Our next few posts are going to focus on a narrative that suggests that Ben Hecht solved, or led to the solving of the Ragged Stranger mystery. Hecht's Wikipedia page states, "While at the Chicago Daily News, Hecht famously broke the 1921 "Ragged Stranger Murder Case" story, about the murder of Carl Wanderer's wife, which led to the trial and execution of war hero Carl Wanderer."
Ben Hecht was one of the most celebrated writers of the 20th century. He was the ghostwriter of Marilyn Monroe’s autobiography. He was the winner of the inaugural Academy Award for story writing (now known as best screenplay) which was one of his two Oscar wins from six nominations; Underworld- won, Viva Villa!, The Scoundrel- won, Wuthering Heights, Angels over Broadway, and Notorious. While he was originally credited with over 70 screenplays, IMDB now credits him with at least a partial writing credit for 165 films including Scarface, Gunga Din, Some Like It Hot, Gone With the Wind, His Girl Friday, Guys and Dolls, The Man with the Golden Arm, A Farewell to Arms, and Mutiny On the Bounty to name a few. His books, plays, and essays include Erik Dorn, Franzius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath, A Jew in Love, 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, and The Front Page.
One thing he did not do? Solve the mystery of the Ragged Stranger. Much of what has been previously written about Carl Wanderer and the case of the Ragged Stranger has been credited back to Hecht, wrongly so, in my opinion. Besides the fact that he was never called to testify at any of Carl Wanderer's three trials, while several other newspaper reporters did testify to their roles they played in the story, Hecht himself never said he solved the crime and the narrative that he did, largely came out well after Hecht's death, an interesting irony we'll get into later.
The notion that Ben Hecht solved the Ragged Stranger mystery is really born of the narrative that Wanderer had a homosexual lover named James. Today's post is going to focus on some of the things that made Hecht tick and his penchant for hyperbole, Friday's post will take a look at some of Hecht's views on sex and how they relate to the Wanderer trial, and next Wednesday's post will touch on Wanderer's alleged lover James and how the narrative of James's existence didn't emerge until over 50 years after the crime occurred.
As you'll see, Hecht had an immense career. With such a catalogue of his life's work to review, I understand that the few things I'm going to share with you may seem cherry picked solely for their sensational nature, and while that's true to some extent (I mean c'mon, just wait until you read some of this...), I believe you'll see these stories for what they are and come to the same conclusions I have.
In a city that has printed more than its share of rapier like wit, the likes of Carl Sandburg, Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and Nelson Algren, to name a few, one writer is about as Chicago as Chicago gets. Irv Kupcinet. In his book Kup’s Chicago: A Many Faceted and Affectionate Portrait of Chicago, Kup wrote of how loose with the truth reporters used to be. Of Hecht he wrote:
“… few reporters have confessed to even wilder escapades. Ben Hecht, for example, delights to recall the days when, with the aid of photographer Gene Cour, he titillated Chicago Journal readers with a succession of downright hoaxes; a series of accounts of piracy along the Chicago River, a major disaster involving a runaway streetcar, and even a description of an earthquake that supposedly shook the North Side.
“That earthquake story,” said Hecht later, “wasn’t such a good idea. I had to quote every relative I had to make it convincing. And creating a ‘fissure’ along the Lake Shore took two hours of hard digging!”
Hecht might have continued his “scoops” indefinitely. But to illustrate a story about an exiled “Romanian princess,” he selected an unfortunate model for his photographs- one of the vice district’s most spectacularly notorious prostitutes. Only Hecht’s promise to cease from such shenanigans saved him his job.
Subsequent work for the Daily News showed Hecht to be not only a good newspaperman, but a gifted creative writer.”
Hecht apparently thought so little of the Wanderer case that it merited but one sentence in the 650+ pages of Hecht’s 1954 autobiography A Child of the Century: Ben Hecht. That mere sentence didn’t speak of Hecht breaking the crime or of an alleged homosexual lover named James. It told of how Carl died singing a song on the gallows.
Hecht would also write in his autobiography of his intimate knowledge not only of Chicago but of sex via Dr. Wilhelm Stekel’s teachings.
“I have lived in other cities but been inside only one. I knew Chicago’s thirty-two feet of intestines. I once wore all the windows of Chicago and all its doorways on a keyring. The headlines of murder, rape, and swindle were but ribbons round a May-pole.”
Of Stekel, Hecht wrote, “A psychoanalyst (like a first robin) appeared with a Viennese accent. His name is Dr. Stekel and he brought the good news to town that chastity was a disease responsible for most of the lunacy in the world, especially among ladies.”
Three years after writing his own life story, Hecht took on the biography of his writing partner Charles MacArthur after he had passed away after years of declining health. Hecht wrote in much greater detail about the Ragged Stranger case and even opened the book telling of how it was MacArthur who broke the case of the Ragged Stranger, along with a little help from Hecht of course.
In the 35 years that had passed since the murder and Hecht’s recounting of the story in 1957 his recollection has changed drastically, fortunately, we have his Chicago Daily News articles from 1921 and 1922 for comparison. Hecht wrote of how Mrs. Wanderer was killed instantly rather than dying upstairs in her parents flat. He said the American Legion immediately got involved on Wanderer’s behalf rather than over a year after the murder.
He wrote that Wanderer was a ‘pansy’, and again referenced Dr. Stekel, this time of reading a book by Stekel in which the doctor wrote that, “homosexuals grew much disturbed when their wives became pregnant. Faced with the proof of their unwanted manhood, they sometimes become violent.” Hecht wrote how he lectured “chief Norton”, rather than Sergeant Norton, about his theory and only after that lecture did Norton call Wanderer back in for a second interview and learn that Ruth Wanderer had been pregnant.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that one of the detectives that arrived on the scene would have been able to determine that the seven-month pregnant Ruth, who lay dead next to a crib and baby clothes, had indeed been pregnant.
Hecht also recounted what would be a troubling story if true. He wrote, “A bartender named Andy put in a bid for the corpse. He laid it in state on the end of the bar and doubled his business. Hundreds passed through the saloon to see if the Ragged Stranger was known to them and paused to shake their heads over a beer.” This lying in state story can only, by the very loosest sense, be based on saloonkeeper Barney Clamage and his paying the fees to give the Ragged Stranger a proper burial.
Later Hecht told another story that is too good to be true. Hecht wrote that Chicago started the practice of only “partial(ly) embalming” murder victims as they were delivered to the morgue. Writing of a “powerful-looking Negro” named Walter who was the assistant keeper of the morgue, Hecht told of a morgue mystery of corpse mutilation.
“Every week or so some animal gnawed off part of a cadaver. Wallie turned out to be the culprit. He suffered from periodic throwbacks to cannibalism. He had tackled an undertaker’s reject and a dose of embalming fluid put an end to him. After the matter was cleared up…the rule of half embalming the bodies went into effect.”
Periodic throwbacks to cannibalism? Are you kidding me?
Hecht’s recounting of the story has many small errors- gun C2282 originally being sold to John Hoffman rather than Peter Hoffman who Hecht states was a friend rather than brother-in-law of Fred Wanderer. That Hecht and MacArthur were the only reporters that Wanderer would play cards with, Hildy Johnson and Harry Romanoff were other reporters that were known to play with Wanderer, though the talk of rummy here gave Hecht an opportunity for a great line. Speaking of MacArthur’s card playing prowess Hecht wrote, “He held a hand of cards in his large fingers as if they were bandages, and he played them with equal misunderstanding.”
Hecht would end the Wanderer talk in MacArthur’s biography with the first mention of he and MacArthur collaborating on a letter they penned for Wanderer to read on the gallows. The letter would have disparaged both the reporter’s respective editors but Wanderer reportedly didn’t read it because Hecht and MacArthur forgot his hands would be tied to his sides.
In his 1963 book Gaily, Gaily Hecht delved into greater detail of meeting Dr. Stekel, detail that puts both men and their subsequent writings in perspective. He first prefaced the story by saying.
“Although memory is as much a part of me as the features on my face, it has seemingly divorced itself from me, and retired to some lonely attic, without a stairway leading to it.”
He told of meeting Dr. Stekel at the Chicago Beach Hotel for an interview in the Chicago Journal where Hecht worked from 1910-1914.
“Dr. Wilhelm Stekel received me in a crowded hotel suit. He was a tall, paunchy man, with a memorable Vandyke beard. He spoke determined but heavily accented English.”
“‘The sub-conscious,’ said Dr. Stekel, ‘is a masked stranger inside us, a sort of stowaway in our soul. He whispers to us to join him in perverse sex activities to which we are consciously opposed.'”
Hecht’s editor at the Journal delighted in the tenor of the story and told Hecht, “Our readers will be thrilled to learn they are all potential lunatics who want to stab their fathers or go to bed with their mothers.”
The editor, knowing Hecht’s reputation had to ask, “You haven’t made this all up have you?”
To which Hecht replied, “No sir. It’s ninety-five per cent exactly what Dr. Stekel said.”
Next week... a Hecht story about Dr. Stekel that will blow your mind.
A new blog post Friday, September 21- Ben Hecht Plays Where's Waldo's Head?
A new podcast episode is out- Podcast Episode #7- The Governor is Doing What?
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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