Thriller Thursday – The Shocking Murder of Sarah Bechtel

It’s time for another Thriller Thursday article, a weekly prompting post suggested by members of Geneabloggers. This one is the story of the ill-fated lives of William and Sarah Bechtel of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It was Saturday, April 1st 1848, and the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was still reeling from the horrific murder of Mrs. Rademacher, who had been stabbed twelve to fourteen times as she lay sleeping in her bed. Her husband, a book seller and homeopathic druggiest, was also severely cut and badly beaten in the attack. The perpetrator had recently been caught and the city was still very much a buzz with the latest developments in the case. And so to have another murder just a few weeks later was frightful and appalling…

Sarah Bechtel was about twenty-six years old back on April 1, 1848. She was a young wife and mother. She had given birth to several children, but only one was still living. Her husband, William Bechtel, was a boatsman and, in fact, on the day of the murder he had been down by the river arranging for an upcoming trip on the Schuylkill Canal.

Presumably the Bechtels were not wealthy. They lived in an apartment on Schuylkill and Thompson Streets in a section of the city known as the District of Penn. It was located near Girard College. On the day of the murder, Sarah and her upstairs neighbor had gone down to Fairmount Park to see if her husband was on board his boat.  Thus she was not at home when he returned that evening with two friends.

Reportedly, William Bechtel had been drinking much of the day. Although it was said the couple often argued, William did not seem upset when Sarah first arrived back home that night. Shortly thereafter, however, he apparently snapped. In front of several witnesses, he grabbed her by the hair, jerked her head back and slit her throat with a jack-knife. Despite the fact that two physicians were summoned immediately, Sarah bled profusely and died about a half an hour after the attack.

William then apparently tried to commit suicide by slitting his own throat with the same knife, but that wound proved not to be serious and he was taken into custody. Once in jail it was reported that William became a “raving maniac.” He had several periods in which he became quite violent and caused bodily harm to himself and those watching him. In mid-May he was moved from the county prison to the insane department of the Blockley Alms House.

William’s murder trial occurred in the beginning of July in 1848. He was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to the Eastern State Penitentiary for ten years. The conventional wisdom was that he committed the act in a fit of jealous rage fueled by the alcohol that he had consumed. There was some question as to whether or not he had any reason to suspect that his wife was in any way unfaithful, leaving open the possibility that the whole tragic situation was brought about by his own delusions.

As a postscript to this story, a death notice appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper  for a William Bechtel, aged about 40, who died May 14, 1859.  It could be the same William, but at this point I don’t know for sure. I would love to hear from anyone who has further information on William or Sarah. I am still trying to determine if they are connected to my Bechtel line.

Note that the information contained in this posting comes from several newspaper articles that reported the event back in the spring and summer of 1848.

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