The Death of Claus Behrens: Whispers of murder

The summer heat was already being felt in the early morning hours of July 17, 1897 when Mr. Claus Behrens reported for work at the Brammer Manufacturing Company on Rockingham Road in west Davenport. Mr. Behrens was known as a strong, dependable worker. He worked as a “fireman” for the business. His job was to feed fuel into and maintain the boilers of the factory to keep production going. One can imagine it was a sweltering job in the summer heat.

Claus arrived at about 5:45 a.m. to start his shift. His co-workers had noticed a change in Mr. Behrens over the past few days. He complained of not feeling well, stomach pain, and appeared pale. The pain was even worse this morning. Co-workers encouraged Mr. Behrens to leave about 7:00 a.m. They felt his complaints were probably heat related working close to fire in the summer temperatures. They watched as he left to return home to his wife and younger daughter.

Claus Behrens would never return to the Brammer Manufacturing Company. He died about 11:00 p.m. that night. One hour before his 56th birthday.

His death, and the scandal and mystery that followed, would captivate Davenport and Rock Island citizens for the next six months.

Word of Claus’ death spread quickly through his neighborhood. It was his asthma, his wife Christine (or Christina depending on the document), told everyone. He had suffered for years and finally succumbed to the terrible condition even though she had sought remedies from their doctor that very day.

The devoted wife was distraught as the undertaker arrived to embalm the body a short time later at their new home at 1203 W. 2nd Street. They had only moved into the home about 10 days before the tragic death.

However, some in the neighborhood felt something wasn’t right and whispers of deadly deeds quickly spread. Claus had been so healthy. In a neighborhood where houses sat close together and windows were open to allow a cool breeze to blow in; the man’s agonized groans of pain had been heard throughout the day. Then came evening when Claus had been weak, but strong enough to go across the street to purchase a bucket of beer from the neighborhood saloon.* He did not linger there and quickly returned home about 8:00 p.m.

Around 10:00 p.m., agonized cries filled the air until an hour later when silence fell over the house at 1203 W. 2nd Street and the undertaker was called to come perform his duties.

One co-worker knew for certain something was not right. John F. Moeller, a foreman at Brammer Manufacturing Company and friend of Mr. Behrens, approached the coroner with his concerns immediately. Claus Behrens, he felt, did not die from asthma. Mr. Moeller felt strongly that his friend had been helped into the grave. He told Coroner James McCortney what he knew and asked him to autopsy the body.

It was widely known in the German neighborhood around 2nd Street and at the Brammer factory that Claus and Christine Behrens had separated for many months after being married for 21 years. She had moved to Rock Island and become the housekeeper for Henry Bendt, a widower with five children. The Behrens had met Henry in late 1896 when their daughter Hulda became engaged to Henry Bendt’s son, Otto.

Christine had moved out of the family home on December 15, 1896 while Claus was at work. She took most of the household furniture and supplies along with Hulda and younger daughter Paula. She put the furniture in storage and moved into the Bendt household.

Hulda and Otto married on December 23, 1896. Christine stayed on at the Bendt home while Paula returned to her father. Claus, and Paula, rented rooms with a John Proth and his wife at 234 Howell Street.

After leaving him, Christine accused Claus of being an aggressive drunk. The final action, she said, was buying him a pair of slippers that December. He became enraged when he saw them and threatened to strike her with his fist for not asking him permission to purchase the item.

It was Hulda, she said, who suggested she move into the Bendt home.

Claus visited his wife frequently over the next few months asking Christine to return to him. Upon hearing a rumor that Christine had begun to live “as husband and wife” with Henry; Claus did change the beneficiaries on his $2,000 insurance policy he held with the Northern Fraternal Insurance Company as part of the Knights of Pythias from Christine to Hulda and Paula. Even after the rumors started, he still asked Christine to return to their marriage. She always refused.

It was July 4, 1897 when Christine asked Paula to go to Claus’ work and give him a message. She wanted to meet and talk to Claus about returning to their marriage. Christine would return to him immediately with the household items on one condition, Claus had to put his life insurance back in her name as beneficiary.

Claus agreed and they moved in together on July 7th at 1003 W. 2nd Street. According to Mr. Moeller, Claus immediately signed the insurance back to her. Within a week, he began to complain about stomach pains to co-workers.

Mr. Moeller knew so many details about the life insurance policy because Claus had confided in him he felt he must change the beneficiary immediately – so Claus had his daughter Paula sign Mr. Moeller’s name as witness so the documents could be sent to the insurance company immediately.

John Moeller let Claus know he was displeased with having his signature forged and he would be glad to sign anything for Behrens, but not to forge his name again. He said Claus then asked him if he thought Christine would return back to Henry now that the name was changed. He seemed sad, Moeller said. A few days later, Claus was dead.

Coroner McCortney felt the information from John Moeller was enough cause for an autopsy. The embalming had begun, but was stopped. Early the next morning, the coroner, Dr. McCortney, along with Dr. DeArmand and Dr. Braunlich autopsied the body at the house.

It was quickly discovered, once the stomach was examined, that Claus Behrens did not die from asthma. The contents of his stomach had a green color. The doctors knew of only one way for that to happen. Someone had poisoned Claus with Paris Green**.

A Coroner’s Inquest was called for Tuesday, July 20, 1897. Samples from Claus Behrens were given to Druggist Frank Nadler to examine. After the autopsy, embalming was allowed to continue and Claus Behrens was laid to rest at West Davenport Cemetery (now Fairmount Cemetery).

The Davenport Police Department had been notified by Coroner McCortney of the findings, but were not able to proceed with a formal investigation until after the inquest on July 20th. Depending on the findings of the Coroner’s Inquest, the case would move from Scott County jurisdiction to the Davenport Police Department if it was decided a crime had been committed.

The Coroner’s Inquest found that Claus Behrens had died from being poisoned with Paris Green. With that decision, the Davenport Police Department began to investigate a homicide.

Suspicion immediately fell on Christine Behrens. At the inquest, a love letter was presented as evidence. It was written by Christine on July 15, 1897 to Henry Bendt begging him to forgive her for something she had done wrong, declaring her love for him, and begging him to meet her on the bridge on July 17th. She implied that she and Henry were in love and would be together once she divorced Claus.

Henry Bendt was brought to the inquest for questioning as well. He stated he did not respond to the letter, but did meet her on the bridge at the specified time as he was heading into Davenport anyway. He denied any relationship with Christine other than that of a friend trying to be helpful. He also denied having any understanding with Christine that they would be together if she divorced Claus.

After hearing from others about the $2,000 insurance policy, the possible relationship between Christine and Henry Bendt, Paris Green found in the stomach of the victim, and co-workers stating Claus Behrens told them the day before his death “I believe they put something in my coffee”, it was enough for the Coroner’s Inquest to decide there was cause to believe that Claus Behrens was murdered.

The Davenport Police Department immediately took over the investigation. They searched the Behrens’ house and found a piece of white paper with a green residue on the water stand in the bedroom used by Claus and Christine. On Friday, July 23, 1897 they arrested Christine on suspicion of poisoning her husband.

Christine was questioned and repeated her husband died of asthma. She was then moved to the women’s house of detention.

On Saturday, July 24th Christine was willing to talk to the police. It wasn’t her, she stated. She was a victim as well as her husband. The true killer was Henry Bendt!

With that declaration to the Police Chief and Police Matron, she signed a confession telling how Henry had convinced her of his love that day on the bridge. He gave her a medicine bottle filled with a green liquid and told her if she gave it to Claus and he died then they could be together.

Henry Bendt was immediately arrested for the murder of Claus Behrens. When told that Christine had accused him of giving her the poison he simply stated, “Well, I suppose I will have to suffer with her.” according to the Davenport Morning Star.

As evening fell on the night of July 25, 1897, Christine Behrens and Henry Bendt both sat in jail accused of poisoning Claus Behrens.

But did they do it? Might Claus have taken his own life? Was Christine so desperately in love with Henry that she foolishly trusted him and it caused the death of her husband?

The upcoming trials would be filled with scandal; accusations against not only Christine and Henry, but also Claus; early handwriting and fingerprint analysis; surprise plot twists that never seem to end, and a jar with evidence that would make most individuals cringe.

Part II will be published this Friday, November 2, 2018!

(posted by Amy D. and Cristina)

*A common practice. A person would bring in a small metal bucket from home to a saloon. The bucket was filled with beer, paid for, and the customer returned home with a bucket of beer. Beer and coffee were popular beverages to be consumed at home, as water might cause illness from being contaminated.

** Paris Green is a toxic chemical made with arsenic and copper. Its crystal appearance is a beautiful emerald green. Ground up, it was used to kill insects and animals. Paris Green was also used in paints and dyes. It could be purchased from local druggists in the 1890s. If consumed, it would cause heart palpitations, vomiting, stomach pain, and death.

 

Sources

The Davenport Democrat, July 19, 1897. Pg. 1.

Davenport Morning Star, July 20, 1897. Pg. 2.

The Davenport Democrat, July 22, 1897. Pg. 1.

The Davenport Democrat, July 23, 1897. Pg. 1.

Davenport Morning Star, July 24, 1897. Pg. 6.

Davenport Morning Star, July 25, 1897. Pg. 7.

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