The Chicago Political Machine Meets Carl Wanderer

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Carl Wanderer had first been sentenced to 25 years in the penitentiary for the murder of his pregnant wife Ruth. He was then convicted of murder for killing the Ragged Stranger and sentenced to die by hanging but escaped his first date with the noose, June 17 1921, through some clever legal maneuvers his attorneys made to get him a trial on his sanity. After he was found to be sane in yet another trial, his execution was rescheduled for July 29, 1921.

One of his last hopes was Illinois Governor Len Small, a noted death penalty opponent. Unfortunately for Wanderer, the governor and his lieutenant governor, were indicted for embezzlement the week before Carl's scheduled execution and had gone into hiding. This sad state of affairs was said to have been the first time in our nation’s history that a sitting governor and his lieutenant governor had been indicted while in office.

The Chicago Daily News set the scene of the political landscape at the time and the fight between Chicago and downstate-

The grand jury action has made a breach in the Republican Party in the state that never will heal between the present leaders. This breach has been growing ever since Fred Lundin gained control of politics in Chicago and when he picked up Len Small and made him his candidate for governor the fight was extended downstate.

The Republicans backing State Treasurer Miller and Attorney General Brundage in this investigation are looked upon as the better element of the party and really the majority wing.

Ever since Gov. Small was proclaimed winner in the primaries a year ago, his title has been looked upon as cloudy. Politicians and others knew the election was stolen for him in Chicago by the city hall machine, but there was not time enough under the law to contest.

He carried but seventeen counties downstate and … he is considered as representing the minority wing in state politics, in spite of the fact that he sits in the executive office.

Afraid of capture in Sangamon County, the governor and his confidants relocated to the friendlier confines of Chicago. If arrest came, he hoped it would be in Chicago so that legal standing for the trial was in Cook county rather than Sangamon county. The governor knew a Chicago jury could be controlled and would likely guarantee his political survival.



July 28, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.

July 28, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.


In an effort to clear his name, and smear others, the governor, had a letter he had written printed in the newspapers. I don’t know much about Governor Small other than a couple dozen newspaper articles I’ve read about him but it’s kind of frightening how some of his nearly 100-year-old letter feels like it could be written by a current politician who believes his attorney general, members of his own party, and the press are conspiring against him.


The Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois published July 30, 1921.

The Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois July 30, 1921.


You, who elected me governor by the greatest vote ever given a chief executive in Illinois, are entitled at this time to a frank statement from me concerning the indictment returned against me today by the Sangamon county grand jury. For the present may I not ask you to accept from me with the same confidence which you accepted my candidacy for governor, assurance to you that, I am absolutely innocent of any charges which the public may consider brought against me by the grand jury, after a one-sided hearing, in which personal and political enemies were heard and I had no voice.

Attorney General Brundage, leader of the conspiracy, has succeeded in obtaining this indictment simply because of the personal fury I aroused in him because I refused to permit him to take from the taxpayer’s pocket $1,500,000 for the upkeep of his personal political machine. I found it necessary… to cut Mr. Brundage’s appropriations $700,000. As I explained to you at that time I had no hesitancy in doing this, because Mr. Brundage had been using your money, not for the enforcement of the law or for the welfare of the state, but purely for his own selfish political desires. Evidence of that fact is available.

So, Mr. Brundage not only desired my political assassination, but he proceeded with the machinery at his hands to accomplish that fact. The Chicago Daily Tribune, gladly lent the aid of its powerful press in the spreading of Mr. Brundage’s propaganda. The Chicago Daily News, owned and edited by Mr. Victor Lawson, not only a tax dodger of record himself, but spokesman for the millionaire tax dodgers of Chicago, who refuse to bear their just proportion of taxes, rushed to the aid of Mr. Brundage and the Tribune.

So, Mr. Brundage came to Sangamon county, the only county in the state where he had any hopes of securing an indictment against me. While it may seem amazing that any grand jury could do this thing, still I am not surprised that a Sangamon county grand jury, dominated by an organization protecting the most vicious criminals and brazen law violators to be found in the state of Illinois, has taken this action.

I am absolutely innocent of every charge they make. They, better than anyone else, know I am innocent, and that they can never prove the charges, which are simply brought for the purpose of character assassination through the public press of Illinois.

The people of the state of Illinois elected me on the pledge that I would honestly serve them. I have served them to the best of my ability, saving them many millions of dollars. I will continue to honestly and faithfully serve them with every particle of strength and ability I possess. And I am not afraid of the final verdict, which will come from you, the great people of Illinois.

Governor Len Small


And then it happened. William R. McCauley entered the scene. The Illinois commander of the American Legion had been told that a possibly insane veteran of the Great War was about to be executed. Dr. James Whitney Hall, defense expert at all of Wanderer’s trials, had previously been a major in the Army Medical Corps during the war and told McCauley that the ‘horrors of war’ had warped Carl’s mind. The doctor asked, how could a man who had fought for his country be executed for acts committed after going insane during his defense of the country? McCauley agreed and drafted a letter to the governor pleading for a 60 day reprieve for Wanderer.

“If Wanderer is sane he should be hanged. If he is insane he should be locked up for life. Information has reached me which creates a doubt in my mind as to his sanity. I feel that if sufficient time is granted for you to appoint a commission to make a thorough examination as to his sanity no great harm can come to the people of the state of Illinois. Every safeguard possible should be thrown around a man where the question of sanity is raised.”

The letter was presented to a sympathetic state Supreme Court justice who then read the letter over a long-distance telephone call to the governor’s son Leslie who was in hiding with his father at a Chicago hotel. While still on the call, the son relayed the substance of the letter to the governor by whisper in his ear. After a brief consultation with his advisors the governor agreed to the request. He would grant Wanderer a  60-day stay until September 30th. In the meantime, Governor Small would consider the appointment of another independent commission to determine Wanderer’s sanity once and for all.


July 29, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.

July 29, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.


Shortly before 5:00 o’clock in the evening, the day before he was to be hanged, Wanderer, like a cat with nine lives, learned he had cheated the gallows. He left the death cell unlike few before him, knowing he would live to see another day.

The governor’s friend and advisor, former congressman James Graham, spoke to the press and expounded on the good fortune of Wanderer. Had the governor given in to the arrest sought by his political enemies, he would not have posted bond as the governor was innocent, of course, and rationalized that posting his bond would be a tacit admission of guilt- and sitting in a prison cell of his own, the governor would have been unable to issue the 60-day stay. Graham implied that the political machinations against the governor might have led to the state of Illinois executing a ‘shell shocked’ veteran. The governor’s accusers would have had Carl’s blood on their hands for not allowing Wanderer his due process.

Carl Wanderer again had another chance to escape justice.


The Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois, published July 30, 1921.

The Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois, July 30, 1921.



A new blog post coming Friday, September 14- A Sheriff in Jail, an Impressive Family Tree, and More Tales from the Periphery of the Ragged Stranger Story

Latest podcast release 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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