The year 2018 will herald the 200th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The timing seems right for the story of a real monster. German-born immigrant Anton Probst arrived in New York in 1863. Within two hours of his arrival, he enlisted in the Union Army. During the American Civil War, Probst bore witness to mankind's brutality. Afterwards, he became an inmate at the disreputable Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia.
Frankenstein was first conceived by Shelley in 1816. Her monster was an embodiment of abandonment and loneliness, feelings Shelley shared. In despair, the creature resorted to violence. Fifty years after Frankenstein's conception, Anton Probst adopted characteristics of Shelley's monstrous creation. He became Philadelphia's first mass-murderer when he slaughtered members of the Christopher Dearing family.
After his death, Probst's story continued. The creature that he had become left a deep impression on the people of Philadelphia and New York. Researchers used Anton Probst's body to show the effects of galvanization, the same means by which Frankenstein's monster stirred to life. Incredibly, similarities surface between Shelley and her circle, her monster, and events that transpired when the blood of innocents was shed an ocean away. One defining difference is present. Unlike Shelley,s creature, the story of America's monster is very real.
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April 7, 1866: Philadelphia's First Mass Murder
April 7, 1866, was a cold and dreary spring day in a part of Philadelphia known as the “Neck.” Nevertheless, members of the Christopher Dearing (Deering) family were excited for they were to be visited by cousin Elizabeth Dolan. In the morning, Christopher Dearing readied the family rig to go retrieve Dolan. Before he left, Dearing sent Cornelius Carey, his seventeen-year-old indentured servant, and hired-hand Anton Probst (Antoine Probst) into the fields with their work assignments. Probst was a European immigrant who had served in the American Civil War. Dearing, who believed in helping his fellow man succeed through hard work, had hired Probst from the Philadelphia almshouse (also known as Blockley). Confident his orders would be met, Dearing bade his family farewell. When he said goodbye to his wife Julia and their children, he could not have known it was the last time he would see his family alive.
Dearing had barely driven away when a day of terror began. Cornelius Carey was doing his work when Probst rose behind him, hefting an ax. Before the boy ever became aware of the danger, Probst swung at Carey’s head and then cut the boy’s throat. So as not to alert Julia or the Dearing children, Probst hid Carey’s body in a haystack and headed for the family home.
With Carey removed, only Julia Dearing might have been able to defend the young children. Upon some pretext, Probst lured Julia Dearing into the barn. Probst brutally dispatched her in the same manner as he had Carey. The children were no match for the brute’s strength. Probst easily overcame eight-year-old John, six-year-old Thomas, four-year-old Anna, and two-year-old Emma Dearing. After murdering the four children, Probst calmly sat and waited for his last two victims to arrive.
When he returned with Elizabeth Dolan, Christopher Dearing did not realize anything was amiss. He and Dolan began to unpack the wagon. In separate instances, Probst lured each into the barn and murdered them. After their murders, Probst sat and ate bread and butter calmly planning his next move. He soon left for a tavern, but not before he fed and watered the livestock. Later it was discovered that the creature who had calmly dispatched eight people, including four children, did not want the animals to suffer before they were discovered. Details such as this began to feed the belief that Probst was not a man, but a monster.
Once neighbors began to become suspicious at the lack of activity at the Dearing farm, they investigated and found Christopher Dearing’s body. Quickly the police were alerted. Chief of the Detective Police, Benjamin Franklin led the investigation. In addition to investigating the horrific murders, law enforcement was tasked with keeping calm in a city that thought a monster had been loosed. Luckily, Probst was soon captured and arrested. At the end of April, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
Death was not the end of Probst's story. After his execution, his corpse was delivered to researchers for scientific purposes. One of the experiments was an attempt to galvanize the murderer and restore him to life. Unlike the Frankenstein monster, both the literary and Hollywood versions, Probst did not stir to life. His head and arm were allegedly displayed in a New York Anatomical Museum. Later in the 19th century, a shoe-store in Kentucky also claimed to display pieces of Probst. Philadelphia’s first mass-murderer will be forever known as a monster.
*This memorial stands over the Saint Mary Section of Holy Cross Cemetery at Yeadon. This section serves as the final resting place of the Dearing family including Elizabeth Dolan and Cornelius Carey as well as 8, 463 other Philadelphians. Image courtesy of Patricia Earnest Suter
Hello. I am a graduate of the University of New Mexico. To date, I have written The Hanging Of Susanna Cox: Pennsylvania's Most Notorious Infanticide And The Legend That's Kept It Alive; Peter Montelius: Printer and Teacher, Teacher and Printer; The Forgotten Nephew: D.E. Lick; and now The Face Of A Monster: America's Frankenstein. I frequently contribute to Passed Time, a website devoted to establishing a dialogue based on primary resources as a means of preserving history and looking at it from the perspective of those who lived it. Additionally, I run the Earnest Archives and Library, a privately held library with a focus on the contributions of Pennsylvania Germans to American history--particularly their contributions to printing.