The Hanging Of McLeansboro
(The story of hanging of Fred Behme - 1896)
(History Fair Project by Ashley Lynn)
Fred and Mary Behme with their seven (7) children. The child who was murdered, named Thomas, is seated on mother's lap.
The Behme Family: The two oldest boys are standing in the back. In the second row, the oldest daughter is standing by her father, Fred Behme. Next there is Mrs. Mary Behme, who is sitting by her third oldest son. In the front, there is the three youngest Behme's. Standing is their fourth son. Sitting on Fred's lap is their youngest girl, and on the mother's lap is the youngest boy, Thomas, who would soon be murdered.
Mary (mother) and Thomas (child) were the two victims that Fred Behme (her husband) killed because of regilious differences.
The Tragic Murder Victims: The Murder Tragic Victims, shown in the picture to the right, were the mother and son, Mary (1856-1896) and Thomas (1893-1896), who were killed by Fred Behme (husband/father). This picture is an exert from the above family picture. These two were the only two baptized in the Behme family. That is why they were murdered. They are buried in the cemetery at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Piopolis, Illinois.
The Last Days of Fred Behme: "The Last Days of Fred Behme" was written by Neil Tracy (See gray shaded area on right near bottom of article). Tracy was the President of the Goshen Trails Books in 1970. His article was published in the April 1970 booklet of Goshen Trails. He explains the thoughts and feelings that Fred had on the day of the murders, and the day of his death.
From the gallows, Fred Behme made a three (3) minute speech to the crowd. Many didn't understand the speech since he delivered it in German.
December 4, 1896: December 4, 1896, the day of the hanging, is depicted in the photo to the left. When hanging was legal, Fred's head would have put through a loop called a hanging noose that was secured above by 13 rings. Fred made a speech lasting three minutes in length, however few understood it since he spoke most of it in German. Immediately below, a picture shows the crowd gathered on the town square watching the precedings and hanging. If you look close, you can see Fred hanging from a tree. In preparation for writing this history study, I went to all the important places involved in the tragedy. The places I visited included: their home (Behme), Mary's church, Mary's grave, and the courtyard where Fred was hung.
The crowd circled around the gallows to watch the hanging on the south side of the square in McLeansboro, Illinois.
The Story of Fred Behme: "One of the most hideous and blood-thirsty crimes that ever stained the good name and honor of McLeansboro," read the April 10, 1896 edition of the McLeansboro Times. But what was this blood-thirsty crime? It was the murder of Mary Behme and Thomas, her youngest son. And the murderer was her very own husband, Fred Behme. A forty-nine (49) year old German farmer, Fred Behme, his wife Mary, and their seven children lived on a farm, seven miles north of McLeansboro, in Crouch Township.
A ticket, issued by the Sheriff Mastin E. Buck, was required to attend and view the hanging. This ticket was issued to R. L. Jones.
Fred, having switched from a Catholic to a Methodist, did not like the fact that Mary, remained a Catholic. Religion became a big problem in their family. He threatened her life often, because she would not change religions. In the spring of 1895, the Behmes separated. Mary and her youngest son, Thomas, went to Indiana to stay with her parents. None of the Behme children were baptized. Mrs. Behme wanted at least her youngest child to be baptized. So while in Indiana, she had the three-year-old baptized. In January of 1896, Behme told his wife he would change his ways if she came back. She did, and on April 5, 1896, he threatened to kill her if she went to church that Easter Sunday. She didn't go to church, but that did not make his anger go away. He sent the six older children away at noon that day. At 5 o'clock that night he committed the crime. He drug his wife outside by the hair, and beat in the side of her head with a large wooden ax. Luckily, she was killed instantly and felt little pain. To cover up the deed, he covered her body up with corn fodder. Then he took the little boy to the stable and hung him off a rafter. After the little boy was up and hanging, he left a note in German and ran to the woods.
The Last Days Of Fred Behme
I'm going to die on this sunny day;
Already, the folks have built a great gallows
And have dug my deep grave to rid
Everyone of this pitiful and quite numb body;
I can see my tombstone at this moment
Standing there on a day such as this,
Waiting as a pilgrim stops and lowly utters,
"He will never rest in peace with God."
That will be my final and miserable epitaph
For I can only hope that my God
Will let me burn with Satan in peace;
Ah! What is the holy stuff called peace?
Since my wife refused my devout belief in
The God that was so real to me,
There has been nothing for me to hold,
Nothing for my mind to grasp and keep.
So when she, my little son, and I
Were alone I decided to judge her finally;
Through rage the verdict was death for her
And all that stood between our different worlds;
The open air was to cleanse her soul
And the soil of our land was to
Be an alter for the sacrifice to God;
I did it, like the high priest
And buried that ax into that polluted skull;
Oh, she bled in red torrents for awhile!
Then it was over and she was free,
But then I realized that there was an
Audience at this most fantastic of all sacrifices;
My son began to scream as if the
Terrible demon that had just escaped her body
Had gone directly to replace the little one's soul;
I realized this demon would have to be
Quieted forever, so I grabbed the devil's son,
And carried him to the barn for salvation,
There the rope was put around his neck
Where the devil was choked out of him;
It was really over this time 'cause Satan
Had taken his two disciples along with him;
I then covered my woman with cow fodder and
Began to run from the folks who would
Persecute when they don't come near to understanding.
But I'm really looking forward to that rope,
For Satan somehow got inside me somewhere and
There is nothing 'cept ashes for me now.
So I stand here looking out on folks
Who judged me same as I did her
And my son,
All holding tickets in their hands
That were issued just for this great event.
My merciful God, how I want to die!
Did you ask me for some last words,
Nobody will ever know the overwhelming anger
That drove me to these deeds, for I
Could not persuade my wife to leave her
Religion, so to lead a good life, she
Had to die and with her my son;
I am ready to die in the manner of my son.
It's so dark under this black cap;
I am ready, Buck, so let it go.
By: Neil Tracy
A neighbor had known about their arguments and went over to see them. When he arrived, he found her body and the little boy's. The news about the murders spread fast. The news made the people very angry with Fred. As a matter of fact, if they would have found him that night, they would have strung him up a tree, right then and there. A search party of 100 men went out looking for him. He was found the next day, four miles north of Carmi. Fred was tried by the October session. The judge presiding was Judge E. D. Youngblood. Judge Youngblood found him guilty and sentenced him to be hung at noon on December 4, 1896. Upon Receiving this sentence Fred said, "I have to die sometime and I might as well die this way as any other." Judge Youngblood was the only judge to pass this sentence in Hamilton County. Some good citizens tried to convince the authorities that Fred was insane. They also said, that he still is insane, and that he shouldn't be hung. Instead, they wanted to see him locked away for the rest of his life. But the verdict wasn't changed. Sheriff Mastin E. Buck administered tickets for the hanging. Only those with tickets were to be admitted. On December 3, 1896, the death watch began. People were admitted to see the condemned man. The crowd was huge. The trains were full of people from our surrounding cities. The jailhouse was opened at 11:40 A.M. on December 4. At 12:27 P. M., Fred was taken out to the stand. Fred made a three minute speech in German, and then the people sang "Nearer My God to Thee." In German, they read a chapter from the Holy Bible. Fred Behme's last request, was to have his beard on the outside of the noose. The last words he spoke were, "Good-bye to all, I hope to see you in heaven." And with that Sheriff Buck pulled the lever at 12:37 P. M. The floor dropped out and Fred dropped and hung to his death. He hung for fourteen minutes, before he was pronounced dead. He died on Friday, December 4, 1896, at 12:51 P. M.
The story of Fred Behme goes with this year's theme (History Fair 1997), Tragedy and Triumph, because we see the tragic end to three people's lives. We see a family's downfall. The Behme's had six other children, and we get to think of all their pain. It must be very painful to loose both parents and a brother. The exhibit is more tragic than triumphant, because there is nothing triumphant in murder. In the end, what led up to their death? Fred said that his hatred grew for his son after his baptism. And that very baptism was the cause for their deaths. He also said, that if he would have had the courage, he would have killed himself. But still, they worshiped the same God. Why couldn't they live in peace? This is a time long question that has never been answered. And in my lifetime and yours, it never will.
- Cramer, Spencer. "Religious Differences Led to County's Only Hanging." Times Leader, Focus Edition (March 27, 1996) 1&7c.
- "Double Murder." McLeansboro Times, Vol. 28 No. 11 (April 10, 1896): Back page, Column 2 & 3.
- "Fred Behme, Hanged for the Murder of His Wife & Son." McLeansboro Times Vol. 28 No. 45 (December 4, 1896): Back page, Column 3 & 4.
- Felty, Harold G. Legacy of Kin, Hamilton County, Illinois. Volume 1 (1859-1957). Champaign: AIBA, 1994.
- Hamilton County Chamber of Commerce, Hamilton County, Illinois. Paducah: Turner, 1996.
- McCoy Memorial Library & Museum, McLeansboro, IL 62859. Pictures of Behme Family & of Fred Behme's Hanging.
- St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, Piopolis, IL. Burial Records of 1896.
(Copyright 1997 - 04/02/1997 Ashley Lynn)