Sentence the Clowns: Chicago’s Forgotten Murder, Manhunt, and Media Circus of 1912.
When asking someone what scares them there are a few things you can expect to hear as possible answers. Common things like the dark, death, spiders, heights, and needles all seem to make perfect sense but some people have a deep fear of something originally intended to have the total opposite effect. With their colorful makeup, exaggerated costumes, and slapstick antics clowns have been around for centuries with the goal being to entertain but more recently their image has become one of terror. It is estimated that 12% of Americans find clowns frightening and they have become the unfortunate bearers of their own official phobia, coulrophobia. It is safe to say that their image has not been helped by popular media. From Pennywise the Dancing Clown to Killer Klowns from Outer Space, some portrayals of these comic entertainers have only enhanced their new sinister persona.
Pennywise the Dancing Clown
But that’s all fiction right? Is there any real reason to see clowns as scary? Well, if you were living in Chicago in 1912 that question may not have had an easy answer.
In the early part of the 20th century Charles Newton Cramer and his wife Mary were entertainers who spent their lives traveling with the circus and earning money from their various acts. Mary dubbed herself as “The Queen of Burlesque” but also performed as a lion tamer while her husband fulfilled various roles, the most popular being his alter ego of Conway the Clown. By 1912 the Cramers (who often used the last name Conway) found themselves living in Chicago, Illinois and in early October of that year Mrs. Cramer stood inside Union Station awaiting the arrival of her friend, heiress Sophia Singer and her fiancé Will Worthen. Cramer and Singer became fast friends several years earlier while residing in the same boarding house and after parting ways they continued to write to each other. It was approximately two years later when Singer wrote to her friend about her plans to elope with Worthen and Cramer immediately offered that they come and stay in Chicago before marrying. After meeting at the station Singer and Worthen told Cramer their intention of getting a hotel but Cramer had another plan insisting that they should all rent a flat together. Singer fell in love with the idea immediately and before long the three were residing in a three room apartment in the city.
At first the three got along very well but soon Cramer began to regularly comment on how she wished her husband could be with them. Mr. Cramer was away in the town of Muncie, Indiana but Singer happily offered Cramer the money to have her husband travel back to Chicago and join them. She immediately accepted the offer and five days later Mr. Cramer arrived at their apartment.
The exchange of money from Singer and Worthen into the hands of the Cramers was something that became a regular occurrence. According to Worthen he and his fiancé paid for the room, food, and all other expenses for the entire three weeks that they were together in the apartment. The simple reason for this was that the Cramers did not have the money, but their financial history was not as straightforward. Charles Cramer came from a prominent family and was left with a sizable estate when he parents died. His wife Mary was a member of a successful opera company for several seasons before switching gears into the world of burlesque. What the pair did to squander their savings is unknown but by the time they were living in Chicago with their friends the Cramers were surviving on handouts that they skillfully drew out of people.
A postcard featuring the Cramers circa 1911
What may have started as a good time among friends began to decline alongside Singer’s bank account and after three weeks she and Worthen decided it would be best that they returned home to Baltimore. Although the decision was not meant to be a slight against the Cramers the news did not go over well with the two who had grown very accustomed to the free flow of Singer’s money. Due to a landlord dispute the four ended up moving together into a new house a few blocks from where they were staying but the atmosphere grew colder before turning outright creepy. The Cramers behavior toward their visitors turned hateful with them refusing to speak to Singer and Worthen and rudely turning down lunch invitations. While this may have been hurtful to the pair their urgency to move back to Maryland increased after an incident where Singer claims Charles Cramer showed her a doorknob that had a handkerchief and a shoelace tied to it. He told her that the rigging was what he used “to knock ‘em down”. It was the same phrase he later said to Worthen when he randomly showed him his slingshot. Two days later Worthen learned what he meant.
October 28th 1912 began as a normal day for Will Worthen before he left the apartment and headed downtown for some gambling. Since arriving in Chicago games of chance were a regular pastime for the twenty-six year old and today’s schedule included concocting a plan about how to win at races, going home for dinner, and then returning to town for billiards and a few drinks. When he retired to the apartment just before 11:30 that night he found the room locked and they keyhole stuffed. His yelling for Singer or the Cramers and the pounding on the door brought the landlady to his room and together they were able to clear the keyhole and break in. The first room Worthen ran into was Singer’s but it was empty and when he ran into the room occupied by the Cramers it also appeared vacant at first glance. That appearance was shattered when the lights were lit and he saw Singer’s feet sticking out from under a bed. When he pulled her body into view her face was covered by a pillow, her hands were tied with clothesline, and she had clearly been strangled. Later it was discovered that Cramer’s handkerchief was shoved so far down her throat that pliers were needed to retrieve it.
Unlike many murder cases facing the Chicago Police Department, the motive and murderer of Sophia Singer was obvious from the beginning. Cramer’s handkerchief marked him as the killer and more than $3,000 worth of her jewelry and $1,000 in cash was missing. During their friendship the Cramers became very aware of Singer’s wealth, something she was never ashamed to flaunt. She regularly wore diamonds, threw around money, and at the time of her death she was worth approximately $35,000 due to an inheritance from her deceased father. To the Cramers it was an unfathomable fortune.
Article from the Chicago Tribune
The search for the Cramers took over headlines all over the nation and the police felt confident that their suspect would be found due to one very unique attribute of Charles Cramer. Many years before his name became synonymous with Conway the Clown or murder Cramer performed as a high diver. During a show in Detroit something went wrong and the resulting accident cost Cramer a large portion of one leg. Refusing to buy an artificial limb, Cramer instead carved his own prosthetic out of wood. The hunt for a one-legged murderous clown was on and the entire Chicago region was on edge.
Thankfully, the pursuit was short lived and within days the Cramers were found and arrested in Lima, Ohio where Charles was born twenty-six years earlier. Among their possessions was clothing that belonged to Will Worthen which they claimed were gifts from Singer.
Charles Cramer quickly confessed to the murder of Sophia Singer and although the story was bizarre and riddled with questions there were a few things that remained consistent throughout the interrogation, confession, and trial. One was that Charles insisted that his wife had absolutely nothing to do with the murder (even though she had also confessed). His reasoning for that was because he claimed Singer was not killed for her wealth, but in self defense. According to Charles on the night of the murder he, his wife, and Singer were at the apartment while Will was gambling when Singer barged into the Cramer’s rooms and began to argue with them. Mary Cramer left the room and with no one else there to stop her Cramer said that Singer attacked him with a doorknob that had a handkerchief and shoelaces tied to it. He claimed that he fought the doorknob away from her and knocked her unconscious before tying her up and rushing into the kitchen telling his wife that they had to leave town at once. In court Cramer concluded his testimony by stating: “I killed her in self defense. I did only what nine out of ten other men would have done in similar circumstances”.
An article from the Chicago Tribune showing Sophia Singer and a diagram of the apartment they were all sharing
If the statement sounds cold it’s because it was delivered in exactly that way. Throughout the trial the accused man acted totally nonchalant and indifferent. Disturbingly, during his questioning he even joked with the police. When asked how he hurt his foot his answer was “A steamboat ran over it” and at one point he stopped the interrogation to say to the captain, “Say, Captain do you know that in this case you can’t hang a man with a wooden leg?” When the captain replied that there was no such law Cramer responded with the punchline “You have to use a rope!”
The Cramers in court
The trial of the Cramers lasted until March of 1913 and the headlines ran on the front page of newspapers alongside news of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Over the course of the trial both Mr. and Mrs. Cramer recanted their confessions saying that they were bullied into them by police but the accusations fell on deaf ears.The pair were convicted of murder with Charles sentenced to life at the Joliet Correctional Center and Mary sentenced to serve fourteen years in prison, of which she would serve only one year.
While being led from the courtroom an angered Charles remarked that he would “get out of this” but no one paid the threat any attention. However, twelve years later in 1925 he successfully escaped from jail when he fled the prison farm he was working on, still running on his self-carved wooden leg.
Charles Cramer was never found. The last mention of him in newspapers dates from 1932 when it was reported that his mother was trying to get a judge to declare her son dead so she could collect his life insurance.
The case against Charles Cramer in the murder of Sophia Singer was extremely strong, but could the clown really be a cold blooded murderer? In 1908 a woman named Frances Thompson was robbed and strangled to death in her Chicago home. Although a man named Luman Mann was arrested and tried for the murder, he was eventually acquitted. During the ordeal Mann’s father Orville was the recipient of some odd news when he received an anonymous note. The note told him that he could solve the murder himself, that all he had to do was travel to an amusement park in Riverview, Chicago and look for a clown with a wooden leg.