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

Article excerpt

Alchemy of Bones: Chicago's Luetgert Murder case of 1897. By Robert Loerzel (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Pp. 319. Illustrations, photographs, index. Cloth, $29.95).

Robert Loerzel swiftly narrates the events surrounding the late 189Os investigation and trial of Chicagoan Adolph Luetgert on charges of murdering his wife. Luetgert-a German immigrant and onceprosperous sausage-maker-had made a series of unfortunate business decisions that left him on the verge of financial ruin. Luetgert's wife Louise had grown increasingly angry about the family's declining fiscal fortunes and disappeared on 1 May 1897, after a few days of erratic behavior. Or at least that is what Adolph Luetgert told police. Investigators soon found a much more grisly explanation for Louise Luetgert's disappearance: Adolph had killed her and disposed of the body by boiling it in a vat of potash in his sausage factory.

For Chicagoans in 1897, the Luetgert matter was a grisly reminder of the sensational prosecution of serial killer Herman Mudgett (alias H.H. Holmes) that had taken place only a year before. For contemporary readers, this book will be a companion piece to Eric Larson's Devil in a White City, a study of the Holmes affair. Loerzel's book, while not pulpy like Larson's, is still probably one of the few university press books one might reasonably call a "page-turner," and will interest any reader intrigued by Larson's book. Alchemy of Bones is an exceptional example of the true-crime genre.

Loerzel moves beyond the grisly details and into deeper and more analytic territory with extended discussions of Luetgert's media-hyped public trial. Loerzel puts heavy of emphasis on the press coverage of the trial, and shows how sensationalistic coverage stirred the public to become ravenous for daily news about the trial. Chicago at the time had ten English-language dailies, all of which had reporters in the courtroom, as did the city's German-language papers and the national wire services, and reporters became so competitive that they resorted to tactics like climbing down airshafts to spy on the deliberating jury. …


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