Old Pal, Why Don't You Answer Me?- The Hanging of Carl Wanderer

The day before his pending execution on September 30th, Carl’s last hope to stay among the living was a second stay of execution or to at least get his sentenced to commuted to life imprisonment. Governor Len Small, still under indictment for embezzlement, held Carl’s fate.

“I am of the opinion this is a case in which the governor is not justified in interfering with the verdict of the court and I therefore accept the verdict of the division of pardons and paroles.”

Governor Len Small, in a signed decree, denied any additional stays of execution for Wanderer. The Illinois governor then decried the fact that his office was the last option for clemency for a death sentence. Capital punishment in and of itself was unjust the governor stated.

Assistant Jailer Morris Lochner had the duty of breaking the bad news to Wanderer. Calling Carl over to his bars for a chat, Wanderer waved him off as he paced back and forth in his small cell.

“I haven’t time to talk!”

“Well?” after seeing that the jailer was not going to leave and had a dour expression upon his face.

“The pardon board has refused your request for clemency, Carl.”

“So, what of that? I haven’t asked them for anything!”

“Don’t you want to make some statement?”

Wanderer’s only reply was to continue pacing in his cell. He whistled a light tune while he paced. Sheriff Peter Lawrence arrived on Murderer’s Row and came to Carl’s cell. The Sheriff belied his emotion for the killer as he avoided eye-contact and struggled to get out the words, “All right, Carl, the governor says you hang tomorrow. Pick up your things and we’ll go the death cell.”

“That’s all right, Lawrence. Nothing to yap about. I’m all ready to go.”

Carl grabbed a worn magazine and pulled from beneath his bed a newspaper clipping of a picture of him and his dead wife. Staring at it he slowly, carefully folded it and placed it in his jacket pocket. He had dressed for the occasion with all new clothes brought to him by his family. His silk shirt with a starched collar poked out beneath the gray suit. His new tan oxfords looked out of place on the worn, dirty floor of his cell.

“Come on, Carl, the governor...”

“Well, what of it? I’ve been there before. I ain’t afraid to die. I fought in France. I am ready to go.”

Well wishes were shouted to Wanderer from the denizens of the fifth floor Murderer’s Row inhabitants. “Good-by, Carl. You’ll come back, Carl”

Carl was taken down the elevator to the second floor. Impassively entering the death cell, Wanderer grabbed a seat on his bunk as his guards tried to control the newsmen all wanting a word with the condemned man. Cigarettes, cigars and matches were offered to the soon to be departed. A wave of the back of his hand declined their offers. He was asked about being in the death cell again, a place most people don’t visit twice. He failed to see the irony. “What if I am in the death cell again, eh? I’ve been in this place before.”

Was he hoping for another reprieve from the governor? “No, I’m through with that stuff. Why don’t they get all this over with? This whole business is a lot of hokum. I never sent anybody down to Springfield. I’m not asking anybody to argue and ballyhoo on my account.”

Frank Kordecik, one of his jailers went philosophical and asked Carl, “Do you believe in life after death?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll see you on the other side. If I do, I’ll shake hands with you anyway.”

Having handed off Wanderer to the jailers on the 2nd floor at the death cell, jailer Lochner went about ensuring the scaffold was ready for the next mornings’ job. After filling large burlap bags with sand to simulate Carl’s estimated weight, he dropped them through the trap several times to test the scaffold and the rope. They worked without fault.

It was said that the news of Governor Small denying the last clemency bid hit Carl’s father the hardest. The widowed butcher was now going to lose his only son. He was said to be inconsolable. Meanwhile Carl was having his last meal.

“Did you see what I did to my dinner? Say, I got away with the largest meal I’ve had in a long time. Cleaned up the plate!” Carl had dined on a chicken dinner sent over from the restaurant across the alley from the jail. Joe Stein, owner of the Noose coffee shop, provided the meal free of charge, asking only for a signed photo from the condemned man.

“You know, I never sent anybody to Springfield to plead for me. It was my pa. He sold everything he got to try to save me.”

After his meal he settled into a game of cards with his jailers Fred Stedman and Alex Frodin and reporters Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Hecht pushed Carl to allow him to publish a purported confession that Wanderer had given him. Carl’s reluctance was due to not wanting his father to know he was guilty; at least knowing him guilty while Wanderer was still alive and would still have to face his father.

“I’d feel like hell if I went out and figured he thought I was guilty. Yes, sir. I want him to think of me as innocent. I don’t want to lose that. See? They’ll never know otherwise on account I’ve got them all convinced the papers are full of nothing but lies about me.”

It was said Carl displayed a gaiety not often seen in condemned men. He sang songs, swore mightily when the cards turned against him, and appeared without a care in the world. Hecht kept pushing him to confess to the real motive.

Ben Hecht’s Chicago Daily News story published September 30th, 1920 and headlined CONFESSES TO THE DAILY NEWS purports to give a firsthand account of the condemned man’s last night. It has been lightly edited for flow.

The September 30, 1921 Chicago Daily News article written by Ben Hecht.

The September 30, 1921 Chicago Daily News article written by Ben Hecht.


“You remember last month you made a complete confession to me and I promised it wouldn’t be printed? I kept my promise and you said if I would you’d sign the same confession and let it be printed after your death.”

“Go ahead. Deal ‘em up.”  Wanderer grinned at the guards

“Your deal” Said Stedman

Wanderer took the pack in his hands. His movements, although calm, were jerky. His hands made violent gestures as if he were chopping wood instead of dealing cards. As he dealt to the reporter…

“Well I killed Ruth and the stranger fella. And I’ll tell you why. But I don’t want to write it or sign it on account of my pa and sisters. They think I’m innocent. Yes, they believe in me and they think everything they read in the newspapers is rotten lies. So, I don’t care if you print it. They’ll read it and say it’s lies. But I’d rather be hanged twice than let my pa and sisters know for sure that I croaked my wife.”

“Now about your reasons for killing your wife and the stranger?” the reporter asked

“Well, it was this way. I killed Ruth first. I didn’t want her to see me kill the other. I know that it was a dirty rotten trick. But ----   ----- (God Damn), I don’t know why in hell I did it. You know, I was afraid that the guy wouldn’t show up. Ruth was interested in the movies and it was raining. And I’d talked it over briefly with the guy and he’d said he’d hold us up in our hallway after we come home from the show.”

“Yes, we know all that. But why did you want to kill Ruth?” the reporter asked

“Well, then, I didn’t want to leave her. She would suffer too much. I couldn’t stand it if she suffered. So, I figured out the only way out was to kill her. And I got this poor boob to frame a holdup [on]. And I killed them both.”

“That’s how it was. Didn’t want to have her suffer, see? Couldn’t stand the idea of the kid coming, see? So, I croaked her. Say, that was rotten, wasn’t it?”

“Why not sign the confession like you promised me?” persisted the reporter, “Ruth knows you’re guilty anyway.”

“Yes, she knows. But she’s with me.”

“You mean you see her sometimes?”

“She’s with me. And I’ll see her soon.”

“Are you going to give the identity of the ‘Ragged Stranger’?” asked the reporter

“Aw, that’s old stuff. I didn’t know him. Just picked him up. He was a boob. Honest. I don’t think anybody’ll ever find out. Because I didn’t know him at all.”

In his first mention of the scaffold, the guards pretended they did not hear. Wanderer persisted concerning his cigar. Sheriff Peters appeared, the Rev. C.V. Sandvoss, a Lutheran minister, had also appeared and the time for the death march was approaching. There was talk of breakfast. But Wanderer had started praying. He was repeating the prayers of the minister. “Nix. Nothing to eat”

His voice had lost some of its clearness. He began to pray passionately and sing, ‘Oh, into your hands I give my spirit’ and repeating the Lutheran ritual after the minister. When he had finished an hour of prayer… the death march started, Wanderer handcuffed now, walked quickly from the second-floor cell to the deathroom. He began to sing. The march started at 7:14.


The original gallows from the Cook County jail that Carl Wanderer was hanged upon. The gallows are currently owned by Ripley's Believe It or Not.

The original gallows from the Cook County jail that Carl Wanderer was hanged upon. The gallows are currently owned by Ripley's Believe It or Not.


The day before what would have been his two-year wedding anniversary, Carl, wearing a white robe, was led to the gallows by the sheriff, jailers and minister. With his arms and hands shackled to his sides he shuffled his feet up onto the scaffold. Again, he sang; a song that some viewed as an ode to the wife he killed. If you would like to listen to the original version…

            “The long night through, I wait for you;

                        Old Pal, why don’t you answer me?

Sheriff Lawrence slipped the noose over Carl’s head and positioned the rope to the left side of Wanderer’s neck in the hope that the noose would break his neck giving him a painless death.




My arms embrace, an empty space,

                        The arms, that held you tenderly,

Carl paused as the noose was tightened snug.

            If you can hear my prayer, away, up there…

                        Old Pal, why don’t you answer me?

A white hood was placed over Wanderer’s head muffling his singing. Hoodwinked, Carl was alone with his thoughts for his last few seconds. The singing stopped and whispered prayers started.

“God have mercy on my soul. God have mercy on my soul. God have mercy on my soul.”

Ninety-Seven years ago today, at 7:19 the morning of September 30th, 1921, the trap was sprung and Carl Wanderer was hanged until dead.


The trap mechanism beneath the gallows of the old Cook County jail.

The trap mechanism beneath the gallows of the old Cook County jail.


And so, our story ends. Right? … well not exactly. If you’ve been paying attention, you know anything Carl Wanderer related is never as simple as it appears. With Wanderer hanged in the morning coupled with the fact that Chicago Daily News was an afternoon paper, it allowed Hecht to be one of the first to write of it. His column that day declared that Wanderer made a full confession to Hecht that the thought of being a father was repugnant to him. This one column is the first time Hecht hinted at Wanderer being a homosexual.

Contrary to Hecht’s claim of a confession, the following day’s Chicago Daily Tribune carried the headline- WANDERER DIES SCORNING PLEA FOR CONFESSION.

The article would report that both of his jailers, Frodin and Steadman said, “Wanderer refused to make any statement of any kind, despite the importunities of a newspaper man who kept vigil with him.”


The October 1, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune article contradicting the previous day's Chicago Daily News.

The October 1, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune article contradicting the previous day's Chicago Daily News.


Conveniently for Hecht, Wanderer was not going to be around to refute the statements attributed to him.

How’s that axiom go… dead men tell no tales….?


The song Carl sang upon the gallows was titled Old Pal (Why don’t you answer me) performed by Ernest Hare, Rudy Wiedoft and written by Sam Lewis and Joe Young, and composed by M.K. Jerome. It can be listened to here…


Our next blog post, coming tomorrow, October 1stA Recap to the Mystery of the Ragged Stranger Story

The finale of our podcast also airs tomorrow, October 1st, A Conclusion to the Mystery of the Ragged Stranger


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