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The Ragged Stranger

(c. 1928)

by Charles MacArthur

Chapter I.

The Ragged Stranger’s career began with his death.

He was strangled rather neatly with a pink silk stocking. That was picturesque enough, especially as the stocking was of a manufacture costing thirty dollars a pair. But the extraordinary feature of the crime, the one really mysterious and bizarre circumstance was: after the murder the body had been smuggled somehow into the apartment of Mrs. Francis Roget Tanner and dumped, fully dressed, into her exquisite Venetian bed. Why, God only knows.

It was the sort of murder story that happens once in a blue moon, and the newspapers made the most of it. Every insignificant detail of the case went smack on the first page; every available reporter was turned loose on the story, and still the public could not get enough.

Poor Mrs. Tanner was driven nearly out of her mind. It did her no good to prove that she had returned from Europe on the day the body was found; that her apartment had been locked all the time she had been away; that she had never seen the man before in all her life and had no idea what he was doing in her bed. All these injured declarations were but fuel to the flames. In time, she became annoyed, which only made matters worse. For unfortunately, Mrs. Tanner was beautiful and socially distinguished and made an ideal foil for the commonplace little corpse. So she was questioned and bullied and photographed and followed everywhere she went for many weeks. Charlie Benson, star reporter for the Record, actually succeeded in opening her mail and exhumed and published every detail of her life from the time she was six. But no old love affair, no instance of blackmail, no recognizable skeleton in the closet presented itself; and reluctantly the newspapermen ceased to annoy her, and turned their expert attention towards identification of the corpse.

Always enterprising, the Record offered five thousand dollars reward for exclusive information on this subject. So did the Record’s most important rival, the morning Journal. Both papers speculated nip and tuck on what manner of man the victim had been. The Record employed a phrenologist to feel his cephalic bumps, thinking thereby to discover his occupation and probable social status. The Journal, in turn, utilized the services of a prominent palmist. Both dickered more or less with spiritualistic mediums.

The corpus delicti was filed away at the County Morgue within a narrow case of glass. As a corpse he was no great shakes, being slight of build, with pale blue eyes and sparse, colorless hair. A weentsy man, weighing slightly over a hundred pounds.

Three days after his installation in the morgue, a Record man achieved a memorable scoop by propping him up and snapping his photograph. Adroit artists retouched the picture and nearly restored the verisimilitude of life. A coat, collar and tie was painted in -- the result appeared as a studio portrait.

Jack Kearney, the sentimental editor of the Record, pondered on a caption that would suit the strange and staring face. He arrived at “The Ragged Stranger,” and so the corpse was known during the eleven months he figured in the affairs of the community.

Ragged he surely was; and a stranger. The clothes he wore when they found him were pathetically thin and worn, almost as thin and worn as his face. And no man knew his name. At least, it was never revealed, and as he lay and shrunk on his slab, the notion that he had ever had a name, or a friend, or had lived at all became less and less probable. He was an interesting object, like a forged will, or a missing diamond ring. Evidence, no more.

To the enterprising editors of the Record and Journal however, he was still a key to a door unopened. His identification signified thrilling possibilities; the utter destruction of the snooty Mrs. Tanner, for instance. So they refused to allow his burial, to the bitter indignation of Mr. First-Search McCool, keeper of the morgue.

First-Search (who received his soubriquet in consequence of his habit of “frisking” such victims as reached his establishment before the arrival of the police) held that no useful purpose was served by keeping bodies in his sepulchres longer than a month. They were often difficult to preserve after that time, as he pointed out in several anonymous letters to the newspapers; for the probable feelings of a man exhibited for so long. For First-Search was a great believer in the immortality of the soul. Further, he was an ardent stamp collector and hated to be called away from his albums to answer a lot of silly questions. In the early stages of the mystery, reporters appeared at the morgue twenty times a day, and for many months afterwards he was pestered morning, noon and night, despite bitter protest that his establishment was no dime museum.

But except for this purely professional concern, interest in the Ragged Stranger frittered away until a certain Sunday afternoon some eight months after the murder.

© 2003-04 The Estate of Charles G. MacArthur. All Rights Reserved.

Continue to Chapter Two or Return to Charles Gordon MacArthur Page

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