The Ragged Stranger, or “The Truth is Relative”

In 1989, Bostonian Charles Stuart called 911 and reported that he and his pregnant wife had been shot by an unidentified black gunman. Carol Stuart died from her gunshot wound; the child she was carrying lived 17 days before he was disconnected from life support by order of his father.
 
Shortly after, Charles’s allegations that the family was attacked by an African American gunman began to fall apart and he committed suicide by jumping into the Mystic River.
 
Eventually, the true story came out: Stuart killed his wife and shot himself as either part of an insurance fraud or get her out of the way so he could be free to pursue another woman. It doesn’t really matter why he did it, just that he did.
 
As shocking as Stuart’s crime is, it proves the rule that in crime there is no such thing as an original idea. Pardon the pun, but every manner of killing has been done to death.
 
So it is with the robber-killed-the-wife story. Stuart should have known that he couldn’t get away with it, because in 1920, an even more audacious murderer tried the same scam and ended up on the gallows in Joliet prison outside Chicago.
 
Carl Wanderer was bolder than Charles Stuart; he convinced a Chicago bum to help him out with a fake robbery under the ruse that Wanderer wanted to appear to be a hero in front of his pregnant wife, Ruth.
 
The bum, who agreed to the plan in return for $1.25, wasn’t privy to the whole plan and it cost him his life.
 
The man, collateral damage in Wanderer’s plot, has never been positively identified. Various names have been assigned to him, but the facts of the Wanderer murder have been so distorted over time that it is best to refer to him by the name he was given by the Chicago press: “The Ragged Stranger.”
 
The Wanderer case is a part of Chicago lore; the site of the crime is a frequent stop on those “bloody Chicago” tours and Ben Hecht, the noted Second City journalist, claimed that it was his skeptical detective work that eventually cracked the case.
 
That’s not true, but Hecht should get credit at least for not being sucked in by Wanderer’s scheme. The newsman visited Wanderer the day after the murder and was aghast to find him whistling while he pressed his trousers. His was the first article to portray the tragic hero/widower in a negative light.
 
In fact the police were fairly quick to poke holes in Wanderer’s story.
 
Why, wondered the Chicago dicks, was this bum penniless but in possession of a pistol? Wouldn’t he have pawned that? The going rate for a Colt automatic like that in the 1920s was $50. On the subject of guns, why was Wanderer carrying one? And was it just coincidence that a robber would have the same kind of weapon as Wanderer?
 
With a little bit more checking the story quickly fell apart. First off, Wanderer did serve in the Great War as a lieutenant, but he wasn’t the decorated hero he claimed to be, according to his commanding officer.
 
Next, it turns out that Wanderer was infatuated with a 16-year-old girl who frequented his father’s meat shop, and was not quite the dedicated husband who was ready to settle down to life as a Chicago butcher. There was never any indication that his lust was anything more than just idle fantasy.
 
Under-reported, but hinted at in one account of the crime, was the allegation that Wanderer’s paramour was another man. Wanderer only mentions the allegation in one reply to a reporter’s question about his relationship with the girl.
 
“There was never another woman,” he replied. “Or another man. I hated married life. I wanted to get back to the army. I grew to love the army life and serving in France. It’s free and easy; it’s the life for me.”
 
The idea that Wanderer was a closeted homosexual who killed because he did not want to tied to a woman and a baby was played up in Hecht’s autobiography, but because the rest of Hecht’s role in cracking the case was overstated, there is no reason to believe that allegation — especially because it does not appear anywhere else. Of course it’s interesting to note that no two newspaper reports of the Wanderer murder have identical facts except that Ruth Wanderer and another man were murdered by her husband. So feel free to pick the story that best appeals to you.
 
Perhaps that’s the most interesting thing about the Wanderer tale. Every newspaper chose to create the crime it thought best and no one let the facts stand in the way.
 
Wanderer himself was not much help. When the detectives confronted him with the fact that the gun held by the ragged stranger could be traced from the factory to Wanderer’s brother and to him, he admitted setting the whole thing up but never gave the same reason why twice. It was for another woman, he said. It was to get his hands on Ruth’s $1,500 savings. He didn’t want to be a father, he told them once. He wanted to get back into the army, another time.
 
Who cares.
 
He stood trial first for killing his wife. When the jurors convicted him but chose not to sentence him to death the newspapers were incensed and published their names, addresses, and telephone numbers. One even published their pictures and called them “12 soft-boiled eggs.”
 
Because no one was satisfied with the verdict in the Ruth Wanderer trial, Carl Wanderer was tried for the killing of the ragged stranger. This time the jury knew what the people wanted and he received the death penalty.
 
The Ragged Stranger was never positively identified but was buried in Glen Oak Cemetery through the largess of a Chicago saloonkeeper named Barney Clamage.
 
On September 30, 1921 Wanderer was hanged. As the hangman was going about his business, Wanderer began to sing “Old gal, old pal, you left me all alone/Old gal, old pal, I’m just a rolling stone/Old pal, why don’t you answer me?”
 
At that point the trap was sprung and Carl Wanderer was dropped into eternity.
 
It’s probably apocryphal, but someone reportedly said Wanderer should have been hanged for his singing alone. Since facts aren’t important to the story of the Ragged Stranger, let’s all agree that it really happened.