Searching for Mrs. Luetgert’s ghost

It isn’t easy pinning down the details of a ghost story. Rumors and urban legends circulate, but how often do you read a firsthand account from someone who says they actually saw one of those supposedly famous ghosts? More often than not, what we get are stories far removed from their original sources, if such sources even exist.

When I was writing my book Alchemy of Bones: Chicago’s Luetgert Murder Case of 1897, I knew about the legend of Louise Luetgert’s ghost. She was the wife of sausage maker Adolph Luetgert, who was convicted of murdering her and dissolving her body in a vat inside his Lake View sausage factory. Several books of Chicago and Illinois ghost stories included vague tales about Mrs. Luetgert’s ghost haunting the former factory or the nearby house where the family had lived. The story had also appeared in a few newspaper articles. But details were sketchy. Was it just the sort of scary story that neighbors would naturally be expected to tell — "I’ll bet that place is haunted" — or had anyone actually claimed to witness this ghost?

Most of these books and articles also included one major factual error, incorrectly stating that the former Luetgert factory had burned down in 1902. There was a fire, but it was in 1904, not 1902. The blaze gutted the interior of the building, but did not destroy the structure, which is at the southwest corner of Diversey and Hermitage. (Hermitage at this spot is basically just a driveway, but there’s a sign for the street there.) Around the time my book was published by the University of Illinois Press, 2003, the old Luetgert factory was converted into condominiums. (The website for my book includes a detailed explanation for how I debunked the erroneous story about the fire. Read it here.)

But debunking — or verifying — the ghost story wasn't so easy. Finally, years after my book my published, I stumbled upon a newspaper article recounting what seems to be an honest-to-goodness sighting of Mrs. Luetgert's ghost. I found it with the Newspaper Archive search engine — just one of several websites that are revolutionizing historical research, making it possible to find articles that once seemed like needles buried in haystacks.

The article I find was not from a Chicago newspaper — it appeared in the Des Moines Daily News on April 4, 1901. Like many such articles, it's probably a reprint of a story that originally appeared in a Chicago paper or came over the news wires. Adding some credence to the ghost story, the article reports that a couple of police officers saw it. Here, then, is the story of Mrs. Luetgert's ghost — or perhaps some natural phenomenon mistaken for a ghost? — making an appearance in 1901. (See the original article here.)

CHICAGO, April 4.—Nearly four years have passed since the murder of Mrs. Louisa Luetgert by her husband, and now her ghost is appearing in the factory building on Diversey avenue where she was slain. Several person [sic] who live across the street from the structure are willing to testify to this fact. John Seifert, the watchman in the factory, August Beck, a saloonkeeper, directly across the street from the building, and Gustaf Haas, who live sin the house formerly occupied by Adolph Luetgert, are three of the many persons who have seen the apparition.

Seifert reported the occurrence to the police on Wednesday, the ghost having appeared for the first time on Tuesday. Wednesday night Captain [Herman] Schuettler of the Sheffield avenue station sent Detectives [John] Quinn and [William] Blaul to the factory. A light soon appeared at one of the factory windows, and the officers decided on an investigation. With their revolvers drawn and each with a lantern they entered the factory with Seifert.

Immediately a light darted before them, as if it were a streak of lightning. It seemed to pass from the first floor down the stairway into the basement. The officers followed, and when they got to the basement they saw the light again. It was in the very place where stood the famous middle vat in which the body of Mrs. Luetgert is thought to have been disintegrated. Quinn rushed for it, but it vanished, and in less time than it could be realized was in a corner fifty feet away. The officer again approached it, and this time was able to get with in a few feet of the apparition, which all the while was distinctively that of a woman, and the officer sprang for it. His arms were thrown about a small keg and his head went through a window pane. The light disappeared, but a crowd of men and women who were outside the building watching said they had no sooner heard the crashing of the glass than they saw the light appear in the top of the factory. The officers went back to the station, firm believers in ghosts.  

This was not the first time Blaul had seen a ghost. In 1898, when he was a parks police officer, he had witnessed a specter wearing a Mexican mantle and sombrero one night in Lincoln Park. He fired his gun at the figure, which promptly vanished, according to an article in the Feb. 13, 1898, Chicago Daily Tribune.

Six years after police chased that strange light around the Luetgert factory, the former Luetgert house was sold. The house had been moved to Diversey Boulevard near Paulina. An October 11, 1907 story in the Hamburg (Iowa) Reporter called it a "haunted house." (See the original story here.) However, the article noted: "A new coat of paint and a thorough renovation is believed to have so changed it that not even the ghost of Mrs. Luetgert, which was once said to haunt it, will know it again."

— Robert Loerzel, October 31, 2011