The “Sausage Vat Murder,” 1897

Notes on a killing

Harold Schechter
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

Though almost entirely forgotten today, the 1897 murder of Mrs. Louisa Luetgert by her husband Adolph was not only one of the most widely publicized crimes of its time but a case of genuine historical significance. A half-century earlier, the trial of Professor John White Webster for the murder of Dr. George Parkman set a legal precedent when the state—lacking the evidence of the victim’s dead body—won a conviction by relying partly on the testimony of Dr. Parkman’s dentist to establish corpus delicti. While historians of the field now known as forensic anthropology trace the seeds of their discipline to this landmark case, they point to the Luetgert trial as an even more significant milestone: the first time a professional anthropologist was called to testify at a murder trial.

The Luetgert murder also represented a very early instance of what one twentieth-century crime writer categorizes as an “eraser” killing: the elimination of an unwanted wife by a psychopathic husband who doesn’t merely slay his spouse but disposes of her corpse so thoroughly that if effectively vanishes. It was the particular method used to obliterate the victim that turned the case into a media sensation. Widely known as “The Sausage Vat Murder,” Luetgert’s crime stimulated such primal anxieties in the collective imagination of the public that it had a direct impact on the nation’s meat-eating habits.

Born and raised in a small German village in 1845, Adolph Lütgert (as his name was originally spelled) emigrated to America at the age of twenty-four, lured, as he later put it, “by tales of the riches to be acquired, reputations established, and happiness to be secured in the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave.’” Having apprenticed as a tanner in his native country, he soon found work in a Chicago leather company. Ambitious, industrious, and frugal, he saved enough money within a few years to start his own business. In 1878, his first wife having died in childbirth, he married a recent German arrival to these shores, Louisa Bicknese, a petite, pretty domestic servant nearly ten years his junior. After operating a tavern for a few years, he went into the meat business and, by 1892, was the proud owner of the city’s largest sausage-manufacturing plant, a five-story factory that supplied the nation with millions of pounds of bratwurst, knockwurst, and suchlike delicacies.

In 1897, however, after falling victim to a swindle, he found himself in dire financial straits. In a desperate attempt to save his business, he went deeply in debt to Chicago’s Foreman Brothers Bank (whose vice president, Oscar Foreman, would have the dubious distinction of finding himself associated with two of his city’s most infamous murderers: Adolph Luegert and the Jazz Age “thrill killer,” Nathan Leopold, Foreman’s nephew by his sister). Owing partly to their ever-worsening monetary woes, the Luetgert marriage grew increasingly acrimonious. Money, however, was not the only thing they argued about. Despite his coarse appearance (one writer vividly describes him as a “Falstaffian” figure with “a face of suet, pig eyes, and a large untidy moustache that was a perfect host for beer foam”), Adolph was something of an womanizer. Claiming that he needed to keep a round-the-clock eye on his factory, he had taken to spending his nights in a little room beside his office, equipped with a bed that he frequently shared with his twenty-two-year-old housemaid, Mary Siemering, Louisa’s own cousin. He was also conducting a surreptitious courtship of a wealthy widow, Mrs. Christina Feld, sending her amorous letters in which he rhapsodized about their rosy future.

At around 10:15 on the evening of Saturday, May 1, Louisa was seated in the kitchen, chatting with her twelve-year-old son Louis, who had attended the circus that evening. The boy was excitedly describing some of the wonders he had seen—a giant named “Monsieur Goliath” and a strongman who juggled cannon balls—when Luetgert appeared and told his son to go bed. Precisely what happened between the two adults after Louis retired to his room is unclear. Only one fact is beyond dispute. After the boy bid goodnight to his mother at about 10:30 P.M., she was left alone in the company of her husband. Then she vanished.

In the following days, Luetgert casually mentioned to friends and family members that his wife had left him. When her worried brother, Diedrich Bicknese, asked where she had gone, Luetgert answered with a shrug. “She might have gone away or wandered away, something like that.” Luetgert also admitted that he hadn’t contacted the police—a striking contrast to his actions a few months earlier when his Great Dane ran off and he had hurried to the neighborhood precinct to ask for help in recovering the dog.

His suspicions aroused by his brother-in-law’s blasé response to Louisa’s disappearance, Bicknese alerted the authorities. Over the following week, detectives conducted a search of the factory and the surrounding neighborhood but turned up nothing. It wasn’t until May 15 that Luetgert’s night watchman, Frank Bialk, approached the police and told them that, on the night Mrs. Luetgert disappeared, his boss had been acting suspiciously, busying himself with one of the large steam-vats down in the factory basement. Following up on this tip, investigators checked out the vat, which—despite having been cleaned two weeks earlier—still contained a residue of a thick, greasy fluid, reddish-brown in color and giving off a nauseous stink. When the fetid slime was drained from the vat, the detectives discovered tiny pieces of bone along with two gold rings, one of them a wedding band engraved with the initials “L. L.” More bone fragments, as well as a false tooth, a hairpin, a charred corset stay, and various scraps of cloth turned up in a nearby ash heap. Luetgert was promptly arrested and charged with his wife’s murder.

The story of Chicago’s “sausage king” who had slain his wife and disposed of her corpse by dissolving it in a solution of caustic potash became a newspaper sensation. Rumors quickly spread that Mrs. Luetgert had ended up as an ingredient in her husband’s meat products. Like all urban legends, this cannibalistic fantasy was widely accepted as fact, leading, as one historian puts it, to a drastic reduction in the country’s “per capita consumption of bratwurst.”

Thanks to the sensational nature of the “Sausage Vat” murder, Luetgert’s trial, which got underway in the third week of August, became the hottest show in town, presaging the great courtroom circuses of the twentieth century. For the two months of its duration, it drew daily mobs of clamoring would-be spectators. Newspapermen from across the country flocked to Chicago to covered the proceedings, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, Julian, star reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

Since Luetgert continued to maintain that his wife had run away from home and was, so far as he knew, still alive, prosecutors were faced with the challenge of establishing the corpus delicti. For this, they turned to an expert witness, George Dorsey. The first Harvard student to be awarded a Ph.D. in anthropology, Dorsey had been responsible for organizing a popular archaeological exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. At the time of the Luetgert trial, he was assistant curator of anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History. Shown several small bone fragments found by the police in the boiler room of the sausage factory, Dorsey positively identified them as bunrned pieces of a skull and thigh bone, both belonging to “a small adult woman.

When, after three days of deliberation, the jurors were unable to agree on a verdict, the judge declared a mistrial. Two months later, in December, 1907, Luetgert was brought to trial again. This time, Dorsey—testifying “in even stronger terms than before that the fragments found in Luetgert’s vat were human bones”—-was instrumental in securing a conviction. Sentenced to life in prison, the “Sausage King” lasted only slightly more than one year behind bars, succumbing to heart disease in July 1899 at the age of fifty-three.

Harold Schechter is the author of historical true crime books and editor of an anthology of American true crime writing published by the Library of America. His book The Mad Sculptor was a 2015 Edgar nominee. He is also the author of Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men.
Originally published:
February 18, 2019


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