Mystery of ‘Ragged Stranger’ lives on after double murder

Posted 2/7/24

On the night of June 21, 1920, a Chicago man named Carl Otto Wanderer was returning home from the theater with his wife of one year, Ruth (Johnson) when it was noticed that someone was following …

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Mystery of ‘Ragged Stranger’ lives on after double murder


On the night of June 21, 1920, a Chicago man named Carl Otto Wanderer was returning home from the theater with his wife of one year, Ruth (Johnson) when it was noticed that someone was following them. The couple made it into the hallway of their apartment building before shots rang out and both the stranger and Carl’s wife fell to the floor dying of gunshot wounds. In the ensuing days, as Carl provided information which didn’t make sense, the tragedy became famously known as “The Case of The Ragged Stranger” and pulled a Warwick man into the scenario.

Twenty-six year-old Carl owned a successful butcher shop with his father and had served in the First World War. According to his initial account of the evening, he took out his gun and shot the stranger after the man had shot Ruth. The couple lived in an apartment with Ruth’s parents and after her mother heard gunshots and came running into the hallway, she saw her daughter expired and Carl sitting on the floor beside the body of the stranger, beating him with his gun. Later that evening, Carl was praised for his heroic actions. But when both guns were traced back to Carl, he decided to make a confession and change the entire story.

Carl’s friends knew he was sick of married life already. He missed the military and the only thing stopping him from doing what he wanted was a pregnant wife. But he explained to police that he was simply attempting to play a joke on Ruth. He said that he hired a man to pretend he was a robber and hold them up when they returned from the theater. There was no joke, however. Upon seeing the man enter the hallway, Carl shot his wife twice in the chest then turned the gun on the man, shooting him three times to keep him from testifying. In the days that followed, the hold-up man lay in the morgue, unidentified.

A photo of the man, who became known nationally as “The Ragged Stranger”, was circulated to police departments around the country. In Warwick, a couple of men were certain they knew who the stranger was, including Riverpoint attorney John Murphy. The man was identified by Rhode Islanders as John J. Maloney of Riverpoint, someone who was no stranger to murder.

The sheriff of Kent County took one look at the photograph being circulated and stated there was no question it was Maloney as he’d kept the man in custody following the manslaughter of 38-year-old Christopher Kenyon in Apponaug on Sept. 16, 1913. Maloney had been found guilty of clubbing Kenyon to death while both were horribly drunk and was sentenced to serve ten years in prison.

Others who looked at the photo of the male victim stated that while it closely resembled him, it was definitely not 34-year-old Maloney, who was tall and heavy-set with black hair and blue eyes. Maloney’s older siblings, Patrick and Celia, were among those who denied the photo was of their brother. The State Prison officials who had set eyes on Maloney for so many years also stated that the victim was not him as the man in the photograph had a sharp, re-clining forehead while Maloney’s was full and high. Finally, the Woonsocket Police Department sent Maloney’s fingerprints, which it had on file, to Chicago where they failed to match those of the victim and it was determined once and for all that the Warwick man was not the famous “ragged stranger.”

Wanderer was sentenced to serve 35 years in prison for killing his wife. On the charge of killing the “ragged stranger,” he was given the death sentence. He showed no response to the ruling, stating, “I don’t care what they did to me,” as he left the courthouse. On the morning of July 29, 2921, Wanderer was led up the gallows at Cook County Jail. The former military man had requested that an America flag be draped there for him but his request was denied. As a dark hood was placed over Wanderer’s head, he was asked if he had any last words and he answered in the af-firmative. He then began to sing a popular Henry Burr song of the time, “Oh, Pal, Why Don’t You Answer Me?” When the trap door was sprung, Wanderer was still singing as he passed through it.

Numerous people went on to claim “The Ragged Stranger” as a friend or relative and the body was finally released for burial although it was never positively proven who the unfortunate man was.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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