Henry Bastian was your typical everyday employer who would rather kill his employees than pay them.
For eight years, Bastian made a habit of hiring young men not well known in the area. Many were immigrants just off the boat. He paid them next to nothing upfront and promised a significant sum of money when their year of service was up. Then he killed them instead of paying them.
It was an ingenious scheme and above suspicion, except his last victim was a local boy with a family who suspected something was amiss.
|Henry Bastian committed suicide after killing |
Fred Kuschman at his Milan, Illinois murder farm
in 1896. (The Rock Island Argus. April 7, 1896)
The Bastian farm was the perfect murder house—secluded in the country two and a half miles southeast of Milan, Illinois. It was surrounded by trees and dense underbrush.
Henry Bastian was a respected member of the community. He doted over his wife and infant daughter Mildred, steered clear of alcohol, and attended church regularly.
What undid him was the death of Fred Kuschmann.
Fred Kuschmann was feeling good. The 21-year-old Rock Island man had just got paid $79.75 (almost $3,000 in 2019 money). Now he was off to a dance at the Anton Weigle farm in Black Hawk Township.
From all appearances, robbers waylaid him just outside the gates of the Bastian farm. It was the perfect spot. They would have known that he had to get off his horse to open and close the gate.
“The body and saddle were found in one place, the overcoat in another and two silver dollars down the roadway a little farther.” His left foot was still in the stirrup, but his cap and money were missing, leading some to suspect foul play.[i]
The coroner’s inquest ruled his death an accident, supposing that Kuschmann’s horse threw him on the ice.
Closer examination of the skull by doctors Barth and Hollowbush suggested something more sinister. They said, “the wounds causing death could not have been inflicted in any other way than by vicious blows.”[ii]
That made it look like a robbery because no money was found on Kuschmann’s body.
Some of the blame rubbed off on Henry Bastian.
He stopped in Robert Kuschmann’s grocery store earlier that day and said he needed to raise the money to pay Fred. The Rock Island Argus speculated Bastian said that in more than one place, so it was not improbable that Bastian gave the villains the spark they needed to waylay young Kuschmann.
|Henry Bastian hung himself in his barn after neighbors|
began to suspect he killed up to nine of his former farmhands
rather than pay them. (The Rock Island Argus. April 29, 1896)
Other residents suggested Bastian killed him for whatever reason they didn’t know.
Even then, Henry Bastian most likely would have escaped detection, except he committed suicide.
Bastian hung himself in the granary between the barn and house on his farm on March 13, 1896. He fastened a three-quarter inch thick rope halter to a joist in the roof of the granary, then stood on a small box and jumped off it—strangling himself. He was so close to the floor that the toe of one foot almost touched the ground.
The body was discovered early in the morning by his sister, Carrie.
Bastian scribbled a suicide note in his diary. “I am innocent of Fred Kuschmann. It is too much for me to stand.”[iii] The rest of the note concerned the disposition of his property. He left everything to his sister Carrie and made no provision for his wife or children.
At the coroner’s inquest, Carrie Bastian said her brother talked about suicide the day before. He was in difficult financial straits and owed everyone money.
She “went to Mr. Johnson’s farm with him the night before he committed suicide. He said everything was against him, and [if not] for his family, he would kill himself.”[iv]
Something must have changed overnight.
Bastian and his sister were busy doing chores at 4 a.m. Carrie Bastian saw her brother in the barn at 5:30. A half-hour later, she discovered his body hanging in the granary.
Henry Bastian’s suicide got people thinking.
Eight or nine of Bastian’s farmhands had gone missing over as many years. Maybe, Henry Bastian wasn’t the upstanding citizen everyone thought he was.
Very soon, all sorts of rumors circulated around Milan.
Someone remembered a woman of color named Parrish, who worked for Bastian. She had disappeared suddenly, never to be heard from again. Another young man who worked for Bastian said when he asked about his pay, Henry Bastian told him to keep quiet, or “he’d settle him.” And then, there were all the young farmhands who came and went and were never heard from again.
Authorities decided to search the Bastian farm.
Deputy Sheriff S. S. Hull supervised the search. He assigned two men to dig in a rubbish pile. Several hours later, they uncovered the body of John Lauderbach.
Lauderbach had gone missing on February 17th, 1895.
“The right side of the skull was badly fractured, and a clot of blood was still hanging near the left temple. The hair was auburn and about an inch and a half long. A sandy mustache was also visible. There was about a week’s growth of whiskers on the chin.”[v]
|This diagram shows the lay of the land around the Bastian|
farm. (The Rock Island Argus. March 13, 1896)
The fracture in the skull was made with a blunt instrument. Most likely, the killer snuck up on him and whacked him with an ax or hammer.
Bastian had told friends that Lauderbach had taken off for Montana or Wisconsin, they weren’t sure.[vi] Lauderbach was a 26-year-old immigrant from Germany with no family and few friends in the area. He had agreed to work for Bastian for a year in return for $180. He received $10 when he started and was to get $170 at the end of the year. Bastian owed him $170, so detectives suspected he killed him rather than pay him.[vii]
Officers found two watches in the hog pen. One was silver and the other gold. Both watches appeared to have been buried for some time. The gold watch belonged to Lauderbach. H. D. Folsom said he sold the silver one to Fritz Kreinsen seven or eight years before.[viii]
When they dug down further, searchers found a piece of cloth—likely part of a coat. They also found two buttons—one from a pair of pants, and the other from a jacket.
That led authorities to believe Bastian fed some of his victims to the hogs.[ix]
A hip bone turned up by the chicken coop. Searchers uncovered a small piece of a skull near Lauderbach’s remains. Next to it, they found a dented washbasin—covered with human hair and clotted blood.
|Another view of the Bastian farm, showing the location where |
Fred Kuschman's body was found, and where Henry Bastian
hung himself in his barn. (The Rock Island Argus. April 2, 1896)
Sheriff Hemenway kept his men digging on Bastion’s farm for the better part of a week. They found a rusty ax buried three feet under the icehouse, but the rust made it impossible to determine if there was any blood on it.
On April 3rd, State’s Attorney C. J. Searles interviewed Carrie Bastian. She said a man named Ernest Miner disappeared from the farm.
|Henry Bastian's sister, Carrie. Those in the know |
suspected she was in on it with him, but charges were
never brought against her. (The Rock Island Argus.
April 7, 1896)
He “worked on our farm when my father run it ten years ago, disappeared, and we heard nothing of him after.” He was “an ordinary farmhand; a tramp you might call him. He came along and was willing to work for little money, and he stayed about five months.”
“He had friends at La Salle and started to go there one day about ten years ago, and he did not come back.”[x]
On April 6th, searchers focused on an old well. They found several burned out trunks at the bottom of the well and some human bones, leading them to think Bastian incinerated several of his victims.
At the same time, investigators found a gallon jug of kerosene hidden under a manger in the cowshed, a three and a half-foot long bloodstained club, with spikes in it, and a rusty revolver that belonged to John Lauderbach hidden in the valley near the shed.[xi]
The coroner’s jury later ruled the club found at Bastian’s was the one used to murder Kuschmann. They assumed Bastian hauled the body out in his buggy on the night of the murder, then spread the word that a fatal accident had occurred.[xii]
Two members of the jury wanted to implicate Carrie Bastian in the killings because of inconsistencies in her testimony. She said she saw her brother pay Kuschmann his wages, then later said she did not. She said she was bathing in the kitchen yet saw Kuschmann and her brother ride away.
“How Mrs. Bastian could see the movements of Kuschmann and her brother while she was bathing in a curtained room is something the jury could not understand.”[xiii]
She explained it away, saying the curtain was twelve inches up from the sill.
Carrie Bastian admitted she saw bloodstains on her brother’s jacket and the buggy the evening Fred Kuschmann was murdered, but she thought nothing of it. She trusted her brother.
There was talk of another farmhand, 25-year-old Hugh McCaffrey, who had gone missing after working for Bastian. That was two or three years back.
Investigators suspected Henry Bastian murdered at least eight of his hired hands, but searchers only recovered the remains of three men— Fred Kuschmann, John Lauderbach, and Fred Kreinsen. Five other hired hands on the farm disappeared mysteriously and were never heard from again. Detectives assumed Bastian did them in and scattered their remains around the farm, too.
The known victims are Fred Kuschmann, Fred Kreinsen, John Lauderbach, Marshal Lewis, Axel Sternberg, Hugh McCafferty, and August Johnson.[xiv]
In December 1901, William Hoffman, a tenant on the Bastian farm, dug up the remains of a young man.[xv] The Rock Island Argus said there was no way to verify who the victim was because there were just unconnected bones. They speculated it was Fred Kreinsen, or perhaps Hugh McCafferty.[xvi]
After his suicide, the bank discovered Bastian had forged his father’s signature on the $1300 mortgage for his farm. He passed his wife’s signature off as his mother’s and faked the notary signature attached to it by Justice William McMichael.[xvii]
By November 20th, 1896, Bastian’s wife, Eva, was tired of the notoriety. She petitioned the circuit court to change her name and her children’s names back to her maiden name—Johnson.[xviii]
The murders also inspired the Reverend W. S. Marquis of the Broadway Presbyterian Church. A few Sundays after Bastian hung himself, he preached a sermon titled, “The Double Life of Henry Bastian and Its Lesson.”[xix]
Not to be outdone, H. S. Myers purchased the farm and turned it into a dime museum charging visitors a ten-cent admission fee.[xx] Hundreds of people visited the Bastian farm on April 5th and were surprised to discover J.D. Means charging a ten-cent admission fee.
The times, they were a-changing, and not all for the better.
[i] Rock Island Argus. April 1, 1896.
[ii] Rock Island Argus. March 13, 1896.
[iii] Rock Island Argus. March 13, 1896.
[iv] Rock Island Argus. April 4, 1896.
[v] Rock Island Argus. April 4, 1896.
[vi] Rock Island Argus. April 1, 1896.
[viii] Rock Island Argus. April 7, 1896.
[ix] Rock Island Argus. April 4, 1896.
[x] Rock Island Argus. April 3, 1896.
[xi] Rock Island Argus. April 3, 1896.
[xii] Rock Island Argus. April 29, 1896.
[xiii] Rock Island Argus. April 29, 1896.
[xiv] Evening Times-Republican. December 14, 1901.
[xv] Evening Times-Republican. December 4, 1901.
[xvi] Rock Island Argus. December 5, 1901.
[xvii] Rock Island Argus. March 17, 1896.
[xviii] Rock Island Argus. November 20, 1896.
[xix] Rock Island Argus. May 2, 1896.
[xx] Rock Island Argus. April 9, 1896.