A Merry Murderer


During Adolph Luetgert's second trial, his name was often mentioned in the same breath as that of another Chicago man accused of killing his wife, Chris Merry.

The Merry case drew more press coverage than the typical murder,  perhaps because Merry was a fugitive from justice before police caught up with him.

The case may also have drawn publicity because of Merry's reputation as a peddler of stolen goods with a penchant for fighting and kicking down doors. According to Herbert Asbury's book Gem of the Prairie, Merry was the leader of the Henry Street gang, and he had once fought a two-hour pistol battle with police.

Asbury wrote:

...Merry's criminal record was surpassed by many, but it is doubtful if Bloody Maxwell or any other section of the city ever produced a more ferocious rough-and-tumble fighter. He was admirably fitted, both by temperament and by physique, for this popular sport; few men possessed sufficient courage to withstand the rush of his heavy, bull-necked figure, with its enormously long arms, huge hands and feet, and dish face, in which were set a button nose and pig-like eyes. Habitually Merry was sullen and morose, but he was subject to terrible fits of anger on little or no provocation... Merry continually snarled and grunted; he fought with teeth, fists, feet, and any other weapont hat came to hand, and permanently dsifgired many men who had dared stnad up against him. The police generally let him alone, but when it did become necessary to bring him in, a squad of six or eight men was sent to accomplish the task.

When Merry was charged with murder, the case became a focus of the debate over how social environments may cause or influence criminal behavior.

On November 28, 1897, Paulina Merry's body was found in a ditch along 87th Street near Western Avenue. Her husband, Christian (sometimes also referred to as Christopher), was finally arrested in Princeton, Kentucky, and brought to Chicago on December 19, along with James Smith, who was charged as an accomplice.

Merry was found guilty of murder and sentenced to die. In mid-Feburary, with his hanging date only a few days away, Merry seemed to be in unusually good humor. The Chicago Journal reported:

Since the day sentence of death was imposed upon him, his guards at the jail say Merry has been a different man. The look of malignant hatred and those violent outbursts of rage that sometimes took possession of him, have left him quite as completely as if some evil spirit that held possession of him had left his body. He has not appeared bitter or gloomy.

On the contrary, he has shown himself quite cheerful, and yesterday, upon the last Sunday before the day upon which he is to be hanged, he joked and laughed with his guards, saying: "It seems to me that a man who is to die upon the gallows should be taken out for a stroll on his last Sunday on earth."

From the little cell-room where he is confined Merry could see through the bars the bright light of the pleasant spring-like morning. He heard new and then down the jail corridor, the casual echo of that familiar commonplace, "It's a fine day today," and the daylight was all the more alluring, no doubt, because it was soon to be shut out from him forever...

Merry is quite as interesting in the psychological problem he presents as he has proven to be to the students of criminology and sociology, who have found in him, not a degenerate, but a clearly marked primitive type, atavistic perhaps, but not degenerate, with great native power, but undeveloped.

His eyes are of a light-brown color, and look straight out with a clear, direct gaze, like those of a young boy. There is nothing of cunning in them, nothing that indicates the subtlety or reticence of his character. They curiously reflect the fluctuating moods of the man himself. They can flash with the most malignant hatred, such as one is only likely to see in the eyes of some wild beast or they can be mild and tender, as they were the other day when Merry saw his little boy and held him...

Merry's attorney, Frank Fay Pratt, was also a palm reader, and he published his analysis of the lines on Merry's hand. (Click here to read Pratt's description of Pratt's hands.)

On February 14, Pratt brought Dr. W.C. Fuchs, an X-ray expert, to the Cook County Jail to take pictures of Merry's head. Fuchs explained the X-ray process to Jailer John Whitman and told him that he and Pratt were planning to use the X-rays to argue in court that Pratt's life should be spared.

"I told him, that if he wanted to have the pictures taken and thought they would do him any good, I should not offer any objection," Whitman said.

Merry, however, said he had a headache and did not feel well. He asked that the experiment be postponed. (It's not clear whether the X-rays were taken at a later date.)

Merry's hanging was postponed for a couple of months, but his date with the executioner did finally arrive.

Merry confessed to his lawyers two days before his execution. Criminologist J. Sanderson Christison summed up Merry's confession:

He was not formally married, but had lived with his wife for five years and by her had one child, a boy, three years old. (He) had had "occasional quarrels" with her, had been arrested two or three times on her complaint, but she never prosecuted; struck her sometimes; sometimes she got drunk at the house; he never threatened to kill her, was "dearly attached to her and loved her greatly."

The evening she returned home he insisted upon her telling the cause of "trouble" between her and another woman, and when she finally told that she had been ravished by the other woman's husband and two strangers, Merry flew into a frenzy and immediately started for the men, when his wife seized him by the collar to hold him back.

In the struggle that ensued Merry struck her a heavy blow on her jaw which knocked her senseless. He immediately placed her on a bed and asked one of his men (a vegetable peddler,) to go for a doctor. His associate listened to her heart and felt her pulse and remarked that they were beating and that there was no need to send for a doctor.

She revived later and enough to say, "Chris, don't leave me," but expired in a few hours.

In dread of the police Merry planned to keep her death a secret, and thus two nights later they buried her at a road-side in a lonely spot.

Knowing that sooner or later he would be suspected of foul play, he and his companion tramped to the South and were arrested in Kentucky, his feet sore and inflamed from walking.

Merry was hanged on April 22, 1898. He awoke at 6 A.M. after a night of apparently sound sleep. He ate sparingly from his breakfast of ham, boiled eggs, toast, and tea, and then smoked a cigarette. Later that morning, he spoke to one of the guards on death row.

"He said that he intended to go from Kentucky to New Orelans, and there rid himself of his companion, Smith," the Tribune reported. "He spoke of Smith as a coward, and said that he, Merry, had aided him to earn his first honest penny as a peddler."

Merry told the guard that his wife's death grew out of "a family quarrel I struck her a little too hard."

Merry then spent an hour and a half with his spiritual adviser, Fahter J.P. Dore of Holy Name Cathedral. And then a death warrant was read aloud in his cell shortly before 10 o'clock. Merry was morose and silent, showing no interest in the words being read.

At two minutes before noon, Chief Deputy Peters told Merry to prepare for his trip to the gallows. He walked from his cell with a firm step, but then he faltered and began to lean on two of the assistant jailers.

As he walked up onto the scaffold, Merry handed a cruficix he had been carrying to Father Dore.

"His face twitched nervously, but he uttered no word," the Tribune reported. "The death straps were fastened around his body and then followed the white death robe. When Jailer Whitman reached for the fatal noose Merry turned to him and in a hoarse voice, scarecely audible six feet away, asked him if he would not put it over the death hood instead of under it. The jailer replied that it was impossible. The jailers who were supporting him sprang away and the death trap fell. Merry died hard and before death came moans escaped his lips."

James Smith was sentenced to eight months in the county jail. Another man, James Ryan, was also charged as an accessory, though the outcome of his case is not listed in the Chicago Homicide Index.

The Merry case prompted the Chicago Tribune to muse upon the causes of criminal behavior. While refusing to accept heredity as an excuse, the newspaper held the city of Chicago itself "directly at fault" for allowing an environment where depravity thrived. Excerpts from the Tribune essay follow:

After a summary of the life of Merry, the wife murderer, and an exposition of his mental and physical peculiarities, Professor John A. Benson declares that it is a blot on our civilization that such a youth should grow and develop, ignorant and uncivilized, in the imperial city of Chicago, and asks:

"Whose is the fault, my lords rectors of universities, right honorable members of school boards, and you my reverend doctors of theology?"...

Perhaps no general answer could be given to Dr. Benson's question that would be so convincing as the pregnant aphorism of Lacassagne: "Every society has the criminals that it deserves."...

In every man there are evil tendencies. The motives that actuate the most vicious criminals have their faint reflex in people who are far removed from the criminal classes. But when it comes to the totality of those qualities which make up the complete man, the will and the conscience correct those evil tendencies in the better man, while they are allowed to develop in his criminal brother because of a lack of will and conscience.

Now it is manifest that if society cultivated the will and the conscience as the good man cultivates them, the result would be much the same in the life of society as it is in the life of the individual. But society does not do this. If it did the environment in which Christopher Merry was brought up would never have existed.

That environment is possible only where there is a monstrous avoidance of a plain duty on the part of society. The imperial City of Chicago has not right to permit such conditions to exist within its borders. In this matter it is directly at fault.

It does practically nothing. Its example is the very worst kind of an example. It encourages filth, invites disease, propagates crime. All the remedial agencies that are acting with intelligence, with humanity, and with a high moral purpose throughout the sections where such men as Merry are born and bred are but voluntary associations of philanthropic citizens. The city is represented on the remedial side by a police department only, and yet the city should be the very embodiment of society in its broadest sense...

Look for a moment at the surroundings amid which this wretched young creature was brought up. His own people and their neighbors, and the neighbors of these neighbors by the thousands, live in crowded and filthy tenement districts. The houses they inhabit are the breeding places of diseases and vice and crime. There is an insufficiency of air and of light, a superabundance of dampness and of filth.

Modern improvements are unknown. Within the walls of tumble down shanties or larger barren and barnlike structures there is not a single thing to please the eye, cultivate the mind, or elevate the soul. There is unavoidable contact with the low, the base, the brutish, and the wicked. The common ambition of the inmates is to satisfy their sensual appetites. In such neighborhoods a saloon is the common rendezvous; the commonest form of social pleasure is a drink...

There is another school of philosophers who are inclined to exculpate society by a reference to the physical and mental abnormalities of the criminal classes and by a further reference to the subject of heredity.

They would explain Merry by the measurements of his head and the weaknesses that had been transmitted to him through his father, and then throw up their hands and go their ways, as if that were the end of the question. But their statistics are not of much value after all...

Heavy jaws are often taken to denote strength without any vicious tendencies whatever...

Here is a conclusion in point, which appears in the work by Havelock Ellis on "The Criminal": "The average size of criminals' heads is about the same as that of other people's heads; but both small and large heads are found in greater proportion... The same is true, as Tigges and others have shown, of the insane, though among these the larger preponderate to a greater extent. Thieves more frequently have small heads; the large heads are usually found among murderers. Nothing very definite can be said of the cephalic indices save that they are frequently an exaggeration of those of the race to which the criminal belongs." ...

Heredity has been a fad of late, and an excuse for a silly sort of fatalism. If the elder Merry was a drunkard, how many young men are there in this city today whose fathers were or are drunkards and whoa re themselves perfectly sober and industrious? It was not his father's drunkenness but his own that accelerated Merry's criminal course. Men live in the present, not among their ancestors.

J. Sanderson Christison also analyzed the Merry case in the second edition of his book Crime and Criminals. Click here to read excerpts.

2003 by Robert Loerzel.

Pictures: Photo, from J. Sanderson Christison's Crime and Criminals; drawing, Chicago Tribune, Jan. 2, 1898.

Herbert Asbury, Gem of the Prairie (Chicago: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940), 215-217.
General facts of the Merry case: Chicago Homicide Index.
Merry in good spirits: Chicago Journal, Feb. 14, 1898; Chicago Tribune, Feb. 14.
Merry's confession: J. Sanderson Christison, Crime and Criminals second edition (Chicago: S.T. Hurst, 1899), 119-129.
Hanging: Chicago Tribune, April 23, 1898.
Essay on causes of criminal behavior: Chicago Tribune, Jan. 2, 1898.