On this date in 1921, the villain in the Case of the Ragged Stranger went to the gallows in Chicago.
Then-24-year-old World War I veteran Carl Wanderer entered the public’s cognizance when on the night of June 21, 1920, he and his pregnant young wife Ruth were accosted on the way home from cinema by a tramp — a “ragged stranger” in the piquant phrase that would identify both the case and the man. This stranger, who was never identified, held up the happy couple at gunpoint but Wanderer just so happened to be carrying his service pistol and exchanged gunfire with the mugger. After the hail of bullets was over, the ragged stranger was dead and his wife lay mortally wounded in his arms.
The obvious catnip themes — the young bride, the valiant troop, the machismo shootout — instantly made for a national news crime story.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 23, 1920
But it wasn’t many days that Wanderer’s self-flattering story enjoyed the public’s credulity.
Mr. Ragged’s weapon turned out to be an army-issue pistol just like Wanderer’s own … in fact, Wanderer had borrowed it from his cousin just days before the deadly fray. And this connection in turn led Wanderer to admit under intense police questioning that the tramp was a down-and-outer that Wanderer himself had hired to stage the mugging as a pretext under which Wanderer would murder his wife. Having so done, Wanderer realized that capital felonies are really best without surviving witnesses, so that was the end for the Stranger too.
Wanderer’s confessions, well, they wandered. The unifying thread was the man’s obvious desire to exit his marriage; what’s not clear is whether this reason was the object itself or further to some greater purpose. There were hints that the motive was pecuniary or even that Wanderer was homosexual; his defense would eventually raise a family history of mental illness. Wanderer himself at one point said that he wanted to return to military life;* but, investigations also turned up a scandalous flirtation with a 17-year-old customer of his butcher shop to whom he had made bold enough to send billets doux before his wife’s body was cold.
July 6, 1920
I am very lonesome tonight. I thought I would drop you a few lines as I am ever thinking of you.
The reason I wouldn’t meet you at your house is this. The people would talk about us.
Someday I will tell you a whole lot more. I have been double crossed by some people.
Good night little lover & happy dreams to you.
After a jury outraged public opinion by failing to hang him for his wife’s murder, he was tried again before standing room only audiences for the stranger’s death — in effect a second bite at the apple. His young flame Julia Schmitt made a humiliating appearance on the stand which would set up a scorching summation by the state’s attorney.
He saw a vision of the future. It included the army life and Julia. But in that vision was no trace of Ruth who was soon to be a mother.
Ruth must die.
Kisses for Julia, bullets for Ruth.
The man who killed his wife and unborn babe.
That’s the kind of a man he is. See his calm face.
But a yellow coward, and a murderer.
Send this cowardly, contemptible wretch, who deliberately and cunningly took the lives of his young, trusting wife, her unborn baby, and the poor, innocent, ragged, unidentified stranger, to the gallows. The man who had kisses for Julia Schmitt and bullets for the one he should have loved and cherished most has forfeited all claims to go on living on this earth.
There is abundant proof of this miserable creature’s guilt. You know as well as I do that he has violated every law of God or man. He deserves death. Even death is too good for him. Send him to the rope. Don’t weaken — give him the punishment he deserves.
And they did.
Belleville (Illinois) News Democrat, September 30, 1921
After hearing the condemned sing on the gallows, one wag present reportedly quipped that Wanderer deserved hanging for his voice alone.
This ragged old case has quite good coverage on this here World Wide Web. Some of Carl’s wanderers include:
TheRaggedStranger.com, a whole site devoted to the case
A detailed blog series and multipart podcast series from ChicagoNow.com
* Perhaps not coincidentally, his unit had seen very little combat during the Great War.