The Spirit World on Trial

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Convicted of murdering his wife and the Ragged Stranger and being sentenced to death, Carl Wanderer had another lifeline as he went to trial for a third time. Unique to this trial would be that under the arcane 1845 law that allowed Wanderer’s appeal, no mention of his previous crimes could be made. The trial would only focus on Carl’s mental health and sanity from when he was sentenced to death on April 16, 1921 up to when the trial was being held on June 20, 1921. Wanderer’s new attorney, Francis Walker, had to show that in those two months, Carl had gone insane. If the attorney could do so, Wanderer would be remanded to an insane asylum where he could potentially be released in as little as a few years.

Judge Joseph David would again be on the bench for the trial and would again provide some captivating moments. In an effort to paint Wanderer as insane, many of the witnesses spoke of Carl talking to ghosts, particularly his wife Ruth’s spirit. Little did Wanderer’s defense team know that Judge David held strong beliefs on the subject.


June 29, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune

June 29, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.


The defense was first to present their case and their first witness was Wanderer’s former lead defense attorney, W.D. Bartholomew.

“Have you noticed anything queer about Wanderer of late?” asked Wanderer’s current attorney Francis Walker.

“Yes. He told of hearing strange voices in the darkness. He recognized one as that of his wife. He mentioned a fountain he had seen at the jail. (Quoting Wanderer) ‘Sometimes in the soft stillness of the night, a fountain played near my couch. From the sparkling waters beautiful, black clad women emerged, flirted a moment and then fled, their warm kisses upon my lips. Birds twittered, strange voices penetrated the silences.’ Carl pointed to a light at the ceiling, ‘See anybody up there?’ he said. He asked me if I’d bring some clean clothes for his wife, as hers were all dirty.”

Later in the trial, alienist Dr. Alexander Herschfield testified for the defense and was cross-examined by prosecutor William Scott Stewart.

Mr. Stewart: “Now, doctor, can you give me the symptoms noticed during your study of Wanderer?”

Dr. Herschfield: “There are several reasons which enter into my final decision. I gave him the insanity tests, and his reactions were sometimes bad. He lacks orientation.”

“Just what do you mean by that, doctor?”

“Well, I asked him where he lived, he answered in a hotel. I asked him where he had been immediately after we left Judge David’s courtroom. He said he had been to see King David, the man in the black robe. He had delusions. He saw fountains. He said his wife had gone to heaven and that he had talked to her.”

Judge David could not contain himself any longer, “Supposed I told you that I saw Caesar playing golf with John D. Rockefeller, would you have any way of telling whether I was joshing you, or whether I was suffering from a delusion?”

“No, I couldn’t say for sure” Dr. Herschfield admitted.

The alienist then spoke of his examination with Wanderer and the questions he asked him and the answers Carl gave.

“How do you know your wife is in heaven?”

“She tells me so. I see her at night before I go to bed and sometimes during the day when I am in my cell, especially if I am reading the bible.”

“But how do you know she is in heaven?”

“Because she speaks to me in heaven.”

Again, Judge David halted testimony. The judge seemed incredulous that anyone would imply that a belief in speaking to spirits in the afterlife would classify someone as insane.

“You don’t mean to argue that because Wanderer says he saw spirits he is insane? I cannot stand for that. Why look at Sir Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge. You wouldn’t say they were insane, would you? They are men whose sanity no one dares to question and they believe in spirits. Until such theories are disproved, the world will have to hold them in respect.”

The attorney tired to explain himself, “I do not claim that men like Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are insane. I do contend though that if I were to ‘see’ my mother who has been dead for thirty years, I would think myself insane.”


June 28, 1928 Chicago Daily News

June 28, 1928 Chicago Daily News.


Later, alienist Dr. Dennis Russell opened the afternoon session with testimony explaining his examination of Wanderer and his subsequent diagnosis finding Wanderer insane. “(Wanderer)…appeared to be listless, had no interest in what was going on, and was slow in responses.”

The alienist then made the mistake of mentioning Wanderer seeing ghosts and visions in his cell. Before he could finish his thought, he was cut off by Judge David, “You aren’t trying to discredit the spiritualists, are you? They declare spirit communication is possible.”

“I’m not trying to do that. I am only considering that one symptom in relation to all the rest. I cannot believe that he is anything other than insane.”

Despite the histrionics of the trial and while his defense made their closing arguments in a third attempt to save to his life, Wanderer again nodded off and slept serenely in court.

Wanderer’s third and last time before a jury of his peers ended meekly. The jury returned their verdict in a little over an hour’s time. The jury balloted to elect a foreman and then balloted once more to determine Wanderer’s sanity. Chief clerk, Ferdinand Scherer announced the verdict was unanimous. The jury found he was sane on April 16th at his original sentencing and he was sane now.

Said Judge David announced the penalty, “He is sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead.”

Judge David said Wanderer’s hanging would be Friday July 29, 1921 upon the gallows in the Criminal Courts building at 54 west Hubbard.

Wanderer stood like a tired solider as he was given the verdict. His hair was longer yet thinner than before, he was a bit more slight, but other than a few minor appearance differences, he took the verdict like he had the last one; stoic. His father, sitting in the first row behind him, the breath taken from the butcher, slid back in his seat. The father knew all too well what this final verdict meant. The State of Illinois was going to hang his son to death; barring the governor getting involved, that is.

Wanderer lamented to reporters that he dreaded being hanged on a Friday. At every turn, whenever things had gone bad for Wanderer, it invariably happened on a Friday. It was on Friday that Wanderer planned his crime, it was on Friday that police saw through his hoax, it was on the next Friday that he was arrested, a jury sentenced him to die on a Friday and he lost his insanity trial appeal on a Friday. He wished he could be hanged on Saturday, “Or even Thursday. I’d feel better.”

While Wanderer was dreading that Friday, the city of Chicago was looking forward to his date with the noose. In an effort to tamp down the fervor over Wanderer’s death, Sheriff Charles Peters had to declare that hangings are not, “pink teas” adding, “Only the usual number of invitations will be issued.”

The Sheriff refused requests from many prominent Chicagoans, men and women, who wished to attend Wanderer’s execution. “If people had their way, a hanging would be about as exclusive as a union depot.”

The lucky few that would receive invitations found them to read, “You are invited to attend the hanging of Carl Wanderer at the county jail.”


July 21, 1921 The Wichita Beacon.

July 21, 1921 The Wichita Beacon.


With Wanderer less than 10 days away from being executed and the Illinois Supreme Court unlikely to take up his case, Wanderer’s last hope lay at the feet of the Governor of Illinois, Len Small.

Fortunately for Carl, the governor was a noted death penalty opponent.

Unfortunately for Carl...



July 21, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune

July 21, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.


July 21, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune

July 21, 1921 Chicago Daily Tribune.


July 20th Just over a week before Wanderer’s hanging, Illinois Governor Len Small, his Lieutenant Governor Fred Sterling, and co-conspirator Verne Curtis of Grand Park Bank were indicted for embezzlement, conspiracy to defraud, and confidence game charges.

Small, first elected to the governorship in 1920 with the backing and support of Chicago’s political machine, had been treasurer of the state from 1905-1907 and again in 1917-1919. The trio were alleged to have skimmed funds from public monies while Small and Sterling served as Treasurer and deputy Treasurer respectively.

Though charged separately, collectively the scheme was alleged to have skimmed what would be nearly $25,000,000 today with the governor pocketing nearly $7,000,000.


Alleged embezzlers Governor Len Small and Lieutenant Governor Fred Sterling.

Alleged embezzlers Governor Len Small and Lieutenant Governor Fred Sterling in July 20, 1921 Chicago Daily News.


July 21st With Wanderer’s execution one-week away Governor Small, under the advice of his attorney, fled the governor’s mansion for parts unknown and declared he would not allow himself to be arrested. The governor believed himself immune from charges while in office and said that submitting himself to arrest would set a dangerous precedent that he did not want to establish. At least that was his story. Instead, the governor went into hiding.


July 21, 1921 Chicago Daily News.

July 21, 1921 Chicago Daily News.


July 28th The day before he was to be executed, reporters once again gathered around Wanderer’s cell and found him to be reading Longfellow’s Evangeline. He was awaiting transfer to the death cell to spend his last night before his execution and reporters found him jovial and singing; “The bells are ringing for me and my gal, the bells are ringing for me and my gal.”

The reporters asked him how he felt. Said to be wearing trousers, "pressed as for a saunter down the boulevard" Wanderer, in his familiar bravado, told the reporters,

“How do I feel? How do I feel? How do I look? That’s my answer to that. I’m a soldier and I’m ready to go. When the bugle sounds I’ll be ready.”

Later that day while Carl was moved from Murderer’s Row to the death cell, Attorney W.D. Bartholomew went to appeal his case in Springfield under the expectation that the governor would be in the state capital. The trip did not get off to a terribly successfully start though.

First the division of Pardons and Paroles turned down the appeal from Bartholomew with the board having said that Wanderer’s sentence was appropriate to the crime.

The Illinois Supreme Court then turned away any additional appeals for Wanderer’s case refusing to look into the matter any further.


July 28, 1921 Arkansas City Daily Traveler out of Arkansas City, Kansas.

July 28, 1921 Arkansas City Daily Traveler out of Arkansas City, Kansas.


Bartholomew had assembled the Wanderer family in Springfield; father Charles, sisters Hattie and Laura had all made the journey downstate to plead for Carl’s life. The attorney gave the family the bad news that nearly all avenues had been closed.

The only remaining hope was for a commuted sentence or stay of execution from the governor, but with Governor Small now believed to be in Chicago and changing hotel rooms almost nightly to avoid reporters and arrest, he told the family to be prepared for the worst; making the trek back to Chicago to see Carl hanged to death.


A new blog post coming Wednesday, September 12- The Chicago Political Machine Meets Carl Wanderer

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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