The Ragged Stranger was front page news coast to coast as the art above printed November 21, 1920 in The Washington Times attests.
June 21, 1920- Carl Wanderer and his seven month pregnant wife Ruth had gone to see the moving picture adaptation of Jack London’s novel, The Sea Wolf. Seated in the Pershing Theater as ‘Wolf’ Larsen silently battled ‘Hump’ van Weyden on the silver screen, another battle was being waged in Wanderer’s gut. Taking his wife’s arm, he looked at her watch; nine o’clock.
“I’m not feeling well. Can we please leave?” he asked Ruth.
“Of course,” his wife told him before she stood up and led the way out of the dark theater.
It was a chilly walk home for a summer solstice night. The gas street lights put off a dim hue as Carl ushered his pregnant wife up Lincoln avenue. Despite a languid pace, Carl’s eyes darted side to side as he walked. They reached Zindt’s pharmacy and headed west down Lawrence avenue; a waning crescent moon hung in the sky ahead of them as they walked the last two blocks home. Ruth didn’t notice the man who paced alongside them as they walked down the block nor did she notice the slight nod of her husband’s head toward the ragged stranger as they passed him.
Upon getting home Ruth slowly climbed the half dozen steps of the front stoop as Carl stood at the foot of the stairs and watched his pregnant wife make her ascent. Carl looked back over his right shoulder as his wife opened the outer door of the vestibule. Carl climbed up the stairs quickly and stood on the threshold and held the outer door open as Ruth fumbled with the lock of the inner door. The lock often stuck and in the dark hallway she was unable to get it unlocked.
“Can’t you open it, honey?”
“Sure I can,” she told her husband. “Wait till I turn on the light.”
While she held the troublesome skeleton key in her right hand, Ruth reached her left hand for the ribbon to pull on the wall light left of the door.
Before she could switch the light on a stranger’s voice commanded,
“Don’t turn on that light.”
The stranger pushed his way past the outer door into the vestibule and positioned himself to the left of Ruth Wanderer and the door leading to her family’s apartment. The outer door closed behind him entrapping all three people in the narrow room.
A gunshot broke the quiet. Then two more…then several, their muzzle flashes illuminating the small vestibule.
“The baby!” Gasped Ruth as she crumpled to the floor, her back wedged in the corner.
In all, ten shots echoed out in the four-foot by nine-foot vestibule.
Four shots had found their mark on the intruder who had fallen forward, his arms intertwined on the floor with Ruth’s legs. Both took heaving, pained breaths as they laid there.
“Carl, I’m shot…. get mamma.”
Ruth’s mother had been upstairs in their sun parlor awaiting the return of the young couple from the movie when the shots had rang out downstairs. Eugenia Johnson ran to the door to the stairs ignoring her own safety, opened the door, and called down,
“Who is that? Is that you?”
Carl yelled back up the stairs,
“Ma, there has been a hold up. Ruth is shot.”
The incredulous mother ran down the stairs and found her daughter lying behind the door. Broken glass littered the floor and acrid gun smoke hung in the air. Mrs. Johnson saw Carl astride a man pounding the man’s head on the ground.
The first-floor neighbor at 4732 N. Campbell, James Williams, his quiet Monday evening at home interrupted by gunfire, called police after hearing Ruth tell Carl she was shot. After he had called the police, he opened his door to the vestibule to find Carl Wanderer sitting on a prone man on the vestibule floor. The dying man’s head was at the foot of the threshold to the outside door; two revolvers were on the ground next to the stranger. Mr. Williams would later testify that Wanderer had the stranger by his hair and slammed his head down on the marble floor, “over and over”.
As Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Williams carried Ruth upstairs she called out to her mother, “Ma, is it real?” The bleeding woman then told her mother, “Oh, my knee and my side.”
Once upstairs Ruth was put on a settee in the parlor where in a cruel twist, she spent her last moments with a realization she shared with her mother,
“My baby is dead.”
Sufficiently satisfied that the stranger was dead or soon would be, Wanderer ran up the stairs to their apartment where his wife was dying.
Kneeling beside his wife he took her hand. With her hand in his he tried to remove her wedding ring from her finger. She pulled her hand away and tucked it under her chin. Carl said to his frantic relatives,
“Rush her to the hospital and take the ring off.”
Ruth balled up her hand as her mother held her and tried to comfort her and stem her substantial bleeding.
While Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital was the first medical center to have a motorized ambulance, albeit only a 2hp electric motor, the family knew that no ambulance, no matter the horsepower, would be able to arrive in time to save Ruth.
Mr. Williams watched over the dying girl as her mother retrieved a glass of water and a pillow for her. “My hand is getting so cold” the dying woman said to no one in particular.
“Mamma, mamma, mamma!” she soon cried to her mother. The call for her beloved mother would be her last words as her heart stopped soon after the words had escaped her lips.
Headlines the next day hailed Carl Wanderer a hero for avenging his wife’s death. Three weeks later he was in jail for murder. The alleged holdup man would come to be known as the Ragged Stranger, an unwitting dupe to Wanderer’s plan, he laid in the morgue for over a year, repeatedly misidentified.
Before Ben Hecht went on to win the inaugural Academy Award for Best Writing in an Original Story and was the ghost-writer of Marilyn Monroe’s autobiography, he was a young reporter for the Chicago Daily News and was looking to make a name for himself. In a time when reporters were taught to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, Hecht was often without peer. Hecht’s storytelling will be delved into greater depth in future blog posts but it is more his way with words, rather than his way with the truth, that merits his inclusion here.
Hecht was assigned the Wanderer case and met with Carl the morning after the murder. When Hecht found Wanderer he was ironing his trousers whilst whistling a tune with his wife’s dead body in the next room, Carl and Ruth’s bedroom. Hecht found Carl’s grey eyes disarming and would later say he had an immediate dislike for Wanderer. He wrote that without emotion Carl replayed those fateful moments for the scribe and after checking his gold pocket watch, he told the reporter his story.
“There isn’t much to tell. We’d been to a movie and this man followed us, I suppose. I was going to turn on the light in the vestibule so as to see the keyhole when I hear a voice, ‘Don’t turn on the light.’ I reached for my gun for I knew what the fellow was up to. He never ordered us to put up our hands, just began to shoot. I was a few seconds late- and that is why- she- she is lying in there.”
Tamping down his dislike for Wanderer while simultaneously jazzing up the story Hecht went on to paint the scene of what Carl told him happened (italics are Hecht’s printed commentary)-
“The first shot blew him across the hallway. Then I could not see him. But I knew I’d landed and I let him have three more. I got him- but…” The machine gunner and owner of a croix de guerre stopped talking and a young husband in a brown suit with eyes reddened from tears finished the sentence… “if I’d only got him sooner. Just a nickel’s worth sooner. But he got what was coming to him. Well, I got him. I got him anyway.”