Carl Wanderer and the “Case of the Ragged Stranger”

Oct 10, 2013 - by Benjamin Welton - 0 Comments

Carl Wanderer’s precipitous drop from a highly decorated World War I hero to a philandering murderer – who might or might not have been either a pedophile or a closeted homosexual – shocked Chicago and ushered in an era of widespread cynicism and urban violence.  

by Benjamin Welton

The past always seems better – more assured, more comfortable, more secure – from the vantage point of the present. This is partially a time issue. We in the present cannot truly see the future, so a sense of “what’s next” lingers over us with various degrees of anxiety. Nostalgia, which derives from a Greek language compound meaning a painful longing for a homecoming, is an easy retreat for the fearful as well as the ignorant. Even those who should know better utter such phrases as “it was better long ago.”

To be fair, these nostalgic phrases are not applied willy-nilly. No one in their right mind pines for the 1930s—the era of the Great Depression, Nazism, and Italian fascism. Similarly, one would be hard-pressed to find takers on a time traveling journey back to the plague-ravaged 14th century. Plenty of rational folks would select the 1920s; however, and their pick would not meet with much condemnation. The 1920s was the Jazz Age after all—the era of glamorous, yet debauched silent film stars, fast and easy money, Art Deco town cars, and social circles like the Buchanans of Long Island and the Wooster brood of idle England.

Even though the so-called “Roaring Twenties” also housed Prohibition and its corollary of organized crime, many Americans today see this period in our history as one of unending charm and unrelenting sensuality. Lurid true crime tales are acceptable in this nostalgic pipe dream, but only if they fit the right mold. In particular, the more murders and robberies coincided with the world of fiction the better. During the 1920s, detective fiction underwent a Golden Age on both sides of the Atlantic, with the British perfecting the cozy, locked room mystery, while their American cousins brought crime back to the streets with hardboiled tales of municipal corruption, blackmail, and heartsick private dicks. In both brands, crime is glamorized and even sexualized, with the quietly killed corpse in the library becoming a fetish for middle class contemplation.

Carl Wanderer
Carl Wanderer

A double homicide in Chicago involving a gallant American war hero defending the honor of his pregnant wife agrees with this matrix, and yet the case of Carl Wanderer is far from a fairy tale for adults. While it was initially covered in the press with all the gusto and melodrama of a Mary Roberts Rinehart novel, the case of Carl Wanderer and his paid off “ragged stranger” soon turned into a nightmare – a sign of the times. Rather than being one long cocktail party, the Chicago of 1920 was filled with maimed war veterans, fat-handed politicians, smiling con men, and the requisite number of low-level pushers, dope fiends, pimps, and prostitutes. Even before the enforcement of the Volstead Act, which criminalized the “manufacture, production, use and sale of high proof of spirits,” Chicago “stood apart from its peers in violent crime,” as Jeffrey Adler wrote in his book, First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago. Famously, the Beer Wars between Al Capone and Bugs Moran led to the bloodbath known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, while the Leopold and Loeb murder case helped bring to light not only the moral failings of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, but it also added a shocking new addition to the lexicon of crime – “thrill killing.”

Lost among these more titillating cases is that of Wanderer, a 25-year-old who traded in a successful life for one of infamy. While it may sound (sadly) prosaic today in the post-serial killer, now mass-killer world, the murder of Ruth Wanderer, her unborn child, and the “ragged stranger” shocked the hardened people of Chicago in 1920. At first, they championed Wanderer as an unfortunate lad who nevertheless managed to honorably defend his wife from the disgrace of robbery or worse. Then, after the truth of the case was revealed, Wanderer became one of the earliest examples of a fallen hero, a tainted golden boy. In many ways, Wanderer sets the stage for other downfalls in the 1920s, from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to famed Los Angeles attorney Dave Clark. Still, neither Arbuckle nor Clark managed to go so low, from a war hero to a philandering murderer who might or might not have been either a pedophile or a closeted homosexual. The case of Carl Wanderer truly initiated the forgotten 1920s – the era of widespread cynicism and urban violence.

I.  Just Another German Boy from Chicago

 Carl Otto Wanderer was born in 1895 in Chicago to German immigrants. Chicago, like other cities in the Midwest, boasted a large German population, and the skyline of the “Second City” had its fair share of beer gardens, delicatessens, and, more importantly, butcher shops. The unofficial poet laureate of Chicago – Carl Sandburg – called the city “Hog Butcher for the World,” a semi-mythological testament to the wealth generated by the city’s massive stockyards. And while the Wanderers were not involved in the stockyards, they were involved in the meat industry. Like a lot of other German immigrants, the Wanderer family men were butchers, with both Carl and his father working in the family’s successful shop.

Although he was known as a hard-worker and a bright young man, Carl dropped out of school before entering high school, an action not too unknown during the time period. As a young man, Wanderer was seen as somewhat of a catch in the neighborhood, despite his dopey face and small stature. Women seemed to argue that there was something ruggedly charming about the butcher’s boy, and this conviction only increased after Wanderer enlisted in the Illinois Calvary. Looking neat and trim in his new uniform, Wanderer and the rest of the Illinois Calvary joined General John “Black Jack” Pershing’s punitive expedition against the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in 1916. After Villa and his men attacked the village of Columbus, New Mexico, killing both civilians and members of the 13th Calvary Regiment, President Woodrow Wilson authorized an armed incursion into northern Mexico. At the time, Mexico was embroiled in an anti-government revolution that eventually ousted the dictator Victoriano Huerta. Villa and his Villistas were some of the more aggressive insurgents in the Mexican Revolution, and they were well-known for daring and violent attacks against Huerta’s forces.

General Pershing’s nine month-long expedition in Mexico didn’t accomplish its primary goal (the capture of Villa), but the frequent engagements with Mexican rebels helped to harden American troops on the eve of the country’s entry into World War I. Publicly, General Pershing proclaimed the expedition a success. Privately, he criticized President Wilson’s numerous and politically motivated restrictions on how the U.S. Army could engage the enemy. For his part, President Wilson felt bound to his re-election platform of peace and U.S. neutrality in Europe. By the spring of 1917, neither Villa nor the 1916 election mattered much, for the country had declared war on the Central Powers. After joining the Regular Army, Second Lieutenant Carl Wanderer was shipped to France.

II. War Hero

Somehow, while serving in among the blood and mud of France, Lieutenant Wanderer became a genuine war hero – a position that, during the First World War, was primarily occupied by dashing combat aviators who took to the skies on new machines. Unlike the “flyboys,” the war for Wanderer was a gruesome one. Serving as part of the 17th Machine Gun Battalion, which itself was attached to the 24th Infantry Division, Wanderer was exposed to some of the bloodiest American engagements of the entire conflict, from St. Quentin to Rosières. Throughout this ordeal, Wanderer distinguished himself as both an officer and a soldier, thus earning him numerous decorations.

By 1918, the name Wanderer was as well-known in Chicago as Rickenbacker and York. Wanderer served with distinction during the war, and it was taken for granted that he would be equally successful once he returned home. When he finally did, the celebrated soldier returned to his family’s butcher shop, but he didn’t do so alone. On October 1, 1919, not a year after the Armistice, Wanderer married the 20-year-old Ruth Johnson, a local girl whom he had met in 1915 at the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. On the surface, Carl and Ruth seemed like a content couple. Like many married duos, after getting hitched, Carl and Ruth moved in with the Johnson family at 4732 N. Campbell Avenue. By all accounts, it seemed like an easy arrangement with few visible signs of strain.

III. The Ragged Stranger

On the night of June 21, 1920, the Wanderers were returning to their rooms after viewing the film The Sea Wolf.

 After reaching the hallway that led to the Johnson family apartment, the pair was approached by a derelict stranger wielding a pistol. In his later testimony, Wanderer claimed that the man (who would later be called the “Ragged Stranger” by the Chicago press) intended to rob the pair. Unbeknownst to the “Ragged Stranger,” Carl was carrying a personal firearm that night and had no intentions of letting a bum steal his hard-earned money. In between these dueling marksmen was Ruth, and sadly, she paid the ultimate price for this position. When the shots rang out, Ruth was hit several times. The first bullet caught her in the thigh, while the second shot connected with the left-side of her chest. As she lay dying, the pregnant Ruth reportedly said “My baby is dying.” In the midst of this small-scale gun battle, Carl managed to seriously wound the hoodlum hobo, exclaiming “I got him, sweetheart...I got him. He won’t hurt you anymore.”All in all, 10 shots were fired that night and two people died.

The first Chicago police officer on the scene was John Nape. To his horror, the law enforcement veteran not only found the two bullet-riddled bodies, but he also located two handguns at the scene: one belonged to the mysterious tramp and the other belonged to Wanderer himself. Both weapons were .45 caliber pistols, but, according to the various historians and devotees of this case, it is not for certain whether or not these guns were Browning M1911 semi-automatics or M1917 revolvers. Either way, they were the type of guns that men carried into battle, especially men from the U.S. Army. In 1920, this meant one of two things: either one or both of the men were recently “Over There,” or serious cash was in play, for this type of weapon was expensive and not easily attainable by civilians. Along with the guns, Chicago police also found a mere $3.80 in the pockets of the “Ragged Stranger.” That unknown man (who still remains unidentified today) would eventually die at the Ravenswood Hospital.

IV. First Grief, Then Shock

When news of Ruth Wanderer’s death hit the front page, it was an immediate sensation in Chicago. Public opinion rallied behind Wanderer, and they once again labeled the 32 year old a hero. Wanderer was initially seen as a deeply tragic figure – a man who had suffered through the horror of war only to come home and experience the violent killing of his wife. Still, the fact that Wanderer rushed to defend his wife’s honor gave him an added air of grandeur, a stronger sense of heroism.

Strangely, three men didn’t buy into this line. Two of them were reporters and one was a policeman. For their part, the two scribes – Ben Hecht of The Chicago Daily News and Charles MacArthur of the Chicago Examiner – distrusted Wanderer  because the grieving husband seemed too comfortable, too relaxed for a man who had just lost his wife and unborn child. For Sergeant John Norton of the Homicide Bureau, doubts about Wanderer’s story began when he met Julia Schmitt, a 17-year-old stenographer.

This first major point of doubt in the case came from Hecht, who found it odd that a homeless drifter would be carrying such an expensive and rare pistol. After all, how could a man with less than $5 to his name afford military-grade hardware? On his end, MacArthur came to the same conclusion and decided to trace the weapons. Obviously, one of the guns went back to Wanderer. However, in a not-so-obvious twist, the would-be robber’s gun was traced back to Fred Wanderer, Carl’s cousin. According to Fred, he had bought the gun from a man named Peter Hoffman and then given the weapon to cousin Carl. This bit of information now put both weapons in the hands of the “hero” Wanderer, thus making his claim of self-defense seem all the more flimsy.

While Hecht and MacArthur worked their angle, Sergeant Norton was busy interviewing Schmitt, who claimed that she had gone on several dates with Wanderer. Schmitt told the detective that she had thought that Ruth was Wanderer’s girlfriend, not his wife. Furthermore, Schmitt also revealed that Wanderer had written her letters – sexually explicit letters. This evidence damned Wanderer in the eyes of Norton, who now believed that Wanderer killed his wife and child in order to remove the last moral obligations that separated him from the hand of the adolescent stenographer.

Faced with this tidal wave of evidence, Wanderer eventually confessed. This is where the historical record gets tricky. First of all, Hecht claimed that it was his information that broke Wanderer. According to Hecht – the future playwright and screenwriting scion of literary Hollywood – Wanderer broke down during an interview between the two. During the interview, Hecht at first found Wanderer happy and impassive. Thinking this strange, Hecht performed a search of Wanderer’s room.(Although it may seem strange today, in the age before the establishment of the modern police detective position, journalists often worked criminal cases as clue-seeking investigators, and often journalists and the police worked together, with the police feeding journalists sensitive information and vice versa. A.J. Liebling’s 1955 New Yorker article, “The Case of the Scattered Dutchman,” is an excellent depiction of how intertwined urban police forces and beat reporters often were. In fact, Liebling’s long article argues that crime reporters were almost expected to perform the duties of police detectives.)

What Hecht found shocked him: female clothing in Wanderer’s personal wardrobe and scandalous love letters addressed to a man named “James.” As part of a clever ploy, Hecht, who was now working alongside the police, told Wanderer, who was also being questioned by the police at the time, that “James” was coming to see him at the station. Apparently this was too much for Wanderer, who not only admitted to being a homosexual, but that he had killed Ruth and their unborn child in order free himself romantically for “James.” Wanderer further claimed that he had hired the vagrant on a pretext (Wanderer wanted to regain his standing with Ruth by impressing her with a masculine action) and that he had shot both him and Ruth. Then, after he was convinced that he had killed both, Wanderer planted the gun on the barely breathing tramp in order to make the case for self-defense.

The problem with this tale is that it belongs to Hecht alone. The Chicago Police Department did manage to get a confession out of Wanderer, but its angle of approach had nothing to do with Wanderer’s closeted homosexuality. In fact, they pressed Wanderer on the fact that Ruth had withdrawn $1,500 from the bank on the morning of the shooting. This, to Chicago’s finest, looked like murder-for-money.

No matter the real background story behind Wanderer’s first confession, the solid truth is that Wanderer confessed on July 9, 1920, then went to trial on October 4 of that year. George Guenther, Wanderer’s attorney, claimed that his client had been severely beaten by police, and that he had only confessed for fear of reprisals. Also, Guenther argued that his client was not guilty by reason of insanity, and as a result, this trial and the one that followed it, became a staging ground for the dueling disciplines of psychiatry and psychology.

In the first trial, Wanderer was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter and faced less than 14 years in prison. Finding this sentence too lenient given the evidence, prosecutor Robert Crowe, who would later battle defense attorney Clarence Darrow during the Leopold and Loeb trial, motioned for a second trial. He got it, and, after a 12-minute deliberation, Wanderer was convicted and sentenced to death.

During the second trial, the star attraction was the character of Carl Wanderer. Throughout the hearings, numerous witnesses systematically deconstructed the heroic image of the butcher boy from Chicago. First, his old commanding officer claimed that Wanderer wasn’t as decorated as was popularly believed, and furthermore, he didn’t deserve to be. Next, Julia Schmitt revealed to the shocked courtroom the depths of Wanderer’s infidelity. Finally and most importantly, a revolving cast of experts, both for the defense and the prosecution, deemed Wanderer psychologically imbalanced, or what the commoner would simply call “crazy.” William Hickson, the director of the Psychopathic Laboratory of the Municipal Court, argued that Wanderer had been insane since birth. Psychologist E. Kester Wickman claimed that Wanderer had the mental age of an 11 year old, while still more psychiatrists and psychologists diagnosed Wanderer with dementia praecox catatonia.

Whether insane or just amoral, Wanderer’s life ended at the end of a hangman’s noose. On September 30, 1921, Wanderer was led to the gallows with a song on his lips. The song was “Dear Old Pal O’ Mine.” Apparently, the heartless killer had a beautiful voice, leading the typically hard-bitten MacArthur to comment: “That son-of-a-bitch should have been a song plugger!”

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