Is Eddie Ryan the Ragged Stranger?

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Had Barney Clamage not saved the Ragged Stranger from being buried as a John Doe, his story might have ended when the last shovel of dirt landed upon his grave. But of course the story didn’t end there.

A young woman in her early 20’s called the police and stated that the unnamed boy was her brother, Edward Joseph Ryan. The police, and requisite reporters in tow, went to interview Miss Marie Bennison of 201 Whipple avenue and get her story. Her mother, Nellie Ryan of 2532 Calumet, did most of the talking and confirmed Marie’s story to the police. It was her long lost Eddie.

“I read in the paper long ago about the homeless boy that had been killed by Wanderer, and many the prayers I said for him. I was down in St. Mary’s on last Holy Thursday and I said a prayer for him and for my own poor homeless boy, and I burned some candles for both of them.

Then I determined to go to the morgue and look at the boy who had been killed, and whose body had lain there so long without a woman to weep over it. I went, and it was Eddie. I hadn’t seen him in eighteen years, since he was a little boy. Eighteen long years that was, filled with thinking of him and praying for him, and trying to find him. But I knew at once. He looked so much like Marie, so much like myself.

I didn’t tell anybody, for one of the men there said lots of folks had identified the body just for the insurance. I didn’t want anybody to think that of me. And another thing, I had no place to bring him. My poor Ed. I have no home. Wherever I work is home to me. I have no money. I could not bury him. 

My husband died when Eddie was 6 years old. There were six children and it broke my heart, but I couldn’t support them.

Sure, I wept like it was a funeral when I said good-by to the curly haired darling eighteen years ago. He went to a farmer named Leander Anglin, in Redfield, S.D. 

The other boys went other places. Tom was killed on a railroad in Colorado. Will is in Freeport, Ill; Frank in St. Louis. The girls I kept with me, despite everything.”

Little Eddie was six years old when his father passed away. Traumatic enough for anyone but confusion must have clouded the lad's mind. His father was gone and, one by one, so were his other siblings. How many teary goodbyes did he go through? Was he sheltered or denied goodbyes? Before long he was in the back of a covered wagon with people he didn’t know going to a land called South Dakota.

Leander Anglin was 46 years old when he and his wife Desdemonia, 10 years his senior, took in six year old Eddie. Leander had been only 22 years old when he married the widowed Desta, and took her three children as his step-children. They were all grown and gone though by this time so Eddie was the sole child as they headed out on the road in their wagon.

Drought came in 1909 and didn’t let up until 1911. Three years of dust in your breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dust in your clothes, bed and on your person. The resultant dead crops led to hunger and poverty for many. Was it a coincidence that in 1912, not knowing if another summer of drought was approaching, Eddie, now a 15 year old, left South Dakota to go see the world?

“I used to write to Eddie often. He stayed on the farm until he was about 15, and then he set out to see the world. I heard many a time he was in Chicago. But it’s such a big city. I looked for him everywhere, but I never could find him. Sure, I got track of him now and then, through letters he wrote back to Dakota, but we never saw each other again.”


A portrait of Eddie Ryan that he had sent to his mother.

A portrait of Eddie Ryan that he had sent to his mother.


The journey from the fields of South Dakota to the gritty streets of Chicago had to have been one paved with painful lessons. What events transpired over the next eight years to land him in rags talking to Carl Wanderer in a saloon drinking cheap whisky?

“You could search all over the land and find no better than my Ed. Poor Ed! Think of him, homeless, motherless, wandering down Madison Street. Maybe he was hungry. Certainly he was in rags. And Wanderer asks him to help him. Why shouldn’t the poor boy agree? He couldn’t have known there would be murder. My boy wouldn’t murder. And so he died. God rest his soul. He’s happy now, I know.

And there was talk that a kind man was going to have him buried in Glen Oak cemetery. I told my daughters, and they knew him. And all of us prayed for Barney Clamage, the kind man who buried my son. Ah, that man will always have the luck. A mother’s prayers will always follow him.

I was in the church when the minister preached the sermon that Holy Saturday. It was I who cried out loud when he called poor Ed ‘some woman’s son.’  I wanted to get up and cry out that he was my son. But I didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t. I wanted to go out to the cemetery. But all the carriages were filled. There was no place for me; and I stood on the sidewalk and cried as the last of the carriages disappeared down the street.

We kept it a secret, the three of us. But, O, I am glad the secret is out. I have wanted to talk about my boy for so long, I have wanted to tell what a gentle child he was, how there wasn’t a bit of harm in him at all.”

For her part, Nellie Ryan never wavered that her dear son was indeed the unfortunate victim. In 1938, 17 years after having come forward and proclaimed the Ragged Stranger as her dear Eddie, she attended the funeral of Barney Clamage, the man who paid for the burial of her son. She spoke of how she cherished the memories of his generosity in saving her son from Potter’s Field and wanted to pay her respects.

Edward Joseph Ryan was the last person identified as the Ragged Stranger. In a coming blog post I will explain in detail why I believe that he was indeed the Ragged Stranger.


Coming Sunday, September 2- A Doctor, a Lawyer, and a Minister Walk Into a Bar

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


This blog aims to fill in the gaps where there is unknown, correct fallacies where they 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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