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Alchemy of Bones: Chicago's Luetgert Murder Case of 1897

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On May 1, 1897, Louise Luetgert disappeared. Although no body was found, Chicago police arrested her husband, Adolph, the owner of a large sausage factory, and charged him with her murder. The eyes of the world were still on Chicago following the success of the World's Columbian Exposition, and the Luetgert case, with its missing victim, once-prosperous suspect, and all manner of gruesome theories regarding the disposal of the corpse, turned into one of the first media-fueled celebrity trials in American history. Newspapers fought one another for scoops, people across the country claimed to have seen the missing woman alive, and each new clue led to fresh rounds of speculation about the crime. Meanwhile, sausage sales plummeted nationwide as rumors circulated that Luetgert had destroyed his wife's body in one of his factory's meat grinders. In this narrative history of the Luetgert case, Robert Loerzel brings 1890s Chicago vividly back to life. He examines not only the trial itself but also the police department and forensic specialists investigating the case, the reporters scrambling for details, and the wider society who followed their stories so voraciously. Weaving in strange-but-true subplots involving hypnotists, palmreaders, English con-artists, bullied witnesses, and insane-asylum body-snatchers, Alchemy of Bones is more than just a true crime narrative; it is a grand, sprawling portrait of a city--and a nation--getting an early taste of the dark, chaotic twentieth century.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published August 12, 2003

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Robert Loerzel

3 books1 follower

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Displaying 1 - 10 of 10 reviews
Profile Image for Katherine Addison.
Author 12 books2,716 followers
December 27, 2015
This is an excellent recounting of a very complicated piece of history: the disappearance of Louise Luetgert on May 1-2 1897, and the investigation, indictment, 2 trials, conviction, and imprisonment of her husband, Adolph Louis Luetgert, for murdering her and then dissolving her body in the basement of his sausage works. Loerzel does a great job with his sources, especially the newspapers (I was dubious at first about all the newspaper drawings he'd included, but he was right to do so; they convey something important that doesn't go easily into words), and he tells the labyrinthine progress of the trials clearly and impartially, without favoring either side. He points out the way that neither prosecution nor defense could put forward a story that didn't have holes and contradictions in it, and he draws the inevitable conclusion: from this distance (and with all of the evidence from the trials having vanished in the intervening century plus), we can't determine whether Luetgert was guilty or innocent, but it is painfully easy to see that he didn't get a fair trial.

(A point that nobody seems to have made, but that is a big stumbling block for me: if Luetgert was innocent, then when Louise Luetgert randomly picked her moment to go crazy and flee into the night, it JUST HAPPENED to be the same night that her husband chose to experiment with making soft soap in the basement of his sausage works, which he'd never done before, AND decided to move the furniture around so his fox terrier could hunt rats, AND sent the night watchman out on two nearly pointless errands, AND, AND, AND . . . The coincidences just have to keep mounting up to make Luetgert's story true.

(Also, the testimony that I found absolutely compelling, and chillingly gruesome, was that of the two workmen who were told to clean up the basement the next morning. They weren't making those details up.)

Luetgert died in Joliet while his attorney was still working on an appeal, so there's no resolution to the story, no final satisfying judgment. Hung jury in his first trial, obvious mistrial in his second trial. I ended up agreeing with Clarence Darrow: "I really believe that he was guilty but that he was convicted on insufficient evidence" (277).

Truth stranger than fiction: Luetgert's sausage works are now loft condominiums.

For more, check out Loerzel's website alchemyofbones.com
Profile Image for Michael.
308 reviews23 followers
March 4, 2021
A very interesting tale and strange case. And rather enjoyable read. I usually do not like when true crime books spend to much time on court proceedings. I'm more interested in the actual crimes. This book is mostly about the trials of the Luetgert case. Since little is known of the actual crime, if there was one, most of it was based on circumstantial evidence or questionable witnesses. So most of the interesting aspects were revealed during the trial. Maybe that is why I didn't mind the court proceedings so much. More of a mystery type true-crime book. I will say I was a bit disappointed that he wasn't accused of turning his wife to sausage. I don't know why, I guess I just assumed that would be the case since she disappeared and he owned a sausage factory. But it was a well written book and even though not my usual preference for content I really enjoyed it.

Also, Cushing-Malloy Inc.(the manufacturers of the book)knows how to make a paperback book!! Been read at least twice and not a single crease on the spine. Book still looks new. Great job fellers!!
Profile Image for Kirstie.
262 reviews128 followers
December 20, 2007
This is a fascinating book about the Luetgert trial of 1897...it's intriguing from many different angles-first, it's really exciting to see what Chicago was like at the turn of the last century. Second, it's fascinating to see how juries as well as journalism has changed over time. Third, the specific case of Luetgert is in and of itself quite unusual and engaging. It is unlike any case I've ever heard of involving a disappearing wife and quite a deal of speculation. This was the court rollercoaster case of the day and people traveled from miles just for glimpses of the defendant. I'm not traditionally a fan of fiction or historical fiction but Robert Loerzel has an excellent handle on the language and at times the prose has a very lyric like flow to it that is immensely enjoyable. Check out some of his photography and music reviews on his website here: http://www.undergroundbee.com/

Profile Image for Tina.
539 reviews
May 14, 2018
A well-written, fascinating page-turner about the 1897 murder trial of Adolph Luetgert, the owner of a Chicago sausage factory, who was accused of murdering his wife. There was no corpse, and Louise Luetgert had talked about leaving her husband. But then, there were the strange materials, including two gold rings, in the bottom of one of the factory vats...! The author ably conveys the excitement of the complicated trial with all its conflicting testimony and evidence. Many of the witnesses were German immigrants, but all of the speech cadences of those involved in the trial seem colorful and intriguingly odd at this remove. The lawyers, judges, and expert witnesses are really a picturesque bunch! As are the jurors, the rabid reporters, and the observers who crowded the courtroom each day, and the people who claimed to have seen Louise recently. The book is very well researched, delving deep into the dauntingly extensive newspaper coverage of the trial (reporters spied on the jury, stalked witnesses, and simply invented facts), as well as primary sources. The book conveys a real sense of what life and journalism were like in Chicago at that time. I honestly kept changing my mind regarding Luetgert’s guilt.
125 reviews
February 17, 2022
A long and tedious step by step analysis of the famous Murder Trials of Adolph Luetgert in 1897-98. For me, the only redeeming thing about this book was the detailed descriptions of the times around the turn of the century, giving the reader a good vision of the culture, business and governmental conditions, science and criminal capabilities of the times, and the outrageous ability of the media to affect the public's view of events that were occurring. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Profile Image for Cristel.
56 reviews
October 24, 2007
This was written by one of my former colleagues! It's a thorough look at an unsolved murder case in the late 1800s and also provides great insight into the legal system and journalism field during that time.
Profile Image for James Howald.
75 reviews
January 11, 2009
It was interesting because it happened in my neighborhood and was an interesting case. But it is not very exciting reading. If you don't have a great interest in Chicago history or early 1900ish courtroom drama, don't bother. Otherwise, let meknow and I'll loan you the book.
Profile Image for Mike Sola.
1 review2 followers
April 5, 2016
very interesting portrayal of legal system in early Chicago. O.J. had nothing on Luetgert except good attorneys
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