Tattooed in Lieu of Dog Tags: The Identity of Capt. B. Frank Hean

Benjamin Franklin Hean, courtesy of the Lebanon County Historical Society
Benjamin Franklin Hean, courtesy of the Lebanon County Historical Society

New Years Day, 1896. The Melbourne, Australia suburb of St. Kilda. A man enjoying a beachside walk noticed a body lying beside the road, a glittering object clasped in its right hand. Walking over he found the man bleeding from the head, a revolver in his hand. Authorities investigated and determined the victim to be over fifty years of age and ruled his death a suicide, as the revolver was loaded in four chambers and the fifth discharged. An American flag was tattooed on the deceased’s right arm and “B.F. Hean” tattooed below. American and Australian officials eventually confirmed the victim as Benjamin Franklin Hean, a former officer in the 93rd Pennsylvania Infantry. Hean initially intended for the tattoo to identify his corpse should he fall in combat during the Civil War. His discovered identity would indeed bring closure to citizens in his hometown of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, but their opinion of Hean had already turned from hero to fraud.

B. Frank Hean was born in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, around 1841. He worked as a millwright before the war and enlisted as a private into Company F of the 93rd Pennsylvania Infantry on October 12, 1861. He was promoted sergeant on October 28, 1861, and 1st lieutenant on August 4, 1862. Lieutenant Hean was wounded at Salem Church on May 3, 1863, but returned to the regiment and received promotion to captain on January 1, 1864.

Sergeant Franklin T. Miller, a member of Capt. Hean’s company, claimed that during the war he tattooed the initials and the flag upon Hean’s arm at the captain’s request “in order to provide means of identification in case of being wounded.”[1

I of course began to research Capt. Hean due to his involvement in the Breakthrough. The 93rd Pennsylvania had suffered heavily in the combat across the Robert H. Jones and Joseph C. Boswell farms on March 25, 1865, losing one officer and twelve men killed and six officers and sixty-eight men wounded, including the oft-injured Lt. Col. David C. Keller. Hean now found himself senior in command of the regiment and would personally lead the first battalion of five companies. Captain Penrose George Mark commanded the second battalion.

These two battalions formed the third and fourth lines of Col. James M. Warner’s stacked brigade during the VI Corps’ wedge attack on April 2, 1865. Like most regiments, the 93rd claimed to be first to breach the Confederate works during the Breakthrough. One member, Sergeant Charles D. Marquette, earned the Medal of Honor for planting the colors on the southern fortifications. Both Hean and Mark were brevetted major “for gallant and meritorious service” displayed at the Breakthrough.[2]

Hean returned to Lebanon after the war and worked briefly as a salesman before becoming more prominent in business and politics. He served as private secretary for millionaire Robert H. Coleman of the Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad for four years. The Philadelphia Times described Hean in 1887 as “a self-made man in every respect.” He would take over charge of Coleman’s Colebrook furnace at the beginning of 1890. “Mr. Hean’s thorough knowledge and extensive experience in this branch of business, together with his obliging disposition and courteous manner eminently qualify him for this very responsible position,” claimed the Lebanon Courier.[3]

“The Major has a brilliant war record, having been one of the bravest officers in the gallant Ninety Third Pennsylvania regiment,” boasted the Lebanon Daily News. “He is courteous, genial and noble hearted and esteemed wherever he is known, and ladies, he is good looking, dressy and (but goodness sake don’t say I told you) a bachelor.”[4]

Hean never married, instead living as a boarder at the Lebanon Valley House. He severed his business ties with Coleman in September 1890. After a failed attempt to become city postmaster, Hean’s veteran friends urged him to become a candidate for prothonotary, or chief court clerk. He was always active in veterans’ organizations, designing the regiment’s monument on the Gettysburg battlefield and serving as a member of the General Committee of the Loyal Legion of the Commandery of Pennsylvania. The Lebanon Daily News cited Hean’s war record in urging its readers that he “deserves the support of the Republican party for the office.”[5]

Hean was a reluctant candidate. After enjoying a day on the waters of the Susquehanna he commented to a newspaper reporter: “Fishing for fish is quite a more pleasing past time than fishing for votes.” Nevertheless he won the election and was sworn into office on January 4, 1892. The local paper claimed “his abilities and intelligence are a sufficient guarantee that the people will be well served.”[6]

After serving his full term Hean was appointed by his replacement, Christian K. Bomberger, to continue as his deputy. Hean also served as chairman of the Republican county committee.[7]

At 10 p.m. on the night of Tuesday, October 22, 1895, Hean received a telegram at the Lebanon Valley House and remarked to his friend and boarding house proprietor: “I must leave for Pittsburg tonight on a matter of business that will keep me away for several days.” He went upstairs and came down in a business suit with a small grip suitcase. “He said ‘good bye’ to one of the hired girls, and that was the last seen of him in Lebanon,” recalled a correspondent. Hean boarded the 10:20 train for Harrisburg.[8]

An insurance case was settled the next week at the Lebanon court and the judge ordered payment of $2,727, which Hean had deposited in the bank per his official duties as prothonotary. Two attorneys went to retrieve the money and discovered there was no money on deposit. Additional deficits of $2,774.50, $2,000, and $699.99 were quickly uncovered. Prothonotary Bomberger also discovered that $1,960 he had in the bank was also missing. The lump sum taken by Hean eventually was reported at over $10,000.[9]

The Reading Times investigated Frank Hean further and found: “Since the discovery of his shortage it has been ascertained that for some time he was living very extravagantly, and although unmarried his income was insufficient, it seems, to keep him at the rate he was living.” The newspaper wondered at the time why a prominent member of the community had fleeced the town: “Major Hean had many friends who would have been willing to make sacrifices for him and his conduct has completely overwhelmed them, so implicitly had they trusted him.”[10]

Hean’s defaults created a large sensation. Newspapers across the county picked up on the story with headlines of “Believed to Be an Embezzler,” “Missing with Ten Thousand Dollars,” “A Republican Goes Wrong,” “Money and Man Missing,” among others.

Speculation of his whereabouts also ran wild with reports that he had been an officer in the Jameson Raid on Johannesburg, South Africa over New Years weekend 1895-1896, which could not be true given his suicide in Australia at that exact time. He was additionally believed to have boarded the steamship “St. Louis” in Southampton, England, on February 28, 1896. Authorities prepared to arrest him when he arrived in New York. News of Hean’s suicide did not reach the states until late March.[11]

Australian coroner Richard Soule had managed to identify the New Year’s suicide victim as fifty-four year old Frank Hean. He had just $9 left to his name. The chief of police wrote to Pennsylvania newspapers to inform them of Hean’s death. The recorded reactions argued about the validity of the report. “The reported suicide of Major B. Frank Hean, ex-Prothonotary of this county… created a sensation here today,” claimed the Philadelphia Times, and further commented: “Many of his most intimate friends discredit the report.” The Harrisburg Telegraph, however, stated: “From the description contained in the dispatch his friends in [Lebanon] where he was well known are confident that the suicide is Major B. Frank Hean.”[12]

Hean was buried in Melbourne General Cemetery. He is one of the highest ranking Civil War officers to be buried in Australia.


Sources cited:

[1] “Personal.” National Tribune, April 9, 1896.

[2] Getty, George W. Report, April 20, 1865. O.R. Volume 46, Part 1, 959.

[3] “Lebanon.” Philadelphia Times, July 10, 1887. “Took Charge.” Lebanon Daily News, January 1, 1890. Lebanon Courier, January 8, 1890.

[4] Lebanon Daily News, July 10, 1890. The Reading Times also called him “one of the bravest officers of the veteran 93d regiment.” Reading Times, November 1, 1895.

[5] “Lebanon.” Philadelphia Times, September 21, 1890. “A Veteran Soldier Candidate.” Lebanon Daily News, July 15, 1891. Mark, Penrose G. Red, White, and Blue Badge: Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. A History of the 93rd Regiment, known as the “Lebanon Infantry” and “One of the 300 Fighting Regiments” from September 12th, 1861 to June 27th, 1865. Harrisburg: Aughinbaugh Press, 1911, 530.

[6] “Soldier, Politician, Fisherman.” Lebanon Daily News, September 9, 1891. “County Officers.” Lebanon Daily News, January 4, 1892.

[7] Lebanon Daily News, August 8, 1890.

[8] “No Tidings from Major Hean.” Reading Times, November 1, 1895.

[9] “Believed to Be an Embezzler.” Springfield Republican, November 1, 1895.

[10] “No Tidings from Major Hean.” Reading Times, November 1, 1895.

[11] “Is It Major B.F. Hean? An American in the Raid on Johannesburg Believed to be Him.” Reading Times, March 5, 1896.

[12] “Suicide in a Foreign Land.” Harrisburg Patriot, March 31, 1896. “Suicide and Attempted Suicide.” Melbourne Age, January 2, 1896. Reported Suicide of Major Hean Discredited.” Philadelphia Times, April 1, 1896. “An Embezzler’s Suicide.” Harrisburg Telegraph, March 31, 1896.

3 Responses to Tattooed in Lieu of Dog Tags: The Identity of Capt. B. Frank Hean

  1. Well done. I am a retired Marine who lived two years in Australia and had I known of Major Hean, would have visited him during my frequent visits to Melbourne (pronounced “Melbun” by the locals).

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