Tag Archives: Bechtel

Thriller Thursday – The Death of Allen Bechtel

An ongoing series at Geneabloggers.com is Thriller Thursdays. The intent is to post about “murders, bizarre accidents, or other thrilling stories.” I decided to write about the life and death of Allen Bechtel, whose sensational suicide captured the attention of Reading, PA and vicinity for at least a few days in late 1876. So here’s the story – enjoy!

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post on Google Books and the Google News Archive. Well, one of the things I was able to find in the Google News Archive was a rather lengthy article on the life and death of Allen Bechtel. It appeared in the Reading Eagle (Reading, PA) on October 31, 1876. Based on the information contained in that article and combined with additional research, I put together a this little biography on Allen.

Allen Bechtel was a well-known pawn broker who lived in Reading, Pennsylvania. His parents were not mentioned in the article, but I believe that he was the son of Jacob Bechtel, grandson of George Bechtel and Hannah Yocum and great-grandson of the immigrant Johan George Bechtel and wife Anna Mary Klingman.

Allen was born on October 20, 1811 in Berks County, Pennsylvania. As a young man he was employed at a store in Moselem and later became the proprietor. In 1833 he married Harriet DeYoung with whom he had at least one daughter. Presumably Harriet died and in 1836 he married Mary Dunn. The two known children from that marriage were John Oliver (b. 1837) and Albert D. (b. 1839). Mary also presumably died sometime prior to 1850. In that census, Allen and his sons were residing in Alsace, Berks County, Pennsylvania with Allen’s brother Francis and his family.

In 1851 Allen wed his third wife, Barbara Ann Foreman/Fuhrman. She was over twenty years his junior. Together they had at least four children: Anson F., Allen F., Laura and Ambrose F. Bechtel. In the mid to late 1850s the family moved to Reading, PA. Allen became the owner/operator of a pawn brokerage in downtown Reading at 7th and Penn Streets. The business was apparently quite profitable and Allen became widely known not just in Reading but throughout southeastern Pennsylvania.

Allen continued, however, to have bad luck in the wife department with Barbara presumably dying in the early 1860s. Thus, in 1863, at the age of 52, Allen married 18-year-old Kate M. Reber. She was his fourth and final wife and no children were born of this last marriage.

As he aged Allen experienced health problems. He suffered from diabetes as well as Bright’s disease. Bright’s Disease is an anachronistic term for kidney disease, named for the English physician Richard Bright who first described the symptoms in 1827. It’s symptoms can include severe pain, edema (swelling), difficulty breathing, fever and vomiting. It was said in the newspaper article that the Bright’s disease “was wearing away his life.” It also stated that he was using small doses of morphia to combat the pain. He was trying to discontinue the use of the morphia, but stopping the drug was having adverse effects on his health.  The situation was leaving him “morose and melancholy.”

Due to his health problems he had been unable to actively attend to his business for several months. This too contributed to his depressed state of mind. And so, shortly after 7 o’clock on the morning of October 31, 1876, after spending an enjoyable evening with his family the previous day, Allen woke up, sat up in bed, and ended his life by shooting himself in the head. His wife, who was in another part of the house, rushed up the stairs to find her husband lying on the bed on his side in a pool of blood. A physician was summoned, but it was concluded that he died almost instantly. The pistol, which he had earlier brought home from the pawn shop, was found lying on the bed with one chamber discharged.

The pistol was a six-shooter revolver about six inches in length. The bullets were of a large caliber, the bullet chambers being about a half an inch in diameter. After exiting the body, the ball went through the curtain and the glass window pane. Later that day the slug was found across the street from the Bechtel residence.

A jury was immediately empaneled. After interviewing several family members and associates, it was determined that Allen died from his own hand while “laboring under a temporary aberration of the mind, brought about by sickness and disease.”  In other words, he was in poor health and suffering from depression. He was 65 years old and was survived by his fourth wife. He had eight children of which the youngest two (Laura and Ambrose) were residing with him.

I should note here that Allen is not my ancestor, but (assuming that I have him linked to the correct parents) he is my first cousin 5X’s removed. I would welcome hearing from other researchers who may have additional information.  I also have some limited information on his descendants which I would be willing to share.

When Justice Was Swift – The Peightel Murders of 1869

One of the surnames that I research is Bechtel and one of the more creative variants of the Bechtel surname is Peightel/Peightal/Peightle/etc. Recently I was running searches using this variant, trying to see if any of my disappearing many-times-great-uncles was hiding somewhere using it as a pseudo-name.

One of the first things I happened to come across is a John Peightel in the 1870 census mortality schedule for Huntingdon County, PA. I took a look at the image and found both a John Peightel (aged 65) and Sarah Peightel (aged 60) who died in November of 1869. In both cases the cause of death was —— murder! Okay, now I’ve got to see what this was all about!

Step one was to check find-a-grave. Sure enough, someone had created memorials for them including a tombstone photo. But there was no bio or explanation of their deaths. Next step was a site search of rootsweb (using their strangely named Rootsweb Search Thingy). Again, no luck. Well, there were newspapers in 1869. Certainly a double murder of husband and wife would likely be newsworthy. Perhaps a newspaper search at GenealogyBank would provide some clues. And sure enough several of the major newspapers of the day had picked up not only on the murder but also the investigation and the punishment of the perpetrators.

John Peightel and his wife Sarah were a well-respected elderly couple whose children were grown. They lived near Pleasant Grove, Huntingdon County, PA. They had taken into their home as an adopted son an orphan boy named Scott Garner. Scott was about ten or twelve years old. According to newspaper reports, Peightel was a farmer known for selling his produce in the nearby town of Huntingdon. Further, it was also common knowledge that he shunned banks. It was rumored that he had a large stash of money hidden away at his house.

There were two German immigrants, Gottlieb Bohner and Albert (aka Oliver) Von Bordenberg, who had come separately to the area to find work and had become acquainted with each other. It’s unclear which one first came to know of the Peightels and concocted the plan to steal their money. (In statements to the authorities, they each blamed the other.)

The original plan was apparently just to rob the couple, not murder them. But after spending a couple of days in the area they were unsuccessful in finding the opportunity to commit the robbery. The plan then shifted to murder. On the evening of Wednesday, November17, 1869 Bohner and Von Bordenberg waited outside the Peightel home until after dark. One or both of them entered the home while the couple and their adopted son were eating their dinner. The authorities believed that first Mr. Peightel was shot and then Scott Garner. Mrs. Peightel must have tried to escape and was cut down with a hatchet. She was then also shot in the throat.

After killing the family, Bohner and Von Bordenberg began searching the house for the money. They found about $2000 of which about $1600 was in gold and silver coin. They then proceeded to cover their tracks by covering the bodies with straw and bedding and burning them.

Part of their undoing was that they pulled down the window blinds to block the light of the fire from being seen from outside until it was too late. But that had the side effect of preventing the draft from fanning the flames, slowing down the fire. As fate would have it, shortly after Bohner and Von Bordenberg set the fire and left, a group of men passed the house on their way from the Pleasant Grove Station to their homes. These men noticed the smoke and flames and broke down the locked door. Finding the family lying on the floor and covered with burning straw, they raised the alarm and extinguished the fire.

Mr. Peightel and Scott Garner were badly burned from the waist down. Mrs. Peightel had bled profusely, but was not badly burned. It was said that all three bodies were considerably disfigured. The names and descriptions of Bohner and Von Bordenberg, who were known to have been hanging around the Peightel home the past couple of days, were given to the local authorities and telegraphed to Altoona. Their footprints had been tracked to the train station, and it was believed, quite correctly, that Bohner and Von Bordenberg were attempting to escape on the west-bound Cincinnati Express which was scheduled to stop next in Altoona. The train had departed only about 10 minutes before the arrival of the Huntingdon authorities.

Upon disembarking the train at Altoona at about 5:20 Thursday morning, Bohner and Von Bordenberg were arrested and detained by the authorities there. They were soon returned to Huntingdon where they were met not only by the authorities, but also by a very angry crowd of townspeople. That included a large group of ethnic Germans, who were extremely indignant at “the taint which the murder would put upon their nationality.” Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, a lynching was averted and the suspects were quickly skirted off to the Huntingdon jail.

Justice was apparently quite swift in the 1860s and 1870s. Both Bohner and Von Bordenberg were hanged for their crimes in early March of 1870 – less than 4 months from the time of the murder. Von Bordenberg continued to declare his innocence until the end. In his final words he claimed he was an unwilling participant who was forced by Bohner to accompany him to the site of the crime. He claimed not to have entered the Peightel home, but to have waited outside while Bohner committed the crimes. He killed no one and his only crime was sharing in the stolen money. Bohner, on the other hand, stated “we are both guilty and we both deserve to die.” Shortly after those words were spoken, the nooses were tightened around their necks and the floor was dropped. The bodies were left hanging 27 minutes, then cut down and placed in coffins.

Justice was served.

Bechtel Reunion – Ringing Rocks Park

Well, tis the season for family reunions and a couple of weeks ago I attended the 100th Anniversary One-Family Bechtel Reunion at Ringing Rocks Park near Pottstown, PA. The reunion commemorated the 100th Anniversary of a reunion organized in 1909 by Jesse Bechtel. The purpose then (as now) was to include descendants of the first six Bechtel men (Abraham, Christopher, George, Hans Jacob, John, and John George) who settled in the area in the early to mid 1700s, as well as other Bechtels (all spelling variations) who may have came later. Continue reading