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The Bissinger suicide-murder in Reading PA 1875

Every now and then I do a search on in hopes that new books have been uploaded, which may contain clues about some of the brick walls in my family tree. I probably haven't found all the answers yet because I usually get sidetracked, reading about families completely unrelated to me, like I did again here.

I came across a book on HeritageQuest, printed in 1875, bearing a shocking title, "The Bissinger suicide history of that sad tragedy in which Mrs. Bissinger (as alleged), made desperate by neglect and ill treatment, drowned herself and three children in the Union Canal, at Reading, Penna., statement of her brother in reply to her husband".

The title sums up the tragedy, but I was curious and wanted to know more. The book starts with a well known quote:

One of the greatest poets that ever existed has written an adage which will be quoted as long as language lives. It is this: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned!"

In the book, the story of how Louisa, a young woman just 29 years old, was driven to the point of suicide and beyond, after being discarded by her husband, Philip Bissinger. He was a saloon keeper in Reading, Berks County, Pennsylvania, who was reportedly openly having an affair with a German woman from Philadelphia, even bringing her to the family home. In a recent argument sparked by his infidelity, he ordered Louisa to leave, offering her $2,000, a hefty sum in those days, to just be gone with the two daughters, leaving him their only son. Instead, Louisa reportedly took the three children to Union Canal where she and the children, ages 9, 6, and 3, collected large rocks, putting them into a basket. She then tied the basket to her waist and jumped into the canal with her three children in her arms.

This is the Union Canal in Reading. Could this be the spot she jumped from?

Following are some articles I found about this tragic event:

In this article, Louisa's brother, Fred Eben, writes a personal message for Philip Bissinger. He ends it with these words that should have cut like a knife at the conscience of Philip. Fred says:

"...but I also know that YOU, PHILIP BISSINGER WERE THE CAUSE of all this, and in conclusion, I, as her brother, and the son of a broken-hearted mother BRAND YOU AS THE MURDERER of my sister and your four children - and I am willing that the people amongst whom we live shall judge between us. Fred. Eben." (The Daily Gazette, Sept. 10, 1875).

I found Philip's memorial on Findagrave (see here). There I learned that he was a soldier of the civil war, enlisting in Company G, Pennsylvania 79th Infantry Reg. in September of 1861. He rose through the ranks and was promoted to Sergeant Major, to 1st Lieutenant, and finally to Captain of Company F in December, 1863. He resigned from his commission nine months later and mustered out Sept. 12, 1864.

He was counted on the 1860 census, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was a bar tender living in the home of Augustus Schoenberger, a brewer and immigrant from Germany. Philip was 18 and a young woman named Mary "Bisinger", age 16, was also living in the home. Both were reportedly born in Germany. Was this a first wife, or a sister? (Census shown below).

Because Louisa's brother's name was Fred Eben, (documented in the article at left), I was able to find Louisa on the 1860 census. She was living in the South East Ward of Reading with Gotleab (?) and Rosina Eben, presumably her parents. Her father's occupation was "Restaurant". Louisa was 14, Frederick was 12, and a younger sister, Rosa, was 9. That census was taken on June 9, 1860, so based on her age, she was born before June 9, 1846. (Census shown below).

Her memorial on Findagrave contains details about the story and another sketch of Louisa. There her birth date, is given as March 21, 1836, calculated from a newspaper clipping of the funeral announcement which stated she was age 39 years, 4 months and 27 days. (Confirmed with The Time Deductor). Based on the 1860 census, though, I believe she was born in 1846 and that she was 29 years old when she committed suicide on August 17, 1875.

In 1880, four years after the suicide and death of his family, Philip married Ida Sebald Rosenthal. According to Findagrave, she was born Oct. 20, 1850, in Philadelphia. I found nothing to indicate whether or not she was the mistress mentioned, but she was a younger woman from Philadelphia, so it is possible. Ida died in Reading in 1910 at the age of 59 and Philip died at the age of 84, in 1926. All of them are buried in Charles Evans Cemetery in Reading.

Following are the two census records from 1860 before Philip and Louisa married, mentioned above.

1860 Census Lancaster, Pennsylvania
1860 Census South East Ward City of Reading, Pennsylvania

When the 1870 census was taken, Philip and Louisa were married and living in Reading with two daughters: Mary, age 3, and Elizabeth, age 3 months. A domestic servant named Susan also lived in the home. Philip's occupation was "Saloon Keeper". He was born in Bavaria and Louisa was born in Wurttemberg. So from this, we can see that Philip married Louisa very soon after returning from the war, sometime between September, 1864 and 1867. Louisa would have just turned 18 years old when he returned and their oldest daughter, Mary, was born in April of 1867, when Louisa would have been about 21 years old (if she was born in 1846). So they were married sometime between September 1864 and July 1866.

1870 Census Reading, Berks County, Pennsylvania (taken Aug 1870)

A final observation regarding the names of Philip and Louisa's daughters. On the 1870 census, the two daughters living in the home were Mary and Elizabeth. The short obituary shared on Findagrave, reports that (aside from the unborn child in her womb), the three children who died with their mother on August 17, 1875 were:

  • Mollie C. Bissinger, age 8 years, 3 mos., 19 days - (Born April 28, 1867, "Mary", age 3 on the census taken in August 1870)

  • Lillie Bissinger, age 5 years, 2 mos., 11 days - (Born June 6, 1870, "Elizabeth", age 3 months on the census taken in August 1870)

  • Philip Bissinger, age 3 years, 7 mos., 5 days - (Born Jan. 12, 1872)

The ages match perfectly but the names of the girls are different, as you can see. Yes, Mollie can be used as a nickname for Mary, but I wasn't aware that Lillie was a nickname for Elizabeth, unless one of them was her middle name. It just goes to show how census records, newspapers, and even gravestones and cemetery transcriptions can contain errors.

Either way, four innocent children's lives were cut short at the hand of a dejected and tormented mother who saw no other way out. What should have been a flourishing family tree today, was cut down at the roots, marking the end of Mr. Bissinger's bloodline. Instead of being the beloved immigrant ancestors of a great many Bissingers, like many of our ancestors are, Philip was left with no heirs. Instead, his decisions earned him a legacy of being the unfaithful and cruel husband who drove his wife to suicide and murder. May their souls rest in peace.


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