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Chapter 1: Omens
The omens were against him. First came the sparrow, somehow gaining entrance to the jail's waiting room. It flitted against the walls and windows all afternoon, looking for a way out – a bad sign for Luetgert, one of the guards said. A bird had flown into the jail a few years earlier, the guard remembered, the day before a prisoner named George Painter was found guilty of murder. Was it just coincidence that a bird had come into this cage again, the day before the Luetgert jury began deliberations?
John Whitman scoffed at the supposed omen. The jailer didn't know about any bird foretelling Painter's guilt, and he doubted that this bird had anything to do with Adolph Louis Luetgert. As far as he knew, the fluttering of a sparrow in a jail signified nothing.
Even if Luetgert knew about the sparrow, it did not appear to disturb him. He talked about what he would do after the jury set him free. He would exhibit himself in one of those dime museums, alongside the skeletons and freaks, demanding a daily fee of $5,000. Once he had saved enough money to go back into business, he would open a downtown saloon, with a sideshow of curios from his trial, including the notorious "middle vat."
A second sign came with the dawn, when a screech owl pierced the quiet outside the Cook County Jail. Some people on the street caught sight of the bird beating its wings against the windows of the towering gray courthouse. The owl fell to the ground and they captured it, taking it into a saloon. The Chicago Journal called it the "Bird of Evil Omen."
A thousand men and women fought their way into the elevators and up the three flights of stairs to Judge Richard Tuthill's courtroom, hoping to hear the trial's final words. Only a few hundred made it pastthe blue-coated bailiffs. Some found places to sit on the long oaken benches, but most were content to stand by the windows or on the railings. The crowd included the usual quota of females, the ones the papers derisively labeled "morbid women." Many of the same women who had been coming day after day vied for seats behind the clerk's desk, where they would have the best view. When the trial began in late August 1897, they had worn summer hats with brilliant flowers. Now it was October and autumn's nodding plumes adorned their hats.
At the courtroom door the bailiff Edward Cool stopped a little woman who wore an old straw hat over her gray locks. He inquired what business she had in court.
"I am Mrs. Luetgert," she said.
Her statement caused a brief stir. Someone in the sheriff's office dashed hatless down the stairs to catch a glimpse of the lady who claimed to be Luetgert's missing wife, Louise. The mob struggled to get closer to her, but it quickly became obvious that this was just another hoax.
Now the woman said she was a teacher. One of Judge Tuthill's daughters was in her class, she said, and she had a letter from the judge requesting the bailiffs to admit her. They looked at the letter and allowed her into the court, which was noisy with the hum of voices.
The room hushedwhen the judge came in and the prosecutor, Charles Deneen, began to speak. Pale and tired, he addressed the jury at first in low tones. The audiences had often been boisterous during the trial, but no one even whispered now. The messenger boys ceased their vigorous gum chewing. The spectators in the back rows strained to hear another variation of the story they had been hearing for months: what had happened on May 1, 1897, the day Luetgert's wife disappeared; what had happened that night in Luetgert's sausage factory; and what the police had found inside the vat.
Luetgert appeared to be the least-concerned person in the tense courtroom. He occasionally rocked his chair on its hind legs or closed his eyes as if drifting off to sleep. Luetgert's face was florid and ruddy, and his expression often seemed to show a man quite satisfied with himself. He was five feet, ten inches tall, broad-shouldered and heavy. Writers used the adjective thick to describe his hair, his hands, his neck and the fat on his cheeks.
Deneen's voice gained strength as he went on. "Is the law so weak that it cannot cope with skillful, fiendish, inhuman crimes?" he asked. "Can the skill of a criminal cover up all traces of guilt? And the more fiendish the guilt, the less chance the law has to cope with it? Not at all. She will not reappear. You have her bones and her rings. You have her tooth and her hairpin. You have her corset steels... She will not reappear. She is dead. He has treated her so. He has treated her memory so."
As Deneen spoke, a couple of Chicago Journal reporters were looking for a way to sneak some rope, boards, speaking-tube pipe and pulleys into the courthouse's attic. The newspapermen, Fred A. Smith and W.H. Stuart, decided that the only way to carry out their secret mission was to advance straight through the multitude of spectators and sheriff's deputies in and around the courthouse and hope for the best. They packed their gear into a dry-goods box, covering it with coarse brown paper and nailing a board across the top for a handle. They carried it up to the courthouse entrance, where the deputies demanded to know its contents.
"Refreshments for the all-night newspaper crowd," one of the reporters mumbled.
Satisfied, the officers waved them through. As the reporters pushed into the horde, their box drew many curious glances. They made their way through the halls and up the stairs, repeating their ruse to the guards on each floor. They got as far as the fourth story, where the men and women stood so close together that Smith and Stuart had to stop. They set down their heavy box on a landing and rested a few moments, only to be startled by two deputy sheriffs running down the stairs. "It's all off. They have had a tip," Stuart whispered. But the deputies didn't betray the slightest suspicion about the box; instead they offered to clear a path through the crowd.
At last the pair reached an empty corner of the sixth floor and climbed an iron stairway up to the roof. From there they opened a set of folding doors and lowered the box eight feet into the attic. Reentering the building, they sent word to the Journal office that the apparatus was ready.
In the courtroom Deneen had finished his speech. One of the few female journalists covering the trial, a Chicago Chronicle reporter who wrote under the byline "Katharine," noticed how calm Luetgert seemed. Sitting in the front row, she leaned over the railing and whispered to him, "I am terribly nervous, ain't you?"
"No, not a bit," Luetgert said, laughing. "Here, give me your hand." Katharine reached out her right hand to him, and he said, "Take courage. That will give you some of mine. Don't you feel it?" Luetgert pointed to her left hand and she gave him that one as well. "I am not nervous," he said. "You should not be. I am brave."
It was about four o'clock when Judge Tuthill began reading his instructions to the jury. As the shadows lengthened, the electric lights came on. The judge had come to the trickiest part of the entire case: how to prove a murder when no corpse has been found.
"To prove the corpus delicti in a case of murder," he said, "does not require the state or prosecution to produce the body of the alleged deceased, or any part thereof, or the testimony of any witness who has seen the same since the commission of the alleged crime."
As the judge droned out the words on the verdict form – the words the jurors were supposed to use if they found Luetgert guilty – the defendant displayed his first visible reaction to the day's proceedings. A Chicago Record reporter wrote that he "winced like a wounded animal."
"Now, gentlemen," the judge said, "you may retire and consider your verdict."
A sigh of relief swept over the courtroom. Judge Tuthill looked around sharply at the noise and ordered the room cleared. Luetgert tensed, his fingers flattening out on the arms of his chair. He cast his eyes across the faces of the twelve men filing into the jury room. Their expressions offered no hints regarding how they would vote, but the reporter Katharine, who clearly hoped they would be merciful, thought their choice of attire indicated they were unsympathetic toward Luetgert.
"How I wished that one of those jurymen had worn a scarlet tie," she would write. "The strength of flaming red on one of those twelve men would have helped me to have believed that one of them at least realized what a perilous thing is life... But there was not a gay tie or cravat among those twelve men. Nothing but black and white ones were worn, and I trembled for fear the men who had donned dark-colored ones valued life as little as did Charles Deneen, who pled long and seriously for a brother's life."
The crowd moved out slowly, for the curious hoped to catch one more glance of the sausage maker. Young women gathered around Luetgert and tried to draw him into conversation, but he did not waste much time with them. The bailiff Isaac Reed told Luetgert he would have to go back to the jail, and the pack of court watchers opened a path for the prisoner. Luetgert saw his youngest son come through the crowd, arms outstretched. Luetgert bent forward, murmuring, "Elmer, Elmer," as the five-year-old clasped his hands around his father's neck. Elmer's lips brushed against Luetgert's mustache in a kiss.
"My boy, my boy," Luetgert said, as Reed touched his sleeve. "Yes, in a minute, in a minute," Luetgert told the bailiff. "I must see my son."
"Is it all over, Papa?" the boy asked.
"Not yet, baby, but it will be so today." Luetgert handed the boy back to Mary Charles, a family friend who had been holding the boy during court that day. Luetgert marched over to the jail with tears in his eyes.
By now the Journal had dispatched nine reporters to the courthouse. Stuart and William Etten were the decoys. As the newspaper would later report, the two "were stationed in the courtroom to leave the impression that the Journal was using the same old-fashioned, plodding means of obtaining news as the representatives of other Chicago dailies." Meanwhile, three Journal reporters went to various parts of the courthouse to act as lookouts. Smith took three colleagues – Charles Mitchell, Edwin F. Payne and Cornelious Rourke – to the attic.
The four men lit their lanterns and unpacked the rope and pulleys that had been deposited into the attic earlier. They entered a tunnel that was four feet wide and barely as high. As soon as they pressed down on the tunnel's sheet-iron floor, the metal gave out a loud groan. Fearing the noise would be heard throughout the building, the men set down some boards along the tunnel's lining, which quieted the creaks.
After crawling fifteen feet they came to the building's west air shaft, a sheer drop of 150 feet. The shaft was walled with smooth, solid stone, but it was not completely black. Beams of light shone into the darkness from vents in the eight jury rooms – including the chamber on the third floor that the Luetgert jury would soon be entering.
The four men crouched at the shaft's edge, where they had planned to set up a pulley. Three of them would use the rope to lower the other man down the shaft. But a large water pipe near the edge didn't give them enough space to set up the pulley, so instead they looped the rope twice around the pipe. One end of the rope was fastened to a strong plank seat. They slipped the seat over the tunnel's sheet-iron edge.
The reporters hesitated. Since they had nothing to use as a brace, they could be pulled into the shaft by a sudden jerk of the rope. The sharp metal edge might cut the rope before the man in the shaft had descended even five feet, dropping him far down to the basement – and almost certainly to his death. The Journal reporters would later claim they gained some courage when they looked out through narrow chinks in the attic wall and caught a glimpse of rival newspapermen on the roof of an adjoining building, vying for the best vantage points to peer into the jury room with their spyglasses. And a sound drifted up into the attic from four stories below: reporters for the other papers were rushing about and discussing the case. The Journal men decided to go on with their mission.
They laid some strong burlap across the edge of the shaft, hoping it would prevent the rope from fraying. They lowered the sixty feet of speaking tube down the shaft. They chose Smith, the lightest man, to make the descent. They tied one end of a string to a nail in the metal floor, and Smith put the ball of string in his pocket. He got onto the plank seat, clinging to the rope until he was a few feet below the tunnel. He ordered the others to pay out the rope. As the rope made its first turn around the pipe, a wailing sound echoed through the building's dark corners. Mitchell, Payne and Rourke paused to moisten the pipe with oil from one of their lanterns. That reduced the din as they continued lowering Smith.
He swung back and forth in the six-by-four-foot airshaft, using his knees as cushions to keep the wooden seat from striking the walls. He had thought of this in advance and worn an extra pair of trousers for padding. As he neared the third floor, he heard a confused noise below him, sounding unmistakably like the Luetgert jurors retiring to their room. Smith yanked on the twine – the signal to stop – and the creaking rope became silent. After a momentary lull in the jury room, the voices became louder, and Smith decided it was safe to go down a bit farther. He tugged twice on the twine. The rope lowered him to the third floor. Brushing cobwebs from his face with one hand and holding the rope with the other, Smith came to rest within two feet of the Luetgert jury.
As the sound of the jurors, arguing over bones and rings, came through the register, Smith repeated their words, whispering into a funnel on the end of the speaking tube. One of the reporters in the attic listened to the earpiece on the other end of the tube and jotted down the jurors' words.
It soon became clear the jurors weren't going to have an easy time reaching a decision. At times it sounded as if they might break out into a brawl. After a while Smith heard one of the jurors suggest a compromise: find Luetgert guilty but sentence him to prison rather than death. "If Mrs. Luetgert should turn up," he said, "we would feel pretty badly after giving this man the extreme penalty."
Several jurors protested. "This man is either innocent or guilty," said a juror Smith recognized as William Harlev. "If guilty, he is a monster, and there is not a scaffold in the country high enough for him. If innocent, he should go free."
Smith whispered it all into the tube. A cold draft blew on him steadily, and as the hours wore on, his arms and legs grew numb.
Outside two thousand people had gathered, waiting for news. Entire families lingered in the street, some of the women holding infants. Businessmen in high hats and patent-leathers stood among dusty, grimy laborers, unattended women, chattering urchins and bicyclers trundling their wheels.
Lacking any news, the spectators talked about the trial and guessed what the jurors would decide. The crowd quickly surrounded and questioned anyone coming out of the courthouse, and the police repeatedly ordered the sidewalks cleared. It had been one of the hottest autumns in the history of Chicago, but tonight was cold, and the chill wind sent shivering women into the shelter of window embrasures and doorways. Men lacking overcoats ducked into nearby saloons.
The people watched the lighted windows on the third and fourth stories of the courthouse, searching for signs of action in the prosecutor's office or the courtroom. Others looked toward the jail, gazing up at the window of Luetgert's cell. They could see the barred door and occasionally thought they had caught a glimpse of the prisoner.
A rumor that the jury had sent for blankets crept through the crowd. Hundreds of tired people took this as their signal to set out for home, but scores remained, sitting on the curbs. Some of them walked around the block, returning from time to time to inquire for news. Hotel waiting rooms, saloons and cigar and drug stores were thronged for two blocks around the jail. At midnight a hundred men and a dozen women were still on the sidewalks.
"Through all the long, chilly hours of waiting no loud talking or any kind of disturbance occurred," the Chicago Daily Tribune noted. "It was simply an eagerly curious crowd watching for the curtain to descend on the most remarkable murder case of this generation."© 2003 by Robert Loerzel.
Click on illustrations for a larger view of the images.
An argument with the doorkeepers. Chicago Daily News, Sept. 8, 1897.
Judge Richard Tuthill. Chicago Daily News, Sept. 14, 1897.
Charles Deneen. Chicago Tribune, Aug. 23, 1897.
Adolph Luetgert, True Decective Mysteries, March 1934.
Luetgert carries his son Elmer through the crowded courtroom. Chicago Journal, Sept. 9, 1897.
The Journal reporters eavesdrop on the jury. Chicago Journal, Oct. 23, 1897.