The Treacherous Wanderer

Here's the story of a pregnant woman, a poor boob, and a man in love with the Army.  It all begins with a dramatic article published in the Chicago Daily Tribune on June 22, 1920:



Woman Shot Down at Mother's Door.

The house where it happened... (Photo by The Comtesse DeSpair)

The house where it happened...
(Photo by The Comtesse DeSpair)

Mrs. Ruth Wanderer, 21 years old, was shot and killed last night by a supposed robber as, at her husband's side, she was about to open the door leading to her mother's flat at 4732 North Campbell avenue.

The next moment her husband, Carl, a former lieutenant in the 17th machine gun battalion, had drawn his army revolver and begun a duel with the stranger, shooting him four times and killing him.

The men stood a foot apart and blazed at each other in the darkness. When the duel ended Wanderer fell upon his foe and beat him over the head and shoulders with the butt of his revolver, beat him until the police arrived.

So ended a romance of five years, that began when Ruth was 16 years old and Carl 19.

Man Follows Pair.

The Wanderers have been living with Mrs. Eugenia Johnson, Ruth's mother, since their wedding on Oct. 1, 1919. Last night they went to the Pershing theater. They walked home. Wanderer noticed the stranger in front of Zindt's drug store at Lincoln and Lawrence avenue, but paid no attention to him. The man followed them.

"Ruth went up ahead of me when we reached the house," said Wanderer, telling the story to the police.

"She opened the outer door and I heard her fumbling with the keys to the inner door of the hall. We had some trouble with the lock. I asked her, 'Can't you open it, honey?'

"She laughed.

"'Sure I can,' she said. 'Wait till I turn on the light.'

"And she reached up to pull the little ribbon that switches on the light.

"Just then we heard a man's voice in the outer doorway saying, 'Don't turn on that light.'

"Then he fired twice."

Young Wife Shot Dead.

"I heard my wife say, in a whisper, 'The baby.' I saw her fall. I jerked out my gun, a .45 army revolver, and shot it out with the fellow."

Neighbors told of carrying the lifeless body of the woman up the stairs to the arms of her mother, and of laying her down on the lounge, near which there was a tiny basket, ribboned and laced, which contained tiny garments in pink and blue for the baby that was expected in August.

"How did you happen to be carrying the gun?" Wanderer was asked by Sergt. John Norton of the homicide squad.

"I was held up last December, shot, and robbed of $900. It was my father's money.

"He's a butcher at 2711 North Western avenue. I work for him. I have carried the gun ever since I have been able to get out and around again. I was robbed on my birthday. I was determined that the next time—well, I carried that gun with me all the time."

Card Is Clew to Slayer.

They looked in the pockets of the dead man, trying to find something that would identify him. There was a card ostensibly issued by the John Robinson circus. From this it appeared the holder's name was E. Masters and that he was assigned to "729 dining car, commissary department." There was also a chauffeur's button of union local 906.

He had an army revolver of the same kind and caliber as Wanderer's.

Lieut. Loftus said later the man had been partially identified as a chauffeur for an afternoon newspaper and that his name was either Matson or Watson.

A number of persons summoned by the police viewed the body at Ravenswood hospital, but were unable to identify it.

Husband a War Hero.

Wanderer served three years in the army, most of that time in France, was cited for bravery several times, received the Croix de Guerre and the D.S.C. and was the best pistol shot in his outfit.

Ruth and Carl were to be married four years ago, but he saw that the war was coming and entered the army. He went across as second lieutenant and was promoted to a first lieutenancy. He was demobilized last June—and married Ruth as soon as she could get her trousseau ready.

"No," he said when the police asked him the question, "the man was no old sweetheart. I know there was never any one for Ruth but me."


And this story ends with a song on October 1, 1921:

Chicago Daily Tribune, October 1, 1921


Triple Slayer Goes to His Death Singing.

Carl Wanderer paid on the gallows yesterday morning for the murder of his wife, Ruth, her unborn child, and the "ragged stranger." He went to his death singing. There was no confession of the crime that had shocked the entire community by its brutality unless it was between the lines of the song that in his strident baritone filled the execution chamber:

"Old Gal, old pal; You left me all alone—"

Witnesses had expected that on the scaffold, facing death, he would admit slaying "the only girl he ever had" and the derelict from West Madison street whom he had hired to stage a fake holdup in the vestibule of his home.

But with his arms and legs strapped, the death cap in place and the noose fixed, when the sheriff asked if he had aught to say before sentence of the court was carried out, his only response was:

"Old pal, why don't you Answer me—"

The trap was sprung at 7:19 o'clock. Fifteen minutes later attending physicians pronounced him dead.

So what happened in between these two articles?  How did a hero end up meeting his end at the gallows?
The narrow entrance to the small vestibule. (Oh, I wanted a photo of the vestibule, but I'm not THAT nosy.) Photo by The Comtesse DeSpair

The narrow entrance to the small vestibule. (Oh, I wanted a photo of the vestibule, but I'm not THAT nosy.)
Photo by The Comtesse DeSpair

Well, from the beginning the police thought that Carl’s story didn’t quite add up.  How is it possible that he could end up in a shootout in a tiny vestibule that barely could fit three people?  And how could two bullets end up in Ruth, three bullets in the bum, and another five shots in the floor or wall, and yet there was not a mark on Wanderer?  Wanderer’s calm, emotionless demeanor when talking about his wife’s death didn’t do anything to quench the suspicions either. It all sounded fishy but Ruth’s family declared their support for Carl – insisting he could not have had anything to do with Ruth’s death.  And they might have dropped the investigation and accepted Carl’s story if not for one little detail that turned a dim light of suspicion to a blinding spotlight. The police were still trying to identify the alleged attacker so they took a close look at the gun that was found beside him.  It had serial numbers on the side and police were able to trace its sale back to an interesting source: Carl Wanderer’s brother-in-law, John Hoffman.  Hoffman had sold it to, another coincidence, Wanderer’s cousin Fred.  Verrrrrrry interesting… At this point, Wanderer was arrested for further questioning. His lawyer threatened habeas corpus if the police did not charge him with a crime so the cops knew that time was running out.  They didn’t have enough physical evidence to convict Wanderer of the murders so they set about giving him the “third degree” in that special Chicago style that is still being used today.  Depriving him of sleep, screaming at him, roughing him up, and subjecting him to hundreds of questions finally broke Wanderer and he confessed that it was he who had killed both his wife and the unknown sucker he lured into the vestibule to pin the crime on. Wanderer met the young man in downtown Chicago – where the bums hung out, at Madison and Halsted.  He was standing in front of a cigar shop - possibly the one shown in the old postcard of the same intersection shown below.  Wanderer offered the man a job driving a truck for a wage he could not refuse.  He then told the “poor boob” (yes, that’s what they called him in the Tribune) to follow him home that night, and when they got to the vestibule, ask him for money.
The intersection of Madison and Halsted circa 1920: where Wanderer found his sucker.

The intersection of Madison and Halsted circa 1920: where Wanderer found his sucker.

Later that night, Ruth and Carl went to a "moving picture" at the Pershing Theater (it's known as the Davis Theater now).
The Pershing Theater as it looked when Ruth and Carl went to it. (Photo by Patty Wetl)

The Pershing Theater as it looked when Ruth and Carl went to it. (Photo by Patty Wetl)

The Pershing Theater, uglified with a black awning in its current incarnation as the Davis Theater.

The Pershing Theater, uglified with a black awning in its current incarnation as the Davis Theater. Photo by The Comtesse DeSpair

On the walk home, Wanderer and the “poor boob” exchanged nods at Lawrence and Lincoln and he followed them home and asked Wanderer for the money as they reached the vestibule.  Instead of cash, Wanderer gave him three bullets, and another two in Ruth.  After shooting the “poor boob,” Wanderer smashed his head into the floor relentlessly just to make sure he couldn’t snitch before carrying Ruth into the parlor and beginning The Great Charade.
Where Ruth breathed her last... Photo by The Comtesse DeSpair

Where Ruth breathed her last...
Photo by The Comtesse DeSpair

The story of Ruth's death, as told in a recap of the event in the October 6, 1935 issue of the Chicago Tribune is fittingly melodramatic:

Back in the hallway Carl Wanderer knelt down beside his mortally wounded wife. As he did so another woman, Mrs. Eugenia Johnson, mother of Mrs. Wanderer, ran breathlessly into the hallway.

"Ma," said Carl, "there's been a holdup. Ruth is shot."

As Wanderer lifted his wife from the floor several policemen came into the entrance. They helped Wanderer carry the wounded woman upstairs. On the way she spoke to her mother.

"Ma," she said, "is it real?" Then she added dolorously: "O, my knee—and my side—and my baby is dead!"

Gently she was laid on a bed. "My hand is getting cold," she moaned as her mother made frantic efforts to ease her agony. A little later she cried out the single word, "Mamma!" and died.

(Incidentally, here's Ruth's death certificate.) So why exactly did Wanderer kill his wife anyway?  The answer he gave to police is chillingly heartless: “I just thought of killing her – and decided I had to do it quick while I was wanting to or pretty soon I’d lose the idea of doing it… A man’s place is with his wife and I was always at home. I was always kind to her – but I got this Army idea in my head and decided to follow-up on it… See, I was just tired of her. I didn’t want her any more. I killed her so no one else would have her. I never thought of going in the Army until two days before I killed her…” “The thought of killing anybody doesn’t bother me as much as it would the average person. I’ve put a lot of time in my father’s butcher shop; the idea of shedding blood doesn’t offend me much. Besides that, there’s my Army experience. That taught me not to mind killing….” “Now, I want to be hanged. I want to join my wife in death… Her lying in that vestibule after I shot her… haunts me. I wonder if she will forgive me. I loved her too much to let another man have her. I didn’t want her, myself.  It was the Army I wanted.”  (By the way, psychiatrists at the time diagnosed this desire to be in the Army as "latent homosexuality".) Eventually, after lying in cold storage at the morgue for weeks, the “poor boob” was identified as Eddie Ryan by his mother, who hadn’t seen him for 18 years. Wanderer ended up recanting his confession, claiming it was coerced, and was tried for the murder of his wife.  The defense went for the “insanity” approach, but the jury found him sane and sentenced him to 25-years.  This light sentence did not satisfy the prosecution so they immediately began a second trial, for the death of Eddie Ryan.  Again, the defense argued insanity, and again the jury found Wanderer sane.  This time around they sentenced him to the gallows. Somehow, I don’t think Ruth forgave him. Incidentally, I visited Ruth's grave in Graceland Cemetery today to pay my respects.  She's buried beside her parents in the Johnson family plot.


Ruth and her unborn baby lie beside her parents in the Johnson family plot.

Ruth lies beside her parents in the Johnson family plot.  (Photos by The Comtesse DeSpair)

According to his death certificate, Carl Wanderer was buried in "Mt. Rose" (aka Montrose) Cemetery.  However, when I went to stomp on his grave, the man in the office told me they had no record of a Carl Wanderer. "Maybe he was cremated here, but he wasn't buried."  I suppose that's just as well.

4 Responses to “The Treacherous Wanderer”

  • Michael Cintron Says:

    I owned that house in 1980 for 5 years. I didnt know of the murder that took places there until a neighbor showed me the newspaper clipping. I could tell you some story if your interested. I still have encounters with Ruth. I have lived in 2 other places. And we get along pretty good. She loves to play with the locks!

    • Comtesse DeSpair Says:

      Wow! That’s awesome! I’d love to hear some stories. Do you have any photos of the interior of the house you could share?

      • Mike Cintron Says:

        I’ll check with my kids they might have some. It was before cell phones. They have all their baby pics. I bought the place from an old lady that owned it. The place was never reminded. I let you know

  • Rho Says:

    ..Some cold shit 4 real.. Soo, I too would love to hear any follow-up stories, and/or see photos from the interior of the bldg. ..In any event, decidedly shocking and ungainly behaviour on the part of Mr.Wanderer..(!)

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