The Shocking Murders of Carl Wanderer
Tired of his pregnant wife, he carried out a devious murder plot that shocked the people of jazz-era Chicago
Ruth Anna Johnson was born on December 27, 1898, in Chicago, Illinois. She was the youngest daughter of Swedish immigrants, Charles Johan Johnson and his wife, Eugenia.
Ruth married Carl Oscar Wanderer on October 1, 1919, after a five-year courtship. Carl was a slight, unassuming man with a receded hairline that added to his age of 25 years. He was discharged from the Army in June, after reaching the rank of second lieutenant, and worked as a butcher in his father’s shop. The newlyweds lived with her parents at 4732 North Campbell Avenue in Chicago, Illinois.
Everyone who knew them said they were an ideal match. Ruth was beautiful, not at all quarrelsome, and content to be a housewife.
Although he hated his job as a butcher, Carl was a faithful husband and a decent provider. The Wanderers never missed a service at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, and they were each other’s first loves.
Soon after the wedding, Ruth discovered they were blessed with a little Wanderer, due to arrive in late August of 1920.
Shot in the Dark
On the evening of June 21, 1920, Carl and Ruth went to see the film adaptation of Jack London’s The Lone Sea Wolf at the Pershing Theater. Around 9 PM, Carl told Ruth he was feeling sick and asked if they could go home. Ruth agreed, and they left the movie early.
Carl and Ruth strolled up Lincoln Street, past Zindt’s Pharmacy. Carl nodded his head to acknowledge a stranger passing by. Nothing was out of ordinary, except the chill in the Chicago summer air.
When they arrived home, heavily pregnant Ruth ascended the steps of their stoop while Carl waited at the foot. She fumbled slightly with the lock in the dark vestibule at the entrance of the home.
“I’ll turn on the light,” Ruth said. She reached for the pull-chain to the overhead lamp as Carl made his way inside. Ruth didn’t notice the stranger who pushed past her husband to gain entry.
“Don’t turn on that light!” the stranger commanded, “How about that money?”
Before Ruth could make sense of anything, the sounds of gunshots broke the silence. “My baby!” she cried when she realized she was shot.
Ruth collapsed into the corner of the vestibule and cradled her belly. When the smoke cleared, a man clenched Ruth’s legs. It wasn’t Carl, but the stranger. He was breathing heavily and obviously wounded.
“Carl,” Ruth whimpered, “I’m shot. Get mama.”
Eugenia heard the gunfire from the apartment and rushed to check out the commotion. Carl yelled to his mother in law, “Ma, Ruth’s been shot!” It was clear; Ruth was dying.
Carl jumped on top of the stranger and proceeded to pound his head into the ground. Neighbor James Williams heard the disturbance and telephoned police.
Mrs. Williams helped Eugenia carry Ruth up the stairs. They laid Ruth on a settee to try to assess the damage. “My baby is dead,” Ruth declared.
Carl realized the stranger was not long for the world and ran to be near his wife. He kneeled at Ruth’s side and took her hand and tried to remove her wedding ring. Ruth made a fist and nestled it under her chin.
“Rush her to the hospital!” Carl demanded, “And take the ring off!”
Eugenia knew the ambulance couldn’t possibly get to Ruth quick enough to save her. She put her arms around her daughter, who was losing massive amounts of blood. “Mama, Mama, mama,” were Ruth’s last words. She died within 20 minutes.
The newspapers were sympathetic to Carl. His wife was murdered — shot by a ghoulish fiend who journalists dubbed “The Ragged Stranger,” and Carl avenged her. Carl had a narrative of events that he’d relay in an instant:
“There isn’t much to tell. We’d been to a movie, and this man followed us, I suppose. I was going to turn on the light in the vestibule so as to see the keyhole when I hear a voice, ‘Don’t turn on the light.’ I reached for my gun before I knew what the fellow was up to. He never ordered us to put up our hands, just began to shoot. I was a few seconds late, and that is why she is lying in there.”
But is anything ever that simple? Carl continued to play the part of hero for 18 days before all illusions about his heroism were shattered.
In the cramped, dark corridor with two guns blazing, Ruth sustained two bullet wounds and the stranger took three. There were bullet holes in the walls and floor. Somehow, Carl didn’t have so much as a scratch. The police became suspicious.
“How did you happen to be carrying a gun?” Sergeant John Norton wondered. Carl claimed he was recently robbed, and carried his pistol ever since.
The only physical clue Sergeant Norton had, was the gun beside the dead man. Both weapons were Colt M1911 .45 caliber semi-automatic handguns. Carl received his during his stint in the Army. The going rate for such a pistol was $50, or approximately $645 in today’s money. The guns were identical aside from one characteristic; the gun allegedly belonging to the highwayman was marked with serial number C-2282.
Sergeant Norton wrote a letter to the Colt company requesting information about the owner of this gun in hopes of identifying the dead man. A few days later, police learned it was sold to a man named Peter Hoffman, who, in 1914, sold it to a man named Fred Wanderer. Fred was Carl’s cousin and admitted he loaned the gun to Carl.
Chicago Police arrested Carl on July 6, 1920, And questioned him for 16 hours straight. His only replies were, “Go away!” or “Let me sleep!”
Carl gave contradictory statements but professed his innocence and everlasting love for Ruth.
Carl asserted that he never so much as kissed another girl before he married Ruth Johnson. How could he think of killing her and the baby she carried?
Two days later, a pretty 17-year-old girl named Julia Schmitt came to the police station. Julia was surprised when she read the news of Ruth’s murder because, as far as she knew, Carl was her boyfriend. She had no clue at all that Carl had a wife and baby on the way.
Carl tried to blow it off. She was just a dumb kid that visited the butcher shop. He liked her in the way that people like children, but nothing more.
Julia insisted, not only did he take her on six dates before and after Ruth’s death, but he also wrote her love letters and even kissed her. She gave these letters to the police.
The inquest was held at the Carrol Undertaking rooms, at Ravenswood Hospital. Carl disgusted the men in attendance, who rained down furious questions and demanded answers. Carl stuck to his story even when presented with evidence against him.
Secretary George Kenney thought he might catch more flies with honey.
“Come on, now,” whispered Secretary Kenney, “Think of your dead wife. Think of the baby. Give them a square deal and atone like a man.” The gentle persuasion worked.
Carl asked if he could “police up” before he gave a statement. After a shower and a shave, Carl coldly stated, “I murdered them both,” and gave a full, chilling confession.
The Twisted Truth
A week or so before the crime, Carl realized he was tired of being married and began dating Julia Schmitt, who he called, “a side matter.” The thought of becoming a parent repulsed Carl. He wanted to reenlist in the military. It didn’t occur to him that he would kill his wife until the morning of her death.
He intended to kill her, but first, he was going to get her money. Carl asked Ruth to withdraw her savings so they could put a down payment on a home of their own. She went to the bank happily and placed $1500 in a bureau drawer near the diary she used to document her pregnancy.
At 11 AM that morning, Carl needed to purchase a knife for his father’s butchery. On the way home, he strolled down La Salle to Madison and across the river when he spied a disheveled panhandler in front of a cigar shop on Halsted and Madison. Carl asked the man if he wanted a truck driving job that paid $25 a week. Of course, the man said yes.
Carl gave him a quarter and instructed the man to meet him near the butcher shop on Western and Logan at half-past 6 PM.
After a full day’s work, Carl met the man as planned. The pair got into a taxi and exited the vehicle a few blocks from Fred Wanderer’s house. Carl would need another weapon to carry out his plan. The still nameless man waited a few blocks away while Carl procured the gun from his cousin. The man had no idea he was already complicit in his own murder.
Carl rejoined the fellow where he waited, and they hopped into another taxi. The two didn’t speak until the cab let them off near the Wanderer home.
On the street, Carl asked the man if he wanted to make even more money. Again, the man said yes. Carl told the man he wanted to play a trick on his wife. He only had to meet Carl and Ruth in the vestibule to the house and demand money as if he were robbing them. “I will give it to you. You just get it as quickly as you can,” Carl promised him. They didn’t discuss how much money and still didn’t exchange names.
Carl planned to meet the man on Lawrence and Lincoln between 9 and 9:30 PM. The man agreed, and Carl went home and ate the meal his wife lovingly prepared before taking her to the show.
The man who Carl nodded towards on the way home from the movie was the co-conspirator he’d been plotting with earlier. The nod was a signal to follow him. When he said, “How about that money!” The man was actually asking for his payment for the fake robbery. But Carl had other plans; He didn’t even bother to bring the money. Instead, he opened fire, murdering his wife and unborn baby before killing the only other witness — the ragged stranger.
Carl received two separate trials, one for murdering his wife, and another for killing the stranger. The first trial began on October 4, 1920. Even after the confession, Ruth’s family placed their faith in Carl’s innocence. They couldn’t believe their son in law would commit such a crime. Everyone else in Chicago wanted Carl to hang, including his family.
Carl’s sisters agreed that if he was guilty of the crimes, he should be hanged. However, they introduced the idea that Carl might be insane. He once tried to throw himself from a fire escape to end his life. Also, there was a family history of mental illness; six years earlier, their mother successfully attempted suicide by slitting her own throat.
Drs. John Mahoney and William Krohn separately evaluated Carl’s mental wellness. Both doctors concluded that Carl was perfectly sane. A third doctor, Dr. William Hickson, found Carl to be insane. He diagnosed Carl as a latent homosexual, which may or may not have been true.
The diagnosis was based on Carl’s strong desire to rejoin the Army and, incidentally, primarily associate with other men. In Dr. Hickson’s opinion, this meant Carl possessed sexual desires for men.
Today, many journalists and biographers write of Carl’s sexuality as if he were gay, and therefore a murderer when the first has nothing to do with the latter. It simply isn’t true. Writers today even elaborate on this haphazard diagnosis by including a love interest named James. In truth, James only existed in the writings of Ben Hecht, who covered the story as a young journalist intent on selling newspapers.
Everything was lining up. The prosecution was confident they secured Carl’s conviction and date with the gallows. Then, Carl turned the entire trial on its head. He denied his confession, claiming that he concocted the story to bring an end to the incessant interrogation. He even accused the Chicago police of beating him. As a result, the entire confession was withdrawn from evidence.
Motive became questionable during the trial. Could a man really just tire of his wife enough to murder her? At the time of arrest, he insisted that he loved Ruth. She was the only gal for him, and he the only man for her. Carl claimed he never kissed a girl until he married Ruth. But then there was the letters to Julia and her testimony which proved Carl a liar.
The trial lasted 26 days, concluding on October 29, 1920. As jurors discussed his fate, Carl expressed emotion for the first time since his arrest. He squirmed in his seat and appeared anxious. This time, his life was on the line. The all-male jury deliberated for 22 hours and ten minutes before reaching a verdict that baffled and infuriated the sensible people of Chicago. They found him guilty but sentenced him to only 25 years. After good behavior factored in, Carl would likely be free after 13 years and nine months.
Judge Pam addressed the jury, “A grievous error! You call him a wife murderer and say that he shall pay with 25 years imprisonment. A regrettable error — and mind you, I don’t want to be in the position of criticizing a jury.”
Carl breathed a sigh of relief and exclaimed, “I knew they couldn’t crack me! I owe everything to Ben Short. He told me not to worry — and I knew I’d never swing.” Ben Short was his attorney.
Carl must have forgotten that a second trial awaited him for the death of the stranger. It would be unlikely he’d find another sympathetic person in Chicago, much less 12 of them.
The second trial began on March 1, 1921, in the courtroom of Judge Joseph David. Carl’s new lawyer, Mr. Bartholomew, argued that Carl possessed the mind of an 11-year-old child. He asked the jury not to acquit, but commit Carl to a hospital for the criminally insane.
Carl acted the part. He began pacing his cell, complaining about how his wife’s ghost and the devil taunted him.
Judge David saw right through that defense — seeing spirits did not equate to insanity. Many people claim to see ghosts. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance. Most of them are not murdering in cold blood. Carl might have been morally bankrupt, but he was sane.
Judge David banned testimony from Julia in the second trial. He explained how a man could love two women at once, “It does not follow that if a man seeks the society of other women, he must necessarily have tired of his wife. It is being done every day.”
The trial ended on March 18, 1921. This time, the jury convened for just 22 minutes before the foreman read their verdict; Carl wanderer was sane, guilty, and deserved to hang for his crimes.
Carl’s responded to the verdict smugly, “I hope my mother in law is satisfied. If she is, I am.”
Carl tried to appeal, but each time he did, the verdict was upheld. Guards escorted Carl to the Gallows on September 30, 1921. As the hangman adjusted Carl’s noose and black hood, Carl sang Ernest Hare’s Old Pal, Why Don’t You Answer Me. At 7:20 AM, the executioner sprung the trap that swung Carl Wanderer into the hereafter. If he knew the name of the stranger, he took it to the grave.
To this day, the ragged stranger remains nameless after being misidentified many times. He was a young man, just under 6' tall, and around 150 lbs. His shabby clothes were dirty, but his body was clean. The stranger had a fair, freckled complexion with red hair. He recently had a hair cut, a fresh shave, and even a manicure. He had no lice, or track marks typical of a homeless person in that time and place.
On his person, detectives located commissary ticket #729, issued by the John Robinson Circus to E Masters. He carried only 20 cents. None of these clues panned out to identify the man, though he’s been misidentified many times over.
Saloon keeper Barney Clamage paid for the man’s burial at Glen Oak Cemetery. For now, a wooden stake marks grave A122. The word “Stranger” identifies the man who rests below the grass.