Pondering the Past, Tales Lost in Time: McHenry County's First Murder

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish legend from history. Stories about events and people are passed down through the generations and contemporary records don’t exist to support the stories. Another factor that often creates murky memories of events is time. Participants and witnesses are asked to recount the facts of an event decades after it occurred, and they provide wrong locations, misidentify participants, or recall the wrong chronology. This was common with some veterans recalling incidents that occurred on Civil War battlefields. These stories and recollections then appear in print and continue to be repeated and eventually become accepted as truth.

This is exactly what happened with McHenry County’s first murder. The first historic account of this event appeared in the History of McHenry County Illinois in 1885. The date of the murder is recorded as the summer of 1846 and the facts are as follows; Henry Briedenbucher and his fiancée Sarah Keiser were returning from the “harvest field.” Henry was in love with another woman who had followed him from Germany to McHenry County. Henry wanted to escape his marital obligation to Sara and found that the most convenient way to achieve his wish was to murder Sarah by choking the life out of her. Henry was subsequently arrested and charged with the murder. In those days the county circuit court wasn’t always in session. It convened four times each year and typically for a handful of days – just long enough to take care of the business on the docket. Henry’s case couldn’t, or wasn’t settled in a single term and was moved from term to term for three years. Henry was finally adjudged insane and committed to an asylum. Between 1935 and 1995 this version of the story appeared in local newspapers at least a dozen times.

For years I’ve scoured local court records for “1846” and strained my eyes spinning many reels of old newspapers on microfiche at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield and couldn’t unearth even one little morsel of information about the county’s first murder. But, more recently my luck changed. Thanks to the digitization of old newspapers I was able to unexpectedly and quite accidentally locate not only one but three articles that mentioned this horrible crime. I also learned that the first murder in McHenry County occurred just outside of Marengo. I’ll quote one of the articles that appeared in the Buffalo Weekly Republic of September 5, 1848.

 “MURDER. - The Chicago Journal has the following letter from Marengo, in that State, dated August 23rd:

There was a most brutal murder committed last evening, by a German named Henry Bridenbeck, living in this county, upon the person of a young German woman of the name of Salama Kaesar. The murder was committed about four miles west of Woodstock, in a corn-field, and is supposed to have been done by strangling with a handkerchief, which was found near the person of the woman. Bridenbeck is about 25 years of age, about 5 feet 6 inches high, thick set, brown hair, fair complexion, full round face, left eye squints, or partially closed; and when he fled, had on a pair of blue jean pants, course linen shirt, and white round top wool hat, no coat or vest, was barefooted, and speaks little English. He was tracked for about a half a mile from where the body was found, in a westerly direction. The people are out in all directions; but as he had twelve hours’ start, it is feared he may escape.”

The uncovering of this information confirms that the event described in the 1885 county history actually occurred, it identifies the people involved, and affixes the crime more accurately on McHenry County’s historic timeline.

The story of Henry Bridenbeck doesn’t end here. The county history left us with a cliffhanger! The following is …”the rest of the story”: “It is believed by many that he effected {sic} his escape from the asylum through deceit and is still living and doing business under an assumed name in Iowa. He is supposed to have effected {sic} his release in the following manner: A patient in the asylum died of brain trouble, and it was given out that it was Briedenbucher who had died. A post-mortem examination was held, attended by Briedenbucher’s attorneys, and certification was made that Briedenbucher had died of the malady which allowed him protection of the asylum.”

A bit weak on the ending if you ask me – it doesn’t provide the method he used to gain his freedom from the asylum. Probably legend, but you never