Genealogist and GSP Board Member Susan Koelble, using records from Ancestry, GenealogyBank, FamilySearch and Fold3, investigates the story of the Deering Massacre.
On Wednesday, April 11, 1866 a friend and neighbor of Christopher Deering visited the Deering farm to check on a colt he was boarding. When he entered the barn he was stunned to find a man’s foot protruding from the hay. Upon further investigation by the police, six more slayed family members were found, making this one of the most gruesome and horrific murders in Philadelphia history.
Christopher Deering and Julia Duffy, both Irish immigrants, married in the mid 1850’s and by 1866 had six children. Mr. Deering worked as a drover, buying and selling cattle as an agent for Theodore Mitchell, a Philadelphia merchant. The Deering family also lived on a farm owned by Mr. Mitchell at Point House Road and James Lane in Point Breeze, also known as “The Neck.”
As soon as the first body was discovered, information was conveyed to the Second District Police Station and then by telegraph to the Philadelphia Central Station. Chief Detectives Samuel G. Ruggles and Benjamin Franklin, Police Lieutenant Frank Hampton, Detective John Lamon, as well as High Constable Harrison G. Clark and Coroner William Taylor were dispatched immediately. It was then that they discovered the body of Mr. Deering’s niece, Elizabeth Dolan next to him. Further searching found Mrs. Deering and four of her children, all dead, in the corn crib. All seven heads were nearly severed and it was determined that they had been killed with an ax and knife. The bodies were identified as Christopher Deering, age 38: Julia Deering, age 45; John Deering, age 8; Thomas Deering, age 6; Anna Deering, age 4; Emily Deering, age 2; and Elizabeth Dolan, age 28. A fifth child of the Deerings, William, was saved because he was visiting with his maternal grandparents, William and Bridget Duffy in West Philadelphia.
The police entered the two-story frame house through an open window finding the rooms in total disarray with bureau drawers, closets and trunks ransacked. Even the top of a clock had been removed. It was reported that Mr. Deering kept a considerable amount of money about him and the assumption was that robbery was the motive for the killings. Two people were at once suspected: A boy named Cornelius Carey, age 17, bound to Christopher Deering for the last 7 or 8 years and a German laborer who had only worked at the farm for about 2 months. Neither had been seen for several days and they were not among the dead.
In retrospect, the neighbors told police that they had not seen any activity at the farm since Friday morning when two of the children were spotted chasing ducks in the meadow. However, because the nearest house was a quarter a mile away this was not too unusual. An investigation into the activities of the Deering family’s last day was started with the hopes of making some sense to the how and why of this tragedy. Mr. Deering apparently left the house early Saturday morning having an appointment with his employer, Mr. Mitchell on Arch Street. After the meeting he then went to the steamboat station to meet his niece, Elizabeth Dolan who was returning from a funeral in Trenton, New Jersey. The pair then stopped at the Wharton market on Moyamensing Ave. to purchase meat for Sunday dinner. The meat was found under the seat of the wagon that was parked near the barn and the horse was found in his stall with the harness removed. Mr. Deering was found, with his gloves still on, fully dressed, pockets turned inside out, with his hat and boots missing. Miss Dolan was still dressed in mourning attire.
On April 11, 1866 Morton McMichael, Mayor of Philadelphia offered a $1,000 reward “for such information as shall lead to the detection and conviction of the perpetrator, or perpetrators of this most horrible deed.” On April 13, 1866 Antoine Ganter was arrested by police officer George Dorsey as he was crossing the Market Street Bridge over the Schuylkill River. Mrs. Duffy, the mother of Julia Deering, identified the prisoner as the man employed by her son-in-law and also identified the clothing found on Antoine Ganter as that of Christopher Deering. Antoine Ganter was identified as a German immigrant who served in the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry and had lost a thumb during the Civil War. He was 38 years old, weighing about 160 lbs. with broad shoulders, heavy black moustache, dark brown hair, wearing military pants. At this point an immense crowd formed around the police station at the State House, threatening to lynch the prisoner and he had to be immediately transferred to Moyamensing Prison.
Antoine Ganter admitted to the murder of the boy but claimed that another man, Jacob Youder, killed the others. At his trial he gave the following account, not mentioning Jacob Youder again. After Mr. Deering left for the City he went to the field where Cornelius was working, killing him with an ax. He then went to the house and asked Mrs. Deering to come to the barn with him where he killed her. He then enticed the children into the barn, one by one. The last and youngest child he actually went into the house and carried to the barn. He then went to the house to search for money and valuables and while there he washed, dressed and waited for Mr. Deering to return. Upon his return, Ganter told Mr. Deering that there was a sick cow and asked he accompany him to the barn, where he proceeded to cut his throat. Lastly, he called Miss Dolan to the barn where she became his last victim. With all dead he left the farm and went into the City where he spent the night in debauchery.
On May 16, 1866 Judge Joseph Allison sentenced Antoine Ganter to be hanged by the neck until dead. After the verdict, when the accused was asked by an interpreter if he understood the sentence he replied, “I understood all the judge said, but he did not say when I was going to be hung.” Antoine Ganter was hanged on June 8, 1866, two months after the murder.
The remaining member of the Deering family, William, lived with his grandparents, William and Bridget Duffy, in West Philadelphia until their death and then with his uncle Patrick Duffy until his marriage. He supported his wife and children as a butcher. It would have been nice if this man could have died peacefully in his sleep at a very old age after all the trauma he had in his life, but William Deering died on February 23, 1909 at the age of 50 when he fractured his skull by falling down the steps of a sawmill. On February 27, 1909 he was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery where his parents and siblings had been interred 43 years earlier.
Ancestry.com, GenealogyBank.com, FamilySearch.com, and Fold3.com databases were used to corroborate the facts in this article. - SK