The Tale of the Sausage King

Remember how the mischievous Ferris Bueller claimed to be Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago in an effort to trick the snooty host of an upscale restaruant? If you weren’t living under a rock in the 80s and 90s, chances are good you’ve seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But did you know there was an honest to goodness Sausage King of Chicago? Well, there really was such a meat monarch. And his story is a little–unsettling.

Meet Adolph Luetgert. I imagine he’s wearing a bib in the sketch on the right. Probably getting ready to eat a plate full of sausages.

Adolph Luetgert was born in Germany in 1845 as the third of eleven children. After dropping out of school and leaving home at age fourteen, he became apprentice to a tanner. Determined to make his fortune, Adolph set out for London when he turned nineteen. He met with no success and in sailed to New York, hoping to make a name for himself in the Land of Opportunity. He soon transitioned from the Big Apple to the Windy City. He worked as a tanner until he’d saved enough to establish his own business in 1872. He attempted to make a fortune in Liquor, but in 1879 he switched to sausage. A good call really, since he made his fortune in the meat industry.

Like most people, Adolph didn’t wish to live the life of a wealthy recluse. He married Caroline Roepke in 1871. They had two children before she passed away in 1877. A quick two months later, he met and married a woman named Louise. Two months really isn’t that fast . . . is it? Not when you have as much in common as Louise and Adolph. Both had emigrated from Germany. Both had worked menial jobs (Louise was a domestic servant) and pulled themselves out of poverty by their proverbial boot straps. The couple had four children together, though only two lived past the age of two.

Adolph and Louise

In 1893, the sausage business reached its apex when A.L. Luetgert Sausage and Packing Company supplied weenies for the Colombian Exhibition in Chicago. A high honor, indeed. At the conclusion of the World’s Fair, Chicago’s economy took a serious hit from the depression embroiling the rest of the nation. Sausage orders nose-dived, and Luetgert found his customers unable to pay in full for orders he’d already shipped. In an effort to recoup his losses, Adolph tried to sell the sausage business, but a potential buyer swindled him, binding him tighter in his financial straight jacket.

Though born into poverty, Louisa had grown accustomed to a posh lifestyle. Hey, it’s easy to get spoiled. One day off work turns me into a lady of leisure. Adolph kept the unhappy truth of their financial predicament from her as long as possible. When Louise learned how the bank roll had shrunk, she began having heated ‘discussions’ with her hubby. Money was at the heart of each argument. Neighbors reported that the altercations were loud and often violent, and some recalled hearing Louise’s threats to leave her husband. Poor Adolph, right? Dude can’t catch a break. First the economy, then a snake in the grass, now Louise.

Well, the rumor mill churned out a few tales of Adolph’s infidelity. It was true, he kept a bed in his private office at sausage factory and slept away from home most nights. That could easily be explained. Why go home when Louise met him at the door with her claws out, ready to nag him to death about their finances–or lack thereof? The gossip took a more believable turn when Adolph and his housekeeper, Mary Siemering, were caught kissing at the factory. Later, a wealthy widow, Christine Fields, alleged Luetgert had courted her. If this was true, I’m sure Adolph saw her as a nice big dollar sign.

May 1, 1987, Louise Luetgert disappeared, never to be heard from again. Adolph claimed she’d made good on her threat to leave him. He guessed she’d returned to Germany, no doubt with another man.

The night before his wife’s disappearance, Adolph had worked late in the basement of the sausage factory. The night watchman helped him turn on the steam , then Luetgert sent him to the drug store for some patent medicine. When his employees arrived for work the next morning, they found foul-smelling reddish sludge in and around a large vat in the plant. Similar looking scum was discovered on the basement floor. When the watchman saw this, he grew suspicious and alerted the police.

Investigators drained the vat and found bone fragments, metal corset stays, and a pair of rings–one engraved with the initials ‘L.L.’

Police also learned that Luetgert had recently purchased a large amount of arsenic and potash, a powerful alkali used in soap-making. The next morning, Adolph Luetgert was arrested for Louise’s murder. Authorities believed he’d poisoned his wife and dissolved her body in a vat of boiling potash.

To say the trial was a spectacle would be a gross understatement. People flocked from all over the region to catch a glimpse of the accused killer. The absence of a body was a major monkey-wrench for the prosecution. How could it be proved the bone fragments belonged to Louise Luetgert? Forensic science wasn’t even an inkling in investigative minds at this point in history. Talk about a problem. The prosecution found an expert to testify that the bone fragments in the vat belonged to a petite woman. On the other end of the spectrum, the defense’s bone analyst claimed there was no way to determine the fragments were even human, let alone the bones of Mrs. Luetgert. Each side experimented by boiling cadavers in potash. Each side proved it’s claims.

After closing arguments, the prosecution failed to convince twelve honest men that Luetgert killed his wife. The jury was hung.

During the second trial in 1897, Adolph testified on his own behalf for a total of 18 1/2 hours. He claimed the potash was used to make the soap that cleaned the factory. He said the bones were not human, but animal. He also stated that Louise had gone insane and ran away. This new jury didn’t need as much convincing as the first. Verdict: guilty.

Adolph spent the remainder of his life in Joliet Prison. He died in 1899 of natural causes. He claimed innocence until the day he died.

Many myths surround the death of Louise Luetgert. Before the trial began, she was spotted in twelve different states but never found. One famous tale was that she was seen boarding a ship bound for Europe. Adolph believed this sighting confirmed his suspicion that she’d fled back to Germany. Unfortunately for him, his beloved wife was never seen or heard from again.

What do you think? Did the Sausage King poison his wife and dissolve her body in a vat of potash? Is it possible Louise got a little tired of her husband’s philandering and decided to cut bait? It’s easy to explain away bones at a sausage factory. But what about the engraved ring and corset stays? Could Louise have planted those items in the vat to incriminate her husband?

We may never know the full story of the Sausage King of Chicago. One thing I know for sure, the one on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was a lot more fun.