You can't look too deep into the Ragged Stranger and Carl Wanderer story without coming across a reference to an alleged homosexual lover of Carl's named James. Wanderer's Wikipedia page describes the situation-
Ben Hecht later claimed that shortly after the killing, he interviewed Wanderer and was struck by Wanderer's happy and seemingly impassive manner just days after his wife's murder. According to Hecht's story, he found articles of women's clothing in a bathrobe and stumbled across several love letters Wanderer had written to a man called "James". Many writers dispute Hecht's account; records of Wanderer's interrogation and trial make no mention of "James." However, a police psychologist would accuse Wanderer of "latent homosexuality" during his trial.
In an attempt to give you all the necessary information to form your own opinion, I've discussed in our last few posts (here and here) how Dr. Stekel may have influenced Hecht's feelings on sex and today I'll attempt to show how those feelings have mushroomed into a narrative that is not born out in facts.
Beyond, or perhaps in support of, Hecht’s feeling that Carl was a homosexual, there are a few other things to look at. One, Hecht was present when Dr. William J. Hickson, director of the Chicago psychopathic laboratory, made his initial examination of Wanderer which led to a diagnosis of Latent Homosexuality. If you’ll recall, this diagnosis was after Carl told the doctor that the reason he had killed his wife was so that he could go back to the army. Wanting to return to the military, surrounded by other men, evidently meant he was gay with what was known then as the Military Complex of Homosexuality.
Dr. Hickson explained; ‘We can now add latent homosexuality to the complication. Psycho-analysis has revealed that a mania for army life is one of the inevitably distinguishing characteristics of woman haters, men with degeneracy... one of the fundamental tests to ferret out from a man whether he is homosexual is to ask him to tell us his dreams. Usually he will try to boast of his masculinity by reciting that he dreams of heroic things, armies marching, battles and deeds of valor. This, however, is invariably a dead giveaway. It becomes at once obvious to us that he has the military complex of homo-sexuality."
While Hecht might have fueled the notion that Carl was a homosexual, he never wrote that Wanderer had a lover named James. When I first started researching this story, I started at the time of the crime, June 21st, 1920, and started working my way forward.
Hundreds of newspapers articles from the Palm Beach Post to the Seattle Star were studied. Court transcripts of testimony given under oath was read. Essay’s and anthologies in magazines and books from the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s were perused. Ben Hecht’s early writings were compared to his later writings.
Nowhere did I find any mention of James or any other hint of anything related to Wanderer being a homosexual, other than the aforementioned Ben Hecht references.
The first mention of James, that I could find, was in Bloodletters and Badmen: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals from the Pilgrims to the Current by Chicago writer Jay Robert Nash. This encyclopedia-like tome of criminals was first published in 1973 over 50 years after the crime was committed.
From the very first words, Carl Otto Wanderer, the entry is littered with several errors as it relates to the story of Carl Oscar Wanderer. Beyond his middle name, his date of birth, his date of death, his nationality, and several circumstances he writes of… are all wrong. And that's before we even get to the James narrative. [Spoilers ahead: the circumstances surrounding Wanderer's death are mentioned below but will be told in much greater detail in our next post, Old Pal, Why Don't You Answer Me? coming Sunday, September 30th.]
I’m going to first review with you the opening summary that Mr. Nash’s encyclopedia has for the entry on Carl Wanderer.
Wanderer, Carl Otto – that’s incorrect, his middle name is Oscar which is documented on his WWI draft registration below.
Born 1887- incorrect, he was born on June 26th, 1895 which can again be found on the WWI draft registration card and age is also referenced on his marriage license and the 1920 U.S. Census form below.
Date of Death- March 19, 1921 – incorrect, his correct date of death was September 30, 1921 as referenced in his death certificate below, Ben Hecht’s September 30, 1921 Chicago Daily News article, and the October 1, 1920 Chicago Daily Tribune article refuting Hecht's tale of a Wanderer confession.
Nash gets the beginning of Wanderer’s background correct- born and raised in Chicago, grade school education who worked as a butcher. But, it quickly goes astray again though- Nash has Wanderer's unit incorrect, wrongly says he served in 1916 as part of General Black Jack Pershing’s Mexican Punitive Expedition to hunt Pancho Villa, and that he came home from France with a "chest coated with medals". The July 13, 1920 The Washington Times printed a statement from the U.S. War Department stating Wanderer never won any medals and that his military service was from 1912-1915 and 1917-1919 meaning he didn't chase after Villa.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. As far as James goes… the narrative as Nash tells it, rather than reporter Harry Romanoff being sent to retrieve the love letter Carl had written to Julia- the circumstances of which, both Romanoff and Wanderer testified to in open court under threat of perjury, Nash replaces that narrative with Hecht instead being the one who found not only a love letter to James but also the $1,500 cash Ruth had withdrawn the day of her murder. This seemingly again goes against testimony from Ruth’s mother, Eugenia Johnson that she had been the one to have found the money.
Beyond his wife Ruth, Carl also dated Julia Schmitt and Grace Horne and had youthful romances with girls named Olga and Etta. Photos of Ruth, Julia, and Grace are below.
It bears repeating here, Nash wrote this over 50 years after the crime happened and was the first one to do so. But, there might be a simple, albeit maddening, explanation for the errors.
Mr. Nash’s Bloodletters and Badmen profiles nearly 500 badmen or gangs with a bibliography in alphabetical order rather in chronological or story specific and in total it references over 600 books, over 100 periodicals as well as dozens of newspapers. Sources that evidently covered multiple badmen were often combined down to Chicago Tribune (1875-1972). It’s a little tough to track down where he gets his facts for the Wanderer entry but I researched over 65 sources of his that might have had mention of the Carl Wanderer story; while some sources do have his middle name wrong or his date of birth, none that I found made any mention of ‘James’.
A later Nash work, 1990’s Encyclopedia of World Crime provides more background. This encyclopedia does list out story specific sources but while the Wanderer entry lists multiple sources, none of them mention James. Tellingly though, a reason the James narrative might simply have been fiction from the start is on the copyright page at the beginning of the 1990 encyclopedia which states, “This volume and all other volumes of the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD CRIME have been seeded with information to detect any unauthorized use or duplication."
Perhaps James was just a seed of misinformation. That’s great for his works getting the proper citations he feels he deserves, not so great for anyone who reads a history book for, you know, history. You would think the ‘True’ in True Crime would preclude such shenanigans but who knows.
Nash has been a prolific writer that has pumped out several crime books including two which claim John Dillinger was not killed outside the Biograph theatre in Chicago, as most historians believe, but that instead, Dillinger choreographed the whole affair to fake his own death and the FBI was too embarrassed to admit they killed the wrong man.
Mr. Nash’s bio he states that he has “more than 50 million words in print under his byline” and “interviewed and befriended”, which is an interesting way to put it, “some of the world’s most fascinating persons including…Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, and… Ben Hecht.”
Now in order to give Mr. Nash the benefit of the doubt, let me put forward a few other scenarios. Perhaps rather than attempting to suss out copyright infringement, the ‘James’ narrative was started after Mr. Hecht and Mr. Nash became friends. Knowing Hecht’s wont for hyperbole it isn’t too difficult to picture the two men swigging Johnnie Walker and smoking Lucky Strike’s or cigars while Hecht regales Nash with tales of Wanderer being a homosexual. How Nash could be the first writer to report this narrative 50 years after the fact, especially as Hecht never reported it himself, can only be guessed at. Attempts to reach Mr. Nash have been unsuccessful.
Again in fairness to Mr. Nash, I did a very informal fact check of his Bloodletters and Badmen. I used a random number generator to select a page number. I fact checked the first full entry on whatever page was selected and out of 20 entries that I checked, there were 17 I took no issue with and only 3 that contained what I would consider to be some significant leeway from other known narratives of the crimes that I fact checked- which by the way, I did like the Wanderer story with multiple, contemporaneous news stories being given more weight than outlier narratives unless exculpatory evidence came out later.
None of these 20 stories had anywhere near the level or errors as Mr. Nash’s entry on Carl Wanderer did.
Unfortunately, in a sign of the ‘copy and paste’ times we live in, this narrative has spread across the internet. The Wanderer/James narrative can be found on websites and blogs regarding murder, wife-murder, child-murder, murder by war veterans, notable Chicago murders and on and on. Many of the biographies of Wanderer on these sites are simply copied from somewhere else on the internet, if not directly from Nash’s book. As is often the case, if a myth is repeated often enough and widely enough it seems to become fact, copyright infringement be damned.
Hopefully, I've given you enough to make your own determination what is fact and what is fiction.
Our next blog post... a special Sunday post, September 30 - Old Pal, Why Don't You Answer Me?
Our next The Mystery of the Ragged Stranger podcast episode, coming out Monday, October 1, will be the finale of our 8 part series- The Conclusion to the Ragged Stranger Story
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