Adolph Luetgert, the Sausage King Killer of Chicago

An ad for Luetgert Sausage, Chicago’s finest. Unfortunately, the news spoiled people’s appetites. Bizzarepedia.

You had to, didn’t you. Against every piece of advice, you had to ask. Well, there’s no easy way to say this, so we won’t even try: no, you do not want to know how the sausage was made.

Wait. You’re still here? Then by all means—but don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Chicago, 1897. As we’ve discussed before on Crime Capsule, the Midwest at the turn of the century was home to a growing population of German immigrants who excelled both in brewing beer (and soon, in hiding it) and making delicious pork products. One of the longtime members of this community was a man named Adolph Luetgert, who arrived in the States in the 1870s and over the years, established a prosperous business crafting and selling spiced meats.

As historian Amy Kinzer Steidinger records in her book Old Joliet Prison: When Convicts Wore Stripes, Luetgert’s first wife died, but the recognized Sausage King of Chicago remarried a young woman named Louisa Bicknesse with whom he lived not far from the factory. On May 1, 1897, however, Louisa disappeared, leading to concerns among their neighbors and within her own family. Luetgert shrugged off these concerns, claiming a typical marital spat, but when her brother reported her disappearance to the police, it wasn’t long before some rather incriminating evidence appeared.

Adolph Luetgert’s mug shot. Courtesy Illinois State Archives.

We hope you’re reading this on an empty stomach, because yes, it appeared exactly where you think it did. Steidinger:

“The evidence of witnesses led police to the [sausage] factory. In the middle vat were found two gold rings, one bearing the initials ‘L.L.,’ the other being a small guard ring. Flakes of bones and a tooth were discovered, as well as a skull among some animal bones in the yard. The detective took these to an anthropologist at the Field Columbian Museum, who identified them as being those of a human female.”

How Luetgert lured his wife and disposed of her isn’t fit even for a family true-crime publication, but once the grisly news broke, it broke hard. Convicted of murder, Luetgert became a guest of the state of Illinois at Joliet State Prison. Soon, the city lost its appetite for processed meats, and sausage makers across the city shuttered. (One amusing, if not disturbing, aspect of the criminal proceedings is that the prosecution, Steidinger records, “obtained a corpse,” and recreated Luetgert’s disposal of his wife’s body in boiling potash—but how they obtained that corpse remains unclear.)

A look over the massive stone walls of the Joliet Prison administration building. Courtesy Joliet Area Historical Museum, Illinois.

While many convicts’ stories ended when they got to state prison—records from the era are often scant—Luetgert’s story had one final chapter. Though of course he maintained his innocence, he took to life as an inmate with the same diligence he had taken to his trades as a free man, and soon came to hold the same skilled positions in food processing he had enjoyed on the outside.

In July 1899, however, for some unknown reason Luetgert rejected a delivery of meat that had arrived at the prison, leading to an argument with the supplier. A few days later, shortly after returning from breakfast, prisonsers heard him groaning intensely in his cell. By the time the prison doctor arrived, Steidinger records, a heart attack had claimed his life—brought on by his murdered ex-wife, some said, haunting him from beyond the grave.

Gruesome as this story is, Steidinger’s book is, in fact, a fascinating journey through Joliet State Prison’s history, from its founding before the Civil War through its heyday in the late 1800s—told in its own words, through eyewitness accounts and newspaper clippings of the time. For anyone interested in the history of the American corrections system, or the history of criminal justice in the Midwest, it’s an absolute must-read.

But seriously, we do have to ask: now that you know Luetgert’s story, don’t you think you’ll stick to bacon instead?

Looking for more to read during quarantine? Check out our quaran-reads here. Finding us for the first time, and want to learn more about what we do? Visit our welcome page and sign up for the Crime Capsule email newsletter. See you behind bars!

Old Joliet Prison: When Convicts Wore Stripes

Old Joliet Prison: When Convicts Wore Stripes

In 1857, convicts began breaking rock to build the walls of the Illinois State penitentiary at Joliet, the prison that would later confine them. For a century and a half, thousands of men and women were sentenced to do time in this historic, castle-like fortress on Collins Street. Its bakery fed victims of the Great Chicago Fire, and its locks frustrated pickpockets from the world’s fair. Even newspaper-selling sensations like the Lambeth Poisoner, the Haymarket Anarchists, the Marcus Train Robbers and Fainting Bertha became numbers once they passed through the gates. Author Amy Steidinger recovers stories of lunatics and lawmen, counterfeiters and call girls, grave robbers and politicians.

The end of Prohibition-era New York?

Who doesn’t love the 1920s? Jazz, flappers, great dancing, new hairstyles, all of the fun stuff without any of the doom and gloom of the 1930s. The Jazz Age, as F. Scott Fitzgerald termed it, was one of the great decades of this country—minus, you know, a tiny little thing called Prohibition, what we’ve previously referred to as the Great Mistake.

New York City police commissioner John A. Leach (right) watching agents pour liquor into the sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition. Library of Congress Picture Resources, cph.3c23257.

We laugh, sure. And often we dream of the allure of the speakeasy, the clandestine community and the inventiveness of the illicit of that era. We marvel at the ambition, wit, and verve of performers like Texas Guinon, whose biography author David Rosen has written in his new book Prohibition New York City: Speakeasy Queen Texas Guinan, Blind Pigs, Drag Balls & More.

Texas Guinan, Wikimedia Commons.

But there was a darker side as well, one we don’t often like to consider (though we here certainly have before). Amid the glitz and glamour, and the accounts of Guinon’s exceptional life, Rosen tells the story of an event that has now largely receded from public memory, a gangland shooting at an iconic New York club that exemplified the trends of the era—just as that era was ending.

Prohibition Hotspot: Hotsy Totsy Club & Grill

Mid-July, 1929. Broadway and 54th Street, at the Hotsy Totsy Club & Grill, owned by Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond, a mid-level boss in the New York underworld. The music is swinging, the drinks are flowing, and the patrons are having a fine time. A couple of those patrons, in fact, are having too fine a time: two brothers, Peter and William Cassidy, and their friend Sammy Walker, all local low-level waterfront toughs, have stopped by the Hotsy for a nightcap or three before calling it a night.

We don’t know exactly what started the altercation, but at some point in the evening, the three toughs get into a dust-up over a boxing match earlier that night. The winner of the match, Ruby Goldstein, had stopped by the Hotsy that night to celebrate, possibly as a guest of Legs.

Whether the Cassidys and Walker insulted Goldstein or his host, we don’t know, but what we do know is this: after an argument and a fight, Legs told the band to play ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band as loudly as possible, punctuating the brass with a little percussion of his own, plugging William Cassidy twice, then Walker, leaving Peter Cassidy bleeding on the floor.

As Rosen tells it, what happened next comes as no surprise: “When the police arrived,” he writes, “no one but Hotsy Totsy employees and the dead and wounded remained; the twenty-five patrons, along with Legs and [enforcer Charles] Entratta, had vanished.”

Dead men tell no tales…

In the weeks following the slaughter, witnesses to the event also began to show up dead: the bartender, three patrons, the club’s cashier, the hat check girl, and a waiter were all silenced in true gangland fashion, one by one. The only surviving witness, kept in police custody but fearful for his life, claimed no knowledge of anything whatsoever.

“With all witnesses “taken care of,” Rosen writes, “Legs and Entratta reappeared, insisting on their innocence. The police dropped the charges against them for lack of evidence. Such was the underbelly of New York’s speakeasy scene.”

Brooklyn speakeasy where John Daly shooting took place at Hicks and Amity Streets, February 5, 1928. Det. Gilligan, NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives, NYPD 8051c.

This shooting took place just a few months before the stock market crash of October 1929. Though there were other structural causes as well, some critics attributed part of the crash to Prohibition, and its adverse impacts on the extensive economic sectors of American brewing, distilling, eating, and drinking (not to mention shipping, transport, and other industries).

Within this context, Rosen calls the shooting at the Hotsy Totsy was “the beginning of the end” of New York’s speakeasy scene. Were New Yorkers simply tired of the violence, the graft and the corruption, the crooked cops raking in kickbacks from these underground watering holes—or did other forces hasten the end of “the speak”?

It’s a good question, and one that deserves a closer look. After Prohibition ended in 1933, gangland crime certainly didn’t disappear, but it did change shape. But one thing remains true: while there would still be many long and difficult years ahead during the Depression, at the very least, hard-working Americans could finally take the edge off with a beer.

Prohibition New York City: Speakeasy Queen Texas Guinan, Blind Pigs, Drag Balls & More

Prohibition New York City: Speakeasy Queen Texas Guinan, Blind Pigs, Drag Balls & More

Texas Guinan was the queen of New York’s speakeasies in the Roaring Twenties. Her clubs were backed by leading gangsters and welcomed some of the city’s biggest sharks and swankest swells. Movie stars, flappers, madams, musicians and more flocked to midtown’s “Wet Zone,” Greenwich Village and Harlem for inebriated entertainment. Patrons threw cultural norms aside as free-flowing hooch lubricated the jazz joints, sex circuses and drag balls that fueled the era’s insurgent spirit. At the center of the party was Texas with her trademark catchphrases and guarantee to have a good time. Author David Rosen recounts Texas’s adventurous life alongside tales of Gotham’s nightlife when abstinence was the law of the land and breaking the law an all-American indulgence.

Looking for more to read during quarantine? Check out our quaran-reads here. Finding us for the first time, and want to learn more about what we do? Visit our welcome page and sign up for the Crime Capsule email newsletter. See you behind bars!

Election Special: Chicago’s Worst of the Worst


It’s almost over. After what feels like an endless campaign season, no matter who wins, thank heavens above, it’s almost over. Actually, there’s something else to be grateful for: that none of the candidates in this election have sunk to the level that Chicago’s politicians set a century ago.

Oh, we know what you’re thinking. But take our word for it—Washington, DC in 2020 has nothing on the Prairie State in the 1920s. Still don’t believe us? Then allow historian Jim Ridings to introduce you to a rogue’s gallery of some of the most crooked, corrupt, and damnable pols ever to hold public office—including those openly endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. All these images come from Ridings’ book Chicago to Springfield: Crime and Politics in the 1920s, and if your blood pressure suddenly spikes, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Bill Thompson posing in a chair reading a newspaper
Big Bill Thompson was a colorful character who amused and outraged people at the same time. During World War I, Thompson was pro-German and anti-British. He once promised to hold a book burning on the shores of Lake Michigan for books of British history. He promised to punch the king of England “in the snoot” if he ever came to Chicago. While out of office in 1924, Thompson set sail on a “scientific” expedition to search for tree-climbing fish in the South Seas; his boat did not even get to the Mississippi River. Thompson held a debate between himself and two live rats, which he used to portray his opponents, in the 1927 election. Thompson is credited with coining the Chicago term, ‘Vote early and often. Image sourced from Chicago to Springfield: Crime and Politics in the 1920s.
Photo of William Lorimer
William Lorimer was elected to Congress in 1894 and then to the U.S. Senate in 1909. In those days, senators were chosen by the state legislature, not by the popular vote. It was proven that Lorimer spent about $100,000 to bribe several state legislators to vote for him. The U.S. Senate held hearings and decided that Lorimer won his seat by “corrupt practices” and threw him out of office in 1912. Lorimer made his comeback into public life when Big Bill Thompson took office as Chicago’s mayor in 1915, and he helped build the Chicago Republican machine bigger than ever. Image sourced from Chicago to Springfield: Crime and Politics in the 1920s.
Will Colvin (left), Governor Small (center), and Chauncey Jenkins (right) photographed together during Small's trial in Waukegan.
With Mayor Thompson’s police on gang payrolls, and Thompson’s wide-open town policy for gangsters and bootleggers, organized crime was further aided by Governor Small’s pardon and parole policy. Small’s pardons had been scandalous from the beginning. The matter blew up into a huge scandal in 1926, when it was revealed the Small administration had been operating a pardon mill. For a price, anyone could buy his or her way out of the penitentiary. Spike O’Donnell and Bugs Moran paid their bribes and were able to get their gangs back together to commit more mayhem on the streets of Chicago. The scheme was headed by Will Colvin (left), supervisor of paroles, and Chauncey Jenkins (right), director of prisons. They are pictured here with Governor Small during Small’s trial in Waukegan. Image sourced from Chicago to Springfield: Crime and Politics in the 1920s.
A photo of Edward Curtis.
During Len Small’s term as state treasurer from 1917 to 1919, he and state senator Edward Curtis operated a money-laundering scheme that netted them about $2 million. Small deposited half the state’s money across 350 banks, and the other half he deposited in just one bank—a bank that did not exist. Curtis owned Grant Park Trust and Savings Bank. He set up a sham operation called the Grant Park Bank. This bank had no furniture, no vault, and no building. It existed only on paper for the purpose of defrauding the state. Curtis loaned money to the Swift and Armour packing houses at six to eight percent interest, paid the state two percent interest, and kept the difference for himself and Small. Image sourced from Chicago to Springfield: Crime and Politics in the 1920s.

Related: Mike McDonald: Chicago’s King Schemer

A headshot of Will Colvin
Will Colvin, chairman of the pardons and paroles board, boldly solicited bribes. Mrs. F. J. Haveland told a grand jury investigating the scandal that Colvin asked her for money if she wanted her son paroled. Governor Small also testified before the grand jury. The scandal became so hot that Colvin was forced to resign. Small then appointed him to the Illinois Commerce Commission at a high salary. Image sourced from Chicago to Springfield: Crime and Politics in the 1920s.
A photo of Frank Leslie Smith
Frank Leslie Smith was appointed by Governor Small as head of the Illinois Commerce Commission in 1921. Smith used his position to shake down the heads of the utility companies he was regulating (including taking $125,000 from Samuel Insull). Smith used that money to run for the U.S. Senate in 1926, which he won. But the Senate decided that Smith bought his seat by corrupt practices, and it refused to admit him. Missouri senator Jim Reed, who chaired the hearings, said, “If this man is to be seated, let us hang over the door of the Senate, ‘Seats For Sale.’ Image sourced from Chicago to Springfield: Crime and Politics in the 1920s.
Governor Len Small standing with his fist raised in the air in defiance.
A defiant Gov. Len Small poses for the camera. When Len Small was indicted for his theft as state treasurer, the governor had his lawyers argue in court that he was immune from prosecution based on an old English doctrine that “the king can do no wrong.” His defiance was answered by a judge who said there was no king in Illinois and that Small would have to stand trial. Image sourced from Chicago to Springfield: Crime and Politics in the 1920s.

Looking for more to read during quarantine? Check out our quaran-reads here. Finding us for the first time, and want to learn more about what we do? Visit our welcome page and sign up for the Crime Capsule email newsletter. See you behind bars!

Secret Service Agent William Craig: His Life for His Country

In previous weeks on Crime Capsule, we’ve profiled police officers, detectives, investigators, and judges. Today, however, continuing our occasional series on noted men and women in law enforcement, we’re turning to a department we’ve never covered: the United States Secret Service. And it’s our honor to introduce you to the first man to lose his life in the service of protecting the President.

That man was William “Big Bill” Craig.

September 3, 1902. President Teddy Roosevelt was visiting towns in western Massachusetts as part of a campaign tour for Republican candidates. Historian and journalist Andrew K.F. Amelinckx sets the scene in his book Gilded Age Murder & Mayhem in the Berkshires:

“In Pittsfield, what was originally planned as an unpretentious and simple welcome for the president had, by the day of the event, grown into a full-fledged blowout, with a large parade down North Street featuring Civil War veterans from the various Grand Army of the Republic posts and other patriotic organizations, bands playing martial music and American flags and celebratory bunting hanging from nearly every building, lamppost and tree along the president’s route.”

Festive bunting and flags decorate North Street for President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit. Courtesy of the Berkshire Eagle. Gilded Age Murder & Mayhem in the Berkshires.

Cheerful as the spectacle was, a dark undertone pervaded the federal agents—the previous year, President William McKinley had been assassinated in Buffalo, New York. Not only had this tragedy catapulted Roosevelt into the Oval Office, but had resulted in the Secret Service assuming the full-time responsibility of protecting the chief executive. Craig, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, was an ideal fit: over two hundred pounds of muscle packed into his six-foot-plus frame, he was, in Amelinckx’s words, an “accomplished boxer, wrestler and swordsman [with] a distinguished military background that showed in his ramrod-straight posture and martial bearing.” Oh, and before immigrating to Chicago with his family, he had seen combat in both Egypt and Sudan.

Roosevelt’s carriage, where Craig rode, was surrounded by a mounted guard, but little could have protected the retinue from what was unknowingly barreling their way. As they headed up a hill in downtown Pittsfield that morning, a trolley from the city’s Electric Street Railway came speeding directly at them, cutting perpendicular across their path. With hardly any time to react—efforts to signal the trolley motormen failed, and the horses drawing the presidential carriage had already crossed the track—the collision was swift and deadly. Amelinckx:

“One of the horses was struck, the front of the carriage splintered, all four wheels were crushed and the entire carriage was thrown several feet. Pratt was pitched sideways off the carriage, while Craig landed directly in the path of the trolley, the wheels passing over his body, killing him instantly. Roosevelt and the rest of the party were thrown from the landau … suffering only minor injuries.”

The presidential carriage was heavily damaged in the crash. Courtesy of the Berkshire Eagle. Image sourced from Gilded Age Murder & Mayhem in the Berkshires.

In the aftermath, Roosevelt—true to form—shrugged off his own bleeding facial wound and ordered his men to focus on the injured. Craig’s body was removed and taken to a local undertaker, and the trolley motormen were detained by local police for their excessive speed, and later charged with and convicted of manslaughter for their deadly neglect. Against objections from his staff, Roosevelt ordered the tour of the Berkshires to continue, where at subsequent stops, his voice breaking with emotion as he spoke of Craig, he spoke briefly of the accident to the waiting crowds.

Following the accident, Craig’s brothers came to collect his body, and returned to Chicago with him where he would receive a formal burial. The first Secret Service officer in America to die while protecting the president, Craig was remembered not just for his professionalism, decorum, and discipline, but as well for his sense of humor and gentle spirit—especially with Roosevelt’s own son, four-year-old Kermit. We’ll let President Roosevelt have the last word:

“I was genuinely fond of him. He was faithful and ready and I regret his death more than I can say. I regret exceedingly that the New England trip, carried through so delightfully to the last day, should have had such a tragic ending.”

Agent Craig, we here at Crime Capsule salute you.

Looking for more to read during quarantine? Check out our quaran-reads here. Finding us for the first time, and want to learn more about what we do? Visit our welcome page and sign up for the Crime Capsule email newsletter. See you behind bars!

How Do You Write About a Brothel That Didn’t Exist?

Call it what you want—brothel, cathouse, or parlor of the night—but any way you slice it, such establishments are the dictionary definition of wide-open secrets. Folks know where it is, they know what it is, and they know what can be found there—but nobody’s willing to speak up.

How, then, as a historian, do you tell the story?

Such was the challenge faced by David Gregg Hodges—a veteran journalist, historian, and (of course) elder in his Presbyterian church in Georgetown, South Carolina—who sought to dig deep into the history of the famous Sunset Lodge. Run by Madam Hazel Weisse from 1936 to 1969, the Sunset Lodge was as much a city institution as the courthouse, the local bank, or the town flower shop. For who were its patrons? Why, Georgetown politicians, bankers, and florists, naturally.

Finding those patrons was one thing. Nearly all of them were in their seventies and eighties, and Googling “customers of the town brothel” wasn’t exactly an option (though we’re sure it would produce some interesting results). Moreover, Hodges was coming to this research project many decades after the Lodge had shut its doors, so the overwhelming majority of its visitors would have naturally passed on. What, then, could he do?

Hazel Weisse at Christmas. Courtesy of Tammy Marsh Foxworth. Image sourced from Sunset Lodge in Georgetown.

It’s said that journalists and detectives share certain strands of DNA, however, and like a true sleuth, Hodges realized that a brothel, like any active business, is an ecosystem. At that point, he began to track down not just patrons and employees of the Lodge but everyone else in Georgetown who fell within its orbit. Working by word of mouth, by referral, by garden-club speaking gigs (oh, the Deep South), and sometimes by sheer luck, Hodges found the grocers who supplied the Lodge’s kitchen, the laundromats that washed the Lodge’s linens, and the tailors whom Weisse took her girls to see, to be outfitted for new dresses.

Finding those folks was one task, but getting them to speak, however, was another. It’s not like just anyone who visited or worked with a “sporting ladies’ club” wanted to share their scores—most folks spoke only on condition of anonymity, even if their knowledge of the Lodge was decades old. And as might be expected, of the two retired sporting ladies that he did eventually find, neither wished to speak to him about the topic, and none of the others to whom he reached out ever responded. “They have moved on,” as Hodges put it, “and they [did] not want to open that box.”

Stairs at Sunset Lodge. Courtesy of Tammy Marsh Foxworth. Image sourced from Sunset Lodge in Georgetown.

When Hodges did find a patron or a vendor who was willing to share their stories with him, again, his detective DNA kicked in, and he realized that going ‘on the record’ with anything resembling a tape recorder would have ended the interview on the spot. Therefore he trained himself to remember key details in conversations with his informants, committing their narratives to memory and only writing it down as soon as he returned to his notebook.

But not all his efforts required such tradecraft. One windfall of tips came from the folks who bought the Lodge after its closure—incredibly, one of the gifts Hodges was given was the handwritten list of phone numbers that was nailed to the wall in Weisse’s pantry. When, in the course of business, the madam needed to reach out to “physicians, car dealers, drug stores, clothing stores, the cab company and the airport,” here were her contacts. Though not all of the numbers were still in service, Hodges was able to dig up even more salacious stories from there.

So—after all this sleuthing around, what did this brothel-hunting Presbyterian elder learn? Well, let’s just say that those walls could talk, and they did—Hodges collected nearly 50 accounts from people involved in every aspect of the brothel’s operation, including a vivid biographical portrait of the shrewd businesswoman herself. It would be impolite for us to kiss and tell here, so they’re all contained in his book Sunset Lodge in Georgetown: The Story of a Madam. Reader, there’s only one way to find out.

And in case you’re nervous—don’t worry, your secret is safe with us. Promise!

Looking for more to read during quarantine? Check out our quaran-reads here. Finding us for the first time, and want to learn more about what we do? Visit our welcome page and sign up for the Crime Capsule email newsletter. See you behind bars!

The Black Hand and the Courage of Minnie Orsino

They’re all but ancient history now, but for a time, the Black Hand used to be a household name. As we’ve explored in our profile of the great detective Joe Petrosino, the Black Hand were the precursor to the later Italian mafia, a loosely-organized collection of thugs, extortionists, and kidnappers who went about terrorizing ordinary folks in the early-twentieth century. Brutal, violent, and unscrupulous, the Hand feared hardly anyone—until they met Minnie Orsino.

The story starts on May 29, 1922, when Gabriele Fiore, a twenty-seven year-old millworker, was murdered in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Seeking to return home to Italy, from which he had immigrated years earlier, Fiore had withdrawn a sum of money from his bank in preparation for his departure. Needless to say, he never made the boat. Cornered in an alley, Fiore was robbed and murdered by three men—Angelo Fragassa (the triggerman), Marcantonio Daniele, and Marcantonio’s son John, all Italians, and all members of La Mano Nera.

Illustration of murder victim Gabriele Fiore published in the June 1937 issue of Daring Detective magazine. Joseph A. Solobay Collection, Jefferson College Historical Society. Image sourced from True Murder Mysteries of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

With the murderers on trial, the state of Pennsylvania saw their opportunity to crush the local branch of the Hand. But they needed evidence—of which there was little—and witnesses. Fortunately, Erminia—Minnie—Orsino had heard voices outside her house on Third Street that night, and had stepped to the window to see what the commotion was about. She saw five men, all of whom she recognized, and saw one of them climb into the open window of a house nearby. A few minutes later came the gunshot.

As A. Parker Burroughs tells it in True Murder Mysteries of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Minnie’s testimony was “critical not just in placing Fragassa at the scene of the slaying but also in implicating Marcantonio Daniele, the reputed head of the Canonsburg Black Hand. The prosecution would seize on the episode outside her window as evidence that Daniele had ordered the killing.”

Were Minnie to testify, retaliation would be almost certain. She was quickly placed under witness protection, and for her safety the judge had her appear in court behind closed doors without any public spectators allowed. With her testimony in hand, as well as other Italian informants already in prison who could speak to the structure of the area Black Hand, Fragassa and Daniele padre were convicted the week before Thanksgiving: murder in the first.

Former Canonsburg police chief John Crumm (left) and Washington County detective William Dinsmore examine the window through which Angelo Fragassa climbed before killing Gabriele Fiore on May 29, 1922. Joseph A. Solobay Collection, Jefferson College Historical Society. Image sourced from True Murder Mysteries of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

That promised retaliation did eventually come—even before the last conviction had been read aloud. Burroughs notes that an unidentified man broke into Minnie’s home that week and threatened to kill her, but was only scared away by Minnie’s boarders. Following the trial, even Daniele’s own attorney and a couple of local thugs showed up and pressured her one night to recant her testimony, in order to spare the killer from meeting the electric chair. Perversely, they also promised her protection of the kind that only the Hand could provide.

Thankfully, the cops showed up during this act of blatant witness intimidation, sparing Minnie herself from any further threats or abuse, and over time, thanks to the efforts of Washington County law enforcement, the presence of the Black Hand in the area did diminish once the capos of the dragon were cut off. But peace would be short-lived: several years later, in March 1926, Minnie’s husband Ottavo would fall mysteriously ill one afternoon and die—poisoned, the autopsy showed, by arsenic.

Alfonso Polifrone is at far right, standing next to Minnie Orsino. The others are unidentified. Photo courtesy of Erma Orsino. Image sourced from True Murder Mysteries of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Minnie’s story didn’t end there, instead taking several more unusual turns. After Ottavo died, she ended up marrying one of the jailed Italian informants from the Fiore trial, a man named Alfonso Polifrone. After that marriage collapsed—we wonder why—her granddaughter Erma recalled that Minnie ended up as madam of a whorehouse. “She used to call out to men from the window,” Erma said. “I asked my mom about it and she just said that she [Minnie] had a lot of lady friends. She was strict with her two sons. She went to the Black Hand for money to get them through college.”

Ratting out a criminal organization for murder, resisting their attempts to intimidate and kill you, then insisting they pay for your children’s education? That, dear readers, is una spina dorsale d’acciaio—a spine of steel!

Looking for more to read during quarantine? Check out our quaran-reads here. Finding us for the first time, and want to learn more about what we do? Visit our welcome page and sign up for the Crime Capsule email newsletter. See you behind bars!

How Not to Dispose of a Body: The Breakheart Hill Farm Murder


Is there any act more macabre than dismemberment? To take the knife or axe to the body you’ve just slain; to hold the limbs, still warm to the touch, in your bloodied hands; to raise your arm before lowering it and then—

No, we’re pretty sure there’s nothing worse. Seriously. We checked.

As we’ve seen, criminals will do just about anything to hide evidence of their crimes, including burying the corpse of their lover in their own backyard. But when criminals take things to the next level, desperate times calling for desperate measures and all—if you remember the unfortunate case of Sam McMillan of Sanford, Florida, then you’ll remember the rather grisly discovery that investigators searching for his remains found in October 1882.

Too bad John C. Best of Breakheart Hill Farm, Massachussetts, wasn’t a Crime Capsule reader, because he might have disposed of his own victim’s body more successfully.

We’ll spare you the backstory, riveting though it is—a dark and murky stew of violence, whiskey, licentiousness, adultery, whiskey, repression, abuse, enforced flights by horse-and-carriage, unruly mobs, and oh, did we mention the whiskey? The pages of Douglas L. Heath and Alison C. Simcox’s Murder at Breakheart Hill Farm: The Shocking 1900 Case that Gripped Boston’s North Shore are positively soaked with the stuff. Between that and the homemade apple cider they all drank instead of water, it’s a wonder these late Victorian farmers didn’t die of cirrhosis first before murdering each other.

Breakheart Hill farmhouse. George Bailey converted the shed at right to a blacksmith shop. This is a 1935 photograph by the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC). Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. Image sourced from Murder at Breakheart Hill Farm: The Shocking 1900 Case that Gripped Boston’s North Shore.

But no, for John C. Best, volatile, drunken farmhand at Breakheart Farm, murder was the way to go. Driven to the deed by his employer—George Bailey, an equally drunken, temperamental steward, who withheld others’ wages as often as he extended the fist to his mistress—Best decided after months of enduring his Bailey’s abuse (and fancying that mistress himself) that there was only one way to solve the problem.

But Best didn’t realize that he was trading one problem for another. After the fateful night in October 1900 where he shot Bailey twice, then hacked off his head and limbs with a blunt axe, wrapped the pieces in burlap sacks, weighted them down with stones from the farmhouse wall, tied them off with rope from the barn, and dropped the pieces into the nearby Floating Bridge Pond, he forgot one key detail that would seal his guilt and send him not to the gallows but instead to old Sparky.

He didn’t use large enough stones.

Scenes at Floating Bridge Pond on October 17, 1900. Drawn by the newspaper artist Dwight Case Sturges. From the Boston Globe, October 18, 1900. Boston Public Library. Image sourced from Murder at Breakheart Hill Farm: The Shocking 1900 Case that Gripped Boston’s North Shore.

As Heath and Simcox point out, once Best had been charged with murder, the evidence against him at trial hinged on key artifacts that came to light, one at a time. Bailey’s stolen pocket-watch, stowed away in a rafter of the barn with wads of cash. The overcoat Bailey was wearing that night, and the set of keys, still in the house, that (according to said mistress) never left his side. But undoubtedly the most significant of all was Bailey’s own corpse, which, propelled by gases produced in decomposition, had risen to the surface of the pond, where it was discovered about ten days after the deed.

Well, part of it anyway. Had Best used heavier stones, it’s possible that Bailey’s torso, which came up first, would never have floated upwards in its burlap sack. Its discovery prompted investigators to trawl the entire rest of the pond—using a DIY contraption that Heath and Simcox write was fangled out of pipe, wire, rope, and about a dozen cod hooks —leading to the discovery of yet more limbs (along with a bicycle and a wagon wheel or two), and, yes, Bailey’s severed head.

With that, Best’s defense that Bailey must have disappeared back to Maine to rejoin his estranged wife, hiding out somewhere to avoid charges of abandonment, fell apart. And with that went any hope of naming a scapegoat, for no one else in the area possessed the three classic M’s of murder: means, motive, and… m-opportunity?

Work with us here.

Birds-eye view of the Salem courtroom, where John Best’s trial was held. From the Boston Post, March 19, 1901. Boston Public Library. Image sourced from Murder at Breakheart Hill Farm: The Shocking 1900 Case that Gripped Boston’s North Shore.

It didn’t take long for the verdict to arrive—murder in the first, the jury having deliberated only on whether it was murder-one or murder-two. Best took the news standing up, and even until the day he sat down in The Chair, maintained his innocence—but according to Heath and Simcox, no one at the time seems to have bought the act. The evidence was simply too strong—Lord almighty, did we forget to mention the mysterious bloodstains on the floorboards of the farmhouse? Whoops.

At the very least, we can be grateful for one thing. That unlike poor Sam McMillan—may heaven rest his soul—at least the police didn’t bring Bailey’s severed head to trial.

Decency, folks. Decency.

Looking for more to read during quarantine? Check out our quaran-reads here. Finding us for the first time, and want to learn more about what we do? Visit our welcome page and sign up for the Crime Capsule email newsletter. See you behind bars!

7 Rainy Day Reads For The Next Thunderstorm


“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in that house all that cold, cold, wet day.” -Dr. Seuss

Whether you’re looking for something to relax or inspire on any given rainy day, we’ve got you covered!

Necessary Rules for Children in Pennsylvania Dutch Country by Christopher Dock

Parents may take some comfort in this on a rainy day when the kids are stir crazy (if they get a moment). Mennonite schoolmaster Christopher Dock first published his A Hundred Necessary Rules of Conduct for Children in 1764. It instructed children how to keep their belongings tidy, behave in public and stay awake in church. Schoolteacher Paul Breon brings the rules into context for today’s children and parents. You can find this book here!

The New England Cook Book by Marion Harland, et al.

This book features both an entertaining collection of recipes (which quickly become stories in themselves) and a fascinating slice of life from a century ago. Egg yolks are “yelks,” there are not one, but two “mock turtle” recipes that require the scalding and cleaning of a calf’s head (don’t ask about the tongue) and everything is cooked over fire—live, wood-burning fire. You can find this book here!

Classic Cookbooks that Define
American Culture

When you think of classic American cookbooks, there’s a good chance that the ones you consider essential parts of the American cooking canon aren’t American at all. After all…READ more on the blog.

A Cades Cove Childhood by Margaret McCaulley

J.C. McCaulley offers an exclusive glimpse into a childhood in the Cove (Great Smoky’s National Park in TN). His stories, compiled by his wife, Margaret, are a testament to a way of life long abandoned—a life before automobiles, television and perhaps too much exposure to the outside world; a life of hard work and caring for your neighbors. You can find this book here!

The Corpsewood Manor Murders by Amy Petulla

If you’re craving the truly creepy on a rainy day, check out this tale of a grisly murder in the woods. Author Amy Petulla uncovers the curious case that left two men dead and the incredible story still surrounded by controversy, speculation and myth. You can find this book here!

Want more? Check out The Curse of Corpsewood on Crime Capsule.

Mr. Selfridge in Chicago by Gayle Soucek

Follow Selfridge’s astounding rise through the ranks of the Windy City’s merchant princes, his tumultuous attempt to challenge Field’s mastery of Chicago and his triumphant introduction of the American department store to London. You can find this book here!

A History of Smuggling in Florida by Stan Zimmerman

With stories of drug runners and prostitute pushers alongside the exploits and follies of Florida’s elite, we are able to see why throughout its long history, Florida has always been a true “smuggler’s paradise.” You can find this book here!

Hooked Rugs of the Midwest by Mary Collins Barile

The story of hooked rugs in the Midwest is a ragbag blending of romance, folklore, myth and common sense told through the colors of barns and sky, golden wheat, farm ponds, red clay, red brick, steel, glass and fountains. In this vividly illustrated history, Mary Collins Barile shakes out the dust from the Midwestern hooked rug with the vigor its unique blend of utility and imagination deserves. You can find the book here!

4 Books To Read After Finishing Netflix’s OZARK


Netflix’s original show OZARK released its third season. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a great quarantine-watch and will keep you on the edge of your seat. Plus, you can’t really beat a show staring fan-favorite Jason Bateman. The show is filled with bad bosses & cartels set in the real-life Ozarks. If the scenery has you wanting a real history of the area, we have some book recommendations to follow up the show with:

Arkansas Ozarks Legends & Lore by Cynthia McRoy Carroll

The unspoiled, wooded landscape of the Arkansas Ozarks is steeped in traditions, where legend and myth are a huge part of history. When a cast-iron stove fell on Grace Sollis’s baby, she gained superhuman strength, picked up the stove to free the baby and then ran circles around the log cabin until she came to her senses. After patiently waiting years for her promised dream house, Elise Quigley and her five children tore down their three-room shack and moved into the chicken house after Mr. Quigley left for work. Join author Cynthia Carroll, a descendant of six generations of Ozark natives, as she details the legends and lore of the Arkansas Ozarks. You can find this book here!

A People’s History of the Lake of the Ozarks by Dan William Peek & Kent Van Landuyt

For tourists, the beautiful Lake of the Ozarks must seem in complete harmony with the natural order of its surroundings. Even lifelong natives can struggle to imagine a time when the reservoir created by the Bagnell Dam didn’t exist. But beneath the placid waters of the lake that draws bustling visitors to its shores lies the drama of a remote Ozark community suddenly thrust into an urban world. True locals Dan William Peek and Kent Van Landuyt piece together the fascinating story of how that community adapted to the lake that redefined their home. You can find this book here!

Related: What You Should Read Next Based On These 5 Adventure Spots

Ozark Images of America by Michelle Korgis-Fitzpatrick

The name Ozark comes from the French Aux Arcs. The town of Ozark may have gotten its name because it is at the bend of the creek. Today the term Ozark refers to the large upland region that covers parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Ozark, Missouri is nestled in the hills of this region and serves as the county seat of Christian County. This book looks at Ozark’s 150 year history, using vintage photographs from the Pegram Collection to capture the spirit of the town and surrounding areas. Ozark has long prided itself on its hospitality, and that is evident here in the images of people, events, schools, railroads, and more that have made Ozark the warm and friendly town it is today. You can find this book here!

Lake of the Ozarks: The Early Years by H. Dwight Weaver

Seventy years ago in the Ozarks of southern Missouri, Bagnell Dam was built across the Osage River, creating the beautiful Lake of the Ozarks. Using over 200 images and in- depth captions, author H. Dwight Weaver takes readers back to the origins of this man-made treasure and the towns that surround it. Construction on Bagnell Dam began in 1929, employing thousands of men during the Great Depression. Inundation of the Osage River valley destroyed the area’s most fertile farmlands, covered numerous historic sites, and even destroyed Linn Creek, the county seat. But the development also created new towns and a new economy. The images in this new book follow the growth of towns along U.S. Highway 54, including Eldon, Tuscumbia, Bagnell, Osage Beach, and Linn Creek, through the Depression, World War Two, and finally the booming 1950s. You can find this book here!

Want to read more? You can check out other similar titles at!

Montana’s Cody Marble: Wrongful Conviction Righted

“It’s not easy to beat a justice system determined not to admit it made a mistake.”

So writes Mike Dennison, longtime reporter covering Montana public affairs. Dennison should know: he’s one of the most experienced journalists in the Big Sky State, with his many years of coverage of figures such as Mark Racicot, Jon Tester, and Max Baucus collected in his book Inside Montana Politics: A Reporter’s View from the Trenches. So when news of a certain criminal case reached him, a case that sounded too good to be true—or rather, too bad to be true—like any good ink-hound he began sniffing around, and sure enough, out came a story.

Anyone can say they “didn’t do it.” But to hold that position from the beginning, to hold it against every plea bargain and deal you’re offered, to hold it in the face of a recalcitrant justice system and to mean it every single time you say it—well, that’s the story of Cody Marble. In 2002, Marble was serving a minor sentence for a drug infraction in the Missoula County Juvenile Detention Center when he was charged with raping a fellow inmate, a boy of thirteen. Despite his denials, his claims that the accusations were trumped up, manufactured as a revenge tactic by other inmates mere days before his release, the case went to court where a jury found him guilty of the crime.

The Missoula County Detention Facility Juvenile Detention sign
The Missoula County Juvenile Detention Center, where Cody Marble was falsely accused of raping a fellow teenage inmate. Mike Dennison. Image sourced from Inside Montana Politics: A Reporter’s View from the Trenches.

Six years would pass, until 2008, before Dennison encountered the case and began his own investigation. And what he found was stunning.

Dennison found critical inconsistencies in testimony—that inmates who claimed to have witnessed the event were, in fact, nowhere near the area at the time. That internal security logs showed that the window of opportunity for such a crime was virtually nonexistent. That prison guards themselves, having observed Marble’s quiet demeanor, strongly doubted that he had committed the crime, but fearing retaliation from higher-ups, were too afraid of going on the record. He found that criminal psychologists too doubted Marble’s capacity for such a violent act, and he found that Marble’s own defense attorney had left key questions unasked during the trial. And perhaps most troublingly, he found that Marble never even had a chance to speak for himself. Until 2008.

Related: Butte: Montana’s Capital of Vice

Covering the case for his newspaper, Dennison began to reopen long-dormant lines of inquiry, tracking down witnesses, interviewing new sources, and cracking open doors in the courthouse that had been long shut. Several of the attorneys and judges that had handled the case on both sides had, as is common enough in the legal world, migrated into other roles, so despite a few instances of stonewalling here and there, Dennison found fresh eyes willing to take another look.

Thomas's statement that reads, "8 or so years ago when I was 13 at Missoula County Juvenile Detention Facility I was sitting at atable in the dayroom. There were three other people at the table. They told me to say that Cody Marble raped me. But this did not happen. And now today I want to come out and let it be known. I'm coming forward now because I'm in prison on a sex crime and know what it is like. So I don't want him to be charged with one when innocent. When I was in jail, I was the youngest and smallest  and I was pressured into going along with it."
Robert Thomas’s 2010 statement recanting his 2002 rape accusation against Cody Marble. Courtesy Jerry Marble. Image sourced from Inside Montana Politics: A Reporter’s View from the Trenches.

Efforts to free Marble began to gain steam, motion by motion, petition by petition. The Montana chapter of the Innocence Project even secured a written recantation from the original “victim,” who admitted that the whole accusation in 2002 was a setup. That accuser would later recant his recantation under pressure from prosecutors, making it legally useless, but at the time it was enough to convince even more advocates of Marble’s innocence.

As we’ve seen before, sometimes winning requires running out the clock, and sometimes, winning simply requires patience. In 2015 came the biggest break of all: the Montana Supreme Court granted Marble’s request for a new trial, declaring that a previous judge had used the wrong standard in rejecting him years earlier. Marble’s lawyers requested a full review from the new county attorney, Kirsten Pabst—who not only granted it, but convinced that the evidence couldn’t support his original conviction, filed the motion to dismiss the charges against him.

A selfie of Cody Marble
Cody Marble in 2017, several months after he was released from prison. Montana Innocence Project. Image sourced from Inside Montana Politics: A Reporter’s View from the Trenches.

A few more legal hurdles would follow, but eventually, in 2018, sixteen years after the original false charge, Marble’s name was cleared. He was once again a free man.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long after his long ordeal before Marble bid farewell to Montana for good, but even since moving away he has continued to advocate for changes to the law that would affect other cases like his—Montana is currently the only state in the country that does not financially compensate the wrongfully convicted post-release.

Guess who’s been following that story too?

Looking for more to read during quarantine? Check out our quaran-reads here. Finding us for the first time, and want to learn more about what we do? Visit our welcome page and sign up for the Crime Capsule email newsletter. See you behind bars!