Carl, Ruth's Ghost, and the Other Denizens of Murderer's Row

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With Carl Wanderer sentenced to die on the gallows for murdering the Ragged Stranger, he was not sent back to the penitentiary in Joliet but was instead kept in Chicago in the Criminal Courts building at 54 west Hubbard. Much like its replacement today at 26th and California, the Criminal Courts building was not only a courthouse but a jail. Unlike our current courthouse though, not only were there courts and jails, there was also a death chamber with a gallows and the men condemned to die on those gallows were kept together on Murderer's Row, the death row of its day.



Four prisoners sleeping in one cell. Photo by F.P. Burke in The Survey of the Cook County Jail, 1921.


The eleven executions held by Illinois in 1921 were one to the highest totals ever in the state's history. There were quite a few characters living there with Wanderer for those months and the number of stories that come from this time are enough for a book on their own.

The night before an execution a convicted man would be brought to the 'Death Cell' where more often than not the condemned man would be surrounded by family, reporters, and jailers. About the only good thing about reaching the end of the line at the death cell, was the last meal. Next door to the Criminal Courts building was the aptly named Noose Cafe. Joe Stein, owner of the coffee shop, provided the meal free of charge, asking only for a signed photo from the condemned man that would then be hung on the walls of the cafe.

That meal was welcome due to the abysmal food served in the jail. In 1921, The Survey of the Cook County Jail was published and offered some great insights into jail food.

  • Breakfast was a cup of coffee (no sugar and so little milk that it "hardly changes the color") and a piece of bread or a roll with no butter (butter was a luxury only served 2-3 times a year on holidays).
  • Dinner, the mid-day meal, was the largest of the day and on its surface didn't look too bad; corned beef, frankfurters, meat stew, and fish such as salmon or cod. A little later in the report though, an inspection of the fish served on March 24, 1921 showed that the fish had been received in Chicago in October 1918 and had been sitting in cold storage for nearly three and a half years. An inspection of one corridor of the jail where this fish was served found of 26 men served it, only two would eat it.
  • Supper usually consisted of soup and bread though the prisoners found the soup so flavorless that they refused to eat it and instead requested to be given in its place whatever leftover coffee remained from the morning. After multiple protests, this switch was made permanent 3 days a week; old coffee instead of soup. The bread was also complained about as it was said rats and cockroaches often got into it before it was served to the prisoners.


The noon-day meal in the Cook County Criminal Courts building. Photo from The Survey of Cook County Jail, 1921.

The noon-day meal in the Cook County Criminal Courts building jail. Photo from The Survey of Cook County Jail, 1921.


Situations in the jail were so poor that Alexander Fyfe foreman of the May Grand Jury of Cook County put together an open letter decrying the conditions.  

“To our fellow citizens of Chicago and Cook County:  Impelled only by civic loyalty, we, the members of the May Grand Jury, call your attention to the constant menace to public welfare presented by the intolerable condition of the county jail and Criminal court building. Our disgraceful county jail stands branded, ‘the worst in America.’  It is wretchedly overcrowded, woefully antiquated, criminally insanitary. With cell accommodations for less than 550, there were 961 men and women jammed in it last January. Four and five prisoners are packed into each cell, 5.5 feet wide by 7.5 feet long. One or two always must seek sleep on the floor.

There can be no segregation of men and boys nor of first offenders and habitual criminals. Men and boys under first charges, who later may be found innocent, rub elbows constantly with murderers, burglars, and hardened criminals of the worst kind. What happens? In the utter idleness imposed they learn every trick of crime and very often are inspired to criminal careers upon release. Thus, instead of abating crime, our jail makes more crime! And this continuous ‘school of crime’ costs our community thousands of dollars per day in future crime, while threatening the safety of every home and family in our city and county. Furthermore, by permitting this, we citizens are knowingly parties to crime."

300-400 prisoners would spend 3-4 hours a day in a bullpen that served as their exercise yard. A drain in the floor served as a urinal for all the men while here and was said to smell horrible despite frequent rinsings with bleach.

300-400 prisoners would spend 3-4 hours a day in a bullpen that served as their exercise yard. A drain in the floor served as the sole urinal for all the men while here and was said to smell horrible despite frequent dousings of bleach. Photo by F.P. Burke in The Survey of the Cook County Jail, 1921.

It was said in times where Wanderer's mental state was less than stellar, he often claimed that the ghost of his wife Ruth, whom he murdered, would come to visit him at night in his cell. As Wanderer's execution date, and his insanity appeal both approached, more and more frequent sightings of Ruth's ghost occurred, something we will touch on again in future blog posts.

March 20, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.

March 20, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.

The underworld that approved of the sentence to stretch Wanderer’s neck, later fell for his guile after Wanderer had lived among them on Murderer’s Row. In a scene that stretches the imagination; Wanderer recruited a squad of killers to form their own prison military regiment. Needing props for their maneuvers and drilling Wanderer convinced Jailer Lorenz Meisterheim to provide them, which he did. In the bullpen of the Cook county jail a gang of seven convicted murderers awaiting their execution were given, by their jailer, broomsticks and mops to use in place of rifles as Wanderer drilled them through army maneuvers. Lining his squad up, Wanderer played the role of drill sergeant.

“Squad, right about!

Forward march!

Private Geary, hold that pivot!

About face! Snap into it Cardinella!

Can’t you find your left foot, Costanzo! Oblique into position! Don’t sidestep into it!

Lopez, keep your chin up!

Hand salute!”


April 1, 1921 Chicago Daily News.

April 1, 1921 Chicago Daily News.


In Wanderer’s personal fantasy army was Gene Geary, Harry ‘Lone Wolf’ Ward, Sam 'The Devil' Cardinella, Sam Ferrara, Joe Costanzo and Antonio Lopez. Despite trying to enlist, the Abyssinian killers Grover Redding and Oscar McGavick, were not allowed to join. One Chicago Daily News reporter wrote- “Two negroes under sentence of death tried to join the ‘army’ but the super-murderers drew the color line. There was also the matter of ethics. The negroes had only killed one man and hardly classed with the others.”

An unnamed Murder’s Row inmate when asked why he joined up gave his reasoning for enlisting, “It’s more fun this way than the ordinary useless bull-pen motions we go through. What’s the use of them? We’ll stretch soon, anyhow.”

Despite this initial jubilation and enthusiasm for Wanderer’s army, before the week would was out, the prison’s quasi-army-unit disbanded.

“The war’s over” was Gene Geary’s reply to why he had gone AWOL from Wanderer’s army. Wanderer had made his now customary, “Attention!” call one morning but the six soldiers in his legion mutinied and returned to their cells. The ‘Battalion of Death’ was to march no more.

“He’s too hard-boiled” was the comment of the ‘Lone Wolf’ Harry Ward.

Addressing the 800 pound gorilla in the room was Sam Cardinella, “What’s the use of drilling to death before they hang me?”

For Cardinella that hanging was front and center on his mind as his execution was just over a week away.

To Wanderer it was good riddance as he found his squad of cut-throats to be lacking discipline. “(Geary)… shuffles along and doesn’t know his right foot from his left. Then Cardinella quits in the midst of a maneuver to go and moan in his cell. They’re a lot of bums.”

Wanderer’s take on Gene Geary would be a precursor of things to come.

“That Geary guy is crazy.”

April 8, 1921 The Washington Herald.

April 8, 1921 The Washington Herald.

Sam Cardinella had one of the most interesting executions of anyone at any time. A feared Sicilian gang leader nicknamed Il Diavolo, the devil, Cardinella and his crew had at least five murders to their credit. That isn't in much dispute, the rest of his execution? More than a few questions remain. If this blog and project has shown you anything, hopefully, by now, you will know how one piece of truth here is mixed one piece of fiction from over there and before too long you have an amalgamation of fact and fiction.

Cardinella in the lead up to his execution stopped eating and was said to be in great despair over his coming hanging which resulted in him losing around 40 lbs. The night of his execution he was said to be a sobbing mess, praying and muttering in Italian while refusing his last meal. When it came time to head to the gallows he collapsed and would not go willingly.

In what was shockingly not the first or last occurrence of such a situation, since Cardinella wouldn't walk to the gallows, a wooden chair was brought to his cell, he was strapped to the chair, and then carried to the gallows. Still seated in his chair, the noose was put around his neck and he, and the chair, were dropped through the trap and hanged.


April 14, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.

April 14, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.


An odd execution no doubt, but that is only part of the story. This is where it gets weird and a little hard to separate fact from fiction. Supposedly, one of Cardinella's henchmen, nineteen year old Nicholas Viana, who had been hanged in December of 1920, had been a trial attempt at resuscitation after an execution. It was said that Viana's body was quickly collected after his hanging and was immediately put in a casket lined with hot water bottles and taken two blocks away from the jail where a team of doctors and nurses were waiting to attempt to revive him. He was injected with revival drugs from a hypodermic needle, his wrists and extremities were massaged to get blood moving, and he was given electric shocks to jump start his heart. Supposedly, it worked. His eyes fluttered and he awoke, but as Cardinella was the gang leader and Viana was just a trial run, the revival attempts were stopped and he was allowed to die. That's the story that has filtered down through history more or less.

The theory was that Cardinella losing all the weight and his collapse in his cell was all part of a plan devised so the he would be strapped to the chair. Less weight and a shorter drop by being seated would hopefully lead to death by strangulation rather than a broken neck as it was believed strangulation could be overcome, while a broken neck could not. After his hanging Cardinella's body was quickly collected, but in their haste to revive him, a prison guard saw a nurse making revival attempts as Cardinella's body was being loaded in a truck to be taken away. The guard stopped the truck and alerted his superiors who then held the body for over an hour to assure rigor mortis was setting in and he was beyond saving. New Cook County jail procedures would be put in place after this event so that all executed men were held for such a period of time that any resuscitation attempts would be unsuccessful.

It would likely have been a moot point in Cardinella's case as his death certificate lists his cause of death as a broken neck.

Chicago Herald-Examiner reporter Charles MacArthur took the Cardinella hanging and wrote a short story about it. The story can be read on page 43 of the December, 1921 edition of The Smart Set magazine that was edited at the time by H.L Mencken.



Wanderer's time on Murderer's Row coincided with several escape attempts. Jail guards found nitroglycerin in Sam Cardinella's cell for an escape attempt he was planning; another time saws and files were smuggled into the jail by accomplices of Harry Ward's; and lastly a 'trusty', a normally trusted prisoner who is given special privileges and jobs, tried to tunnel Carl and others out of the jail.


April 14, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.

April 14, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.


May 6, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.

May 6, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.


The Washington Times from September 1, 1921.

The Washington Times from September 1, 1921.

If you have to go, you may as well leave them hanging, pardon the pun. One of the more interesting lines ever uttered on the gallows was said by another one of Carl's neighbors on Murderer's Row.

Grover Cleveland Redding, the self-proclaimed Prince of Abyssinia was about to be executed for the murder of U.S. Navy sailor Robert Rose.

Redding considered himself a ‘second Moses’ who would lead African-Americans back to their promised land of Abyssinia, when asked if he had any last words Redding replied,

“I have something to say, but not at this time.”


And on that note...

The next blog post is coming Wednesday, August 29-  Is Eddie Ryan the Ragged Stranger?

Podcast Episode #6 coming Monday, September 3-  Carl Wanderer Goes to Trial for the Murder of the Ragged Stranger


This project aims to fill in the gaps where there is unknown, correct false narratives that have branched away from the truth, and most importantly, to entertain and enlighten. It has been sourced from research for my upcoming book Kisses for Julia, Bullets for Ruth: The Mystery of Carl Wanderer & the Ragged Stranger.


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