A Recap to the Mystery of the Ragged Stranger and Carl Wanderer

In our first blog post and podcast episode, I mentioned how I first learned of the Carl Wanderer and the Ragged Stranger mystery through a book on ghosts. The personal tie to this story of living in the house where the murder happened has been interesting to say the least. First, reading about the story in a book on haunted houses was enough to make the hair on my neck stand on end. I love a good mystery but horror or paranormal activity stories aren’t typically my cup of tea.

That said, while I haven’t seen Ruth’s ghost patrolling the street out front of the house, I have had one occurrence that while not supernatural, wasn’t 100% normal. One night I woke in the middle of the night to what I believed to be my wife, calling my name from the front of our apartment. I don’t typically remember my dreams a great deal and never to the point where I wake up. This night though, I swore I heard her calling me and it seemed so real that it got me up out of bed to investigate. I searched the front of the apartment and didn’t find her so I opened the front door and stepped into the vestibule and again didn’t find her. Finally, standing there, I remembered that she was in New York City for the weekend and couldn’t possibly have been calling me.

If you couldn’t tell by now I’m a bit of skeptic of most things and without seeing a ghost with my own two eyes I can’t call this an encounter with a spirit. Though, speaking of spirits, in full disclosure there was a bit of gin drank the night in question and since that night the only spirit to make a reappearance has been the gin.

While not a moment of any paranormal type, another ‘aha’ moment came while standing in the vestibule and picturing the events happening. In the course of standing where Carl would have been and going over the events in my head, I remembered of Carl telling how he had nearly shot himself in the foot while drawing both guns. Moving over the thin entryway rug in the vestibule, one tile in the entire floor has been replaced, right where Wanderer would have been standing. Goosebumps.

In researching this story, the one character that proved most elusive was unfortunately the one that deserved to be remembered in the best possible light. Ruth, from what I’ve found, was a wife that would have made any man proud. Her choice in men may have been her only fault. That Carl was the only man she ever loved is one last insult.

I’m glad I haven’t been able to find a photo of a pregnant Ruth. This story was dastardly enough as it was, to take out an unborn babe just goes to how unconscionable Carl was. Another moment that sent shivers up my spine was when after compiling the true ‘x’s and ‘o’s of who was standing where in the vestibule I realized the position of Ruth, or more precisely, the position of Ruth’s near eight-month pregnant belly. Where Wanderer was standing, the barrel of his .45 could not have been more than one foot away. Absolutely frightening the cold-bloodedness Wanderer displayed.

Ruth is buried in Graceland Cemetery just north of Wrigley Field and for the past couple years, I’ve been going to her grave a few times a year. The earth was trying to swallow up the Johnson family headstones but fortunately, she is not forgotten. Through my research I found a distant relative of Ruth’s through Ancestry.com and that person had visited her grave in the past and had helped prune back some sod so her stone could be found. I continue to do the same on my visits. Nearly 100 years later, Ruth is not forgotten.

Ruth Johnson's grave in Graceland Cemetery.

Ruth Johnson's grave in Graceland Cemetery.

Carl’s grave on the other hand has proved more elusive. His death certificate lists Mt. Rose Cemetery which seems to be a typo for Montrose Cemetery on the northwest side. Though his death certificate lists it as the cemetery of record, they say they have no records for Wanderer having been buried there. With the animosity felt towards Carl, it would not be a surprise if his family had him buried in secret in order to prevent his grave from being desecrated.

The war records of Carl Wanderer, and of most our World War I veterans, were destroyed in a fire at the National Archives in the 1970’s. The only recoverable record I was able to obtain from Carl’s war service was his last pay voucher with the only new information gleaned from that document being that Carl left his service with a $58.32 payday (A little less than $700 in 2018 dollars) from the Army. A July 13, 1920 story in The Washington Times printed a statement from the U.S. War Department that listed some of the particulars of Wanderer’s service; enlistment date, units he served in, rank promotions and discharge dates.

The July 13, 1920 The Washington Times states that Carl Wanderer never won any commendations for valor and his war service was from 1912-1915 and from 1917-1919 meaning he was not chasing after Pancho Villa in 1916.

The July 13, 1920 The Washington Times listed out many crucial details to Carl Wanderer's war service, details largely lost in a fire in the 1970's .

After learning what unit he was in I was able to trace that unit’s movements through the Order of Battle of The United States Land Forces in the World War published in 1931 by the Army War College and detailed each divisions makeup and deployments. The information in the war manuals tallied with a fascinating war diary I found from Private Paul Lesher, a young soldier from Transfer, Pennsylvania. Pvt. Lesher was assigned to the 17th Machine Gun Battalion that, at that time, Sergeant Wanderer was part of. While Lesher’s diary never mentions Carl by name, his experiences as far as what he saw and where he was were used to set the scene of training in Georgia and fighting, or more accurately marching, in Europe.

A letter home his mother from Private Paul E. Lesher of Transfer, Pennsylvania, member of Wanderer's 17th Machine Gun Battalion in the American Expeditionary Forces.

A letter home his mother from Private Paul E. Lesher of Transfer, Pennsylvania, member of Wanderer's 17th Machine Gun Battalion in the American Expeditionary Forces.

Through my research of Wanderer’s war service, I found many things that the timeline of events that I had thought I had known and had pictured in my head were vastly different than reality. The fact that Carl was enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Mexico while World War I raged in Europe had been lost on me. Carl’s time in Europe provided several eye openers to me; the fact that Carl re-enlisted in 1917 and then did not reach France for another year after that, landing less than four months before the armistice was signed, again made me reevaluate what I thought I knew. And not to be understated; the sacrifices and horrors experienced by the soldiers, nurses and civilians in that war far exceeded what I knew and are truly awe inspiring to me.

Carl was executed despite continued and documented mental frailties that likely would have spared his life had this occurred today. Whatever his diagnosis, he would be in familiar company on death row today. In 2015 there were about 3,000 prisoners on death row with 300 of those being U.S. Military veterans having served in our defense in every conflict from the Korean War up through current deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mental illness whether hereditary or a result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or other causes is too often overlooked until something horrific occurs. Our heroes deserve better care and attention before something brings their plight to light.

While there is little doubt to Wanderer’s guilt, the fact that Carl, of questionable mental condition, could be interrogated for days with the same questions over and over led me to gain a greater understanding how a false confession could come from a suspect weakened both mentally and physically by a team of trained interrogators who often won’t quit until they get some sort of confession regardless of the veracity of that confession.

Carl’s confession truly is a Q&A rather than a ‘tell us the story’ type of confession. Of 218 questions, Carl answers 96 questions with a one or two-word answer. When nearly half of the confession is bare affirmations or negations, are you getting a true confession from the criminal or a confession put into that criminals weakened mind by trained detectives after 16 hours of relentless questioning?

In the confession Carl sounded like a broken man right off the bat; trying to please his interrogators with what he thought they were looking for. He was able to fill in some details of the ‘when’ and ‘how’ but not the ‘why’. His interrogators couldn’t grasp the lack of a ‘why’ and tried to force different motives to him. The striking differences between the questions asked by Coroner Hoffman, a former grocer with no formal training before entering politics, and the questions asked by the state’s attorneys with law degrees, makes it easy to see why we moved away from politicians and towards lawyers and doctors to hold such inquests. His questions are not only leading, a few times he pulls the interrogation away from valuable and compelling testimony from Carl.

One of the most interesting aspects of the confession is that even while confessing to a triple homicide, Wanderer cannot help but to sprinkle his confession with lies. Barely 20 questions in Carl lies about talking to his wife about the $1,500 she withdrew from the bank. Why lie about that during the midst of a murder confession? Later in the confession, he does it again. Is Carl such a pathological liar that even while trying to tell the truth, he can’t help himself but to lie? In speaking of the act of killing his wife he does it again when he says, “I did not want to shoot my wife” despite the fact that the muzzle of the gun could not have been further than 1-2 feet from his wife when he shot her in the tiny vestibule. He never meant anything else but to shoot her.

Another troubling part of the confession surrounded Carl’s explanation, or lack thereof, of how he had convinced the ‘Ragged Stranger’, who supposedly came to meet Carl on the pretense of being offered a $25 a week job driving a truck, that rather than driving a truck, he was going to commit a holdup of Carl and his wife in a robbery attempt. The Ragged Stanger had no problem going from a steady honorable job, to committing a felony?

Towards the end of the confession it becomes very apparent that Carl was a tired man with a heavy soul coupled with somewhat limited intelligence. The police and state’s attorneys were almost incredulous that Carl had put such little planning or thought to what he would do after the murder. The fact that he would forget the $1,500 in his bureau drawer, that he had no getaway plan, and the fact that he had not thought that the serial numbered guns would be able to be traced all confounded the lawmen.

Wanderer may not have had a solid gold brain but he did have a lead gut. Pork and beans after retelling the story of killing your wife, her unborn child and an innocent hobo. That takes guts.

After his confession, had Chief Justice Robert Crowe, initially allowed Carl to plead guilty as he tried to before being assigned an attorney, Chicago would have saved over what would be $600,000 in today’s money, his father wouldn’t have spent his life savings trying to defend him, and justice would have not been so delayed.

Wanderer was hanged in the morning of September 30, 1921 which, with the Chicago Daily News being an afternoon paper, allowed Hecht to be one of the first to write of it. His column that day declared that Hecht, Charlie MacArthur and Carl’s jailers had played cards all night while Wanderer made a full confession to Hecht that the thought of being a father was repugnant to him and that was why he killed his wife.

This one column is the first time Hecht hinted at Wanderer being a homosexual. He referenced ‘degeneracy’ and wrote that Wanderer spoke of a lifelong aversion to women. Wanderer said he was always “straight” and “couldn’t stand being alone with her (Ruth) or having to touch her” according to Hecht and such talk therefore proved Wanderer to be, “ignorant of the fact that he was confessing himself to be an out-and-out pathological character.”

The language of the day has changed a great deal and words often didn’t mean then what we assume them to mean now but Hecht made it known without printing it that he believed Wanderer was a homosexual. Or he believed that being the only reporter to work the ‘homosexual’ angle would sell more papers. The morning edition of the following day’s Chicago Daily Tribune would quote both jailers that played cards with Wanderer and Hecht throughout the night while Wanderer made his purported confession to Hecht; both jailers stated that no such confession was made.

I believe from this one article of questionable veracity, a narrative has mushroomed into Carl Wanderer being a homosexual with a lover named James. As I hope I’ve made abundantly clear in previous posts, how that narrative was created is, to borrow a word, repugnant.

I believe Edward Joseph Ryan was the Ragged Stranger. I would love to be including in the book the bombshell information I uncovered in the case that equivocally said Mr. Soandso was indeed the Ragged Stranger but alas, I didn’t find it.

Eddie Ryan lived a hard life in his short time before fate introduced him to Carl Wanderer and brought him into that vestibule that night. I’d like to hope those hard times hadn’t forced him into prior robberies or other nefarious deeds and he simply wanted an honest job and met Carl Wanderer, one of the most dishonest men the Ragged Stranger would ever meet. Whatever led him to be clad in rags, whether traumatic horrors in war, hard times or vice; he died a stranger. A final indignation, leaving this world anonymously.

In Episode #5 of our podcast and in the blog post that wrote of Barney Clamage having paid to have the Ragged Stranger given a proper burial, I told of pacing through Glen Oak Cemetery looking for the Ragged Stanger’s grave and how I had been unable to find it. Well, in subsequent trips to the cemetery, and with the help of an extremely helpful cemetery custodian that had been there for 30+ years, I was able to find the grave and confirm that no headstone had ever been interred. To mark the grave a caretaker and I pounded into the ground a thin, wooden stake not much bigger than a paint stir. Written with a black sharpie is the grave number A122 and the last name as listed on his index card in the cemetery’s files, Stranger.

At some point in the future, we will be launching a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for the headstone, he was supposed to have long ago. It will read, “Here lies the Ragged Stranger… born…unknown…. Died- June 21st, 1920”

More details to come… If you haven’t already, The Ragged Stranger blog has an easy email signup below if you would like to stay informed of future developments. We never share your information or send out an unnecessary emails.

Section A of the Glen Oaks Cemetery in Hillside holds grave 122 where the Ragged Stranger is buried.

Section A of the Glen Oaks Cemetery in Hillside holds grave 122 where the Ragged Stranger is buried. A GoFundMe campaign will be launched in the not too distant future to fund the purchase of a proper headstone for the Ragged Stranger. 

A follow up to this project is currently being researched and written and will tell how Eddie Ryan was given up for adoption at the age of 6 after the death of his father and went to live on a farm in South Dakota until the age of fifteen when he left to “go see the world” as he wrote in a letter to his mother. How fate led his journey from the dusty plains of South Dakota to his death in a tiny vestibule in Chicago eight years later will be told in- Eddie Ryan: The Life of the Ragged Stranger.

Carl Wanderer was a charming man when he wanted to be. He had many female admirers before and after Ruth and his charm was not limited to women; his father-in-law and brother-in-law fell for his guise as well, going so far as to hire an attorney for the man that murdered their dear Ruth. Most likely Carl would be termed a psychopath today. His indifference to human life, his impulsive and narcissistic behavior, his detached emotions, and his trouble telling the truth are but a few of his mental defects that would line up with such a diagnosis. Without being able to subject him to modern examinations, the impact of hereditary insanity from his mother and uncle will never be known nor will the trauma to his brain caused by baseballs, falling from horses, or running into things.

Despite his travails and troubles, I in no way believe Carl a victim. His hands are bloody, he committed terrible crimes and any and all penalties he received were justly earned. I believe his confession to be a reasonably true admission of guilt yet the circumstances surrounding how that confession was gained are less than ideal. His confinement for those three days culminating in the sixteen-hour ‘third degree’ would have been a ‘get out of jail free’ ticket for Carl had they happened today. Also less than ideal was his trial before Judge David without even getting into the peculiarities of Judge David himself. I have no qualms with Wanderer being tried for his wife’s murder and the Ragged Stranger’s as far as double jeopardy is concerned but anyone who believed the Ragged Stranger jury would come up with a verdict other than a death sentence must not have been reading the Chicago papers. The anger of the populace was stoked by the newspapers and pretty much guaranteed that there would be no compromise verdict the second time around.

Yet justice was served. Eventually.

 

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