True Crimes Of The Century: The 1920s

By Nathaniel Whelan on May 15 2020 in History

Leopold and Loeb both confessed to a murder and were sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Leopold and Loeb both confessed to a murder and were sentenced to 99 years in prison.
  • Carl Otto Wanderer hatched an elaborate murder plot after learning that his wife was pregnant.
  • Famous Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor was found dead in his Los Angeles bungalow two months shy of his fiftieth birthday.
  • Leopold and Loeb planned the perfect murder to prove that they were intellectually superior to the police.

The decade following the 1910s is known as the Roaring 20s for its economic prosperity and break from tradition. Waking from the grim coma that was World War I, Americans experienced a new age of elegance and class, of glamorous parties and wild extravagance. But behind the razzle-dazzle, there was still plenty of bloodshed. In this second part to World Atlas’s True Crimes of the Century series, discover elaborate plots, deadly Hollywood scandals, and a murder that was intended to be "the perfect crime." This was the real world of the 1920s.

In case you missed it: True Crimes Of The Century: The 1910s

The Case of the Ragged Stranger (1920)

Carl Otto Wanderer was the son of German emigrants. After a short stint with the Illinois Cavalry, he became a lieutenant in the army, fighting as a machine gunner on the Western Front during World War I.

Wanderer returned home to Chicago in 1919 and was greeted as a hero. He soon married Ruth Johnson—a girl he met at church—and moved in with her family. When Ruth announced she was pregnant, Wanderer grew distant, voicing his desire to reenlist in the army.

On the night of June 21, 1920, around the time Wanderer and Johnson were expected home from the theater, Ruth’s mother heard gunshots in the hallway. She rushed to the scene and found Wanderer walloping a man in ragged clothing with his service pistol. Her daughter lay dying, having taken several bullets to the chest. She was seven months pregnant. According to Wanderer, the attacker had tried to rob them.

Receiving extensive press coverage, Wanderer was once again exalted as a hero. Two investigators, however, saw through the ruse. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur grew suspicious at Wanderer’s indifferent manner regarding his wife’s murder. They also thought it curious that the assailant—whom the press was referring to as the ragged stranger—was carrying an expensive handgun when he had less than $5 in his pocket at the time of the attack. They eventually discovered that the gun had once belonged to Wanderer’s cousin. That, plus the fact they found $1,500 of his wife’s money in his possession, was enough to bring him in for questioning.

Wanderer initially denied the accusation, but when Hecht revealed that they had also found love letters addressed to him from a man called James and that this mysterious paramour was coming to meet them, he confessed to everything. Wanderer had only married Ruth for her money. When he found out his wife was pregnant, he had hired the attacker to play a part in a scheme. Under the impression that they were merely going to stage a fight so Wanderer could look heroic in front of his wife, the man agreed. When he revealed himself the night of June 21, however, Wanderer shot them both.

He was found guilty for killing his wife and given a 25-year sentence for manslaughter. He was tried separately for killing the attacker and was convicted of first-degree murder. In the end, Wanderer was executed on September 30, 1921. The ragged stranger was never properly identified, but most experts believe it was a man named Al Watson.

William Desmond Taylor (1922)

Born in Ireland, William Desmond Taylor immigrated to the United States in 1890. By 1912, he had settled in California where his career as a silent film star and director was well underway. He left Hollywood briefly to serve during World War I but returned to continue his work as if nothing had happened. Taylor was suave and well-liked. He had even been elected president of the Screen Directors’ Guild.  

However, his illustrious career came to an end on the evening of February 1, 1922. Silent film comedienne Mabel Normand was over enjoying cocktails at his Los Angeles bungalow. Shortly after she left, a neighbor looked out the window after she heard a loud bang and saw a person in a long coat standing outside Taylor’s bungalow. The mysterious figure was casual and even met her gaze. Assuming the bang had been a car backfiring, she thought nothing of it.

Taylor’s butler arrived the following morning around 7:00 am and found his employer dead in the living room, two months shy of his fiftieth birthday.

Representatives from Paramount Studios arrived first on the scene, seizing all their correspondences with Taylor and burning them in the fireplace. Mabel Normand also returned, trashing his bureau in search of her own letters. At the time, Hollywood was already facing extreme backlash from the murder trial of comedian Roscoe Arbuckle and other wicked scandals. Not wanting the police to find anything incriminating, they had successfully compromised the crime scene before the detectives arrived.

Initially, it was believed Taylor had died from natural causes. It was not until the body was turned over that the detectives noticed the bullet hole in his torso. Nothing had been stolen, so robbery was not the murderer’s motive.  

Besides Normand, for obvious reasons, there was a slew of other suspects: Mary Miles Minter, a young actress with an obsessive infatuation with Taylor; Charlotte Shelby, the overly possessive mother of Minter who was living vicariously through her daughter; and Edward Sands, a crook and army deserter who worked as Taylor’s butler in 1920.  

Regardless, no one was brought to trial, but Normand and Minter’s careers were effectively over. With all the other star-studded scandals of the time, Taylor’s death increased pressure for those belonging to the Hollywood community to watch their behavior.

Almost a hundred years later, William Desmond Taylor’s murder, to this day, remains unsolved.

Leopold and Loeb (1924)

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb came from privilege and were brilliant young men. Leopold graduated from the University of Chicago at the age of eighteen. Loeb graduated from college even younger, at the age of seventeen, with interest in criminal psychology.

Leopold and Loeb were set up for success, which is why their actions are all the more shocking. On May 21, 1924, they kidnapped Robert “Bobby” Franks, the fourteen-year-old son of a wealthy watch manufacturer and Loeb’s second cousin.

They plucked him off the street. As Leopold drove through heavy traffic in a rented car, Loeb stabbed him several times in the backseat. Franks bled out on the floor. They dumped his body in a previously selected culvert and disposed of his clothes in various other locations.

Their motive: to get away with the perfect crime. Leopold and Loeb considered themselves so intellectually superior to the police that they wanted to prove they could outsmart the law. They spent months planning the murder of Bobby Franks, carefully orchestrating every detail from the method of kidnapping to the disposal of the corpse. They even sent a ransom note demanding $10,000 to Franks’s father to throw the police off their scent.    

The body was found the following day, along with a pair of eyeglasses. Investigators traced the spectacles to an optometrist who was able to narrow the search down to three people, one of whom was Nathan Leopold. Leopold spun some yarn about losing them bird hunting, but all fingers were pointed at him after a quick comparison of his handwriting with the ransom note.

Leopold and Loeb both confessed although each one argued that they had been the driver and the other the actual murderer. Their trial snagged the attention of the nation. Because of their wealth, they were able to secure Clarence Darrow as their defense attorney. Rather than argue their innocence, however, Darrow expressed his opinions regarding the death penalty and the inhumane methods of punishment of the American justice system. Both Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to 99 years in prison.  

The two remained friends in jail. They even helped expand Stateville Penitentiary’s school system to include high school and junior college curriculums. In 1936, Loeb was killed in a straight razor fight with another inmate. Leopold was released on parole in 1958. He moved to Puerto Rico, where he died of a heart attack in 1971.  

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