During the 1880s and 1890s, McHenry county had a law enforcement officer, by the name of Lefe Benthusen. Before many of the technologies we think of today, Benthusen often had to use his sharp wit and a great personality to win over potential suspects. Newspapers from across the area often covered his exploits in law enforcement. Born in 1844 in the state of New York, Lafayette “Lefe” was the youngest of 10 children. His father Henry was a blacksmith, a trade that some of his sons, including Lefe, would pick up themselves. Sometime during the 1860s, Lefe and a few of his brothers immigrated to Nunda, Illinois. While living in Nunda, Lefe became involved in law enforcement. Through the years his title was constable, detective, or deputy sheriff, but he was usually the one to call when there was a tough case. These are some of his more memorable cases.
Just because he was well known in McHenry County doesn’t mean that criminals were safe outside the area. In 1886, Lefe went across the Midwest to catch some thieves. Not once, but twice. A Mr. Manahan from Wauconda had a saddle stolen from his property in March of 1886. Benthusen noted that the harness was shipped from Woodstock to a location in Minnesota. From there it was to be shipped to the territory of Dakota. Benthusen contacted authorities in Dakota to arrest the person who picked up the saddle. Soon thereafter, Lefe received word from Dakota law enforcement to come and get his saddle thief. In Spring Grove that September, a Mr. Cole had a horse stolen from his farm. With the help of a photograph taken of the suspected horse thief, Eugene Morse, Lefe tracked him down to Council Bluffs, Iowa. In a couple of weeks’ time, Benthusen arrested Morse and was able to recover the horse, which he shipped home to a very grateful Mr. Cole. In June 1898, a Miss Furney who lived near Woodstock had a wagon, fifty bushels of oats, among other property taken from her home. A local store had sold some paint to someone that Lefe had suspected for the crime. He had found that the suspect had painted the wagon a new color to throw off suspicion. Using a print from a horseshoe and the freshly painted wagon, Lefe was able to catch his man.
Other times, instead of evidence leading Benthusan in his investigation, he used his instincts. In 1891, Jennie Stewart had some items stolen from her, including a valuable watch. All of the evidence pointed to a friend of hers, a Mr. Pendleton. However, something told Lefe, that this wasn’t the case. Upon questioning several family members, he found that the guilty party was Ms. Stewart’s daughter-in-law. She thought that by taking the items when she did, people would think that Mr. Pendleton was the guilty party. In this case, Lefe probably kept an innocent man from going to jail. In 1885 Benthusan solved an interesting case of a suspected robbery. James Darrow of Volo claimed to be a victim of a robbery. He had a credible witness and $1500 was missing from his safe. He was a respected member of the community. Also, days before the theft, Darrow claimed to see a “couple of Germans” rousting about. However, Lefe wasn’t quite sold. He looked about the crime scene and while very convincing, there were parts for Darrow’s story that just didn’t add up. When pressed for details, Darrow came clean and admitted committing the robbery himself. He was short on money and had roughly $2000 in debt. In 1882, another robbery that was similarly staged was by a man named Pool. Also in debt, Pool thought that he could have his money “stolen” and then collect the insurance money he had on a policy. Being even more dedicated than Darrow, Pool beat himself about the face and head, faking an attack. Sadly, it was all wasted when the details of the crime scene didn’t add up and Benthusan soon had Pool’s confession. Oddly enough, both fake robberies happened within years of one another, and Pool’s was heavily publicized. Even the local papers were questioning why Darrow would bother after Lefe had foiled Pool’s staged attack.
Benthusan also solved one of the more vicious murders that happened locally at that time. A body was found consumed in the flames of a hay bale in the middle of a farmer’s field. Papers found rolled up in the victim’s pant leg gave authorities his name, William Frost. Frost was last seen with his good friend, James Stewart. Lefe soon found out that Stewart owed Frost a large sum of money, which supplied plenty of motive. Also, Stewart had borrowed a gun from another friend claiming he needed to kill a stray dog. Going to Stewart’s residence, Lefe pretended that he had cattle driving work for Stewart and needed to take him in Lefe’s buggy to get to the worksite. On the way, Benthusan told Stewart he knew that he killed Frost and could prove it. Failing to call his bluff, Stewart confessed all, including shooting Frost with the borrowed pistol and providing some of Frost’s property Stewart took after the killing. The fact that the body had burned was unintentional. Stewart didn’t notice that Frost had a pipe in his hand when he killed him.
One of Benthusan’s most poignant cases involved a missing girl. Harley Moore and his family lived near Boston Massachusetts. His 6-year-old daughter, Elly, went missing in 1884. Harley spent about two years looking for the girl. He was able to track her to Chicago and Racine, Wisconsin, but in both cases, the trails went cold. Harley headed back home to raise some more money. When he returned he sought the help of Lefe. With a photograph of the girl in hand, Benthusan toward the Rockford area where he soon found Elly. She and her father were reunited and went back home to Massachusetts. The newspapers didn’t say what happened to the girl, (such as who took her, why she was taken, etc.) they just let it be. Lefe Benthusan would serve in local law enforcement into the 20th century. He would pass away in Kansas in 1914. His obit was simple and understated, noting that he was a long term peacekeeper.
- “Caught A Pair of ‘em” The Woodstock Sentinel. (Woodstock, IL) 23 Jun 1898, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 25 Nov 2020.
- “Detective Benthusen Again At The Front” The McHenry Plaindealer. (McHenry, IL) 13 Mar 1891, 5. Newspapers.com. Web. 25 Nov 2020.
- “Frank Cole, of Spring Grove…” The Woodstock Sentinel. (Woodstock, IL) 14 Oct 1886, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 25 Nov 2020.
- “Sentenced” The Herald. (Crystal Lake, IL) 21 Feb 1880, 5,6. Newspapers.com. Web. 25 Nov 2020.
- “The Town of Volo….” The Belvidere Standard. (Belvidere, IL) 14 Apr 1885, 8. Newspapers.com. Web. 25 Nov 2020.
- “We Published Last Week…” The Belvidere Standard. (Belvidere, IL) 24 Jan 1882, 8. Newspapers.com. Web. 25 Nov 2020.
- “On The Night Of Aug 29th…” The McHenry Plaindealer. (McHenry, IL) 6 Oct 1886, 5. Newspapers.com. Web. 25 Nov 2020.
- “L. Benthusen Of Nunda Has Just Ferreted Out Another Remarkable Case” The McHenry Plaindealer. (McHenry, IL) 27 Jan 1886, 5. Newspapers.com. Web. 25 Nov 2020.
- “Lefe At Once Procured A Tin-Photo Of The Supposed Thief” The Woodstock Sentinel. (Woodstock, IL) 31 August 1882, 5. Newspapers.com. Web. 25 Nov 2020.
- “Lefe Benthusen Has Just Returned From Dakota” The Woodstock Sentinel. (Woodstock, IL) 6 May 1886, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 25 Nov 2020.
- “Another Sam. Pool Burglary Case Shown Up By Detective Benthusen” The Herald. (Crystal Lake, IL) 10 Apr 1885, 12. Newspapers.com. Web. 25 Nov 2020.