Quit Clowning Around

Charles Cramer, alias Conway, the clown with a wooden leg, in a postcard photo with his wife, circa 1911 (Mysterious Chicago)

Charles Cramer, alias Conway, the clown
with a wooden leg, in a postcard photo with his
wife, circa 1911 (Mysterious Chicago)

“Clowns Gathering in the Woods,” blares CNN. “Creepy Clowns: Serious Matter or Sick Joke,” asks The Guardian. It all started in South Carolina, where groups of children swore that clowns, lurking in the shadowy woods, and attempted to lure them to an abandoned house deep within the forest. Police could not find any clown paraphernalia at the scene, but that did not stop another group of children from seeing a shady clown just one week later on the other side of town. Once again, police could not find any hard evidence of red noses, water-squirting flowers, or tiny cars that can somehow fit ten people inside.

Americans chuckled to themselves, “Oh those South Carolinians are too much!” Then the clowns went national. They started showing up all along the East coast, from Florida to Maine. Then, in some sort of clown-manifest-destiny, the clowns traveled West to Texas, Colorado, Utah, and eventually were found scaring fish and surfers in California. It is not known if any clowns have swam across the Pacific to haunt Hawaii.

Scary clowns are not unique to the fall of 2016. Oh no. As I was reading through old newspapers from 1912 Chicago in an attempt to find out more information about a specific correspondent, I stumbled across an incredible byline on the adjacent page. It was about a murderous clown, living in Chicago not far from Hull-House, where Jane Addams was busy toiling away, and his vaudeville singer wife who plotted the downfall of their wealthy roommate.

In early October, 1912, a Baltimore heiress named Sophie Singer came to Chicago with her fiance, Will Worthen. They were met at the station by a “Mrs. Conway” who suggested that they all get a flat together instead of a hotel. “Mrs. Conway” was really Mrs. Louisa Cramer, wife of Charles N. Cramer (alias Charles Kramer, alias Charles Conway). The couple was part of a traveling circus, he as a human cannonball and a clown, and she as a singer and a lion tamer. Oh, and he had a wooden leg, too.

The three moved in together, and were shortly joined by Mr. Cramer. The Cramers, under the alias of the Conways, were dirt poor and only lived off the wealth of their heiress roommate and her well-to-do fiance. All was well until Ms. Singer decided that she would move back to Baltimore, leaving the Conways with no well of money to draw from. This did not sit well with the carny couple, and one night while Mr. Worthen was away gambling, the one legged clown made his move.

Worthen came back to find the key-hole stuffed. Breaking down the door, he found Sophie’s tangled legs sticking out from under their bed. She had clearly been strangled to death; her hands were tied with thin wire and Cramer’s handkerchief was shoved so deep into her throat that police needed pincers to remove it. Her jewelry had been stolen.

sophiesingerphotoheadline

A sketch of Sophie Singer, Beatrice Conway, and Charles Conway (1912)

Several months later the Cramers were caught in Lima, Ohio. Mrs. Cramer quickly confessed and threw her husband under the bus as well. Charles would eventually confess as well, though he insisted that his wife had nothing to do with the murder.

During the arrest and subsequent trial Cramer the Clown decided to lighten things up with a couple jokes. “Say, Captain?” he asked during the trial. “Do you know that in this case you can’t hang a man with a wooden leg?” When the Captain said he’d never heard of a law like that, Cramer said “You have to use a rope!” Ba Dum Cha!

Charles was sentenced to life in prison, and only narrowly avoided the gallows. As he was led away, he vowed that he would “get out of this,” and twelve years later he made good on his promise. In 1925, despite his assumed lack of running ability owed to that wooden stump on his left side, Cramer ran away from a work farm in Joliet, Illinois. He was never seen or heard from again.

The next time you hear about a clown sighting in your neighborhood, you may want to exercise extra caution. Who knows? Maybe its Conway the Clown, 100 years old and still chasing people with his stump leg.