On Bodies in Barrels and Trunks: A Chicago Specialty

When researching forgotten Chicago crimes, there are a couple of themes that turn up a lot: one is the fact that one serial killer after another can be connected to candy stores. Another is that bodies tended to be stuffed in barrels and trunks a lot.

The first true crime book in Chicago history was the story of the Jumpertz Barrel Case. The story goes something like this: Henry Jumpertz, a European immigrant, was a barber in Chicago in the 1850s, with an office at Dearborn and Randolph. One day he came home to his apartment and found that his mistress had killed herself.


Despite the fact that she had left a suicide note, Jumpterz went into a panic, assuming that he was going to be accused of murdering her. So, to cover things up, he did what seemed sensible at the time: chop her body up into little pieces and seal it in a barrel.


He actually kept the body-stuffed barrel next to his bed for a couple of weeks, then mailed it to New York. There, the smell made workers open it up. The face of his mistress was still identifiable, and the body was quickly sent back to Chicago, where Jumpertz was quickly caught and sentenced to hang. By all accounts, he was a model prisoner, even helping to design the gallows they would use to hang him.

Then, a curious thing happened: a handwriting expert proved that the suicide note was really written by Sophia, not by Henry Jumpertz. This is thought to be the first time in history handwriting analysis saved anyone from the gallows.

More than two decades later, after Chicago had come into its own as a city and public hangings had been outlawed. In 1885, three Italian men – Ignacio Sylvestri, Agnostino Gilardo, and Giovanna Azzaro – stranged a twenty-year-old lemon peddlar to death on the west side after hearing that he carried all of his money with him at all times rather than putting in a bank. Having killed and robbed him, they stuffed his body in a trunk and mailed it to Pittsburgh.

It didn’t work for them, either.

Though public hangings were outlawed, something like 1500 people managed to worm their way into the jail to watch the execution.

With the trunk guys, I can sort of see how they thought they MIGHT get away with that by sending it across state lines – they probably just didn’t know any better. Jumpertz should have, though – he was medically trained (well enough to have removed most of the vital organs, which he discarded in the Chicago snow). He should have known enough about decay and the accompanying smell to know the barrell wouldn’t keep things odorless forever.

Far more details about both crimes are in FATAL DROP: TRUE TALES OF THE CHICAGO GALLOWS. Now on kindle!

And a whole lot more barrel-stuffing will be seen during Grave Robbing Week next week at Chicago Unbelievable. After that, I promise to cut back on the blood and guts for a while! We’ll be visiting the remains of another Chicago silent film studio, talking about Chicago’s historical bohemian sections, and all kinds of fun stuff that doesn’t involve decay and dismemberment.

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