While there may be serious doubt about the wisdom of capital punishment it is at present imposed by the law of this State, and if it is to be applied in any case then it should be in this … Any man who will live off of the shame of a woman and beat her from time to time as he would a dog, and finally kill her, must expect to suffer the penalty of the law.
-Illinois Gov. John Altgeld denying clemency to George Painter (Jan. 25, 1894)
On this date in 1894, the Land of Lincoln bloodily botched (but ultimately accomplished) the hanging of George Painter.
Painter died for the sordid murder of prostitute-lover-income source Alice Martin.
Painter insisted he was out at the pub when Martin was throttled and bludgeoned to death in their mutual bed, but the timelines left the alibi leaky and a patch of bloodiness on the reprobate’s coat undid him.
Despite swearing his innocence on pains of being “condemned to a flaming hell for all eternity” and winning three gubernatorial reprieves as his appellate lawyers scrounged up sketchy supportive testimony from various lowlifes, matters were pretty solidly against him by the end. So much so that the seemingly-sturdy rope, “of the same coil with which the anarchists were hanged,” snapped jaggedly when Painter was dropped.
The condemned killer’s body carthwheeled from the jolt of the rope’s end, crashing headlong into the concrete floor. Doctors advised that Painter’s neck was broken and life gone or ebbing … and puzzled executioners, unsure what to do with this unusual semi-successful botch, hauled the hemorrhaging near-corpse back up the scaffold, strapped it up, and dropped it again. You can’t be too careful.
We came by this story on the website of Robert Loerzel’s Alchemy of Bones, a wonderful book about another infamous turn-of-the-century Chicago homicide. (Loerzel’s post gives the train-wreck Painter case a much more detailed rubbernecking.)
Although the subject of Loerzel’s book, the immigrant sausage-maker Adolph Luetgert, was not put to death for his trouble, we were thrilled that the author sat down with Executed Today to find out a little bit about how criminal justice looked in Chicago on the eve of the 20th century.
ET: One of the aspects that you cover in Alchemy of Bones that’s also present in the Painter case is circumstantial evidence of uncertain probative value. What’s a definitive piece of evidence to a late 19th-century juror?
RL: Obviously if we had a time machine and we could go back 100 years and reinvestigate some of these cases with today’s forensic science, I think we would find a lot of cases of miscarriages of justice. It’s hard to tell looking at these cases today when all you have is these newspaper articles and court transcripts. You can look at it with common sense and try to determine from what people are saying whether there might be some element of doubt.
Today there’s been this huge change with the introduction of DNA evidence and we’ve suddenly discovered that a huge number of people on death row or in prison who are innocent. And that has caused a lot of people to question the reliability of eyewitness testimony and the identification of suspects.
All these things — the testimony of witnesses who say they saw something or said, yeah, that’s the guy — that’s what people in the 19th century were being convicted on. We’re talking about an era when even fingerprints weren’t being used yet.
In the Luetgert case one of the key things was that they found some bone fragments. The Luetgert case is one of these rare murder cases where for all intents and purposes there was no body found. We have some of those cases still today where someone is missing; all the circumstances seem to point to the fact that someone is dead. And prosecutors and police face an additional hurdle — they have to persuade a court that a murder actually happened.
With those sorts of cases, you had some bones that were found. The forensic science of the time — you coudn’t run a DNA test on it. Part of the question was, were those bone fragments even human? Is it possible that pig bones or cow bones were found in a sausage factory? Of course it was possible.
The Luetgert trial was one of the first cases which had testimony from anthropologists, which was a pretty new field at the time. They brought in some experts from the Field Museum.
How did that go?
It wasn’t necessarily the greatest start — but it was sort of like the criminal justice system started to take some baby steps toward bringing science into the courtroom.
Later, in the 1920s or 30s, there was a landmark case called Frye. They still today have the Frye rule — when courts look at a witness to determine if he is an expert. In the Luetgert case, they didn’t do that, and it was kind of a carnival. A high school chemistry teacher was one of the people they put on the stand to testify about the bones.
Luetgert’s crime, murdering his wife and dissolving her or possibly stuffing her into the sausages, was so much more infamous than Painter’s. Why didn’t Luetgert get the death penalty?
Then as now, it was somewhat arbitrary which criminals would get the death penalty and which would get a prison sentence.
In Illinois during that era, there were a lot of people convicted of crimes and sent to prison for much less than a life sentence. They had a system there of “indeterminate sentence” where they would sentence someone to a wide range of possible terms, maybe from two years to 50 years; it was really flexible and vague with the idea that it was a more humane way of dealing with criminals.
It probably also put the thought in the minds of jurors that, do we want to put this guy in prison and he might be getting out in a few years?
In the Luetgert case, there was some outrage that if you were going to convict a person of this crime, you have to sentence him to death. Some people thought that they sentenced him to life in prison because, what if his wife is still alive? There were all these stories coming out at the time of the trial where people thought they had seen Mrs. Luetgert.
So there was the thought, what if we hang him and a year later, Mrs. Luetgert shows up?
None of the jurors ever came right out and said it, but it’s possible that that doubt played some role in the decision not to sentence him to death.
Luetgert’s case got national media attention which Painter’s did not. Was it a milestone for that kind of treatment? What was the media landscape for crime reporting at the time?
There were a few other cases during that era, so it’s hard for me to say that this was the first. But it was certainly an early example of a sort of 19th century equivalent of what we experience with, for instance, the O.J. Simpson trial.
Newspapers covered it in great depth. In Chicago they had a dozen newspapers at the time; they would print page after page of transcripts and reports — far more detailed than anything you see in trial coverage in newspapers now.
The prosecutor, who later became Governor of Illinois, had six scrapbook volumes of newspaper coverage, with clips from Los Angeles and Buffalo and Baltimore and New York.
It actually looks like a lot of newspapers around the country did what we today call news aggregating. We complain about sites like the Huffington Post … well, a 19th century newspaper in a small town in Iowa would just publish a huge long excerpt of a story from a Chicago newspaper. And sometimes they would credit it and sometimes they wouldn’t.
Compared to present-day one- and two-paper cities, that’s still quite a difference.
There’s a lot of media out there now. If you look on the web, blogs, news aggregator sites, TV and radio. We still have a lot of media coverage now, it’s just spread out into a lot of different channels.
I was frankly shocked when I was researching how detailed some of the articles were. It helped me as a researcher. Interestingly, the readership included a lot of people who were not necessarily well-educated, yet newspapers wouldn’t hesitate to run page after page of transcripts. Nowadays, I think you’d have an editor saying, “give me 10 inches.”
Having written the book on the case, do you think Luetgert was rightly convicted?
I believe so. More than the forensic testimony, Adolph Luetgert’s behavior after his wife disappeared sort of points to a guilty conscience. He feared that certain people would go to the police and he either offered them jobs or threatened them.
Though this is precisely the sort of fuzzy circumstantial evidence those 19th century juries were acting on.
That’s absolutely true. In some of these cases you look at, what’s the difference between a man acting suspicious and an innocent man being wrongfully accused? There’s some overlap there.