Tag Archives: Murder

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.

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.