Add comment January 29th, 2012 Headsman
A century ago today, 20-year-old Albert Walter strolled the 15 feet from the death cell to the Sing Sing electric chair, calling out “Good-bye boys” to his fellow-prisoners as he died for the murder of 15-year-old Ruth Wheeler in a possible white slavery crime two years earlier.
Wolter left a note steadily — all the reports remark on the youth’s sangfroid; he took a nap while the jury went to deliberate with his life in its hands — avowing his innocence, and indulging the “hope there may come a time when the conscience of the perpetrator will overpower him, and he will come to the front and acknowledge his guilt.” He charitably added for “those who have maliciously prosecuted and killed me, for them I pray God’s forgiveness.”
Lots of New Yorkers would have had to ask it.
Despite his cool under fire, Wolter was overwhelmingly acclaimed the guilty party, the evidence against him being as close to airtight as circumstantial gets.
Newsmen ravenous for virginals despoiled by outlanders instantly sunk fangs into the story of the layabout 18-year-old German immigrant — idle lifestyle the product of parasitism upon the drudgery of a young countrywoman toiling 12-hour days at a bakery — who lured the “saintly” stenographers’ school graduate to his apartment with the promise of work and had her charred and headless trunk bundled up on the fire escape by morning. (Other charred remains, and Wheeler’s monogrammed signet ring, were retrieved from inside the apartment.)
Reporters soon sketched the persona of a burgeoning little pimp who had already routed several girls into prostitution. In industrializing, urbanizing, early 20th century America, you couldn’t ping a more compelling (pdf) moral panic than white slavery.* Congress was at that very moment in the process of legislating the (still-extant) Mann Act named for the Illinois legislator who sponsored it after a notorious 1909 Chicago case.
But the Big Apple, as the country’s largest city and its gateway for Europe’s polyglot huddled masses, was the reputed center of the whole reputed business.
This illustration from Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls is outstandingly captioned:
“THE FIRST STEP. Ice cream parlors of the city and fruit stores combined, largely run by foreigners, are the places where scores of girls have taken their first step downward. Does her mother know the character of the place and the man she is with?”
The men and the women who engage in this traffic are more unspeakably low and vile than any other class of criminals. The burglar and holdup man are high-minded gentlemen by comparison. There is no more depraved class of people in the world than those human vultures who fatten on the shame of innocent young girls. Many of these white slave traders are recruited from the scum of the criminal classes of Europe.
And in this lies the revolting side of the situation. On the one hand the victims, pure, innocent, unsuspecting, trusting young girls — not a few of them mere children. On the other hand, the white slave trader, low, vile, depraved and cunning, — organically a criminal.
-Chicago U.S. District Attorney Edwin Bell, prefacing the bodice-ripping 1910 Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls**
While the Empire State enacted its own Wolter-inspired law charging schools with vetting the employers who recruit their graduates, Wolter entered the criminal justice system on greased lightning (just like he left it). He was a condemned murderer within five weeks of Ruth Wheeler’s death.†
Wolter himself (evidently surprised to learn that he was old enough for the death penalty; that may not have been the case where he was from) tried to put the blame on a phantom Teuton, one “Frederick Ahner” who was the mastermind in Wolter’s own fall and who must have done the Wheeler business while Wolter was out at the park. That’s “the perpetrator” to whom Wolter’s last letter refers: his conscience never led Ahner to so much as materialize, much less to confess.
The fate of Wolter’s bakery-girl cohabitant — and, one might think, prospective accessory — Katchen “Katie” Mueller was very different. She precipitously aligned herself with her lover’s prosecutors, urged “My dear Al” to confess (almost successfully), and got respectable patronage “to break away from the life she had been leading”. A year after Wolter’s electrocution, Mueller’s redemptive next marriage made the society pages.
** Similar dubious (pdf) vice-crusader porn is to be had in (among many other period pieces) a 1911 tract by another Chicago prosecutor, Clifford Roe. Though The Great War on White Slavery is in the public domain, I haven’t been able to locate a complete text online — only this excerpt.
† On the other hand, the then-protracted period of 22 months required to proceed from conviction to execution made Wolter “dean of the death house” by the time he died.
Also on this date
- 1802: Joseph Wall
- 1745: Eve, her smoke visible throughout the country
- 1879: John Achey and William Merrick, the first hanged in Indianapolis
- 1253: P. Morret, poor guesser
- 1913: Edward Hopwood, clumsy suicide
- Daily Double: Century-Old English Legal Novelties
- 1869: Chauncey W. Millard, candy man
- 1810: Pedro Domingo Murillo, for Bolivian independence