Anton Probst

In a previous blog I discussed the differences in the definitions of mass murderer, spree killer and serial killer.  The case of Anton Probst is difficult to categorize.  Some research I found referred to him as a mass murderer.  This can be true in a sense as he killed eight people, basically in the same location but unlike other mass murderers he did not simply spray the area with bullets (or even go after people one right after another with a knife) and the bullets fall where they may, hitting random targets.  No, Anton Probst had laid in wait as one by one his victims arrived.... think John List, only this was not his own family.  

Anton Probst was born in Germany around 1843.  He immigrated to the United States about 1863, just around the time of the Civil War.  It appears that his first scheme was to repeatedly join the Union Army in different regiments.  There was a $300 sign up bonus.  Probst would stay a few weeks, desert and then find another regiment and obtain another sign up bonus.  This last for a few years until he accidentally shot off his thumb which made him illegible for military action.  His missing thumb continued to cause him problems as it was an easy way to identify him and ultimately led him to being found for the later crimes he committed.  

After his military fraud actions were brought to a halt Probst went to work as a handyman on the cattle farm of Christopher Deering (sometimes spelled Dearing) near Philadelphia, PA.  He had only worked there for a few weeks before it would seem by mutual agreement he left.  Rumors were that Christopher's wife, Julia, did not like Probst, finding him lazy as well as just basically all around strange stating he had made lewd comments.  Christopher and Julia had five children (ranging from age 14 months to 10 years old) and another young man Cornelius Carey living with them as an employee.   

A short time later, in either February or March of 1966, Probst went back to Deering asking to work there again and he accepted. For the next month or two he seemingly worked hard.  Many say this was the first time in his life Probst actually did work hard.  On the morning of April 7, 1866 Christopher Deering left to pick up Elizabeth Dolan (some reports call her a cousin, others simply a family friend) who was coming for a visit. With Julia and all the children in the house, save the oldest, 10 year old William who was visiting his grandparents, Probst was outside working with Cornelius Carey.  

Soon after Christopher left Probst lured Cornelius to the barn where he attacked him with a hatchet and a hammer.  He then his his body under hay inside the barn.  Then one by one he brought Julia and each of the children, including the 14 month old, to the barn and one by one he proceeded to kill them.  When Christopher returned Probst called him to the barn as Elizabeth went to house.  Once inside the barn he killed Christopher and then called out Elizabeth and killed her also.  Reports say that he lined his victims up in barn, save Cornelius, and then threw hay on top of the bodies in attempt to hide them after apparently pick pocketing them.  It seems Cornelius was left away from the family.  

After this was done Probst proceeded into the home where he ransacked looking for valuables and trinkets.  Some reports state that he sat down at the table and ate lunch as well as possibly took a nap.  He appeared to be in no hurry to get away.  He also cleaned up, including shaving off his beard, and put on some of Christopher's clothing. He then fed the farm animals and finally left the farm. It is suspected that he got away with about $13 and a few small items such as a watch and a gun.  

A few days later the family was discovered by a neighbor.  He had gotten worried when one of the Deering children had not come to his home (as was routine) to retrieve the previous weeks newspapers.  He went to the home and found the bodies of the Deerings and Elizabeth Dolan.  It was not until others were informed and began to search that they found Corelius' body. They also found a hammer, knife and a hatchet nearby.  

It was quickly discovered that the "other handyman" was not among the dead.  Many did not know his name but they knew he had a missing thumb.  He was found and arrested in a tavern in town on April 12, 1866.  

In an era in which trials were often conducted with in a few short months of the crime, even this case was considered to be fast.  Probsts trial began on April 25, 1866, a mere seventeen days after the crime was committed and thirteen days from the time of his arrest.  The trial ended on May 1st.  The jury took twenty minutes to find him guilty. He was executed on June 8th. Between the time of his trial and his execution he confessed to what he had done and how he did it.  Regardless, in the end from the date of the crime to the date of execution there was simply two months.  Some will argue, and I agree that I am one of them, that in today's age often times trials, let alone the execution of sentences, take entirely too long.  However, and not that I am arguing that Probst was not guilty mind you, cases like this scare me.  This case was handled so fast that there does not seem to have been nearly enough time, especially between the crime and the trial to accurately put the puzzle pieces together and investigate all that should have.  Add to the fact that Probst's confession did not come until after the trial that means the prosecution had less information since the only person who was at the scene and lived to tell had not told yet.  I am also bothered by the fact that after his death at the gallows his body was given to a medical college to be dissected.  His skeleton was on display in their museum for many years.  His brain was weighed and it was said to be about a pound lighter than normal.  This was 1866, so forensics were not in the forefront.  I support not only testing corpses as well as using them as learning tools but there is something about this case that this does not sit well with me when it comes to the donation of his body. I feel like in this case it was done so that it would seem like a continued punishment for Probst and to almost make a joke of him. I cannot say why I have this feeling, I just simply do.

As a side note, as was often the practice of the day, that continued for many decades, the victims bodies were put on display after the crime while spectators all but gawked at them. They were apparently buried in one place but later were moved. From my understanding, it sounds as if the cemetery itself was moved and that those bodies that were moved from the cemetery were put in a mass grave to which a statue of The Blessed Mother was erected.  It is said there are over 300 people buried under this statue.  Through my research it appears as if a descendant of the surviving child, William, has inquired about having names engraved but has been told that it would be unfair to the remaining bodies and it has been refused. As a genealogist I find this curious.  I have spent a lot of time in cemeteries in my research and have heard of cases in which cemeteries had been moved to a new location.  This is the first in which I have heard of there being a mass grave of the previous cemetery residents.  


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