Sunday, January 24, 2016


The Tragic Tale of Louisa Luetgert

   The story of Adolph Luetgert has its beginnings in the heart of Chicago's Northwest Side, a place once filled with factories, middle-class homes, and with a large immigrant population. The murder of Luetgert's wife, Louisa, has an unusual place in the history of Chicago crime in that it was one of the only murders to ever drastically affect the sale of food for the better part of the summer of 1897.

Adolph Luetgert was born in Germany and came to America after the Civil War. He lived for a time in Quincy, Ill., and then came to Chicago in 1872, where he pursued several trades, including farming and leather tanning. Eventually, he started a wholesale liquor business near Dominick Street. He later turned to sausage making, where he found his greatest success. After finding out that his German-style sausages were quite popular in Chicago, he built a sausage plant in 1894 at the southwest corner of Hermitage and Diversey. It would be here where the massive German would achieve his greatest success - and his shocking infamy.

Herman Lutegert

Although the hard-working Luetgert soon began to put together a considerable fortune, he was an unhappy and restless man. Luetgert had married his first wife, Caroline Rabaker, in 1872. She gave birth to two boys, only one of whom survived childhood. Caroline died five years later, in November 1877. Luetgert sold his liquor business in 1879 and moved to the corner of North and Clybourn avenues, where he started his first sausage-packing plant in the same building where he lived. Two months after Caroline's death, Luetgert married an attractive younger woman. This did little to ease his restlessness, however, and he was rumored to be engaged in several extramarital affairs during the time when he built a three-story frame house next door to the sausage factory. He resided there with his son and new wife.

His wife, Louisa Bicknese Luetgert, was a beautiful young woman 10 years younger than her husband. She was a former servant from the Fox River Valley who met her new husband by chance. He was immediately taken with her, entranced by her diminutive stature and tiny frame. She was less than five feet tall and looked almost child-like next to her burly husband. As a wedding gift, he gave her a unique, heavy gold ring with her initials inscribed inside. He had no idea at the time that this ring would later be his undoing. 

Louisa Luetgert

After less than three years of business, Luetgert's finances began to fail. Even though his factory turned out large quantities of sausages, Luetgert found that he could not meet his supplier's costs. Instead of trying to reorganize his finances, though, he and his business advisor, William Charles, made plans to expand. They attempted to secure more capital to enlarge the factory but, by April 1897, it had all fallen apart. Luetgert, deep in depression, sought solace with his various mistresses and his excesses, and business losses began taking a terrible toll on his marriage. Neighbors frequently heard him and Louisa arguing and their disagreements became so heated that Luetgert eventually moved his bedroom from the house to a small chamber inside the factory. Soon after, Louisa found out that her husband was having an affair with the family's maid, Mary Simerling, who also happened to be Louisa's niece. She was enraged at this news and this new scandal got the attention of the people in the neighborhood, who were already gossiping about the couple's marital woes.
Luetgert soon gave the neighbors even more to gossip about. One night, during another shouting match with Louisa, he responded to her indignation over his affair with Mary by taking his wife by the throat and choking her. Before she collapsed, Luetgert saw neighbors peering in at him from the parlor window of their home, and he released her. A few days later, Luetgert was seen chasing his wife down the street. He was shouting at her and waving a revolver. After a couple of blocks, Luetgert broke off the chase and walked silently back to the factory. 
Then, on May 1, 1897, Louisa disappeared. When questioned about it, Luetgert stated that Louisa had gone out the previous evening to visit her sister. After several days, though, she did not come back. Soon after, Diedrich Bicknese, Louisa's brother, came to Chicago and called on his sister. He was informed that she was not at home. He came back later and, finding Luetgert at home, he demanded to know where Louisa was. Luetgert calmly told him that Louisa had disappeared on May 1 and had never returned. When Diedrich demanded to know why Luetgert had not informed the police about Louisa's disappearance, the sausage-maker simply told him that he was trying to "avoid a scandal" but that he had paid two detectives $5 to try and find her.

Diedrich immediately began searching for his sister. He went to Kankakee, thinking that perhaps she might be visiting friends there, but found no one who had seen her. He returned to Chicago and when he found that Louisa still had not come home, now having abandoned her children for days. Worried and suspicious, Diedrich went to the police and spoke with Captain Herman Schuettler. 

The detective and his men joined in the search for Louisa. They questioned neighbors and relatives and heard many recitations about the couple's violent arguments. Captain Schuettler was familiar with Luetger; he had dealings with him in the past. He summoned the sausage-maker to the precinct house on two occasions and each time, pressed him about his wife. Schuettler recalled a time when the Luetgerts had lost a family dog, an event that prompted several calls from Luetgert, but when his wife had gone missing, he noted that Luetgert had never contacted him. Luetgert again used the excuse that as a "prominent businessman," he could not afford the disgrace and scandal. 

The police began searching the alleyways and dragging the rivers. They also went to the sausage factory and began questioning the employees. One of them, Wilhelm Fulpeck, recalled seeing Louisa around the factory at about 10:30 p.m. on May 1. A young German girl named Emma Schiemicke, passed by the factory with her sister at about the same time on that evening and remembered seeing Luetgert leading his wife up the alleyway behind the factory. 

Frank Bialk, a night watchman at the plant, confirmed both stories. He had also seen Luetgert and Louisa at the sausage factory that night. He only got a glimpse of Louisa, but saw his employer several times. Shortly after the couple entered the factory, Luetgert had come back outside, gave Bialk a dollar and asked him to get him a bottle of celery compound from a nearby drugstore. When the watchman returned with the medicine, he was surprised to find the door leading into the main factory was locked. Luetgert appeared and took the medicine. He made no comment about the locked door and sent Bialk back to the engine room.

A little while later, Luetgert again approached the watchman and sent him back to the drugstore to buy a bottle of medicinal spring water. While the watchman had been away running errands, Luetgert had apparently been working alone in the factory basement. He had turned on the steam under the middle vat a little before 9:00 p.m. and it was still running when Bialk returned. The watchman reported that Luetgert had remained in the basement until about 2: 00 a.m.
Bialk found him fully dressed in his office the next day. He asked whether or not the fires under the vat should be put out and Luetgert told him to leave them burning, which was odd since the factory had been closed several weeks during Luetgert's financial re-organization. Bialk did as he was told, though, and went down to the basement. There, he saw a hose sending water into the middle vat and on the floor in front of it was a sticky, glue-like substance. Bialk noticed that it seemed to contain bits of bone, but he thought nothing of it. Luetgert used all sorts of waste meats to make his sausage and he assumed that this was all it was.

On May 3, another employee, Frank Odorowsky, known as "Smokehouse Frank," also noticed the slimy substance on the factory floor. He feared that someone had boiled something in the factory without Luetgert's knowledge, so he went to his employer to report it. Luetgert told him not to mention the brown slime. As long as he kept silent, Luetgert said, he would have a good job for the rest of his life. Frank went to work scraping the slime off the floor and poured it into a nearby drain that led to the sewer. The larger chunks of waste were placed in a barrel and Luetgert told him to take the barrel out to the railroad tracks and scatter the contents there. 

Following these interviews, Schuettler made another disturbing and suspicious discovery. A short time before Louisa's disappearance, even though the factory had been closed during the re-organization, Luetgert had ordered 325 pounds of crude potash and 50 pounds of arsenic from Lor Owen & Company, a wholesale drug firm. It was delivered to the factory the next day. Another interview with Frank Odorowsky revealed what had happened to the chemicals. On April 24, Luetgert had asked Smokehouse Frank to move the barrel of potash to the factory basement, where there were three huge vats that were used to boil down sausage material. The corrosive chemicals were all dumped into the middle vat and Luetgert turned on the steam beneath it, dissolving the material into liquid.

Combining this information with the eyewitness accounts, Captain Schuettler began to theorize about the crime. Circumstantial evidence seemed to show that Luetgert killed his wife and boiled her in the sausage vats to dispose of the body. The more that the policeman considered this scenario, the more convinced that he became that this is what had happened. Hoping to prove his theory, he and his men started another search of the sausage factory and he soon made a discovery that became one of the most gruesome in the annals of Chicago crime. 
On May 15, a search was conducted of the 12-foot-long, five-foot-deep middle vat that was two-thirds filled with a brownish, brackish liquid. The officers drained the greasy paste from the vat, using gunnysacks as filters, and began poking through the residue with sticks. It wasn't long before Officer Walter Dean found several pieces of bone and two gold rings. One of them was a badly tarnished friendship ring and the other was a heavy gold band that had been engraved with the initials "L.L.".
Louisa Luetgert had worn both of the rings.
After they were analyzed, the bones were found to be definitely human - a third rib; part of a humerus, or great bone in the arm; a bone from the palm of a human hand; a bone from the fourth toe of a right foot; fragments of bone from a human ear and a larger bone from a foot. 

Adolph Luetgert, proclaiming his innocence, was arrested for the murder of his wife. Louisa's body was never found and there were no witnesses to the crime, but police officers and prosecutors believed the evidence was overwhelming. Luetgert was indicted for the crime a month later and details of the murder shocked the city's residents, especially those on the Northwest Side. Even though Luetgert was charged with boiling his wife's body, local rumor had it that she had been ground into sausage instead! Needless to say, sausage sales declined substantially in 1897.
Luetgert's first trial ended with a hung jury on October 21 after the jurors failed to agree on a suitable punishment. Some argued for the death penalty, while others voted for life in prison. Only one of the jurors thought that Luetgert might be innocent. A second trial was held and, on February 9, 1898, Luetgert was convicted and sentenced to a life term at Joliet Prison. He was taken away, still maintaining his innocence and claiming that he would receive another trial. He was placed in charge of meats in the prison's cold-storage warehouse and officials described him as a model inmate. 
By 1899, though, Luetgert began to speak less and less and often quarreled with the other convicts. He soon became a shadow of his former, blustering persona, fighting for no reason and often babbling incoherently in his cell at night. His mind had been broken, either from guilt over his heinous crime, or from the brutal conditions of his imprisonment. 

Luetgert died in 1900, likely from heart trouble. The coroner who conducted the autopsy also reported that his liver was greatly enlarged and in such a condition of degeneration that "mental strain would have caused his death at any time."
The sausage factory stood empty for years, looming over the neighborhood as a grim reminder of the horrors that had visited there. The windows of the place became a target for rocks thrown from the nearby railroad embankment and it often invited forays by the curious and the homeless.

In the months that followed his death, Luetgert's business affairs were entangled in litigation. The courts finally sorted everything out in August 1900 and a public auction was held for the factory and its grounds. Portions of the property were divided between several buyers but the Library Bureau Company, which was founded by Dewey Decimal System creator Melvil Dewey, leased the factory itself. The company used it as a workshop and storehouse for its line of library furniture and office supplies. During the renovations, the infamous vats in the basement were discarded.

In June 1904, a devastating fire swept through the old sausage factory. It took more than three hours to put out the blaze and when it was over, the building was still standing, but everything inside had been destroyed. However, contrary to what many stories have reported, the building was still there. In fact, it's still there today!

Despite the damage done to the building's interior, the Library Bureau re-opened its facilities in the former sausage factory. It would go on to change owners many times in the decades that followed. In 1907, a contracting mason purchased the old Luetgert house and moved it from behind the factory to another lot in the neighborhood, hoping to dispel the grim memories attached to it. The part of Hermitage Avenue that intersected with Diversey was closed. By the 1990s, the factory stood empty and crumbling, facing a collection of empty lots that were only broken by the occasional ramshackle frame house. 

In 1999, though, around the 100th anniversary of the death of Adolph Luetgert, the former sausage factory was converted into loft condominiums and a brand new neighborhood sprang up to replace the aging homes that remained from the days of the Luetgerts. Fashionable brick homes and apartments appeared around the old factory, and rundown taverns were replaced with coffee shops. 
The old neighborhood was gone, but the stories of this infamous crime still lingered, providing a unique place in history as the only Chicago murder that ever kept people from eating sausages!

The former sausage factory where Louisa allegedly died was turned into condominiums in 1999.  

 And there there are the ghosts...
According to legend, Louisa Luetgert's ghost returned not only to haunt the old neighborhood where she died, but also to exact her revenge on the man who killed her. Stories claim that toward the end of Adolph Luetgert's life, he told stories about Louisa visiting his cell at night. His dead wife had returned to haunt him, intent on having revenge for her murder. Was she really haunting him or was the "ghost" really just the figment of a rapidly deteriorating mind? Based on the fact that residents of the neighborhood also began reporting seeing Louisa's ghost, one has to wonder if Luetgert was seeing her ghost because he was mentally ill ---- or if the ghost had driven him insane. Luetgert died under what the coroner called "great mental strain," so perhaps Louisa did manage to get her revenge after all.

And Louisa, whether she was murdered by her husband or not, reportedly did not rest in peace. Not long after her husband was sent to prison, her ghost began to be seen inside the Luetgert house. Neighbors claimed to see a woman in a white dress leaning against the fireplace mantel. Eventually, the house was rented out but none of the tenants stayed there long. The place became an object of fear, the yard overgrown with ragweed, and largely deserted.

Oddly, the fire that broke out in the former sausage factory in 1904 started in the basement -- at exactly the spot where Luetgert's middle vat was once located. Fire officials stated, "The source of the fire is a mystery and none has been able to offer any better explanation than the superstitious folk who have an idea that some supernatural intervention against any commercial enterprise operating at the scene of the murder has been invoked." No cause was ever determined for the fire, leading many to believe that perhaps Louisa's specter had returned once more.

Legend has it on the Northwest Side today that Louisa Luetgert still walks. If she does, she probably no longer recognizes the neighborhood where she once lived. They say though, that if you happened to be in this area on May 1, the anniversary of Louisa's death, there is a chance that you might see her lonely specter still roaming the area where she lived and died.

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