Morbid Monday: The Man Who Dissolved His Wife
“Unable to dissolve his marriage, he decided to dissolve his wife.
— Clyde Snow, "The Stories Bones Tell"
Adolph & Louise Luetgert (courtesy Alchemy of Bones)
On Diversey and Hermitage Avenue in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood is an industrial building that was converted to condominiums in the 1990s. Though this building is nondescript today, it was the site of a grisly murder at the end of the 19th century.
Adolph Luetgert was a tanner and butcher who moved from Germany in the early 1870s. Shortly after his first wife died, Luetgert married Louise Bicknese in 1878, a woman who was ten years his junior. On their wedding day, he gave Louise a gold ring inscribed with her new initials, L.L.
Luetgert opened a small sausage company in 1879 that became successful. In 1897, he opened the A.L. Sausage & Packing Company in a five-story plant on the southwest corner of Diversey and Hermitage. Next door to the sausage works, Luetgert built a three-story family home for Louise and their two sons, Elmer and Louis.
A picture of the A.L. Sausage & Packing Company featured inside a company paperweight (courtesy Alchemy of Bones)
Unfortunately, Adolph and Louise’s marriage was not a happy one, and the world was about to find out what kind of monster lay inside Adolph Luetgert.
Adolph and Louise went on a walk on the evening of May 1, 1897 — this was the last time anyone saw Louise alive. On May 7th, Adolph reported his wife missing, but her family suspected foul play. Police questioned relatives and friends and searched the city for Louise Luetgert or her remains.
During a search of Luetgert’s factory on May 15th, a watchman suggested they look in a steam vat in the cellar that was used to dip sausages. The police looked inside, and found that the vat was filled halfway with a putrid-smelling, reddish-brown liquid. When the police pulled a plug near the bottom of the vat, on the outside, the slimy liquid and small pieces of bone fell out. Inside the cauldron, police found a gold ring with L.L. engraved on the inside. Near the vat, investigators discovered a strand of hair, pieces of clothing, and half of a false tooth.
After police questioned some employees, investigators learned Luetgert had workers dump the ashes from the smokehouse. When they examined the areas the factory workers indicated, investigators found more bone and pieces of burned corset steel.
Luetgert was arrested shortly after these discoveries, and was tried for Louise’s murder. The trial became a media sensation that drew reporters from thousands of miles away.
During the trial, friends and relatives of the Luetgert family testified that Adolph physically abused and cheated on Louise. A smokehouse helper also testified that Luetgert ordered 378 pounds of potash on March 11th, and ordered employees to dump the chemical in the steam vat with water on April 24th. The same worker also stated that on Saturday, May 1st, the day Louise disappeared, Luetgert turned on the steam line to the cauldron and boiled the mixture. The following Sunday and Monday, factory workers unwittingly helped Luetgert clean up the rancid liquid that boiled over from the vat, which was either buried around the factory or burned in the smokehouse.
Adolph’s defense was that his wife went insane and ran away, the potash was used to make soap to clean the factory, and the bones found in the factory were animal. Without a body it would be difficult to confirm that Louise was dead. So the prosecution had to prove that the potash mixture could have been used to dispose of Louise’s body and the remains found in the vat could belong to her.
The prosecution determined that the potash mixture could dissolve a human body with a demonstration. With a real human cadaver and a cauldron filled with the potash formula Luetgert allegedly used, the prosecution was able to liquify the cadaver and got the same reddish-brown fluid. The potash would have leached the calcium from Louise’s bones and liquefied the rest of her body.
George Dorsey, anthropologist and curator of the Field Museum, and some of his colleagues, analyzed bone fragments recovered from the A.L. Sausage & Packing Company. Dorsey testified that the pebble-sized pieces of bone belonged to a human female.
The Luetgert murder trial was one of the first ones in which an anthropologist was called to testify as an expert witness. Today forensic anthropologists doubt that Dorsey could have determined whether or not the tiny pieces of bone were human, much less that they belonged to a female. Though the jury and the reporters at the trial thought Dorsey’s testimony was convincing, it was the circumstantial evidence that swayed the jury.
The Luetgert marital discord and the presence of Louise’s wedding ring in the vat were damning. And Luetgert’s defense of using 378 pounds of potash to make soap to clean the factory was ridiculous, because his mixture would have made about 2,000 pounds of soap. This amount would have been enough to clean the factory a few times over, and was more expensive than buying the soap over the counter.
Luetgert was eventually found guilty, and was sent to Joliet State Penitentiary. He died on July 7, 1899, but maintained his innocence throughout his short incarceration.
The factory today, now converted to condos (via Chicago Crime Scenes)
Bricked up basement window to where the sausage vat was located (via Chicago Crime Scenes)
There were a few urban legends that spread after the trial. The most gruesome was that Luetgert ground Louise’s body into sausage and sold it to his customers. But the plant was not manufacturing sausage at the time of the murder, so the presence of her body in the factory had nothing to do with sausage-making or accidental cannibalism. Despite this, the rumor was enough to cause sausage sales to plummet during the investigation and murder trial.
Eventually the neighborhood kids recited a rhyme about the gory tale:
Old man Luetgert made sausage out of his wife!
He turned on the steam,
His wife began to scream,
There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight!
There were also stories that the ghost of Louise Luetgert haunted the factory. A few years after the trial, a watchman at the factory believed he saw Louise’s apparition. Two detectives were sent to investigate this phenomenon when the watchman reported his paranormal experience to the police. The detectives allegedly witnessed mysterious lights, and Louise’s ghost near the vat where her body was liquefied. There don't seem to be any recent experiences at the condos that are there now.
In 1907, the Luetgert home was moved to Diversey Boulevard near Paulina, but no paranormal experiences have been reported.
The sausage vat murder. (2014). Retrieved on August 31, 2014 from: http://www.domu.com/chicago/history-map/the-sausage-vat-murder
Joyce, C. and Stover, E. (1991). Witnesses from the grave: The stories bones tell. Boston, MA: Ballantine Books.
Loerzel, R. (2003). Alchemy of bones: Myths debunked. Retrieved on August 31, 2014 from: http://www.alchemyofbones.com/myths.htm
Loerzel, R. (2003). Alchemy of bones: Adolph Louis Luetgert. Retrieved on August 31, 2014 from: http://www.alchemyofbones.com/who/luetgertfamily/adolph.htm
Loerzel, R. (2011). In search of Mrs. Luetgert’s ghost. Retrieved on August 31, 2014 from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-loerzel/in-search-of-mrs-luetgert_b_1063967.html
Maples, W.R. and Browning, M. (1995). Dead men do tell tales. New York, New York: Broadway Publishing.