A Doctor, a Lawyer, and a Minister Walk Into a Bar

The trial for the murder of the Ragged Stranger had featured testimony from multiple alienists, as psychiatrists were known back then, and some of the testimony did not sit right with the presiding judge.

Today, we'll look at a quest to find the meaning of a then-common psychiatric term that is now considered somewhat offensive, as well as a truly horrifying and offensive treatment option for mental illness.


April 22, 1921 Chicago Daily News

April 22, 1921 Chicago Daily News


The trial judge from the Ragged Stranger case, Judge Joseph David, was on a bizarre quest to find the answer to his own question; what is a moron?

Weeks after the Wanderer trial ended and apparently still exasperated with his encounters with the alienists in the that trial, Judge David interrupted an unrelated trial he was on the bench for, to quiz close to a dozen of the top alienists in the city about what the definition of a moron was. The trial the judge was presiding over was for a man named Samuel Adlatz, who today would be said to have learning disabilities, but back then was described in testimony as a 'moron'.

The judge was unclear on the definition of the term and seeking to get a clearer understanding of it, the judge, without the prosecution or defense asking for this, subpoenaed a dozen alienists that had testified in recent trials to individually explain it to him. At least that was what the judge said.

The alienists and the reporters, however, were in agreement that Judge David was calling the alienists in for retribution to settle a couple old scores. It was said the judge resented the alienists getting paid by the prosecution $100 a day (About $1,300 in 2018 dollars) for their ‘expert’ testimony and his subpoenaing of the alienists forced them to appear in the judge’s courtroom gratis to discuss the definition of ‘moron’. Talk was also that the judge felt upstaged in his own courtroom by scientists flouting scientific terms and then explaining themselves to the judge and court as though they had lesser minds than the alienists themselves. The judge did not like being shown up, especially in his own courtroom. So, while he thoroughly examined the first alienist, Dr. Sidney Kuh, another ten or so were left to wait in the hall until being beckoned by the judge.

One of the subpoenaed alienists who wished to not be named in the paper commented, “I understand the judge wants to get even with those who replied tartly to him when he asked questions during the Wanderer trial. I was told that he had a hypothetical question to ask us; that he expects our answers will vary and we will show ourselves up.”

Among those dozen alienists waiting to offer their definition of a moron were; Dr. Harold Moyer, Dr. James Whitney Hall, Dr. Clarence Neyman, and Dr. Florence Fowler, all who testified in one or both of the Wanderer trials.

“You are an expert on mental disease, are you not, Dr. Kuh?” asked the judge, as he stressed the word expert.

“Well, I wouldn’t say so. I have specialized in them, however, for about thirty years.”

“Well, Dr. Kuh, what is a moron?”

“The term moron is not a standardized term. It means a high-grade imbecile whose defects are less on the intellectual side than they are on the moral or ethical sides.”

“Oh, that clears that up” derided the judge.

The judge also ranted against the standardized questions that many of the alienists had referred to at trial. One standardized question in particular drew his ire; "There seems to be an event the house of my neighbor. First a doctor arrived, then a lawyer arrived, and finally a minister arrived to the house. What do you think is occuring?" Several alienists testified for and against Carl Wanderer's sanity and used this question in their diagnosis. Judge David made it clear he believed anyone comprehensive enough to come upon the standardized answer, 'a death', would also be comprehensive enough to fake their way past such questions.

In referencing the trial at hand the judge rambled through a lengthy hypothetical situation about the very real defendant, his alleged crimes, and the subsequent description of Mr. Adlatz as a moron. The judge asked,

“Now would you say that this man is a moron?

“Judge David, what is the purpose of this inquiry?”

“For your information, Doctor, I will explain. So many experts have come into this court and testified to so many things that I would like to find out something from an unbiased witness.”

“Well, Judge David, I cannot pass upon this man’s mentality through the medium of this hypothetical question.”

Another Alienist when cornered by the judge told him, “A moron? Well, a moron is a colloquial term for an individual whose rating under the Simon-Binet system comes within the classification of a child between the ages of 7 and 12.”

Doctor after doctor was called in and asked the same hypothetical question by Judge David who heard the same answer in one form or another from each and every doctor. The waiting alienists had heard about the question and compared notes while the judge had them cooling their heels outside his courtroom waiting for their turn to be questioned.

And yet...after all the questions from the judge and all the testimony of all the experts, Ben Hecht would close his story with his unsatisfied take on the matter- "The question remains open; what is a moron?"


April 22, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.

April 22, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.


For those unfortunate to be actually suffering from mental illness, early 20th century treatment options were not promising. At the Ragged Stranger trial, one alienist had told Judge David about the different options as to being cured of mental illnesses and one of the options mentioned was the work of Dr. Henry Cotton at the Trenton State Hospital in New Jersey.

Mental illness was theorized to be the result of several maladies, often having nothing to do with one's brain or central nervous system. Some gems from Dr. Cotton's 1921 book, The Defective Delinquent and Insane: The Relation of Focal Infections to Their Causation, Treatment, and Prevention are featured below.


A healthy brain starts with a clean brain.

Mental Hygiene- the prevention of mental disorders.


The 'nervous child' should be kept from school until his affliction is cured.

The 'nervous child' should be kept from school until the symptoms disappear; they should be kept from excitement and given plenty of rest both day and night; milk and eggs should be eaten between meals; teeth and tonsils should be inspected and extracted if infected; and the child should not be allowed to become constipated. Or, the cause of a child having nervousness could just be an infected appendix. Medicine in 1921. 


In another frightening look at how far we’ve come medically, Dr. Cotton was held in somewhat high regard at the time for his work with mental illness. Cotton believed that mental ailments were the result of infections in the body that needed to be removed in order for the illness to be healed. In the case of the 44 year old woman featured below, her dizziness and vertigo were treated by having, "all of the upper teeth and the molar and bicuspids of the lower jaw were extracted, but with no apparent benefit." She later had her tonsils removed and still later had a portion of her colon removed. All of this to fight dizziness and vertigo. 




It was until the mid to late 1920’s that Cotton’s seemingly successful practice of surgically removing teeth, testicles, ovaries, spleens, or tonsils to treat mental illness was found to be based on falsified and exaggerated cure rates. Rather than having an 85% cure rate as he boasted, the real numbers were closer to a 35% death rate for those he operated on.

Whether he was a charlatan like so many others back then, or a true believer, when it came time to put up or shut up, he didn't back down. As his false practice was being exposed, Dr. Cotton supposedly lost his mind. His cure... to extract several of his own teeth of course. Something he had also done to his wife and children.



A new blog post coming Wednesday, September 5- Wanderer Appeals for His Life

A new podcast episode 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.


To have this blog emailed to you, type your email below and click the "create subscription" button. The emailed blog is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

Leave a comment