In 1983 central Illinois was shocked by the killings of a young mother and her three children, a case that became the subject of my book, Reasonable Doubt. The husband and father, David Hendricks, was convicted and later acquitted of the murders. They were members of an almost primitive fundamentalist Christian group. Prosecutors claimed Hendricks’s standing within that group played into his motive to slay his family.
There was an unnervingly similar case 83 years earlier in a house less than an hour’s drive from where the Hendricks murders occurred. A young mother and her three children were dead. The husband and father was charged with their killings. Their religious group, known for its conformity and rigid discipline, also played a major part in the case—now the subject of a new book.
So Many Fragile Things by Amy Kinzer Steidinger is not a traditional whodunit. It includes how the author fell upon this story about her husband’s ancestors, about how the murder trial became a public trial of their religious group that flourished in that part of Illinois, how a powerful elder in the church was accused of driving the defendant to insanity and a senseless act.
Steidinger draws on her graduate studies about the Apostolic Christian Church (known more commonly as the “New Amish” or “Germany Apostolic Church” when the murders occurred) to deepen her story. Historical context is provided as well. While the murder trial was underway, for instance, Carrie Nation, the temperance radical, visited nearby Peoria, which probably distilled more whiskey than any other place on earth.
Steidinger leans on contemporary newspaper accounts for most of her re-telling. Conflicting information and uncertainty sometimes result. And there’s disappointment when the defendant’s testimony in his own trial is dispensed with in a single paragraph because his written and reported account of what had occurred had already been known.
In the updated version of Reasonable Doubt, I wrote about what I call nine “interesting intersections” that over the years have revealed themselves to me in the tragic story of the Hendricks family murders. The subject of So Many Fragile Things is among them.
Among the spine-chilling similarities: In both the 1900 case and the 1983 case, one of the child- victim’s first name was Benjamin. And they were the same age.