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Ruth Ann Steinhagen Trial: 1949

Ruth Ann Steinhagen Trial: 1949

Defendant: Ruth Ann Steinhagen
Crime Charged: Assault with intent to commit murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: George Bieber
Chief Prosecutor: John S. Boyle
Judge: James J. McDermott
Place: Chicago, Illinois
Date of Trial: June 30, 1949
Verdict: Not guilty by reason of insanity

SIGNIFICANCE: The near-murder of Eddie Waitkus, star first baseman of the Philadelphia Phillies, was one of the first sensational examples of what came to be called "stalker" crimes. Waitkus, 29, a World War II veteran of the New Guinea campaign, was almost killed by a love-sick teenage girl. After fewer than three years in a mental hospital, the girl, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, was pronounced cured. Waitkus did not want her prosecuted, and she was released. The result contrasts with the results of most other high-profile crimes where prosecutors seem determined that somebody be punished, regardless of the circumstances. And it did establish that a murderous sort of schizophrenia can be cured.

To Eddie Waitkus, a heavy-hitting first baseman recently traded to the Philadelphia Phillies by the Chicago Cubs, this road trip to Chicago was something like a homecoming. When he returned to his hotel, the night of June 14, 1949, he found a note in his room box.

"It is extremely important that I see you as soon as possible," the note read. "We're not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about. I think it would be to your advantage to let me explain this to you as I am leaving the hotel the day after tomorrow. I realize this is out of the ordinary, but as I say, it is extremely important."

Thinking the note might be from a friend of a friend, Waitkus called the room listed on the note. A young woman answered and asked him to give her a half-hour so she could get dressed. About 11:30, he knocked on the door. A tall, pretty brunette opened the door. She asked him to come in. She was "very businesslike," he remembered, completely deadpan. He walked over to a chair and asked her what she wanted. When he turned around, she was holding a rifle.

"You're not going to bother me any more," she said. Before he could reply, she shot him. With Waitkus lying on the floor with a hole in his chest, the girl laid down her. 22 caliber rifle and called the hotel desk.

"I just shot a man," she said.

"I Just Had to Shoot Somebody"

Medics and police arrived. They took Waitkus to the hospital, where doctors gave him a 50-50 chance to live. They took his assailant, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, a 19-year-old typist, to jail. "I just had to shoot somebody," Steinhagen said by way of explanation. Interviewed at the Cook County jail, she told reporters, "I've never been so happy in my life." She said she liked Waitkus "best of anybody in the world," although she had never met him, that she had dreamed of him and prayed for him during the night. She said she had brought a knife and the rifle to her hotel room. She planned to stab Waitkus as soon as he entered and then shoot herself. The baseball player entered the room too briskly for her to use the knife so she shot him. She decided not to shoot herself.

"Near Miraculous" Recovery

Surgeons at the Illinois Masonic Hospital operated on Waitkus to remove clotted blood from his collapsed lung. The next day, they said his recovery was "little short of miraculous." The bullet had passed under his heart and lodged in his back near the spine. Waitkus was able to talk with reporters. He said when he saw the rifle, he thought it was some kind of practical joke. He expected fellow ball players to suddenly appear and tell him they had put the girl up to the scene.

The doctors said he would soon be out of the hospital. They were too optimistic. They had to perform a second operation on his lung. Then the bullet still in his body started an infection and had to be removed in a third operation. Every couple of days the doctors announced that the Phillies star would soon be home. But he stayed inside. He was to attend the Steinhagen arraignment and then go home. He came to court in a wheelchair. Then he went back to the hospital.

On June 30, Ruth Ann Steinhagen was arraigned for assault with intent to commit murder. Judge Matthew P. Hartigan set bail at $50,000. A grand jury indicted Steinhagen. A criminal court adjudged her insane. And Judge James J. McDermott committed her to the state hospital. It all happened in three hours. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Steinhagen of Chicago, asked that she be "sent to an institution without delay."

Obsession at First Sight

The Steinhagens said that their daughter's troubles began three years before when she went to a baseball game. "Waitkus was playing for the Cubs then. She seemed to become infatuated and couldn't talk about anything else. She had his pictures everywhere."

They said she had a nervous breakdown in December 1948. "We sent her to a psychiatrist," Mrs. Steinhagen said, "but she just seemed to get worse. She wanted to commit suicide. I was glad when they traded Waitkus to Philadelphia. I thought that would help, but it didn't."

Ruth Steinhagen seemed to enjoy the arraignment and trial. She posed for photographers and chatted gaily with the bailiff. She told a psychiatrist that she shot Waitkus because "I didn't want to be nervous all my life."

Waitkus slowly recovered. He finally left the hospital a month after the shooting. While he was recuperating at home, the Phillies filed a request to the Pennsylvania Workmen's Compensation Board to settle a dispute with an insurance company over benefits paid to Waitkus. The insurance company claimed that Waitkus was "not at work" when he went to Steinhagen's room. The Phillies claimed that Waitkus was under club surveillance while at the hotel and that ball players had a duty not to "high hat" fans. A referee appointed by the board agreed with the Phillies, but the insurance company appealed.

A little more than a year after the shooting, the state hospital reported that Steinhagen had improved remarkably. She was responding to electric shock therapy and medication. On April 17, 1952, Ruth Steinhagen was adjudged sane. Edwin T. Breen, first assistant state's attorney, said Waitkus did not wish to prosecute her. The attempted murder charge was dropped. Steinhagen said she wanted to stay at the state hospital, but as a physical therapist, not an inmate.

The Workmen's Compensation Board reversed the referee's decision on Waiikus's benefits. It said, "it is evident that his visit was a private enterprise in which he voluntarily engaged for personal reasons and not in the course of his employment or in the furtherance of the business of his employer."

William Weir

Suggestions for Further Reading

New York limes. See Steinhagen, Ruth in the .Vew York Times Index, June 16-21, 28-29, 1949; July I-3, 8, 10, 12, 1949; October 28, 1949; August 8, 1950; September 14, 1950: April 18. 1952; May 16, 1952.

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