MURDER AT HESSIAN'S BRIDGE
On Halloween in 1777, the night of a blue moon, a Hessian cavalryman lost his head to an American three-pound cannon ball. He is said to ride in search of his missing head 'when the moon is full and the sky is clear.' But not in Sleepy Hollow. Washington Irving heard the story while staying at an inn in New Jersey and employed literary license to relocate the story.
A paratrooper hero of D-Day survives the war in one piece only to be beheaded by the evil spirits in his home town - or was he? While being initiated into a secret society, George Panabaker must spend the night on a so-called haunted bridge. The next morning his body is identified only by the Airborne tattoo on his arm because his head is missing. The locals hush it up to avoid negative publicity.
As a result, George's paratrooper buddy - private detective Tony Donohoo - does not learn of the death for eight years. George's younger brother hires Tony to get to the bottom of who actually killed his brother. Tony enlists the aid of his beautiful, but sarcastic red-haired girlfriend, Mindy McCall. Together they work to unravel the secret of who actually killed George Panabaker and why. In so doing, they must combat not only the local sheriff, but also community leaders who have something to conceal. Tony and Mindy narrowly escape death by the headless rider themselves, but ultimately prevail, culminating in a wild midnight chase of the spirit on horseback.
Friday, October 31,1777, Near Stiball's Mill, New Jersey
Private Abbo Belch, when unsupervised, often amused himself by torturing small forest creatures to death with his bayonet. Squat and splay-footed, the lumbering Abbo had served in Landgrave Frederick II's army for six years. With a perpetual smile, he was routinely shunned by other Hessian soldiers who thought him simple-minded.
In 18th century Germany, it was a common practice among the landgraves, or princes, to raise small armies for rent. The treasury was fattened as well as the prince's personal coffers. Such an army was often as small as 2,000 men. England, with trouble brewing in the colonies, found that it was much easier to borrow money to pay a mercenary force than to recruit from their own numbers.
Of the 30,000 Hessians who fought in the American Revolution, nearly half hailed from the Hesse-Kassal region. Hence they were all loosely called Hessians. Enlisted men were of the peasant class. Many were conscripted involuntarily but others acted on their own volition because the soldier's pay was greater than that of a farm worker, which was the only likely alternative.
Abbo Belch had begun an apprenticeship as a boy in his father's blacksmith shop and stable. After five years, Otto Belch gave up hope that his oldest son could ever become a journeyman smithy and walked him down to Frederick II's recruiting office. Because of his perceived familiarity with horses, Abbo was assigned to the cavalry. In actuality, Abbo's knowledge was limited to shoveling manure and cleaning the stable. As water seeks its own level, such was his most frequent military assignment as well.
Abbo's cavalry troop, hired by the British to help quell American Forces, had been reduced to about 45 troopers after the Battle of Long Island and skirmishes in Northern New Jersey. As a result of the poor opinion British commanders held for their mercenaries, the Hessians' assignments were limited to garrison duty.
The farm called Panabaker's Acres, about two miles east of Stiball's Mill, New Jersey, was divided into four sections by an east-west creek and a north-south road: the Brunswick Turnpike. At the intersection of the road and the creek, a bridge spanned the creek. The British had seized Panabaker's Acres and built a garrison next to the bridge on the south side. The garrison was roofless with seven-foot-high breastworks of logs and earth. It was squarish, forty feet to a side. A standing platform, eighteen inches high, ran around the entire inner perimeter to allow the troopers to fire over the top of the breastworks with their short-barreled muskets.
The British officer in command of forces in southern New Jersey ordered Abbo's troop to police the Panabaker bridge. It was a step down for a cavalry troop to assume the duty normally reserved for the infantry, but the Hessian Troop Commander followed orders.
On this All Hallows Eve, the early evening harvest moon appeared to be triple its usual size. It was a blue moon — the second full moon of the month. This contradicted its literal color — a deep orange while still low in the sky. Abbo was one of the six men on the 6 P.M. to 2 A.M. shift guarding the bridge. The men were commanded by Sergeant Hans Danko.
The American forces had placed a cannon firing three-pound balls mainly for harassment but with the hope that the troop would try to capture the cannon by sending horsemen out. The cannon was about 600 yards to the south, and was, in a sense, bait. American militiamen were concealed on both sides of the path of the cannon ball. If the troopers ventured out, they would be caught in a crossfire. At the stroke of midnight, the roar of a cannon resonated.
Upon hearing the roar, Private Abbo Belch climbed onto the standing platform to look in the direction of the sound.
“Lab den kopf unten, du verdammter bastard!” shouted Sergeant Danko.
(Keep your head down, you stupid bastard!)
Musket balls travel near the speed of sound. Not so with cannon balls. The velocity of a three-pounder is about one-third of the speed of sound. Two seconds after Abbo mounted the platform, the incoming ball met his head. The impact drove him clear across the garrison and sat him on the ground, his back against the standing platform on the other side. His head was not in evidence.
The other troopers stared at the hideous scene with mouths agape. No one spoke for some seconds. Finally, Sergeant Danko, sighed and shook his head: “Das is das letzte was wir von diesem schwach sinnigen lachel sehen werden.” (That's the last we'll see of that moronic smile.)
Friday, April 30, 1954, 11:30 A.M., Hackensack, New Jersey, Office of Anthony Donohoo, Private Detective.
“Mr. Donohoo, there's a young gentleman to see you,” announced Alice over the intercom. Tony knew that by addressing him as mister that the visitor was in earshot and “young gentleman” meant he had passed Alice's acid test. “There's a man to see you” would be translated to “Watch out for this one!” Tony often marveled at the accuracy of Alice's judgment.
Tony left his private office to receive the visitor in the reception area. “I'm Tony Donohoo, how can I help you?”
The good-looking young man rose smiling from his seat and extended his hand. Tony noticed there was something familiar about him but couldn't place it.
“My name is Jim Panabaker. I've been planning to consult you for some time.”
Tony motioned him into his office. After they were both seated, Tony said, “I was in the army with a George Panabaker. You look something like him.”
“I'm his younger brother.”
“I haven't seen him since we got out in '46. How is he?”
“He's dead. He was murdered in 1946.”
“Murdered? Jesus, isn't that a kick in the teeth? He jumps into Normandy and spends the next year going hedgerow to hedgerow fighting the Krauts only to get murdered when he gets home? I'm very sorry to hear that. Your brother was a good guy and a good soldier. Is that what you wanted to see me about?”
“Yes, I want you to find his murderer. George thought a lot of you. He told me you were planning to be a private detective. He also spoke well of your cousin, is it? A guy named Pete something... Italian.”
“Lionetti. Pete Lionetti. We've been friends since first grade. Pete's a detective sergeant on the State Police now. When precisely did this happen?” Tony opened his notebook.
“His body was found on this old bridge on the morning of May 16th, 1946. He was decapitated.”
“Ouch! Decapitated? What the hell? I remember he came from some place in south Jersey. Is that where this happened?”
“Yes. Outside of Stiball's Mill. His head was never found.”
“Ghoulish. How was he identified?”
“My father identified the body mostly by a tattoo on his right arm that said '101st Airborne Division — Death Before Dishonor.'“
“I assume there was a police investigation?”
“Yes, of sorts. The Franklin County Sheriff investigated. Ambrose Hyde is his name. Retired now, but still lives locally. A good old guy, but I don't think he had much experience with murder cases. I also think some political pressure was brought to bear not to make too much noise about the case.”
“Why do you think that?”
“I was just a kid then. Fourteen. I'm twenty-two now and I've been in the army for the past three years. I just got back from Korea. So this is the first chance I've had to deal with this. There's a legend about a ghost in our area and a lot of people — maybe most people — believe it. There's lots of people who swear to hearing ghostly hoof-beats when the moon is full. Some actually claim to have seen a headless rider on a black horse. Many of these people think George was murdered by the ghost. And whether they actually believe or not, I gather that many felt it would hurt business and real estate values if the story got too much publicity. So they kind of sat on it. That's the way I see it, anyway.”
“What is this legend about a ghost?”
“You've read about the Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow, New York?”
“Yeahhh. A Hessian soldier got his head blown off during the Revolutionary War and rides the countryside looking for it, right?”
“That's about it. The thing is, though, it's based on a real incident. The soldier, I mean, not the spirit. Only it didn't happen in Sleepy Hollow but on the farm that's been in my family for over 250 years. Besides the farm, my family has operated a roadside inn since the 1790's. The story goes that Washington Irving stopped at the Inn and a distant grandfather of mine told him the story of a Hessian cavalryman who lost his head to a cannonball. The locals believed that he haunted the neighborhood on a big, black horse when the moon was full. Apparently Irving was taken with the story and wrote it, but chose the setting as Sleepy Hollow. Literary license, I think they call it.”
“When did you see George last?”
“I saw him at dinner the night he was killed. He was to be installed or initiated into some fraternity or lodge. He wouldn't tell me anything about it, except that he was only joining for business sake.”
“George was working at the inn.”
“Really? That's interesting. So did you think he meant business at the inn?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Who were the other members?”
“I don't know. It was a secret society.”
“Do you think it had something to do with the ghost thing?”
“I just don't know.”
“Jim, don't be insulted, but I have to ask you something. Do you believe in this spirit?”
“Hell, no! But believe it or not, my parents do and that's why, even though they were heart-broken they put up no opposition to Ambrose Hyde when the case was shelved.”
“He said he was only joining the group for business reasons. What do you think he meant by that?”
“I thought he meant they were regulars at the inn, but other than that, I couldn't say.”
“Both of your parents still alive?”
“Yeah, but they don't know I'm doing this. Once I tell them, I think they'll get on board.”
“Do you have any other brothers or sisters?”
“I'm the baby. Two sisters. Aged 24 and 28. George would be 29. “
“Who benefited from George's death?”
“You mean money?”
“Yeah. Who inherits the farm and the inn you described?”
“Hell, I don't know. It probably will be left to my sisters, my cousins and me. I don't know if my parents have made a will yet. They're only in their early fifties.”
“Did your brother have any enemies that you know of?”
“You knew George. Can you picture him having enemies? I can't.”
“Yeah, neither can I. What about a girl? Was there a girlfriend?”
“George dated a girl named Rosemary Hasse. They were pretty serious. George was only 21, and Rosemary maybe 19.”
“Is she still living in your area?”
“No, I remember seeing her wedding announcement in the paper several years ago. She married somebody out of the area and that's where they were going to live. I don't remember any more about it. It was bound to happen. She was a honey. You think that's important?”
“Well, I'm looking for a motive. If it ain't money, the next best thing is a girl. I'll get down there on Monday to start nosing around. In the meantime, you might check out the newspaper archives to find out her married name. You might ask around if anyone knows where she lives now. Also, have a talk with Mom and Dad over the weekend. I'll be sure to wear a long-sleeved shirt when I meet them so they don't see this.” Tony rolled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo: 101st Airborne Division — Death Before Dishonor.
Jim nodded and teared up slightly, then recovered. “Listen, I've got some mustering out pay. Let me give you something on account, just to get you started, so to speak.” Jim spread a wad of bills in front of Tony. “There's $500 here. Let me know when you need more.”
“Okay. You've got a deal. But right now, I'm hungry. Let me buy you lunch and a beer. My brother, Frankie, runs a saloon right on the other side of that bookcase.”
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