Lillian Gish Presents a Distraction in the Coutroom

Carl Wanderer had been found guilty of the murder of his wife and unborn child and been given a prison sentence that could be shortened to 13 years with good behavior. That compromise verdict came on a Friday and was the talk of Chicago, and the country for that matter, until the following Tuesday which would be the first day the women of the United States would be able to cast a vote in an election. While the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified on August 18, 1920, the November 2nd election would be the first time that ladies would be taking to the polls.

Days after Warren Harding was elected President, Carl was moved under heavy guard and cover of darkness from the Cook County Jail to the penitentiary in Joliet where he was largely forgotten about until his trial for the murder of the Ragged Stranger started in March 1921.

With women now on voter rolls and registrations, it was assumed that before too long women would be seated across the nation in courthouses on juries dealing with the nation's legal issues. It was likely with such an eventuality in mind, that Wanderer's lawyer in his trial for the murder of the Ragged Stranger, Warren D. Bartholomew, hired a women attorney to assist him in Wanderer's defense. No sooner had Irene Lefkow been hired for the defense, than the prosecutors countered the maneuver by hiring a woman of their own, Miss Bessie Sullivan, to assist in the prosecution of Wanderer. It was said that it was the first time in Chicago legal history that two women would work as attorneys on opposite sides of a murder trial.




Despite the passage of the 19th Amendment and the women lawyers working on the case, Chicago and many other municipalities were slow to allow women to serve on a jury and it would be years or decades before they were finally allowed to serve. Shortly before Illinois passed a law in 1939 explicitly putting women on juries, one Illinois politician's comments summed up the views of the past, "The jury box is no place for a lady. You know the kind of sordid crimes and sex matters that are presented in courts?"

Twelve men would be deciding Wanderer's fate.

At Wanderer's second trial, his new lead defense attorney Bartholomew, took a new tactic at this trial. He fully admitted that Wanderer had shot and killed the Ragged Stranger but only because he was insane with the intellect of an 11 year old. The defense largely allowed the prosecutors to put on their case with little cross examination and it when it came to the defense's portion of the trial, they trotted out Carl's family and a string of alienists, a term of yore for psychiatric doctors of all sorts.

The testimony from the alienists was largely technical and boring which led Carl to find the slow proceedings tiring. The man in the room with the most to lose, lost the battle against boredom and fell asleep. Sitting in his chair between two burly bailiffs, the defendant’s chin bobbed up and down as he nodded off, oblivious to the fight for his life going on around him. Being led from the courtroom at the next recess, reporters asked how his cat naps were and if the trial was boring him.

“It’s awfully slow. What’s the matter with ‘em?” Carl replied.

The only amusement the trial offered was the antics of the trial Judge Joseph David who openly mocked the alienists testifying and fought with both the prosecutors and the defense attorneys.


The March 12, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.

The March 12, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.


March 13, 1921 The Washington Herald

March 13, 1921 The Washington Herald


The 12 men of the jury, and all the other men in the courtroom, were said to be quite distracted one day towards the end of the trial. In preparing to listen to the testimony of what was at least the 10th alienist to testify, the courtroom was abuzz as one of the trial's murder fans that day was also one of the most famous silent film actresses in the world at the time, Lillian Gish. It was said that the rebuttal testimony of one of the state's most important alienists was, "considerably weakened by the counter attraction provided by Miss Gish."

Could such a distraction be just what was needed to get Carl Wanderer acquitted?

Not by a long shot, though certainly no fault of Miss Gish.

29th September 1926: Lillian Gish (1893 - 1993) plays the real-life Scottish heroine of the film 'Annie Laurie', directed by John S Robertson.

The distracting visage of The First Lady of American Cinema, Lillian Gish, had no lasting effect on the jury in the Ragged Stranger murder trial.


Less than 48 hours after Miss Gish had graced the trial with her presence, the jury had heard closing arguments and began their deliberations. After 12 minutes of deliberations, Carl Wanderer was found guilty of the murder of John Doe, as the Ragged Stranger would officially be known as in court documents. Wanderer was sentenced to die by hanging on the gallows.

But... he still had a couple cards left to play.

This trial will be covered in much greater detail in our next podcast episode coming Monday, September 3- Carl Wanderer Goes to Trial for the Murder of the Ragged Stranger. Our podcast archives can be found here if you need to catch up.

Our next blog post is coming Friday, August 24-  Carl, Ruth's Ghost, and the Other Denizens of Murderer's Row


March 18, 1921 Chicago Daily News.

March 18, 1921 Chicago Daily News.





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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  • I have completely enjoyed this series you have presented from the beginning and thank you for your great effort.

  • In reply to Wickdipper:

    Thank you, glad you're enjoying it.

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