1987: Dale Selby Pierre, Hi-Fi Murderer 1481: Michal Olelkowicz and Iwan Holszanski, Lithuanian princes

1890: Otto Leuth

August 29th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1890 at the Columbus Penitentiary in Ohio, a sullen German-American teenager named Otto Leuth (sometimes spelled “Lueth”) paid with his life for the brutal murder of his seven-year-old neighbor, Maggie Thompson.

John Stark Bellamy II, writing of the murder in his book The Corpse in the Cellar: And Further Tales of Cleveland Woe, noted how familiar the case sounds to modern ears:

[T]he sickening murder of an innocent child; yet another child accused for the dreadful deed; a sensational trial, replete with dubiously “expert” testimony, suspicious “confessions,” allegations of police “third-degree” methods, and charges of biased press; not to mention “latchkey” children, systematic child abuse, saccharine sympathy for the guilty, and charges of ethnic favoritism.

Yet it happened over a century ago.

Otto, sixteen at the time he killed little Maggie Thompson, had had a hard life, as Bellamy explains in his book. His mother, Lena, testified at his trial that she

went into veritably demonic fits of rage, during which she was in the habit of physically abusing her children, especially Otto. From an early age, she blandly admitted, she had pulled his hair, kicked him, beaten him, walked on him, and often hit him with any object that came to hand. Once, when Otto was eight, she had beaten him with a chair leg and, when [Otto’s father] Henry tried to intervene, stabbed Henry twice with a convenient butcher knife. Just a few months before Maggie Thompson’s murder, Lena had repeatedly slammed Otto’s head into a wooden door.

It speaks volumes of the difference between that century and this one that nobody who heard Lena’s testimony seemed to think this was in any way excessive, never mind cruel; on the contrary, one person praised her methods as being “good German discipline.”

On May 9, 1889, sixteen-year-old Otto was alone at his family’s home at 47 Merchant Avenue in Tremont, a suburb of Cleveland. He was used to being alone: his mother had been committed to a mental hospital some months before, his father was wrapped up in his cabinet-making business, and his older brother had moved out of the house.


Otto (top) and his victim.

That morning, down the street at 24 Merchant Avenue, Maggie Thompson set off for school. Her mother, Clara, dropped her off at the front gate; it was the last time she would see her daughter alive.

Maggie attended the morning classes and, when school was dismissed for lunch at 11:15 a.m., started on the four-block walk home. En route, she vanished without a trace, as if “the sidewalk might have opened and swallowed the girl.”

Naturally there was a frantic search, lead by her devastated parents and the Cleveland Police Department, who tore the city apart looking for her.

But, although there were numerous false sightings and a few wild stories about Maggie’s disappearance, in spite of everyone’s efforts they couldn’t find her.

Otto participated in the search, along with most of the neighborhood. Nearly every day he would approach Clara Thompson and solicitously ask if she’d heard any news of her child.

In early June, Clarissa Shevel, the woman who lived with her husband in the back of the Lueths’ two-family house, asked Otto to do something about the terrible stench that pervaded the entire building. Otto suggested the odor was caused by a dead animal. He bought some chloride of lime and put it in the ventilation hole, then burned some sulfur, but it didn’t help.

Around that time he was witnessed carrying some badly stained bedding to the smokehouse at the back of the property.

On June 9, Otto’s mother Lena, who had by now been discharged from the mental hospital, became fed up with the smell and sent her husband Henry down to the cellar to investigate. He came back up a few minutes later, deeply shaken, and ran out to find a policeman.

In the Lueths’ cellar was the nude corpse of Maggie Thompson.

She was wrapped in one of Lena’s dresses and her own clothes lay underneath her. She had been beaten to death and her body was so badly decomposed that her parents had to identify her by scars on her hips.

The police promptly arrested everyone who lived at the house: Henry and Lena Lueth, Clarissa Shevel and her husband, and Otto, who was picked up on his way home from the ice cream parlor. All five suspects were separated and subjected to a serious “sweating,” but Otto was the prime suspect. He had a reputation as a bully, and he’d been at home alone for much of the previous month.

Bellamy records:

The climax came at 3:30 a.m., when an agonized female shriek resounded from the floor below the sweating room. “Who is that?” cried Otto to Detective Francis Douglass. “Your mother, I believe,” replied Douglass. “She had nothing to do with it!” blurted out Otto. “Who did?” queried Douglass. Otto: “I did it! I did it!” Douglass: “Did what, Otto?” “I killed her! I killed her! Please give me your revolver so I can kill myself!”

Resisting the temptation, the police instead took his verbal confession, wrote it down, had him sign it and escorted him to a cell.

Otto said he had been standing outside his parents’ home at about 11:30 a.m. on May 9 when he encountered Maggie. She asked him if he could donate any buttons to the “button-string” she was making, and he said he had four and would give them to her if she came inside.

Maggie obediently followed him in, and he led her upstairs to his bedroom, where he attempted to rape her. When she screamed, he hit her with a nearby hammer.

Otto said he thought he’d probably killed her with the first blow, but he kept striking her until her head was a pulp and the bed was covered in blood. After an unsuccessful attempt to have sex with her body, he fled the scene. He did go back to the house that night, but spent the next several days at his brother’s home.

Six days later, just before his mother was supposed to come home, Otto returned home to clean up. He carried Maggie’s corpse to the family cellar and left it lying there; he didn’t even bother to bury it or cover it up.

Given Otto’s confession, the circumstantial evidence and the revulsion his crime invoked in the city of Cleveland, his lawyer didn’t have much to work with. Not even trying for an acquittal, his defense instead claimed Otto was mentally impaired and/or insane.

Otto had a strange depression in his skull and his attorney suggested he was brain-damaged — which might very well have been true, given the abuse he had suffered at Lena’s hands. Several members of his family, including his mother and brother, had epilepsy, and his attorney suggested he might have had a seizure and committed his crime without even knowing what he was doing.

Such a scenario was possible. The problem was, though, that none of the medical experts who testified for the defense could diagnose Otto with epilepsy.

The claims of subnormal intelligence were contradicted by the testimony of Otto’s former teachers. Although his pathetic attempts to conceal Maggie’s body might indicate otherwise, his intellect seems to have been about average. Before he quit school at age 13, he had been an unexceptional student with some talent as a violinist.

Otto’s lawyer also said his client had not, in fact, attempted to sexually assault Maggie Thompson either before or after death, and Otto had invented that part of his confession because the police were pressing him to cough up an explanation for his motiveless crime. But given the fact that Maggie’s body was found naked, this claim didn’t carry much weight either.

It was no surprise that, when the trial concluded on December 27, 1889, the jury came back with a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy. Perhaps the only surprising thing was that they actually bothered to deliberate for a whole four and a half hours.

Otto rapidly exhausted his appeals and was hanged eight months after his trial, alongside another killer, one John “Brocky” Smith of Cincinnati. Two other men had also been scheduled to die that night, but one got reprieved and the other’s execution was postponed.

Otto left behind a statement where he admitted he’d killed Maggie Thompson, but denied his previous claims that he’d tried to rape her. He died calmly and without a fuss, standing on the trap and saying simply “All right, let her go.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Ohio,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Torture,USA

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One thought on “1890: Otto Leuth”

  1. Philippe says:

    Hello,

    I am sure other people than me will have or have already had the same thought as me : even with the certainly different outcome given the 125 years gap, this story features striking similarities to the tragedy which occurred some days ago in Calais, Northern France.
    You all have seen this in the news ? This little girl Chloé who was playing with her chums in the street in the wake of a festival ? She unwillingly caused the anger of a passing man by wetting him with her toy water pistol. This man who upon the subsequent inquiry turned out to be a Polish citizen with a criminal record of several convictions for violent assaults on people – including an elderly French woman some years ago – abducted the girl before the eyes of her mother and the other girls. The police was immediately called but the search sadly led to the discovery of the partially naked body of Chloé who had been raped then killed by the man.
    This man has been examined by experts about his mental state. It appears he has troubles which as I said resemble those found with Otto Leuth.
    The man is now in custody – or in a psychiatric hospital, I’m not sure.
    This case being only some days old of course still has to be followed, the investigations are still in progress.

    Best Regards

    Philippe

  2. JediWoman says:

    ‘It speaks volumes of the difference between that century and this one that nobody who heard Lena’s testimony seemed to think this was in any way excessive, never mind cruel; on the contrary, one person praised her methods as being “good German discipline.” ‘ For anyone interested in systematic child abuse, I’d suggest the South Korean indie film Silenced. It can be streamed on Netflix. A true story, it will not only shock you, but also remind you that society’s veneer of civility is very thin, even when it concerns children. Hypocrisy seems never to be in short supply.

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