Was Al Watson the Ragged Stranger?

Part 13 can be read here if you missed it...

 

Al Watson

The first few weeks of July saw a flurry of wishful identifications of the still unidentified body. The newspapers would start calling him the, ‘Ragged Stranger’ attesting to the ‘down-on-his-luck’ anonymity. The same day the police tried to track down John Maloney, the John Robinson Circus employee whom the police thought was the ‘Ragged Stranger’, another identification would grab headlines as well.

Catherine Vanos, an elevator operator in the Rialto building, identified the ‘Ragged Stranger’ as Al Watson. The New York Times quoted her,

“While my husband, who served with the Canadian forces, was in France, I was living at the home of my step-father, C.H. Spivey, in Folkestone, England. My father also served in the war and held the rank of captain in the Scots guards. It was in Folkestone that I first met Watson, who came frequently to visit us. He was at that time a patient in the Manor House Hospital undergoing treatment following an operation on his nose. He told me that he originally came from New York, where his father was a wealthy turfman and had everything money could buy or heart desire.”

She told the police their meeting at the Manor House Hospital occurred in 1916, that Watson was 28 years of age, and he had served in the 2nd Mechanical Transport Engineers of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. The body in the morgue had less hair than she remembered Al Watson having but he could have started balding she suggested. The build and features of the man were similar she said.

Mrs. Vanos explained the man’s ragged clothes and down-at-the-heels appearance, “All the time I knew him he was continually without money and cabled his father for more at frequent intervals.”

The Canadian Expeditionary Force that served from 1914-1918 during the Great War had 100 men with the surname Watson and some form of the name Al whether it be first or middle. There were 46 Alexander’s, 22 Albert’s, 20 Alfred’s, 6 Alex’s, 2 Alvin’s, 2 Alan’s and lastly 2 Allen’s. None hit the trifecta of age (early to mid-20’s as the medical examiner thought or born in 1892 as Mrs. Vanos thought), appearance (medium height, slight build, reddish hair, light complexion) and ties to New York (be it a New York birthplace or next of kin residing there). A few men got to two legs, but none of these panned out as most were tracked down and found to be among the living after the murder occurred.

This is an attestation form for the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in WWI. Over 100 of these forms were studied for every man with the surname Watson and given names Albert, Alexander, Allen, Alan, etc... None matched Mrs. Vanos's description of Al Watson nor the Ragged Stranger.

This is an attestation form for the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in WWI. Over 100 of these forms were studied for every man with the surname Watson and given names Albert, Alexander, Allen, Alan, etc... None matched Mrs. Vanos's description of Al Watson or the Ragged Stranger.

While the search for Al Watson records through the Canadian Army came up empty, records for Catherine’s husband, Jack Vanos, provided concrete information where his wife’s leads proved fruitless. Like the skin of the onion, the more peeled back on Mr. Vanos, the more layers of the story were revealed.

Jack Van Os was born in Amsterdam in September of 1892 and later worked in a factory and served two years in the Dutch army. Single, he was described as tall and dark with hazel eyes. With the Dutch remaining neutral during the Great War, Van Os joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in September of 1914.

After a little more than six months in the army, Van Os, 21 years of age, married 17-year-old, Caterina Mondioli on March 29th, 1915 in St. Jude’s church in the London neighborhood of East Brixton. Mondioli was born in Pennsylvania, the only child of Federico Mondioli, an Italian Count that died not long after the birth of his daughter, and Lottie Dickeys, a former ballerina who studied dance in London under Katti Lanner and Giuseppe Venuto de Francesco.

After Federico’s death, Lottie left the states to return to England. For some reason she was under the impression that the family of her deceased husband the Count was plotting to steal baby Caterina from her to raise the child in Italy. Due to this, mother and daughter traveled under pseudonyms and aliases; Caterina went by Josephine and Mary but would be known to her family mostly as Laurie. With such clandestine travels with a mother trained in the arts and stories of the noble Italian blood in Caterina’s veins, the child likely grew up with an active imagination.

Like often happened in the times, whether just a clerical error or something else, the spelling of people’s names evolve. Van Os becomes Vanos. Caterina gets anglicized to Catherine. As though Jack Van Os and Caterina Mondioli ceased to exist, records after their marriage referred to them as Jack and Catherine Vanos

 

Manor House Hospital in Folkestone, England.

Manor House Hospital in Folkestone, England.

 

The Manor House Hospital staff photo in 1916.

The Manor House Hospital staff photo in 1916.

Jack Vanos was a Sapper in the 3rd Canadian Command Depot and had the most extensive military records of any that I came across in the course of my research. Most of his military records document him going in and out of military courtrooms for many multiple violations of public drunkenness, larceny, going AWOL and desertion. During his March 1919 Court Martial after the war was over, he was found not guilty of desertion but was sentenced to 90 days detention for going Away WithOut Leave. Vanos’s sentence was credited 30 days for what appears to have been time served during a period of hospitalization. The file does not specify where the hospitalization was or for what it occurred. Regardless of the date, if this hospitalization was at Manor House Hospital, it was three years after Catherine Vanos swore it to be.

The army unit that Mrs. Vanos said Mr. Watson was a part of didn’t exist in 1916 and wasn’t created until April 1918 when the 2nd Supply Column was amalgamated with the 2nd Ammunition Sub-Park to then form the 2nd Mechanical Transport Company. Either her dates were wrong, her memory of the name of his unit was wrong or her story was untrue.

In trying to verify Mrs. Vanos’s volunteer service at Manor House Hospital, British Red Cross records were researched. The British Red Cross maintains a database that allows for any surname, given name, or hospital to be searched for nurses that served as volunteers during the Great War. No records were found of any; Catherine, Caterina, Laurie, Josephine or Mary- Mondioli, Spivey, Vanos, nor Van Os to have volunteered to work in the Manor House Hospital in Folkestone, England as Catherine Vanos had told reporters she had done.

There are no records of any Al Watson that served in the 2nd Mechanical Transport Company that had a father in New York. There are no records that any Al Watson was treated at the Manor House Hospital in Folkestone. There are no records that suggest any overlap of any Watson and Vanos in the 1916-1919 timeframe in question. No records were found anywhere that could confirm any aspect of Mrs. Vanos story.

While unable to reconcile Mrs. Vanos’s recollection of her time at the Manor House, the period after the war did leave a trail of her and Jack’s travels. After living for a time in London, Jack and Catherine made their way to the United States. A January 1920 U.S. Census form listed Jack Vanos as a 26-year-old laborer in a foundry and Catherine Vanos as a 22-year-old laundress. They lived at a boarding house at 3323 south Michigan avenue on Chicago's south side.

After the census was taken, they made their way back to England for a trip and returned to the U.S. in July 1920 with a Border Crossing form recording their travels from England into Halifax, Canada. The manifest listed a 27-year-old Jack Vanos to be a musician of Dutch descent and 22-year-old Catherine of English descent. Chicago was listed as their final destination.

The border crossing must have been in very early July for it was on July 9, 1920 when Mrs. Vanos spoke to the Chicago Daily News. After arriving back in town and hearing of a murder with a victim possibly identified as someone named Matson or Watson, Mrs. Vanos went to the city morgue. Catherine made the identification as Al Watson and was quoted in newspapers from coast to coast but the police were also working a promising lead that the dead man was circus worker John Maloney. Despite Mrs. Vanos’s sworn affidavit in the county morgue that the unidentified white man was Al Watson, Maloney would become the ID of record for a time until that identification fell through as well.

Other than a couple more mentions in later articles, Al Watson slipped from the pages of the story. There were a couple racehorse owners named Watson in New York back then but none that had children named Al, or any derivative of, and there never appeared a wealthy turfman riding into Chicago searching for his lost son.

george-watson-horse-owner-says-rs-not-his-son-7-11-1920-evening-star-washington-dc

 

Whether a coincidence, or simply nature taking its course, the Vanos' appeared to separate soon after the identification of the Ragged Stranger. On July 14, five days after his wife’s identification of Al Watson as the Ragged Stranger, Jack Vanos enlisted in the U.S. Army and listed his address being a YMCA hotel in Chicago. This Dutch man, a veteran of their army, married to an English-Italian-American woman, had served for Canada in the Great War was now attesting to his loyalty to the US of A in signing up and joining his now third national army. Did his wife’s identification of Watson cause strife between the two? Did that lead to him living in a ‘men only’ hotel days after her ID? Did it cause him to ship off and do the one thing he had shown he could do in the past and join the army?

Catherine or Caterina or Laurie or even the Contessa, as she would all later be known, wound up back in England after a subsequent divorce from Jack. She would later remarry and spend time between England and Italy before she finally arrived back in the U.S.

In researching Mrs. Vanos, I met Ms. Fee Berry, the grandniece of Catherine Vanos. Fee lives in the UK and contributed some family recollections of Catherine Vanos- “I've just spoken to my mother who remembers her aunt as someone who was sometimes a bit economical with the truth.  She was also someone who liked the limelight - when my great grandfather collected his MBE* he wanted to do so without any fuss, and didn't want any of the family to go with him.  Laurie (Caterina) turned up and got into the photographs and perhaps got a taste for publicity?”

 

Charles Spivey and his niece Catherine Vanos outside Buckingham Palace after Spivey was awarded his MBE.

With a devilish grin, Catherine Vanos stands with her step-father Charles Spivey outside Buckingham Palace to collect his medal commemorating his being awarded the MBE- Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire..

While I don’t doubt that Mrs. Vanos might have volunteered at the Manor House Hospital and met a fellow named Al, I highly doubt the rest of her story that the body on the slab in the morgue was the same Al Watson. Catherine Vanos’s purported friend, Al Watson, was not the ‘Ragged Stranger.

alexander-e-watson

The Al Watson narrative also got legs and remained in the public consciousness as news of Mrs. Vanos’s identification spread from coast to coast and caused many local law enforcement agencies and newspapers to search their missing person files. In doing so, a New Jersey newspaper reported of a missing man by the name of Alexander E. Watson. The narrative continued until a few days later when news emerged that the missing Watson from New Jersey was 45 years old and 5 feet 6 inches tall, much older and shorter than the ‘Ragged Stranger.’ Alexander E. Watson, missing man from New Jersey, was not the ‘Ragged Stranger.’

 

Part 15 coming Wednesday, July 18- The Carl Wanderer Confession

 

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