Louis Straub was the Saddle Club’s nighttime bartender. For 12 years, beginning in 1923, Straub would come to work after collecting delinquent bills for Commonwealth Edison during the day and sling drinks to Chicago’s rich and famous. And in the early morning hours of February 3, 1935, having closed up the Saddle Club after another night of revelry, Straub was shot seven times with a .38 caliber pistol and left for dead “crumbled in a basement closet” (UP). He was 46 years old.
Straub’s slaying, “as baffling as a modern detective thriller” (AP, February 3), was never solved. Having read through the Tribune archives, which included several lengthy front-page stories detailing the crime and subsequent investigation*, here’s what I can piece together about the night in question.
It began routinely enough. Straub left his home, at 901 W. Argyle, at roughly 6:30 p.m. He carried in his wallet $54 dollars. His 34-year-old wife Helen, a former showgirl, went to play bridge at a friend’s house. The Saddle Club’s manager, who happened to be Straub’s brother, left the premises after the departure of Luke Williams, a former college tennis star, around 9 p.m. The other employees followed, entrusting Straub to serve the only remaining party, made up of six Gold Coast residents “well known in the younger social set.” During the course of his shift, Helen called Louis three times to find out when he might finish and if he would like a ride home, a favor she offered two or three times per week. “The last time I called him,” she told police, “he said he would be ready in a few minutes as a party of young people were just leaving.”
After playing bridge and consuming somewhere between three and six bottles of beer, Helen Straub left her card game at 1:30 a.m. and dropped off two friends at their homes. (Ellen Billie Edlin, one of those two women, told police she got home around 2 a.m.) Next, Helen swung by her own apartment to pick up her “white spitz dog” and drove to the club, which was quiet and dark when she arrived. Worried that Louis’ high blood pressure might have caused him trouble, she roused the night watchman on duty, Gus Schwartz, and began searching the campus, a spot “well isolated from the eyes of the curious” by “tall trees, dense shrubbery, and a high wire fence.” At Straub’s suggestion, the pair eventually opened a first-floor door on the north end of the building, one that Schwartz was confident had been locked on his last inspection three hours prior. It wasn’t. At the end of a 25-foot hallway was a lavatory, where Helen discovered her husband's “bullet-torn body” (AP). Said Schwartz: “I felt for Straub’s pulse, but could detect none. Mrs. Straub did not touch the body. She merely looked in the doorway. Then I took her outside.” The watchman called Straub’s brother and then a doctor, who pronounced the bartender dead at the scene. At 3:15 a.m., the quartet finally alerted the police, who held Straub and Edlin in custody as material witnesses.
The cops came to several firm conclusions within the first 24 hours of their investigation. Given his attire, Straub was waiting outside (and probably smoking a cigar) as the assailant approached. Somehow, he was coaxed back into the building’s basement, where he was “sprayed with a withering fire” (February 4). Because of club rules, Straub would not have let a man into the building that late at night, particularly one he didn’t know. And it wasn’t a botched robbery; though his wallet was emptied, the club’s safe and Straub’s watch were not touched. More likely, the murder was committed by a woman who was familiar with the interior of the club and thus knew Straub personally. In other words, it was a crime of passion, or perhaps vengeance.
Helen Straub proclaimed deep love for her slain beau. “Louis was the best husband in the world,” she told police on February 5, as reported by the Atlanta Constitution. “I knew of no other women in his life. We were very happy.” But detectives unearthed several “clews”** that complicated the picture of their relationship. For starters, Schwartz testified that Straub frequently entertained ladies at the bar “during the midnight hours.” Police corroborated this fact, telling reporters on February 6 that “it was easy to discern that as a husband he may have left something to be desired.” Helen Straub, it seems, found solace among her female friends, especially Mrs. Edlin, to whom she had given a $150 watch for Christmas two months earlier. “It had been no secret among this group [of bridge players],” the state’s attorney’s office learned, “that Straub and his wife had been on the verge of a break since last summer over Mrs. Straub’s affection for Mrs. Edlin.” The Tribune added its (quaint and homophobic) two cents, writing that “this strange tangle of lives and loves … probably deserves the attention of a neurologist as well as a policeman.” Curiously, the Straubs also lived in a lavish apartment that no bartender could afford even on income from two jobs. And the pair had taken out a $10,000 insurance policy on Louis’ life that contained an indemnity clause doubling Helen’s payout in case of violent death. Obviously, seven slugs to the chest qualified.
The authorities thought, for a fleeting moment, that they had cracked the case wide open on February 7, when a taxi driver named Kenneth Colling came forward and admitted that he picked up a woman closely resembling Edlin and drove her to the Saddle Club about the time of the murder. As Colling described the sequence, he waited outside for 15 minutes as the meter ran before his fare burst out of the building, sprinted into his cab, ordered him to “get the hell out of here,” and asked to be dropped off at a bar somewhere along Argyle Street. He did what he was told. Witnesses at the watering hole Colling chose remember seeing someone purchase a pint of whisky before quickly exiting. Edlin, not-so-coincidentally, went missing the day after she was released from custody. Upon searching her apartment, investigators stumbled upon a dresser drawer that contained “a pair of women’s suede gloves, stained with some dark liquid.” This was suspicious, to say the least. Yet that promising lead, teased out before DNA testing was available, hit a dead end: when pressed, employees of the liquor store expressed confidence that Edlin was not the woman who bought their booze, and she was dismissed as a possible suspect.
Stray clues emerged over the next week. The most intriguing was a lidless brown casserole dish, filled with turkey and spaghetti, that was found in the Straubs’ apartment. The club’s chef said he had prepared the concoction so Louis could enjoy a late-night meal, but the coworker could not explain how the dish got back to Louis’ house while the bartender was still on duty. (This fascinated the city’s crime reporters, who peppered their copy with questions about the mysterious casserole, even after one of the partygoers admitted “he could not be positive that the bartender was in the club all of the time during the preceding five hours.”) During a second round of questioning, Helen Straub also divulged that she had bought a .38 caliber pistol from her father several months prior to the murder and sold it for profit to Peter Breckie, a 51-year-old electrician with whom she had carried on a decade-long extramarital relationship. She further contended that Breckie “once threatened to kill Louis so that he and I could be together.” Her suitor admitted “improprieties” but firmly denied that he had purchased any weapon, that he had it in for Louis Straub, or that he was anywhere near the Saddle Club on February 3. Brickie’s wife substantiated his alibi.
The state’s attorney didn’t know where else to look. The last Tribune story filed about the high-profile saga, datelined February 18, described how “police met blank walls at every turn in the investigation of the mysterious murder.” They couldn’t figure out who hopped into Colling’s cab, what substance was splattered on Edlin’s glove, why Straub might have allowed a woman to enter the building late at night, or how the victim maintained such an expensive home in the first place. And just like that, two weeks after the grisly crime was perpetrated, the Saddle and Cycle Club murder went cold.
There is a brief coda to the story. In September of 1936, Helen Straub and Louis’ brother Ernest entered into a civil proceeding to determine who should receive the $20,410 life insurance payout for Louis’ violent death. Attorneys representing the bartenders’ sibling set out to prove that Helen herself was the killer, calling 50 witnesses to testify. They included a neighbor who remembered seeing Helen cut Louis with a butcher knife and strike him in the head with a vase at different points in their marriage as well as a night clerk at the hotel Louis lived in as a bachelor, who said Straub told him he had survived another late-night shooting attempt at the Saddle and Cycle Club sometime in 1926. Helen even took the stand; 20 pounds heavier than when Louis died, a court reporter described her as “nervous,” adding that she “became more petulant during cross examination.” Still, in a lengthy ruling, the presiding judge freed the widow of any blame and awarded her the cash. Then, three years later, taxi driver Kenneth Colling was arrested as a co-conspirator in a robbery, having arranged the hold-up of an auditor for the Sievert Electric Company. His connection to the Straub case was never fully explored, which to these untrained eyes seems like a giant missed opportunity.
The Saddle and Cycle Club, 77 years after its veteran bartender was shot, continues to operate along Lake Michigan. In 1996, the Tribune called it “the city's last true upscale country club.” If you’ve got the money, join at your own risk.
*Every citation in this piece comes from the Chicago Tribune, between February 3 and February 18, unless otherwise noted.
**How the Tribune spelled “clues,” hilariously, in the mid-1930s.