Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2011 Issue

A Death Once Thought Murder

Poster

Copy of the Poughkeepsie Broadside held by the National Library of Australia

In November 1800 in Dutchess County in the town of Hyde Park, Catherine Berringer died a suspicious death and her fiancé, John Benner was soon arrested for the crime.  The accusation was murder by poison in an era when the death penalty was casually applied.  Given that Hyde Park was [and still is] in the boonies the accused was remanded to Poughkeepsie in County, some miles south,  no doubt to avoid expedited justice.  In the area thieves were regularly hung and justice summarily applied.

 

In time John Benner would be cleared and return to Hyde Park to become an honored citizen.  The crime however enflamed the local imagination and poems were written to remember the story if not the facts.  This particular crime, and Miss Berringer specifically, became the face that like that of Helen of Troy, launched, if not a thousand ships then perhaps a hundred dinghies.  No doubt Mr. Benner wished to sink them all.  He could be cleared but not disconnected and fresh accounts were issued into the 1830's.  Details of the crime was also set to music.  Murder set to a dirge!

 

One online account has this to say about the case, "amid the excitement a poet named Smith composed a "Funeral Dirge," mourning Miss Barringer's untimely death and accusing Benner of the crime.   In this dirge "the murderer is depicted in his cell, haunted by the specter of his victim, who whispers into his ear the words "Prepare to meet thy God."  "Frances M. Leonard, in his sketch of Jenks, recalled learning of the dirge in the 1830s."

 

An early handwritten account was posted on eBay recently and I purchased it for $185.  This piece is titled "Tribute to the Memory of Catherine Berringer who was murdered by her Lover John Benner of Rhinebeck, N. York."  The language is similar but not identical to a printed document, attributed but not confirmed to Poughkeepsie, 1800,  and thought by some to be the first printed account of this sorry episode.  The writer of the document I acquired is Asa Dean  who identifies himself in a bold script that would make John Hancock blush.

He signs the document Asa Dean of Raynham, Bristol County, Massachusetts and in the same hand "Claverack July 14th, 1809."  In doing so he confirms that he is local [ in nearby Columbia County] and this is an early account.  His version is the same 14 verses provided in the printed version although his text differs in some respects.


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