The murder, and its resulting trial, was the most sensational episode of justice Chicago had ever witnessed in 1897. The notorious trial and even the death of the convicted killer was not the end. It was only the beginning of a haunting that some believe is ongoing today.
Adolph Leutgert was born in Germany, but made his life in Chicago. He started a sausage factory and lived in a sizable home. It wasn’t long before he decided to start a family. Caroline Roepke was his first wife, but she died in 1877. Adolph married Louise Bicknesse in 1878. The two were married for 18 years, but the union was far from perfect. Neighbors frequently reported fighting and domestic altercations during the latter years. Despite the discord, the couple remained married. The couple had six children altogether, but only three made it past the age of two.
One strange day in 1897, Louise vanished. Adolph told his children she’d gone to her mother’s on May 2. Two days later, Deidrich Bicknesse came to visit his sister, on May 4. He was startled that Louise had been missing 3 days already and Adolph had not attempted to locate her or to notify the authorities.
Deidrich immediately went to the authorities because he knew she wasn’t at her mother’s house. He didn’t trust Adolph. The investigation ensued and police searched the city for the missing woman. They even dragged a stretch of the Chicago River for her body. They were suspicious of Adolph’s disinterest, but had no proof of foul deed to convict him of anything.
Fortunately, the police were in luck. Adolph himself told authorities that his business had failed. He was being forced to sell it to a soap making company. He stated Louise probably committed suicide rather than face such disgraceful catastrophe. The police didn’t believe it.
Adolph soon became the main suspect. His continued apathy and nonchalance made him appear more guilty than panic would have. He claimed he had no idea where his wife was, and those around him assumed he didn’t really care.
The case was about to be blown open and the nation rocked by one of the most gruesome finds in the nation’s legal history.
The authorities finally had enough suspicion to obtain warrants. They searched the house and the sausage factory until they eventually narrowed the search down to the factory. Their attentions were focused on one massive vat in particular. The vat contained caustic potash, or potassium hydroxide. The authorities were puzzled because the chemical was not a component for making sausages. Leutgert tried to say it was something the soap company needed, but they knew it was doubtful.
The authorities drained the vat of the corrosive liquid. They searched through the remaining debris at the bottom and found several items of interest. There were two gold rings, one of which had Louise’s initials engraved. They also found several steel corset pieces. They wondered if Leutgert had left her in the vat, but suspicion eventually drifted to the bone disposal area behind the factory, where the carcasses of animals were thrown. They found several human bones in the pile.
Leutgert was arrested on May 18, 1897. The authorities theorized Adolph murdered Louise and then boiled her remains in the acid. The theory was problematic. It seemed wholly unlikely that even potash would reduce a human body to nothing more than bones. They tested one cadaver and, as expected, it didn’t work. Then, witnesses reported that smoke came out of the smokestacks on the night of May 1, when the murder occurred. The authorities tried another cadaver, this time they boiled it for around two hours. The attempt was a success and all that remained of the cadaver was a few bones.
A night watchman told authorities he worked at the factory on the night of May 1. He saw Leutgert in the factory with a woman who resembled Louise. Adolph asked him to bring the potash for the vat. Adolph then told him to go to the store for his nerve medicine. When the watchman returned, Adolph had locked himself in the room with the vat.
Other witnesses began to discuss Leutgert’s visits the day after the murder. Adolph visited many of them and pleaded with them never to mention they noticed his smokestacks running at night. He said he would get in trouble for the factory’s nighttime operation.
The first trial somehow resulted in a hung jury, despite the night watchman’s testimony. The second trial began on November 29, 1897. One of the defense’s star witnesses was a woman named Mary Siemering, the Leutgert household maid. According to her testimony, Adolph was an upstanding man who adored his wife. He was kind and patient with her. The prosecution quickly discovered Siemering was having an affair with Adolph and her testimony was dismissed.
The prosecution had the upper hand again. A wealthy widow testified that Adolph attempted to court her. He frequently discussed his hatred of his wife. Many at the time believed he killed Louise to marry the wealthy widow. His first marriage was also drew suspicion. His first wife died in November of 1877, but he was already remarried by January of 1878.
A steady stream of employees, as well as professional chemists, all noted there was no reason to have a substance like potash in a meat factory. Leutgert was accustomed to the courtroom by this point and decided to take the stand in January of 1898. The police were barely able to contain the crowd. His decision did not help his case. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in May.
Many strange circumstances governed the Leutgert trial. It was said that Leutgert cursed all those in the jury that convicted him. All jurors survived the trial, but eventually all died violent and horrible deaths.
The number 13 also had a moment in the spotlight when it came to Leutgert trial reporting. Leutgert was said to fear the number, yet there are 13 letters in Adolph Leutgert, the original spelling. He was born on the 13th, the gold rings were found 13 days after the day of the murder, the States Attorney, his assistants, and three of the prosecution’s witnesses all had 13-letter names.
Reports state Leutgert was a broken man after his imprisonment. He was sentenced to life in the Joliet prison. He survived until July 27, 1899. Some reports say he died of a cardiac episode, some from consumption, but convicted murderer Henry Spencer alleged that Leutgert was beaten to death, by order of the prison officials in 1913. He claimed various guards and wardens would order prisoners to beat other prisoners to death, or face torturous consequences.
A New Era
At the time of the murder, the sausage factory was being renovated for a British soap maker. Nothing more is known of its use until recent times.
The Leutgert house remained vacant for years. It was originally at the corner of Diversey Boulevard and Hermitage Avenue. In 1908, Mrs. John Blane bought the property and moved it to 1641 Diversey Boulevard. She divided the large house into five flat apartments. Once renovations were complete, she flipped the house to John Lutga. The house gained an extensive reputation for paranormal activity during this time.
Figures started appearing in the home, apparitions of those who weren’t there. One tall man with a thick, black moustache and a black suit regularly appeared and disappeared. He capped his attire with a black derby. A lady also appeared, with dark hair that flowed down her back. She wore an ethereal white gown. It was rumored that the figures were Adolph and Louise, both of whom appeared in the clothing they were buried wearing.
The strangest aspect of the reported phenomena was that, even though the tenants rarely knew one another, their experiences were remarkably similar. Lights moved of their own accord, they flickered or went out. Doors opened and closed frequently. Gas jets would shut off by themselves. Animals brought into the complex would bark and howl for no reason.
There’s no formal record of what happened to the Leutgert’s home, but today St. Bonaventure Parish is located at 1641 Diversey. Leutgert’s sausage factory has been remodeled and today is a condominium complex. Louise’s apparition is still said to walk the corner street where she once lived.