Edward Rehberg served hard time for manslaughter
But it turns out scandals involving the Rehberg family have always been a part of Montana history. The current edition of the magazine High Country News has a fascinating and painstakingly researched story about the Rehberg family and its long tradition of land developing and subdividing.
But it’s the very end of the story that grabbed my attention. Turns out, Dennis Rehberg’s great-great-grandfather, Edward Rehberg, served five years of hard time in the Montana Territorial Prison for manslaughter following the violent death of his young daughter.
Here’s an excerpt of the story by journalist Ray Ring:
Denny Rehberg invites people to consider his family history, to stoke anger against the government, but he leaves out some of the most striking facts, particularly when it comes to his great-great grandfather, Edward Rehberg, also known as Stephen Edward Rehberg — the family’s first generation in Montana. Edward’s hardships aren’t spoken of, but the facts I discovered complete the picture in a startling way.
Edward Rehberg emigrated from Prussia and settled on a small ranch north of Helena, at the mouth of Little Prickly Pear Canyon, around 1879. Montana’s 1880 census showed seven children in that household, including 6-year-old Albert (A.J.), and a woman named Amelia who apparently was the biological mother of some of the children, if not all. On Aug. 9, 1885, Edward Rehberg loaded 10-year-old Clara into a wagon and drove her to Helena, seeking medical care. Doctors treated Clara for weeks, but she died in a Helena hospital on the night of Sept. 5, a few days after her 11th birthday. On Nov. 2, a Helena grand jury indicted Edward Rehberg and his wife at that time, Louisa Rehberg — Clara and A.J.’s stepmother — on murder charges.
The indictment said that with “malice aforethought” and “great force and violence,” they had beaten Clara with their hands, thrown her down on the ground and kicked her, and struck her with a piece of wood, and a leather strap fitted with a metal buckle, and an iron tool called a “stove-lifter,” inflicting wounds on her “head, neck, stomach, breast, belly, back, legs, arms and sides.”
One doctor testified that Clara “was in a high degree of pain … The surface of the skin was red and inflamed and looked to me as though there had been hot water thrown upon her … the child seemed to have blisters all over her leg and arm.” Another doctor testified that “the inside of (Clara’s) right leg from near the thigh to near the ankle was all one running sore. The skin had sloughed off to the muscle, and the muscles were bare except in one or two places.” Both doctors said the beating had caused fatal infections.
Louisa Rehberg was acquitted of murder charges, but the jury members could not agree on a verdict for Edward. Convinced of his guilt, prosecutors put him through a second trial, trying to nail him for his daughter’s violent death, but that resulted in another hung jury. In a third trial in October 1886, Edward testified, “I never at any time struck my child Clara with any blunt instrument, strap, stick of wood, wooden shoe, stove lifter or any other instrument named in the indictment … I guess I have whipped all my children sometimes a little with the hand, but I cannot remember … ever whipping them with any other instrument.” That trial ended with Edward’s conviction for manslaughter. By then, the Helena Daily Herald was reporting that “the ‘Rehberg case’ has become a celebrity in the legal annals of Montana.”
That’s how the great-great-grandfather of Montana’s congressman ended up in the territorial prison, sentenced to five years of hard labor.