The Lutz Axe Murder
A small two-story house standing at the corner of Franklin and Montgomery streets in West Pittston presents a humble appearance. Simple in design and white in color, it is remarkable only because it is so unremarkable. A local resident may drive by the house every day for years without ever noticing it, or thinking about it. Certainly, from its understated appearance, nobody would ever guess that this humble house was the home of John Lutz, who, in 1899, committed of the most heinous murders in the history of Luzerne County.
The tiny house at the corner of Franklin and Montgomery is, in fact, a murder house. It is the scene of a gruesome crime that took place more than a century ago. What you are about to read is the story of that house and the killer who lived inside.
On November 29, 1899, John Lutz came home to his 31-year-old wife, Augusta, and their five young children. Lutz, who was nearly ten years older than his wife, was said to have been suffering from feelings of jealousy. Those who knew Lutz said that he had been acting strangely in recent days, but few would have guessed that John Lutz had the capacity to kill. The family had moved to West Pittston from Upper Lehigh, and neighbors who knew them back in Upper Lehigh painted the Lutz family as normal in every possible way.
John and Augusta quarreled that night. John had come home around 10 o'clock, just as Augusta was preparing the children for bed. He asked his eldest daughter, Henrietta, to play to organ for him, but Augusta protested, saying that it was too late at night. A few bitter words were exchanged, and Augusta went upstair to put the children to bed. The two daughters, ages 10 and 2, slept with Mrs. Lutz in her bedroom; the toddler in a crib and Henrietta in her mother's bed.
John left the house for an hour or so, keeping wherever he went a mystery. Perhaps he went for a walk to clear his mind, or maybe to steel his nerves. At any rate, by the time he returned, he had managed to convince himself that he must murder his wife. He grabbed a heavy, long-handled axe and stealthily ascended the stairs and ented the bedroom. He raised the axe and dealt Augusta two blows on the head. Her death was not immediate; the physician who arrived at the scene discovered wounds on Augusta's hands indicating a futile attempt to protect herself. Augusta Lutz was still alive at the time, but died the following evening at home without regaining consciousness.
After the deed was done, John went into another room and attempted suicide by cutting his throat with a pocket knife, but the shallow gashes weren't deep enough to do any real damage. Awakened by the crying of the baby, the eldest daughter discovered her mother's body bathed in blood. She ran outside and alarmed the neighbors.
Lutz's case was called on April 30, 1900, and District Attorneys T.R. Martin and M.J. Mulhall secured a jury. Assistant District Attorney Mulhall opened the case for the Commonwealth at 3:30 and after explaining the details of the crime, the first witness was called to the stand. It was William Richards, the chief of police, who stated he arrived at the Lutz home around midnight. He stated that he entered the house and found Mrs. Lutz in a pool of blood on her bed. On the floor was a bloody axe. In another room he found John Lutz, lying on the floor and bleeding from cuts on his neck. Richards stated that he talked to Lutz, who said, "Something in my head made me do it, because she set up nights until 12 o'clock and wouldn't get up and get my breakfast, and game me only bread and black coffee. She ought to be killed."
Dr. Philip Hubler testified and declared that he had found Augusta on her bed with two large cuts on the right side of her head. He remained at the house until 7:30 in the morning, and when he returned in the evening, Mrs. Lutz was dead. Next to testify was county detective C.B. Johnson, who displayed Mrs. Lutz's feather bed, stained with blood and presenting a gruesome spectable for the jury. There was a sense of relief when they were finally taken from the courtroom. Dr. Benjamin Bevan, who performed the autopsy, then took the stand and stated that Augusta Lutz's death was caused of loss of blood and shock, the result of her wounds.
George Halstead, a neighbor, testified that he arrived at the house around midnight and stayed for about two hours. "After the doctors sewed up Lutz's neck," he said, "Lutz asked for something to eat. I got him bread and butter, coffee and cake, and he ate it." Another neighbor, Pauline Mahler, talked to John Lutz after the attack on his wife. "John, do you realize what you have done?" she asked.
"Yes, I do," he replied. "I killed her. Any woman who would sit up til midnight and wouldn't cook me a cup of coffee ought to be killed".
The final witness was Henrietta Lutz, the eldest daughter. In a low and quiet voice she told her story. "I was asleep and wakened up and heard my father say, 'You son of a bitch, you are finished'. Then I thought I heard a razor fall. The baby woke up and cried and I asked my mother why she did not rock the baby. My mother could not talk."
The jury was out for over two weeks. After fifteen efforts to agree upon a verdict, they finally decided Lutz was guilty of murder in the first degree. On May 18, 1900, the verdict was read in front of Judge Halsey, who called each juror by name and asked for their decision. However, there was one juror named Koons who implied that he was forced by the others to sign the verdict against his will. After a few words, Koons was cut off by the judge, who had no interest in hearing about the juror's complaint. Judge Halsey simply wanted to know which verdict Koons had agreed upon. "Murder in the first degree," Mr. Koons reluctantly replied. It was later reported that Koons and another juror named Barrett insisted that Lutz was insane and should not be hanged, and that the dissenters had nearly come to blows with the other jurors during their sixteen days of deliberations.
On the basis of Koons' protests, John Lutz's attorneys were able to procure a new trial for their client, but the verdict was the same: guilty of murder in the first degree. Ultimately, Lutz was tried twice, and convicted twice. The date of his execution was set for the morning of January 21, 1902.
This decision weighed heavily on F.A.B. Koons, the juror who had held out for an acquittal. In August of 1901, it was reported that the juror was stricken with paralysis and dying. His physician blamed Koons' condition his continual brooding over the verdict, of being compelled to condemn a man to death against his convictions. Koons succumbed to his illness on December 12, 1902-- just weeks before John Lutz was finally hanged.
On the morning of January 21, 1902, a crowd of five hundred people showed up to witness the execution of John Lutz. At 10:03, Lutz was marched out of his prison cell. He asked the watchman for a "chew of tobacco", and his final request was granted. At 10:18 he took his place at the gallows and a noose was placed around his neck. His feet were bound with a leather strap and his hands were tied behind his back. He had said barely a word all morning, and had marched to the scaffold showing no signs of emotion. But just as the sheriff and guards left the platform, Lutz cried out, "Oh, don't!"
The trap was sprung and, five minutes later, Lutz was examined by the prison physician, Dr. Wolfe, who discovered that Lutz not only still had a pulse, but that it was normal. According to Dr. Wolfe, Lutz did not expire until 10:28 and he died as a result of strangulation and not of a broken neck. The body was allowed to hang until 10:41, when it was cut down and taken away by Undertaken Kniffen. Because the victim's family did not claim the body of John Lutz, his corpse was shipped to a medical school in Philadelphia.
Did you enjoy this article? If so, then pick up a paperback copy of Pennsylvania Oddities, which features even more true stories of the strange from around the Keystone State, as well as more in-depth versions of some of the more spectacular stories shown on this blog. Only $14.95 and free shipping is available!