Chicago True Crime: the Story of Carl Wanderer and the Ragged Stranger

By all accounts the man known as Carl Wanderer was a hero. He was a young man born with a kind of desire for adventure. When General Pershing made his foray into Mexico to pursue Pancho Villa during the first part of the the 20th Century, he decided that the Army was the place for him. He was qualified enough to make it to lieutenant and become decorated. When World War I broke out, he excitedly joined his division in Europe and distinguished himself again. He earned several medals for bravery and valor. He returned to the United States as a successful soldier and was considered a hero. However, Carl Wanderer harbored a secret and it was a secret that would have a deadly outcome.

Prior to joining the Army Carl had saved up money and opened a butcher shop. That too proved to be a success. He returned to his civilian life after the war. He even decided that it was time to get married. So, he decided to propose to a woman named Ruth Johnson. Ruth was a bit rotund, but attractive, and their families both felt it was a great match. They endorsed the marriage and things seemed like an ideal situation for all involved. The couple, at first, and to most outsiders, seemed very much in love.

What most of the world did not know, however, was that Ruth was starting to get under Carl’s skin. She nagged him constantly and was constantly in need. When Ruth’s mother came to live with the two of them in their small apartment, things became outright claustrophobic for the family. Carl again became restlessness and, at that point, he found affection that he could not get at home from a woman named Julia, outside his home. At least, that seemed like the only person for whom he found affection.

Around Christmas of 1919 Ruth announced that she was pregnant. Carl was devastated. He reacted with utter dismay and he began spending less and less time at home. He retreated within himself and rarely spoke to anyone and, especially, not his wife and mother-in-law. He was already feeling trapped in his apartment, and now he was afraid he would never be free.

On the night of June 21, 1920, Carl and Ruth went to see a movie. It was an action/adventure film and they began to walk home afterward. Carl would later tell police that he thought he had noticed a “questionable” stranger following them. According to Carl, Ruth walked a bit ahead of him and reached the door to their apartment building first.

As Ruth fumbled with her keys to open the door the man, according to Carl, came up behind them and brandished a gun. He told them to not turn on the light and to put their hands in the air. According to Carl, the stranger then opened fire on Ruth. Two bullets hit the pregnant woman and she crumpled into the doorway. Carl would state to police that he heard the man scream obscenities at him and then Carl removed his service revolver from his own pocket and fired back at the ragged stranger.

The gunfire roused Ruth’s mother. She ran down the stairs and opened the door. She found Carl beating the mass of ragged clothing on the ground with the butt of his revolver. Meanwhile, her own daughter lay dead in a pool of blood. Ruth muttered, reportedly, “My baby…my baby is dead” just before she died.

Police arrived on the scene in minutes. They heard Carl’s story. He even had an excuse for why he was carrying his gun. He stated that the butcher shop had been robbed several times. He was carrying the gun for protection and even suggested the dead and ragged man was part of that crime.

The next day the local Chicago newspapers carried the story. Although the ending was still tragic, Carl was seen as a hero. He had attempted to defend his wife and had successfully killed the man who had shot down his pregnant bride. His war record was reviewed and he soon received several civil awards for his bravery. The problem was, at least two different journalists from two different Chicago newspapers were not buying his story.

Harry Romanoff was a well-known Chicago crime reporter. His editor was Walter Howey, and they started to wonder about the case of Carl Wanderer and the ragged stranger. The first big question was that it seemed very odd that this homeless man was using nearly the exact same gun as Carl. If the man was homeless, wouldn’t such a valuable and rare gun be something that he would sell instead of carry? In fact, the gun was the exact same kind of service pistol that Carl had been carrying. Something about that seemed odd.

Romanoff began to dig. He soon found that the gun used by the assailant had been purchased by a man named Peter Hoffman. Hoffman had, in turn, sold it to his brother-in-law. To Romanoff’s surprise, Hoffman’s brother-in-law was Fred Wanderer – Carl Wanderer’s cousin. When Romanoff then found Fred Wanderer, he admitted that he had loaned the gun to Carl and, again to the shocked Romanoff, he discovered it had been loaned out the very night Ruth had been shot.

Romanoff now felt it was time to confront Carl Wanderer. When he first did so, Carl suggested that it was all a mistake. He continued to deny he knew anything about the gun and even offered several possibilities for how the man might have come into possession of it. The police were brought in with Romanoff’s evidence and Carl was questioned at length. He held out for a long time but, eventually, the police broke him down.

Carl confessed. He confessed that he had grown to hate his wife. When the police checked his apartment they found dozens of love letters written in Carl’s handwriting to a man named “James.” Eventually Carl admitted he was a closeted homosexual and his growing frustration with that and the feeling of being trapped with his wife had caused him to finally snap.

Carl was arrested. He was put on trial and convicted. He was given the death penalty. During his time waiting for his appointment with the gallows, he was studied by many people to try and determine if he was sane.

Carl admitted that he had hired the vagrant to approach him and Ruth. He reportedly told the man that he was trying to look brave in front of his wife and paid the man money to pretend to hold them up. However, instead of handing over some money or pretending to defend his wife, Carl shot Ruth and then the vagrant.

Carl loved his time in the media. He even became friendly with two very popular reporters for two popular Chicago newspapers. There seemed to be no end of the fascination the public had with Carl. That ended when his appointment with the gallows arrived.

Carl was walked to the gallows and when the time was given for him to give his final statement he surprised the hangman by starting to sing. He waved off the executioner when he tried to step forward and put the hood over him. Carl was allowed to sing his song even though the hood was placed over his head after the second verse. When the singing was done, the trapdoor lever was pulled and Carl Wanderer dropped to his death at the end of the rope.

According to the reporters who had become his friends, Carl was actually a pretty good singer.

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