Railroad having worked for them for about 20 years. On April 23, 1891, he was working as a hind brakeman on a freight train on the Lebanon Valley line. It was 8 o’clock in the morning and the train was at the station at Womelsdorf where it had stopped to unload some cargo. John was standing on the hind platform of the caboose. The train jerked and John, who was about to put on the brake, lost his footing and fell onto the track.

As many as fifteen cars then rode over his legs. Both legs were horribly crushed – one above the knee and the other below. Dr. Horace Livingood was summoned and dressed the injuries. Incredibly, John was awake and conversing. He was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Reading and his family was summoned. He died shortly after noon, surrounded by his wife and 3 of his four sons.

A coroner’s inquest was held and it was determined that his death was from “accidental injuries.” Though John was described as a “careful railroader,” this was not his first accident. Apparently he had also fallen off a caboose at Wernersville a short time before. Sadly, John had been planning to quit his job at the railroad that week. He planned to move to Duluth, Minnesota where one of his sons was living. Unfortunately, he never got that chance.

If anyone has information about John’s parents or how he connects with other Bechtels living in the southeastern Pennsylvania area, I would love to hear from you.