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.