Butting up to Camden Park in Milan is a wooded area that in the late 1800s was the farm of Henry Bastian. Young men Bastian hired as farm hands worked for a while, then mysteriously disappeared. In time, authorities determined Bastian murdered three of the men, burying two of their bodies on the farm. He may have killed five more.
Bastian might have gotten away with more crimes except that one of the men — a German immigrant named Frederick Kushmann — had relatives in the area who began asking questions. They did not believe Kushmann died in a fall from his horse, as Bastian claimed. As the questions got more intense, Bastian committed suicide.
This account of a long-ago serial killer in the Quad-Cities is one of 16 stories of unusual deaths, hauntings and spirits in a new walking tour titled "The Darker Side of Davenport" that is drawing unprecedented crowds to the German American Heritage Center.
"It's a dark story that you almost cannot believe happened this close to here," said Kyle Dickson, the center's assistant director, who came up with the tour idea. "It also perfectly lines up with our museum's interest as he targeted young German immigrants looking for work."
The Bastian story also bears an eerie resemblance to the serial killings of a pharmacist told in the bestselling "Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson. The Chicago pharmacist hired young women with few strong family connections and eventually killed them.
"Oh, exactly," Kelly Lao, executive director of the German center, said of the comparison.
Lao happened upon the Bastian story while reading the blog of the Davenport Public Library's Richardson-Sloane Special Collections department. "Oh, my gosh," Lao said. "There are so many stories. It's a ... gold mine. It's like going down a rabbit hole. You can get lost in it."
Most of the research was done by a summer intern, consulting the library's blog, newspaper archives, the histories of Scott County written by Harry Downer and authors of books about the paranormal. Lao and Dickson contributed, too.
The connection between this creepy, darker side and the German heritage story is that many of the stories involve people of German descent, or occurred in areas of Davenport where German influence was strong. Standing in front of Davenport City Hall, for example, tour leaders can talk about the influence Germans had on government.
But it's probably the creepiness that is drawing the crowds.
The first tour was Saturday and, at the starting time of 10:30 a.m., in almost pouring rain, there was a crowd of 70.
"I was ready for five or 10," Lao said. "But more and more people kept coming. Kyle drove in from Galesburg to help. We split the people into two groups."
She offered vouchers to people who might want to leave and come back at a better time, "but no one left," she said.
The crowd included four "regulars," members of the Rock Island Paranormal Society, children between the ages of about 9 to 13 with their parents, and, as Lao said, "a bunch of new faces.
"There were 20-somethings," she said. "I don't usually see them down here. And then people of all ages — 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s."
Because of the popularity, another tour has been added for 5:30 p.m. Friday, beginning at the center, 712 W. 2nd St., Davenport. The cost is $5. Other tours are at 10:30 a.m. Saturdays, Oct. 14, 21 and 28.
Paranormal society members told Lao that they had never heard the Milan serial killer story, but that it might explain why they occasionally get calls of lights and sightings near Camden Park, Lao said.