Friday, November 20, 2009

The Sausage Vat Murder.

Adolph Luetgert was known as the “Sausage King” of Chicago. He owned the A.L. Luetgert Sausage & Packing Company and when business was booming, he was a successful, highly regarded family man. But when the business turned bad and money was scarce, he and his wife Louise were constantly fighting. On May 1, 1897 Louise was reported missing. Adolph claimed she had walked out on him but the police had other ideas. They accused him of killing his wife and dissolving her body in a vat of boiling potash.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Helen Jewett - The Girl in Green

The New York City newspapers referred to her as “the girl in green” - green was her color and it caught reporters' eyes. 23 year old Helen Jewett was a beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated prostitute at Rosina Townsend’s upscale brothel not far from New York’s city hall. Her clients included politicians, lawyers, journalists, and wealthy merchants. One cold April night in 1836 one of them smashed her skull with an axe and set her bed on fire. It was the story that shocked New York and gave birth to sensational journalism.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"A Most Extraordinary Case."

Joseph Knapp, expected a sizable inheritance on the death of his great uncle,  82 year old Captain Joseph White. But he hadn’t the patience to wait for the old man’s natural death, and in 1830 he and his brother John hired a hit man to murder him. They probably would have gotten away with their scheme, but they were prosecuted by the great Daniel Webster whose courtroom skill and persuasive oration set legal precedent and won their convictions.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dan Sickles's Temporary Insanity

Dan Sickles, congressman from New York, was married to the most beautiful woman in Washington but his other interests, including his mistresses, often kept him away from home. His lonely young wife, Teresa, found comfort in the arms of Philip Barton Key, D.C. District Attorney and son of poet Francis Scott Key. When Sickles learned of their affair he armed himself and confronted Key on the street. Blinded by rage he shot and killed his wife’s lover. Was it premeditated murder or temporary insanity?

Date:  February 27, 1859

Location:  Washington D. C.

Victim: Phillip Barton Key

Cause of Death:  Gunshot

Accused: Daniel Edgar Sickles

When Daniel Sickles married Teresa Bagioli in 1852, she was 15 years old, and he was 33. She was the daughter of his music teacher and had known Sicles all her life. Her family refused to give their consent to the marriage, but undeterred, the couple was married in a civil ceremony. Seven months later, their only child, Laura Buchanan Sickles was born.

At the time of their marriage, Dan Sickles was an attorney and a New York Assemblyman, a rising star in the Tammany Hall Democratic political machine. Sickles also had a reputation as a ladies' man. Though he loved his beautiful young wife, he continued his extra marital affairs including a long term relationship with Fanny White, owner of a well-known New York brothel. If Teresa knew of these affairs, she chose to endure them in silence.

In 1856, Dan Sickles was elected to the U.S. Congress and moved his wife and young daughter to Washington D. C. The Sickles were very popular in Washington social circles. Teresa, beautiful, charming and well educated, was a perfect Washington hostess winning the admiration of men and women alike. But when they weren’t entertaining, Dan’s work and other interests kept him away and Teresa spent much of her time alone.

To ease her loneliness Teresa began spending time in the company of Philip Barton Key, Washington D. C. District Attorney and son of Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star Spangled Banner." It began as innocent meetings on the street but soon became a romantic affair. When Dan was away, their trysts would end in the parlor of the Sickles's home. Key rented a house in a poor section of Washington so they could meet in private and avoid detection.

In spite of Key's precautions, their affair became common knowledge in Washington's social circle. Dan Sickle seemed to be the only one in the city unaware of his wife's romance with Philip Barton Key. That situation changed when Sickles received an anonymous letter giving the details of Teresa's affair with Key stating "...I do assure you he has as much use of your wife as you do." Sickles investigated and when he was convinced the story was true he confronted Teresa and made her sign a complete confession.

The following day, Sunday February 27, 1859, Key, unaware that they had been discovered, stood in Lafayette Park, across the street from the Sickles' home waving a handkerchief to get Teresa's attention. Dan Sickles saw the signal and went into a rage. He armed himself with several pistols and rushed into the square saying "Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die."

Sickles fired a pistol at close range but it only caused a glancing blow to Key's hand. Key grabbed Sickles lapels, Sickles dropped the derringer he was holding and the two men grappled. Sickles pulled away and drew another pistol. In defense, Key threw the only weapon he had, a pair of opera glasses, at his opponent. Sickles fired again, hitting Key near the groin. Key fell to the ground and Sickles fired a third shot that struck Key in the chest. Sickles backed off then and onlookers took Key to a nearby house. He died soon after.

Trial: April 4-26, 1859

Dan Sickles had a team of high powered attorneys handling his case, including Edwin M. Stanton who later became Secretary of War. Sickles had the sympathy of Washington society, and if adultery could have been used as defense to murder he would have been easily acquitted. Instead, his attorneys argued that Teresa's infidelity had driven him temporarily insane. The jury agreed and for the first time in American history temporary insanity was successfully used as a defense to the charge of murder.

Verdict: Not guilty

Dan Sickles had the support of the public who felt his action against Philip Barton Key was justified. Opinion changed dramatically that summer when Sickles took Teresa back and the two lived together again as husband and wife. This was considered a greater transgression than killing Key. Teresa never regained her position in society. She died of tuberculosis in 1867. Sickles went on to be a Union Major General in Civil War and lost a leg at Gettysburg. He died in 1914 at the age of 94.

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century

The Washington Tragedy
Dreadful Tragedy - The New York Times, Feb. 28, 1859
The Sickles Tragedy - The New York Times, April 12, 1859

Thomas., Keneally,. American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2002.

Brandt, Nat, The Congressman Who Got Away With Murder, Syracuse,  Syracuse University Press, 1991

Daniel Edgar Sickles, Felix Gregory De Fontaine, Trial of the Hon. Daniel E. Sickles for Shooting Philip Barton Key, Esq., U.S. District Attorney, of Washington, D.C., February 27th, 1859 , New York: R.M. De Witt, 1859

Gravesites (from Findagrave)
Phillip Barton Key
General Daniel E. Sickles
Teresa Bagioli Sickles

Monday, November 2, 2009

Welcome to Murder by Gaslight

Greed, jealousy, revenge, obsession – the motives of America’s gas-lit murders are universal and timeless. Yet their stories are tightly bound to a particular place and time; uniquely American, uniquely 19th Century.

The goal of Murder by Gaslight is to bring them all together, the great and the small, to retell their tales, to point the way for those seeking more detail, and most importantly, to provide a forum to share facts and opinions. So here they are, America’s Victorian murders – sometimes gruesome, often shocking, always fascinating. Welcome to Murder by Gaslight.

Murder by Gaslight will update often, continually documenting our 19th century murders; a pool we see now as virtually endless. We will start with the famous murders of national interest and very soon begin documenting the no-less-fascinating regional murders. In each case we will include the salient facts, as they are known, briefly summarize the events, describe the trial and ultimate outcome of the case.

We will provide a list of resources for those who want to dig deeper into the story. We will link to sites that have a more detailed telling of the story or a unique point of view. In every case we will link to printed books, still the best source of information. If there is a song about the murder we will link to the lyrics and, if available, a recording. We will also link to gravesites, newspaper articles and anything else of relevant interest.

Most importantly we will provide a forum for comment, suggestion, discussion, and resource sharing. We encourage everyone who visits the sight to add their impressions, insights and personal knowledge on this fascinating topic.

Once again, welcome to Murder by Gaslight.

Subscribe to stay informed of upcoming events.

Lizzie Borden Took an Axe...Or Did She?

Either Lizzie Borden got away with murder or someone else did. Lizzie was acquitted of the axe murder of Andrew and Abby Borden and no one else was ever arrested. The Borden murder case has been cold for over a hundred years yet criminologist - professional and amateur - continue to pore over newspaper accounts, police reports, and trial transcripts looking for the real killer. There have been many theories, but the case remains unsolved.

H. H. Holmes - "I was born with the devil in me."

Visitors enjoying the color and light of the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago had no idea that not far away Dr. Henry Howard Holmes had set up his own dark, private exhibition of death and torture on a scale comparable to that of the fair itself. Though sometimes mistakenly called America's first serial killer, he could very well be its most prodigious. Though convicted of only one murder, Holmes confessed to 27 and the actual total could have been as high as 230.

Poor 'Omie - The Murder of Naomi Wise

The haunting folk ballad "Omie Wise" has kept the story of Naomi Wise's murder alive for more than two hundred years. According to legend, Naomi Wise, a poor but beautiful orphan girl, was courted by Jonathan Lewis, son of a wealthy farmer. His mother persuaded him to stop the courtship but not before Naomi became pregnant with Jonathan's child. To avoid marriage and scandal, Jonathan Lewis drowned Naomi Wise in Deep River. That is the traditional tale of Naomi Wise, but how much of it is true?

Mary Rogers, the Beautiful Cigar Girl

When Mary Rogers, the young clerk at John Anderson’s tobacco store, disappeared in July 1841, Manhattan’s literary elite took notice. James Fennimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Edgar Alan Poe all frequented Anderson’s shop and were enchanted by the beautiful cigar girl. When her battered corpse was found on the shore of the Hudson River, they helped make her death a national story. Though many have speculated on the identity of Mary Rogers's killer, her death remains one of America’s great unsolved mysteries.

That Bad Man Stagolee

The story of Stagolee has been sung by troubadours for more than a hundred years. Each singer seems to know a different version and tell a different story of its origin. Under a variety of names - Stagolee, Staggerlee, Stack O' Lee, Stack O' Dollars - this outlaw has become an American legend and an archetype of African-American folklore. But his story is true. When Stack Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons, in a fight over a Stetson hat, in Bill Curtis's Saloon, on Christmas night 1895, the legend was born.