"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Weird, Wandering Wanderwells

If Aloha Wanderwell hadn't existed, she would have had to make herself up.

So that's exactly what she did.

In Winnipeg, Canada, Aloha was born on October 13, 1906 with the name "Idris Galcia Hall," and, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, she almost deserved it. Circumstance led her to acquire an early taste for world travel. In the beginning of World War I, her father, a wealthy rancher named Herbert Hall, joined the army, becoming a lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry. The entire Hall family shared his travels, spending the war behind Allied lines, in England, Belgium, and France. Unfortunately, in 1917 Herbert was killed in action. His widow sent their children to boarding schools in Belgium and France, an experience that evidently only whetted young Idris' longing to escape. She soon fled her school to seek adventure in Paris.

She found that chance when she was only 16, thanks to a Pole named Valerian Johannes Piecynski. Piecynski was a colorful character, a sailor and world traveler who had been briefly imprisoned by the Americans on suspicion of being a German spy. (He also had a penchant for illegally wearing military uniforms.) Changing his name to the considerably snappier "Walter Wanderwell," he continued his somewhat mysterious life as international man-about-town, forming a pacifist organization known as the Work Around the World Educational Club For International Peace (WAWEC.) This group--whose activities remain somewhat murky--appeared to accomplish little except catching the ever-watchful eye of J. Edgar Hoover, who feared Wanderwell was building his own subversive private army. (However, it has been plausibly alleged that WAWEC was nothing but a con aimed at luring gullible would-be "fighters for peace" into handing over the $200 "membership fee.") Wanderwell does not seem to have ever held a normal job, and had no private income of his own, but he appeared to make a decent living escorting the wealthy to remote, exotic lands.

In 1922, Wanderwell and the Ford Motor Company co-sponsored the "Million Dollar Wager," where two teams in (naturally) Ford Model Ts would compete in a race to see who could tour the most countries. Wanderwell would drive one of the cars, with his wife, Nell, leading the other. Anxious to secure as much publicity for himself as possible, he cannily knew that one of the best ways to get it was to have an attractive, equally flamboyant young woman accompanying him on the expedition. He placed ads in the Paris newspapers announcing: "Brains, Beauty, & Breeches--World Tour Offer For Lucky Young Woman!" For restless young Idris, it was the chance of a lifetime. When she presented herself in front of "Captain" Wanderwell, the pretty, six-foot-tall, ready-for-anything girl immediately secured herself a place as his sidekick. He rechristened this blonde Amazon with the more euphonious name of "Aloha."

The pair set off on what was the early 20th century equivalent of a reality TV show. They filmed themselves on their travels, showing the reels at their periodic speaking engagements. Walter and Aloha drove their Model T through Africa, the Middle East, Asia. Aloha became famous--with only some hyperbole--as "The World's Most Traveled Girl." In Calcutta, they made headlines with a well-publicized meet-up with pilots who were in the middle of the first aerial circumnavigation of the globe.

With all the publicity Wanderwell was gaining, he did lose one thing--his wife. Somewhere along his busy route, he took enough time to file for divorce. ("Too many women caused our marriage to go on the rocks," Nell Wanderwell later shrugged.)

Walter and Aloha came to America in January 1925. They married in Los Angeles several months later. This was more a marriage of convenience than the fulfillment of true love. The FBI--still eying Wanderwell with disfavor for his wartime activities--was threatening to arrest him under the Mann Act. (This notorious law, which made it a criminal offense to transport women across state lines for "immoral purposes," was a handy tool for authorities to use against anyone who rubbed them the wrong way.)

In the next two years, the Wanderwells had two children, Valerie and Nile. The pair lived up to their adopted surname, continuing their ramblings across the globe, eventually reaching 43 different countries. According to one account, along the way, Aloha briefly disguised herself as a man and fought in the French Foreign Legion. It is a story that probably belongs in the "too good to check" file. However, international journalist Rachel Crowdy gave an eyewitness account of a memorable sight: the tall, flowing-haired Aloha, dressed as a cowgirl, riding through the streets of Geneva on top of an armored car, waving to the amazed crowd as though she were visiting royalty. In China, they were captured by bandits. They only secured their release when Aloha agreed to teach them how to use machine guns. Walter was not nearly as popular, at least with the authorities of every country they visited. He was widely--and who knows how accurately--suspected of being a communist agent. His travels were believed to be merely a cover for his subversive activities. Whatever the truth to these charges may have been, (he was likely a mere grifter rather than an international spy,) Walter was unquestionably an open and habitual womanizer. This probably did little to endear him to his proud, strong-willed wife.

In 1929, the Wanderwells returned to America and bought a home in Miami, Florida. They turned their self-made newsreels into a feature film, "Car and Camera Around the World." In the following year, they were hitting the road again. They traveled to Brazil, ostensibly searching for the lost explorer Percy Fawcett, but in reality, they were hunting for their favorite quarry: publicity. At one point, their plane crashed in uncharted jungle along the Amazon. Aloha took shelter with an indigenous tribe for several months while Walter hiked back to civilization to get replacement parts for the plane. Their expedition--or, rather, extended photo-op--became another film, "Flight to the Stone Age Bororos."

It was after this adventure that the Wanderwell story shifted from adventure caper to Agatha Christie murder mystery. Late in 1932, they bought a rickety, 20-year-old yacht, "Carma," with the intention of making yet another film out of a trip to the South Seas. Sixteen excitement-seekers paid $200 each to become "crew members." (Never mind that none of them knew the first thing about sailing.) Typically for Walter, most of the "crew" were pretty young women. Authorities said publicly that the ship was unseaworthy, but felt unable to do anything to stop the expedition. Aside from that, plans for the voyage appeared to progress smoothly. The only odd incident was the mysterious disappearance of Walter's gun. Although the entire yacht was carefully searched, it was never seen again.

The "Carma" never did reach the South Seas, for the simple reason that on December 5, 1932, while still in the harbor at Long Beach, California, Walter Wanderwell was shot to death on board his newly-purchased ship.

On that fatal night, Aloha was in Los Angeles, making efforts to sell the rights to their proposed South Seas film. Most of the crew was on shore leave. Four others remained on the "Carma." They spent the evening playing cards in the mess hall. Walter was about ten feet away from them, alone in the cabin he shared with his wife. The two Wanderwell children--who were only 5 and 6 years old--slept in a nearby room.

While the quartet in the mess hall eagerly chatted about their upcoming adventure, they suddenly saw the face of an unfamiliar man in one of the open portholes. He was wearing a grey coat. His face was largely shaded by the coat's collar and a cap drawn low over his eyes.

"Where's the skipper's cabin?" he asked. They told him where it could be found. A minute or so later, they heard Walter greet the stranger with a "Hello!" They later said he sounded surprised, but not alarmed. Several minutes later, the sound of a gunshot ran through the ship.

By the time the crew reached Wanderwell's cabin, the visitor had disappeared. And Wanderwell himself was dead. He had been shot in the back at very close range. The murder weapon was never found. No one could ever explain how the assassin managed to vanish in the mere seconds before the crew rushed to the cabin.  Adding to the mystery was the fact that no one in the crowded harbor saw any stranger board or leave the yacht.

This should have been a relatively easy case to solve. Given that it was a shipboard killing, logic suggests that only a handful of people knew Walter's whereabouts that night. The others aboard the "Carma" that night were questioned carefully--a police captain told the press that there had been "some dissension"--among the passengers--but none of them had any known motive for the murder. The police soon cleared them from suspicion. (While the investigation continued, the crew members remained on the "Carma," happily charging lookyloos 10 cents a head to tour the ship.)

Four of the "Carma" crew, which included Aloha's sister Margaret Hall.

Walter's playboy ways arguably gave his wife a motive for murder, but her alibi proved rock-solid. Aloha did nothing to help matters by declaring that she could think of "a thousand men" who wanted her husband dead. (The police chief, after doing some investigating into Wanderwell's background, had to agree that she was not exaggerating.)

William James Guy, a 24-year-old Welsh soldier of fortune who had worked on one of Wanderwell's previous expeditions, was known to have been on very bad terms with Walter. (As a result of his experience working for Wanderwell, Guy had concluded the man was a crook and warned others against having anything to do with him.) After several crew members identified Guy as the man in the grey coat, he was put on trial for the killing. (When she was put on the witness stand, Aloha livened up the legal proceedings when she dramatically collapsed in a faint.)  Guy insisted his innocence, although he freely admitted that "I would not have minded killing him." Fortunately for the defendant, he was able to produce an alibi for the time of the murder--he was 30 miles away, having dinner with friends.  (One wonders, incidentally, why he didn't present this alibi before being put on trial.)  The crew members who had previously identified Guy as the "man in grey" were considerably less certain under oath.  Lacking any real evidence against him, Guy's acquittal became virtually inevitable. (He was, however, subsequently deported.)  Guy continued his career as a mercenary until he suffered a fatal plane crash in 1941.

William James Guy at the time of his arrest.

Walter's murder was never solved, probably at least partly due to the fact that no one seemed particularly anxious to seek justice on his behalf. Was he killed by one of his numerous personal enemies? A cuckolded husband or boyfriend of one of his mistresses? Did Aloha hire a hit man? Did his death have anything to do with his extremely shady enterprise, WAWEC?

Were the police too hasty in exonerating the four crew members who were on board the "Carma" the night of the murder?  Certainly, their story about the mysteriously appearing and disappearing "man in grey" sounded implausible.  Could they have been part of a real-life "Murder on the Orient Express" plot against the remarkably unpopular Wanderwell--perhaps with the connivance of the conveniently absent wife and/or William Guy?  (It is of some interest that, although it was Aloha who first suggested to police that Guy might be the murderer, she and the young Welshman were said to be "too friendly.")

The relatively few crime historians who have examined the case all seem unwilling to even make an educated guess about who shot Walter Wanderwell.

Walter's mysterious demise did absolutely nothing to cramp Aloha's style. She learned to fly a seaplane, which she used to explore uncharted areas of the Amazon. About a year after her husband's murder, she remarried, to another adventurer named Walter Baker. The couple made several more films of their world travels: "To See the World by Car," "India Now," and "Explorers of the Purple Sage." She went on several well-received lecture tours, and wrote an autobiography, "Call to Adventure!"

The peripatetic pair eventually finally settled down in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Aloha worked in radio and print journalism. In 1947, the Bakers moved to Newport Beach, California, where she eventually died in 1996 at the age of 89. As had been the case with her first husband, Aloha was buried at sea.

It is remarkable that Hollywood has never made a movie out of this woman's dynamic, strange, and slightly sinister life.

But then, who would believe the story if they did?


  1. It is indeed strange that Guy didn't produce his alibi when he was first arrested. Perhaps he was looking for publicity, too. In any case, Widow Wanderwell eventually married someone taller than herself - though I don't think height could be seriously considered as a motive.

  2. Wow; quite the astonishing story. I'm going with the theory that one of those innocent looking young women - or maybe all of them - offed "Captain Wanderwell". I do have to wonder about the young Wanderwells though. I hope they weren't just dumped off with relatives and virtually forgotten.

    1. I wanted to know myself what happened to the children. Unfortunately, none of the stories I found about the case said what the kids did while their parents were gadding about the world.

  3. What about the connection to J. Edgar Hoover. Perhaps there was more to the story of Walter's spying and/or connection to communism. Wouldn't be the first time someone was offed by Hoover and his cronies.
    As an aside, I found your blog 2 weeks ago and have read all the main articles back to your beginnings. Absolutely amazing stories. Very well written and with a few exceptions all new to me.
    Keep up the fantastic work that you do!!!

  4. Could the murderer have hidden on the yacht, and then left after the police had made their enquiries?

    1. It's possible, I suppose, but that still leaves the question of how he got on and off the yacht without anyone noticing. I don't believe the yacht was ever left unattended.

  5. Another name for my list of best names along with Halloween Martin and Welcome Lewis.


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