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The Ragged Stranger

(c. 1928)

by Charles MacArthur

Chapter V.

The manner in which Frank Bunge became involved in the affairs of the Ragged Stranger is as follows: In a moment of pet, Mr. Bunge gave his wife a punch on the nose.

He had his reasons. For twenty-five years Mrs. Bunge had suspected her husband of certain shenanigans, without definite proof. Just as she was about to abandon her suspicions, a Mrs. Albertson called with unmistakeable evidence of a blonde. Mrs. Bunge spoke to her husband. This was on a Monday. The following Friday she was just getting warmed up when her lord arose, laid aside his paper, and hit her several hard blows on the head. Following which, he kicked her in the small of the back. This went on for nearly ten minutes, when his rage cooled and he left the house for a glass of beer. He whistled on the way out.

Mrs. Bunge appeared at the West Side police station a little later, demanding a warrant for her husband’s arrest. There was a rare Serbian sunset under her left eye. Her jaw was quite swollen. She was swearing like a sailor lad. The police had great admiration and respect for Mr. Bunge and tried to hush the matter up; but a Journal reporter was Johnnie -- on-the-spot and the next edition of his paper carried a graphic account of the misunderstanding. It was illustrated with a large photograph of the loser, featuring her black eye.

Unhappily, Mr. Bunge was running for Congress at the time.

Now it is a sad fact that two and two make four; that rolling stones gather no moss, and that ill winds frequently blow great good. Mr. Bunge’s enemies instantly pounced on his purely domestic debacle and made the most of it. The reform organizations, especially, regarded his wife’s black eye as the inscrutable working of Almighty God. For many years they had been trying to destroy Mr. Bunge. They had exposed his affiliations with the underworld; they had harped on his ownership of the biggest saloon in town; they had pounded him in press and pulpit, without cessation and without result. His power grew and grew. He ruled his roost like a despot, and all the whips and scorns of the godly only seemed to add to his popularity and esteem. On his side of town it was no disgrace to be a saloon keeper, and his apple-cheeked smile and hearty handshake so endeared him to his constituents that the libels of his foes were completely vanquished. It was well known, for instance, that he loved dogs and children. He enjoyed great popularity in a dozen different lodges and he called every street car conductor and public servant in his district by his first name.

But alas: Wife-beating is not to be excused on the grounds of popularity or anything else. Such conduct strikes at the hearth and undermines the very institution of the home. Nor did Boss Bunge’s followers receive the news of his scandalous conduct indulgently, especially when they learned the antecedent particulars. The Journal’s highly-flavored, round-by-round, description of the battle, maliciously circulated throughout his district, caused serious consternation at the Bunge headquarters. Catastrophe loomed. Ominous rumblings arose from an angry electorate. For the first time in fifteen years he could see handwriting on the wall.

Mr. Bunge’s impulse was to find his wife and give her something to complain about, but his managers, in panic, defeated this design. The thing to do, they reasoned, was to effect a reconciliation without a moment’s delay. Election Day was still a week off, and utter disaster might yet be averted.

A delegation therefore waited on Mrs. Bunge and promised her everything under the sun if she would help undo the damage she had caused. Social opportunities of life in Washington were dangled in front of her eyes. A handsome diamond bracelet was rushed from a downtown jewelry store. A deed was recorded in her name. The blonde was definitely disposed of, and Mr. Bunge was made to apologize for his unspeakable conduct.

Thus placated, Mrs. Bunge promptly denounced the Journal story as a tissue of lies, and stoutly declared that she had received her injuries while hanging pictures about the house. The Journal replied to this explanation with ungentlemanly gibes and editorial guffaws. Moreover its ruthless editor reproduced her badly damaged face on a series of dodgers, in which Bunge was referred to as “One Round Frank, the World’s Champion Welter-Weight Husband.” These injurious feuilletons were broadcast throughout the district, to the great embarrassment of Mr. Bunge’s campaign managers.

In their extremity they took counsel. All agreed that only the grace of God could save their candidate’s bacon. So they sent for Benson, the Record man. Benson was the man for a crisis of this kind. He was a perfect genius for drawing red herrings over hot trails, and Bunge’s managers felt that if his paper, always friendly to their candidate, could divert the public for one week, the storm might be weathered and the day still saved.

The He-Scherezade and Pearl among journalists examined the situation and shook his head. It was a pretty tough break, he said; it would take some fast thinking to get out from under, etc. He smoked a cigarette in silence.

“We got to think up a story that will knock ‘em cold,” he decided. “A real red-hot drama. So good that they’ll forget all about blondes and black eyes and broken hearts and everything else.”

Mr. Bunge’s staff heartily agreed.

“At the same time,” pursued Benson, with a judicious frown, “we’ve got to prove that Bunge is the swellest guy that ever lived -- just a big crock of old fashioned charm. A kindly, simple guy, like Abe Lincoln -- so kind-hearted that he wouldn’t dream of pasting his wife, or any other woman.”

“Attaboy,” said Alderman Kostner.

“The tough part of it is that we got to crowd all that valuable information in one story, and make that story so interesting that everybody will gobble it up.”

Here Benson paused for dramatic effect.

“Well,” he continued, casually lighting another cigarette. “I’ve got your story. I was saving it for a certain little lady in the ‘Follies’ but I’ll be foolish this one time and give it away.”

There were fervent expressions of relief. Bunge impatiently implored Benson to snap into his scenario.

“Listen. Remember the Ragged Stranger? He’s over in the morgue, lying on a cold slab, lonely, friendless -- nothing ahead of him but the Potter’s Field.”

“What’s that got to do with the jam I’m in,” demanded Bunge.

“Get this! You’ve been thinking about the poor kid. See? He’s been on your mind. You know how everybody worries about the Potter’s Field and you feel sorry for him. You can’t stand it. So -- you give him the swellest funeral that money can buy. Savvy?”


“Flowers. Brass Bands. Parades. We’ll waltz him right through the district in an open hearse.”

He leaned forward, excitedly.

“All these ministers that are penning you -- we’ll invite ‘em to preach the funeral sermon. They’ll fall for the publicity angle like a ton of brick. If they don’t, so much the better. We’ll show ‘em up -- we’ll accuse them of being swellheaded -- we’ll ask them what Jesus would do. That’ll hold ‘em. They can’t refuse, without high-hatting a dead bum, and making their Christianity look like thirty cents.”

“What a noodle!” cried Bunge, rapturously.

“Meanwhile you’re the whole show. A swell guy that wants to help a poor down and outer. Big Hearted Frank and so forth. If the Missus looks all right we’ll pose her at the funeral with you --”

Kinky Weiner, Bunge’s chief lieutenant, leaped on Benson’s neck.

“Kid, you’re a life saver,” he cried. “I ain’t heard of a stunt like this since Tommy O’Brien lammed out of the death house the night before the hanging. What an idea! You got Houdini tied to the mast!”

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

Continue to Chapter Six or Return to Charles Gordon MacArthur Page

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