The Old Cook County Jail

While Adolph Luetgert was on trial for murder in 1897 and 1898, he was held at Cook County Jail. At that time, the jail was located just north of the courthouse. The courthouse still stands on Hubbard Street (which was called Michigan Street in the 1890s), just west of Dearborn. The old jail is gone, however, replaced by a fire station.


Chicago Tribune, Nov. 28, 1897.

View images of the old Cook County Jail from the Chicago Daily News archive at the Library of Congress Web site:


The following are some descriptions of the old Cook County jail collected by the author during the research for Alchemy of Bones.

Adolph Luetgert was waiting for his first trial to begin when the county opened a new wing of the jail on July 10, 1897. The following newspaper articles recount the opening of the jail.

Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1897:

Cook Countyís new jail, with its 228 cells, which costs $50,229 exclusive of the locks, etc., was opened to the public yesterday afternoon. A spread of salads, dainty dishes, wines, speeches and a boutonniere were the especial features of the dedication of the $180,338 structure.

Not a "duffer," a plate of beans, or a tin of black coffee was served. Those delicacies were only for the real guests of the institution.

The exercises began at 12 oíclock noon when [Cook County Board President Daniel] Healy and all the members of the County board, with the exception of Commissioner Struckman, filed through the massive bronze doors of the main entrance in Dearborn street...

President Healy, after the fashion of a banquet toastmaster, announced that a round table groaning under the weight of the light food was ready for the defensive in an assault-at-arms, whereupon a number of colored waiters fell to serving the bidden ones. For nearly an hour the attack was kept up on the salads, the punch bowl and the cold bottles of wine ó some of it champagne and some sour wines for which the county paid...

For two hours they inspected the mysteries of the cells, with their new mattresses and pillows and great locks, strong enough to defy jail breakers or lynching parties.

Murderersí row, containing the cells of those condemned to die, were objects of strange interest to the visitors, many of whom were women. The "row" and the four cells of men condemned to die are in the northeast corner of the first corridor or tier in the menís department.

A few prisoners were transferred to the new jail last night and they royally welcomed the bright cells and fresh, clean beds. Hereafter every prisoner will be given a bath before being assigned to his or her cell, and while the novelty of a bath is being enjoyed the prisonerís clothing will be treated to an up-to-date fumigation.

The rest of the prisoners will be transferred during the coming week. Only those confined pending continuances in the police court will be kept in the old building, which will be thoroughly renovated.

Ground for the new jail was broken in June, 1895. There are three principal departments ó menís, boysí, and womenís. One hundred and ten cells, in four tiers, are in the menís department, and of this number 28 are tool proof...

Each department has exercising corridors, and the ventilation system allows for ten cubic feet of air a minute for each person. Closets and wash basins are fitted in all calls. Four cells are called dungeons, compared with which the blackness of the hole of Calcutta is snowy white. They are for prisoners who do not behave according to the rules.

Jailer Whitmanís office is on the first floor, as are also the general offices and the reception-room, from which the upper tiers are reached by an elevator. Speaking tubes connect with all parts of the building.

Two hospital wards have been provided, one for women and one for men, the first containing twelve cots and the later six. Shower baths and tubs are plentiful, and there is a modern-equipped laundry and kitchen, the latter being on the top floor...

Each tier is connected by an iron bridge with the old jail. As heretofore, executions will take place in the old building, no provision for such proceedings having been made in the new.

Sheriff Pease stated during the proceedings yesterday that he was not in sympathy with the use of wines during the dedication exercises, and gave orders to Jailer Whitman not to allow any further use of the spirits from the moment he received the keys from the County board officials.

Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1897:

When Joseph Gilholley, on trial in Judge Smithís court yesterday on a charge of burglary, was taken to the jail during the noon recess for dinner he was in a bad humor.

As the guard escorted him across the court he heard the sounds of the banqueters who were dedicating the new building, and he tried to wrest himself away from the bailiff.

Finally he was placed again in his cell and the guard went to get him his luncheon and returned with a tin vessel containing hot soup.

When it was handed to him he hurled the contents of the bowl in the guardís face and then belabored him over the head with the empty dish. He was placed in the dungeon.

In a 1923 report Winthrop D. Lane gave one of the most comprehensive descriptions of the Cook County Jail:

The jail of Cook County is an overcrowded, insanitary, disease-breeding place. Located on the southwest side of West Illinois Street, between Clark and Dearborn; it was built in part in 1872 and in latter part in 1895. The section added in 1895 is still called the "new jail," and the other the "old jail." The jail is directly behind the Criminal Court building across and enclosed bridge suspended between the two.

[Describing the "new" jail:]

Imagine a large, stone-walled building, the walls rising to a height of seventy or eighty feet. The floor of this building is cement, and on the floor stands a "block," or row, of cells, 13 in number.

These cells are built of steel. They are placed side by side, but without door or hinge of any sort. Each cell is 10 feet long, five feet wide and 7Ĺ feet high. The cells pen at the end opposite the barred grating, a small sliding door of solid steel being in this end.

Facing this row of cells is a second row, exactly like it, the ends with the doors confronting the doors of the opposite cells and the barred gratings being placed toward the windows in the opposite wall.

These two rows of cells thus form two sides of a rectangular area on the floor of the enclosure. The distance between the two rows is 17 feet.

Each end of the inner rectangular area is enclosed by heavy grating. The length of this space is sixty-five feet. It is roofed over at a height approximately of that of the cells.

This small, cramped, enclosed area is almost totally dark except the electric lights in the ceiling and outside the barred grating at the ends. It is the "exercise yard" of the prisoners. Into it the prisoners step from their cells when their doors are opened for them.

Back into their cells they go when their doors are opened for them. Back into their cells they go when the exercise period is over.

This movement back and forth from cell to "bull-pen," as the exercise area is called, and from "bull-pen" to cell, is the only movement the prisoners have, except when they go to court, when they take their weekly baths, when they have visitors and on other such special occasions.

This set of two rows of new cells opening into an inner "bull-pen" is thus the unit of construction of the "new" jail.

The reader must now place one set of rows upon another in order to complete the picture of the interior of this, the larger, section of the Cook County jail. Except as described below, each set of rows, or tier, of cells, has its own bull pen, thus constituting a separate and distinct floor in the jail.

There are seven tiers, reaching almost to the roof, an eighth or top floor being devoted to purposes that will be described later. The space between the cells and the windows is not divided by floors, except between the fourth and fifth tiers of cells.

Moreover, the first and second tiers of cells open into a common "bull pen"; the second tier has a balcony running around the side of the "bull pen" and leading to the floor by stairways. The sixth and seventh tiers also open into a common "bull pen." The ceilings of these "bull pens" are correspondingly higher than those of the others.

The arrangement is somewhat different in the old jail, whose walls are built of brick, and which is lower than the new building.

Here two rows of cells are placed back to back in the center of the floor, a corridor running entirely around them. This corridor lies between the cells and the outside walls: it is the only unoccupied floor space. Each row contains 17 cells.

There are four tiers in the old jail, reaching to the ceiling. The cell is open at the outer end, the door being made of barred grating.

Ventilator holes are at the top and bottom of the inner end of the cell, but the intake for air in the basement has recently been closed up so that the ventilating system installed years ago does not work.

Each cell is eight feet long, six feet wide and eight feet high, the cubic air space measuring, therefore, 384 feet. On stretch of the corridor is used as an exercise area or "bull-pen," this being 118 feet long and 19 feet wide.

The "bull-pens" are overcrowded, poorly lighted, bare... Practically no light from the windows reaches these inner areas; their cement-floored, low-ceilinged spaces become intolerably hot in summer.

There is absolutely nothing... for exercise or recreation; not a bench or a stick of any description is to be found. Here prisoners stay four hours every day; they many not remain in their cells on any excuse.

In one end of each of the new jail "bull-pens" is an open drain in the floor, around which the men circulate freely, and which is used as a urinal. Efforts are made to keep this deodorized by fresh applications of chloride or lime.

The inmates as they stand and circulate about the "bull-pen," spit on the floor until it becomes too filthy to bear description. To see these men herded in these areas is to have the sense of a mob, a mob that is likely to become ungovernable at any time.

The men sit on the floor or lean against the walls, talking; they hand on to the chains that extend across the "bull pens" at each end and keep them away from the grated walls; they form in close masses and play such games as "How many fingers up?" the object of which is to see how many persons one man can hold on his back at one, or leap frog.

They make a double line and walk slowly around one end of the "bull-pen" in a circle, wedging their way in and out among those who are standing about. The congestion is so great that a man can hardly move without touching his neighbor.

Sometimes they shout boisterously and shove one another roughly, though in play. Before the two hours of each exercise period are over, the air becomes foul and heavy. In summer the odor of the menís bodies is strong...

The cell is the manís living room, dining room and bedroom. In one end of it is a stationary toilet. There is also a small wash-basin with running water.

The beds are slung from the side of the wall, like bunks; they remain protruding out into the cell during the daytime, filling half the cell... Mattresses are of straw; each man is allowed one blanket, a sheet, a pillow slip and a towel.

Here and there about the cell, string has been strung up as a place for drying towels, shirts and other bits of clothing; small articles are washed in the cell. Each man puts his belongings wherever he can find place for them, in his mattress, under his pillow, beneath the bed and on the floor, or elsewhere.

Sandwiches and other food sent in from the outside are cached in such spots, attracting vermin...

A single electric bulb hanging just outside the cell gives practically the only illumination that some cells receive. One must sit close to the barred grating to read by it...

ó Winthrop D. Lane, "Cook County Jail: Its Physical Characteristics and Living Conditions," in Reports comprising The Survey of the Cook County Jail. The Chicago Community Trust, 1923; reprinted by Arno Press, A New York Times Co., New York, 1974.


Follow this link to read a portrait of Cook County Jailer John L. Whitman.