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Henry Bastian

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

All through the 1890s, Rock Island County served as the backdrop for one of the most spectacular crime waves in the United States. The only problem was, no one knew about it until 1896, when Harry P. Simpson, a reporter for the Rock Island Argus, smelled a rat.

On the night of February 29th, 1896, the body of a young farmhand, Fred Kuschmann, was discovered along Knoxville Road near Milan. Fred had been working for the past year for a Milan farmer, Henry Bastian. Bastian was somewhat of a loner, but he was a faithful churchgoer who never did business on Sunday, and he was married to a prominent Rock Island County woman. Though he worked his farmhands and his horses hard, he was so gentle that he could not kill injured or sick animals as other farmers did. The only unusual thing was Bastian seemed to have a new farm hand each year.

A Rock Island coroner's jury quickly ruled the death as accidental. Kuschmann had been dragged or thrown by his horse.

But the Argus reporter raised a few questions. Kuschmann's foot was in the wrong stirrup. His hat and the $180 Bastian paid his hands each year was missing. Then, his blood-stained overcoat was found some distance away, neatly folded.

Soon, everyone was thinking back to all the robberies in the area, and all the barn burnings, and the previous farmhands who seem to have disappeared yearly. The reporter demanded an investigation. The heat was on.

As the sheriff and his deputies approached the Bastian farm, Henry went out to his granary, knocked a hole in the floor, and hanged himself.

The police began searching the premises. Within fifteen minutes, they discovered a skull and other scattered bones. Then more. And still more, as they plowed up the whole farmyard. There were parts of nine bodies, and indications that others had been cremated.

Soon, Rock Island was in the news across the United States. It was not exactly the kind of publicity a chamber of commerce hopes for, but you have to play the cards you're dealt. At least, several Rock Island citizens thought so. They leased the Bastian farm, and made a good living for a few years charging tourists ten cents to walk around the scene of Rock Island's very own crime wave.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.