The Death of Claus Behrens: Whispers of Murder Part II

Please see Part I for the beginning of this story.

After the Coroner’s Inquest declared Claus Behrens had died due to poisoning his wife, Christine Behrens, and their daughter’s new father-in-law Henry Bendt remained in jail.

Both Christine and Henry found lawyers to represent their individual cases and work began on all sides to prepare for the Preliminary Trial. Henry remained quiet, but Christine continued to defend herself against the charges.

On July 29, 1897 The Rock Island Argus printed an accusation from Christine Behrens that Henry Bendt had killed his first wife, Marguerite, with poison in 1892 for her $2,000 life insurance policy. Police in Davenport and Rock Island were quick to investigate the new accusation.  

The Davenport Morning Star reported on July 31st that the accusation proved to be false. A Dr. Ludewig attended Mrs. Bendt during her two-day illness and she had died from peritonitis, not poison. She also did not have a $2,000 life insurance policy. Only a $1,000 policy.

During this time, Christine’s past was also brought into the newspapers. Many remembered that Christine had been married before Claus Behrens and her divorce made headlines. On October 13, 1875 Christine married her first husband, Hans Hagge, in Rock Island. In January 1876, Hans filed for divorce. As the newspaper stated the bride of three months “is now engaged in buying little rufflings, and flannels, and white goods, to make up into clothes which she will never wear herself, and she doesn’t go out into society as much as she used to. And that’s what’s the matter with Hans Hagge, for he says it isn’t his fault that things are thusly so soon”.

It would appear that Christine was pregnant at the time of her marriage to Hans and he divorced her as the child was not his. We do not know the official date of the divorce or what happened to the child. All we know is Christine married Claus on April 20, 1876. Her census record from 1900 is marked that she only had given birth to two children – Hulda in 1878 and Paula in 1884.

August 17, 1897 was a day filled with excitement as individuals crowded into the court room at City Hall for the Preliminary Hearing of Christine Behrens on charges she poisoned her husband causing his death.  

Witnesses were brought forth to answer questions including John Porth who had rented rooms to Claus and Paula until early July. He gave descriptive testimony of his three visits to see Claus the day he died. Of the pain and vomiting Claus was experiencing and Christine making Porth leave as she said Claus became angry when people saw him sick. Paula Behrens, 12 years old, testified on her parents’ marriage, the argument over the slippers (Paula said her father asked her mother to ask before purchases like that, but no one argued), and how it was strange the day before Claus died that the coffee was already poured for dinner when they sat down. Her father did not drink much of his as he said it was bitter tasting. Her mother blamed sour milk and said she would talk to the milkman about better delivery.

Paula also reported that shortly before her father died, her mother had gone off to visit Henry Bendt. Paula had seen Henry drop her off in his cart near their home. She also admitted that she had signed Frank Moeller’s name as the witness on the insurance papers at her father’s request.

The Preliminary Trial took longer than expected when Christine’s attorney, N. D. Ely, was placed on the stand for two days and questioned for refusing to present or admit he had the life insurance policy in his possession. He refused as it was no one’s business he said and he had to look after his client. The judge told him it was his business and Ely finally broke and presented it to court.

Few spoke in Christine’s defense. One person on her side was Mrs. Emma Runge, a neighbor, who testified Christine told her while Emma visited her in jail that she loved her husband and that Bendt gave her the medicine that killed Claus because Bendt wanted the insurance money.

It seemed like the Preliminary Hearing was drawing to a close when Christine’s defense brought in a shocking piece of evidence. Christine had asked Mrs. Runge to bring in clothes for her to wear in jail from the Behrens’ home. She also asked Mrs. Runge to bring items of her husband’s so she could launder them.

Pinned inside a pair of work pants belonging to Claus was – a suicide note!

Yes, Christine testified she had been forced by Police Chief Henry Martens and Police Matron Sarah Hill to confess to the crime and incriminate Henry Bendt. But really, Claus had committed suicide.

The note, written on paper and ink, stated that Claus was tired of his hard work and he hoped his family would forgive him. On the bottom was written, “I did it myself.” It was signed Klaus behrens.

The Jailer Martens said the note had recently been given to him by Christine. He noted she had asked several neighbor ladies who visited her in jail to please search the bedroom where Claus died as she was sure he would have left her a note of some kind. The ladies always returned with no luck in finding a note.

After that shock, the prosecution called a member of the Davenport Police Department. In their possession was a suicide note – yes, it would appear Claus wrote two suicide notes. This note was found on a bureau the day Christine was arrested. This note, written on paper and in pencil, indicated Claus was tired of feeling sick and was choosing to end his life. It was also signed Klaus behrens.

Hulda Behrens Bendt was called to the stand and given the notes. She stated they appeared to be similar, but not the same as her father’s writing. Hulda also noted her father never signed his name with a “K”, but with a “C” though the small “b” in Behrens was something he did. She also noted ink was not kept in the house, only a pencil.

The notes were placed into evidence. At the close of the Preliminary Hearing, enough evidence was found to charge Christine with murder. Henry Bendt was charged with murder after his Preliminary Hearing largely based on the confession of Christine.

For a while, the Behrens case no longer made front page news. Though stories presented themselves that either Christine spent her time in jail crying and talking to her deceased husband’s clothing or she was relatively upbeat and getting along the best she could. Some said she was trying to act insane. Others thought she clearly was.

The murder hit the front pages again in late September as a request was made from Mrs. Behrens lawyers to exhume the body of Claus Behrens. They felt the Coroner had made mistakes in the autopsy and this would prove Claus actually died from asthma and suicide.

The request was presented to Davenport Mayor Smith who was the president of the board of health. He declined the request first on the grounds West Davenport Cemetery was outside the Davenport City limits and, second, he was uncomfortable giving the body of a potential murder victim to the accused murderer.

The request next went to the Scott County Board who authorized the body of Claus Behrens to be exhumed. Mrs. Behrens lawyers; Dr. Hill, Dr. Allen, and Dr. DeArmand for the estate of Claus Behrens; the prosecuting attorneys, Dr. Radenhausen (Claus Behren’s physician), and Sheriff Kuehl all attended the exhumation.

They found Claus’ body to be in advanced decomposition. The defense asked for his brain, but the doctors present said that would not be altered by poison, asthma, or suicide. They did take samples of Claus’ liver, kidneys, spleen, and intestines. The prosecuting attorneys had samples as well.

Then the defense made a request that seemed to shock everyone present. They asked for the left hand of Claus Behrens to look for ink to prove he wrote the suicide note. The prosecution was stunned according to journalists who were present, but quickly asked for Behrens’ right hand to make sure they too had something to use in court.

The hands were placed in specimen jars and Claus Behrens, or what remained of him, was quickly reburied.

Through all this drama with Christine Behrens, Henry Bendt sat in jail until his Preliminary Hearing. Largely based on the accusations from Christine, he was held over for trial as well in the murder of Claus Behrens.

Jurors in the murder trial of Christine Behrens were sworn in on October 12, 1897. After all the head-turning accusations or surprise evidence, no one knew what to expect and the court room was filled every day with spectators.

Witnesses called to the stand included Attorney Ely who admitted he went into the Behrens’ home and removed the insurance papers and a bottle of brown medicine shortly after the arrest of Christine Behrens. E. H. Hibbeen of the Northern Life Insurance Company discussed the life insurance policy belonging to Claus Behrens and the changes he made to it. Hibbeen also noted that in August 1897, Attorney Ely called him and demanded the insurance policy be paid to Christine Behrens. The company declined based on the question of the witness signature.

Davenport Police Chief Henry Martens testified that Christine had confessed that Henry Bendt gave her a bottle with green medicine to give to Claus. Undertaker Henry Runge described the embalming process and how the chemicals are different from Paris Green. Coroner McCortney testified he found a greenish fluid in Claus’ stomach during the autopsy. He also described fluid in the lungs possibly from vomiting.

Co-workers from the Brammer Company testified on how healthy and strong Claus was until days before his death. A witness testified on seeing Christine and Henry together on the afternoon of Claus’ death. John Porth testified that on his deathbed Claus Behrens told him someone had given him something to kill him that morning.

Davenport police detectives were brought in to review the evidence they found in the bedroom. The paper with green residue and the suicide note written in pencil. Neighbor O.A. Artz who shared a common wall with the Behrens home testified he heard the loud groans and cries of pain before Claus died. He also testified that for several days before his death he heard Mr. Behrens coughing loudly as though he had trouble breathing at night. Co.Workers from Brammer testified he never coughed or had labored breathing at work. Mr. Artz also testified when he and his wife heard the loud groans and screams they went over to offer assistance, but Mrs. Behrens declined any help.

The defense presented Dr. P. Radenhausen who testified he had found a thumbprint on one of the suicide notes and he matched to the left thumb of Claus Behrens, which was in the defense’s possession. He said it was a perfect match after scrapping away the mold from decay. In the process, some of the flesh had fallen off too, but he was convinced the thumbprint was that of Claus and not Christine Behrens.

To prove his point, the left hand of Claus Behrens, soaking in an alcohol solution, was presented to the court and passed to the jurors to view.

The prosecution responded by calling Jailor Martens to the stand who testified Mrs. Behrens had asked for paper and ink in her cell and frequently wrote letters and notes. After the suicide note was found in the pants, Christine was asked for the paper and ink back to be studied by the police. She told them it had disappeared and she did not know where it was.

The prosecution called a Professor Andrews from the University of Iowa to testify on fingerprints. He found the fingerprint on the suicide note was not of a clear quality and no fingerprint could be retrieved from the hand of Claus Behrens that he had seen.

By November 1, 1897 the jurors were deciding the fate of Mrs. Christine Behrens. They could not make a decision for guilty or not guilty. A second trial was called.

A new trial began on November 12, 1897 with many of the same witnesses called.

Hulda Behrens Bendt testified that she had searched through all her father’s pants the day of his death for money and belongings. She never found a suicide note in his work pants nor sitting on a bureau. Paula Behrens discussed how there was not real quarrels between her parents, but there was a great age difference. She seemed to think that her mother had left Henry Bendt on good terms.

The prosecution called several witnesses during this trial who had evidence of Claus Behrens signatures from various documents. They all agreed that they felt someone else wrote the signatures on the suicide note to look similar to Claus’ signature, but it was not the same. The signatures produced on official documents by the prosecution show Claus signed his name with a “C” and not a “K”.

The prosecution finished their presentation at trial with various letters written by Christine Behrens after her arrest. In them, her story changes many times. Her final story being Claus wanted the separation in December 1896 because they were having issues in their marriage. He was a good husband, but they disagreed. Claus suggested she stay with Henry Bendt and help with the children. She wanted to return to Claus as she found Henry to be mean and disagreeable. She finally reconciled with Claus in July and was devastated when he suddenly died. In fact, Claus suggested she meet with Henry to work out their differences. He suggested she and Henry go for a beer and make amends. She also said any confession previously in which she said Henry gave her a bottle of green medicine was false. Claus, sadly, committed suicide she said.

The jury received the case on November 30th and on December 2nd found her guilty in the murder of her husband and sent to jail in Anamosa, Iowa.

Even in Anamosa, Christine continued to now say Henry Bendt was innocent and that she had lied about his involvement during her trial. Bendt’s attorney, Rock Island major J. M. Beardsley, showed up drunk to one of the court dates and was jailed for contempt. With no real case against him, Henry was released from jail in February 1898.

Paula Behrens was left without either parent at age 14 years old. Her sister said she was unable to care for her and no one wanted the child of a murderess living with them. Mrs. Emma Runge, the neighbor who visited Christine in jail and testified at both trials, took her in according to newspaper reports.

Claus Behrens remains buried at Fairmount Cemetery. We have no knowledge of what happened to his hands.

Christine Behrens died June 13, 1903 in Anamosa Prison while her case was being appealed. She had been caught eating lye soap in an attempt to kill herself. The soap was taken away and she was in a hospital unit of the prison. While there she was a given a bolt of fabric to make new undergarments. Christine hung herself with the fabric. Her daughters were offered the body for burial, but they decline. An autopsy was done. Her stomach, it was found, was being poisoned from the lye. She was slowly dying a painful death before she hung herself. We do not know where she was buried, but possibly in Anamosa, Iowa.

Henry Bendt never remarried. As he grew older he lived with different family members. He died on April 29, 1939. He also hung himself after suffering from a severe throat condition that prevented him from eating. He was 87 years old and was buried in the Immanuel Lutheran Cemetery in Rock Island next to his wife, Marguerite.

As for the life insurance policy. It was finally given to Hulda and Paula in 1901. They each received $740 a piece. The rest of the money taken by taxes and attorney fees to settle the dispute with the insurance company.

While some believed Christine to be insane, others felt she was a cold-hearted murderess who wanted the insurance money instead of another divorce. Popular opinion, by newspaper accounts, soon described Henry Bendt as a man who was just trying to help his new daughter-in-law’s mother during a difficult time. She became obsessed with him until he forced her to leave. Even after leaving, she still sent him love notes.

Some even believed Christine to be innocent. They believe Claus took her back and killed himself to punish her – and he succeeded.

With all the twists and turns of this case, who knows what might have really happened.

We will leave it up to you to decide.

(posted by Amy D. and Cristina)

Sources

The Rock Island Argus, July 29, 1897. Pg. 3.

Davenport Morning Star, July 31, 1897. Pg. 6.

The Davenport Democrat, January 18, 1876. Pg. 1.

The Davenport Democrat, August 17, 1897. Pg. 1.

The Davenport Democrat, August 20, 1897. Pg. 1

The Davenport Democrat, August 24, 1897. Pg. 1

The Davenport Morning Star, August 29, 1897. Pg. 2.

The Davenport Democrat, September 26, 1897. Pg. 1.

The Davenport Democrat, September 28, 1897. Pg. 5.

The Davenport Democrat, October 15, 1897. Pg. 1

The Davenport Democrat, October 26, 1897. Pg. 1

The Davenport Democrat, November 15, 1897. Pg. 1

The Moline Dispatch, November 23, 1897. Pg. 4

 

This entry was posted in Local History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.