Carl Otto Wanderer
(1887-1921) was a murderer famous for what became known as "The Case of
the Ragged Stranger", wherein he murdered his wife Ruth, and a drifter
named Al Watson, in a bizarre plot to kill his wife so he could be with
his homosexual lover, known only as "James".
The case was cracked in large part by famed Chicago-based
reporters Ben Hecht, of the Chicago Daily News (later a famed novelist
and screenwriter), and Charles MacArthur (a future playwright) of the
Wanderer was born the son of German immigrants in
Chicago in 1887. Though he dropped out of school before he reached high
school, Wanderer was a hard-worker and began saving up money. By his
twenties he and his father were running a successful butcher's shop.
Wanderer enlisted in the Illinois Cavalry and served
under John Pershing in the latter's Punitive Expedition against Villa in
1916. He served with distinction and became a lieutenant in the regular
Army, seeing heavy action on the Western Front in World War I. He was
heavily decorated and was considered one of America's most prestigious
war heroes when he returned home to Illinois.
In late 1919, he married twenty-year old Ruth Johnson,
and the two moved in with Ruth's parents. Ruth became pregnant;
reportedly, Wanderer became despondent upon hearing the news and became
distant towards his family.
On June 21st, 1920, Wanderer and his wife were
returning home from a movie when shots rang out in the hallway of the
Johnson apartment. Ruth's mother heard the shots and rushed to the scene,
finding Wanderer pummelling the body of a man in ragged clothing with
his gun. Ruth lay dying with several shots in her chest, and reportedly
said "My baby is dead" before dying.
According to Wanderer's account, the man had been
lying in wait in their apartment, presumably to rob them, and Wanderer
drew his service pistol - a Colt M1911 - and exchanged fire with the
intruder. Wanderer killed the assailant, but his wife was killed by the
shooter, who was not immediately identified.
The case became a cause celebre, with extensive press
coverage. The public expressed outrage that Wanderer - a war hero who
was expecting a child - would be set upon and have his pregnant wife
killed. Wanderer was praised for his bravery in defending his wife.
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, initially working
independently, both began to unravel Wanderer's story within weeks.
Hecht's first clue was a police photograph of the two weapons used in
the shooting. Both were virtually identitical Colt M1911's. Hecht
thought it odd that a man who appeared to be a penniless vagrant - he
had less than $5 on his person when found - would carry such an
expensive weapon which was not widely available to the public at the
time, instead of selling it. MacArthur came to a similar conclusion and
came to find that the stranger's weapon had been sold to Wanderer's
cousin Fred several years earlier.
Hecht had interviewed Wanderer several times before,
and had become friendly with him. He went to talk to Wanderer,
presumably to clear up the confusion about the guns, but was struck by
Wanderer's happy and seemingly impassive manner just days after his
While visiting Wanderer's restroom, Hecht found
articles of women's clothing in a bathrobe and stumbled across several
love letters which had been written by Wanderer to a man called "James".
Along with MacArthur, Hecht took his suspicions to the police, and
Wanderer was called in for questioning.
Wanderer initially denied the charge, saying that the
stranger's gun was not his, but one that had been part of a mass arms
shipment by the Army to a training camp he'd been in during the war.
However, Hecht learned during the police interrogation that Ruth
Wanderer had withdrawn $1500 from her bank account the morning of the
killing - and later, at Wanderer's house, found the money in question.
Confession and Conviction
Wanderer continued to deny the charge until Hecht
told him that "James" was coming down to the station to meet him.
Wanderer then confessed that he had committed the crime. He told the
police that he was indeed a closeted homosexual and had married his wife
only for money. After he found out Ruth was pregnant, Wanderer hired a
vagrant named Al Watson as part of a bizarre scheme.
He told Watson that his relationship with his wife
was deteriorating, and he wanted stage a fight with Watson to prove
himself a hero to Ruth. When Watson showed up at the apartment, however,
Wanderer shot both him and his wife with the two Colts and staged it so
that Ruth's mother would think Watson had killed Ruth.
Wanderer was convicted after two trials, and was
executed on September 30th, 1921. He sang Dear Old Pal O' Mine before
being hanged, causing MacArthur to remark, "That son-of-a-bitch should
have been a song plugger."
Nash, Jay Robert. Bloodletters and Badmen: A
Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals From the Pilgrims to the
THE RAGGED STRANGER MURDER CASE
When Carl Wanderer, 32, and Ruth Johnson, 20, got
married in September of 1919, they moved in with her parents here at
4732 N. Campbell. Carl had just been discharged from the Army where
he was a war hero. Just before Christmas, Ruth told Carl she was
pregnant but he didn't show any happiness of the news. Instead, he
fell into sullen moods and rarely spoke. This went on for several
months until the night of June 21, 1920 when Carl and Ruth were
returning from a movie. They didn't notice the man who followed them
into the dark vestibule of their apartment building. When the
stranger fired several shots at the couple, Carl pulled out his
service automatic and emptied the clip in the direction of the
intruder. Fourteen bullets were fired in a space of a few seconds.
Ruth fell to the floor with two bullets in her.
Carl went berserk with rage, smashing his gun and fists against a
man dressed in rags who was also on the floor, shot full of holes.
Ruth lived just long enough to to whisper "My baby . . . my baby is
dead." The stranger later died in Ravenswood Hospital. He had just
$3.80 in his pocket. Carl was praised by the people of Chicago for
A few days later, reporter Ben Hecht of the
Chicago Daily News sat at his desk looking at a picture of the two
guns used in the shooting. One was Carl's army issued gun and the
other belonged to the dead stranger. Something was not right. Both
guns were identical. Over at the Chicago Examiner, reporter Charles
MacArthur also noticed that the identical guns looked suspicious. A
check of the stranger's gun, by the pair, revealed that it had been
purchased by a Peter Hoffman. Hoffman told MacArthur that he sold
the gun several years before to a man name Fred Wanderer. Fred was
Carl Wanderer's cousin.
A few days later, Hecht interviewed Carl in his
apartment here on Campbell. While Carl left the room, Hecht found
some incriminating letters Wanderer had written . . . to a man. Love
letters of deep devotion. Hecht then realized that the war hero was
a homosexual. Hecht and MacArthur went to the police with the
letters and their suspicions. Carl was brought in for questioning.
When confronted with the evidence of the gun and letters, he broke
down and confessed to both killings.
Carl told police that he had always been a
homosexual and married Ruth for her money. When Ruth began to doubt
his war record, he went to skid row and met a drifter named Al
Watson. He told Watson that he would pay him to stage a holdup in
which he would hand a gun to Watson when the couple entered the
vestibule and when Ruth turned on the light, he would floor him with
a punch. Watson would run away and once again Carl would be a hero
to his wife. Watson thought it was a harmless way to make a few
dollars, and agreed.
That night in the vestibule, Wanderer did not
hand the gun to Watson. Instead he kept both guns and fired at both
his wife and Watson. After they had fallen, he fired several more
shots into them to make sure they were dead.
After two sensational trials, Wanderer was
sentenced to death by hanging. As Wanderer stood on the gallows on
March 19, 1921, he threw back his head and began to sing "Dear Old
Pal O'Mine." Carl was singing when the hang man placed the black
shroud on his head and lowered the rope to his neck. His pathetic
voice sang on behind the mask. The trap door opened and he shot to
an instant death. MacArthur turned to Hecht and said, "You know Ben,
that son-of-a-bitch" should have been a song-plugger." Humorist
Alexander Woolcott, who also witnessed the hanging, was heard to say,
" Wanderer deserved hanging for his voice alone."
Carl Wanderer and Ruth Wanderer - whom he murdered