Book Review: An infamous 1917 missing-girl case, and the woman detective who solved it.
We all have our list. That list of the two or three people from any era of human history whom you would give anything to dine with. After reading Brad Ricca’s Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, published this past January, my dream team of dinner guests just grew by one: Mary Grace Quackenbos Humiston.
- Cross posted from The National Book Review.
Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City's Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation By Brad Ricca, St. Martin’s Press, 448 pp.
Mrs. Sherlock Holmes tells the story of this intrepid female attorney, who took New York and the rest of the world by storm. Grace Humiston, as she was known, graduated from the New York University School of Law in 1903, one of 12 women to graduate that year. The book notes that rumors swirled among classmates that Humiston only went to law school to manage her family's millions. Humiston was admitted to the bar two years later, where she joined the ranks of a mere thousand female lawyers across the nation. She would eventually become the first female United States District Attorney when she was appointed Special Assistant United States District Attorney for the Southern District of New York under President Theodore Roosevelt.
Shortly after passing the bar, Humiston received a letter from a group of Wellesley College students who begged this rare female attorney to come to the aid of Antoinette Tolla, a 26-year-old New Jersey woman who had been sentenced to death for killing a man who she claimed had threatened her. Humiston, also 26 at the time, had never met Tolla but felt a connection to this woman whose short life seemed likely to end in a hanging. Providing a window into the passion and drive of this newly minted attorney, Ricca describes Humiston packing her bags and heading to New Jersey to meet with the petrified Tolla, and figuring out a way to save her from a cruel fate.
The young lawyer boldly showed up at New Jersey Governor Edward Stokes’s office and waited for him to finish meetings. Governor Stokes told Humiston, “My dear young lady…your efforts are useless” but handed her the thick record of appeal anyway. Humiston pored over pages and pages of trial testimony, eventually succeeding in securing a new trial and ultimately an order commuting Tolla’s death sentence to seven-and-a-half years in prison, after proving that Tolla acted in self-defense.
Ricca goes on to delicately weave the narrative of Grace Humiston together with the tragic story of Ruth Cruger, an 18-year-old resident of Manhattan, who mysteriously disappeared one afternoon after she left her home on Claremont Avenue to pick up her newly sharpened ice skates.
The case unfolded against the backdrop of a growing epidemic of missing girls in the second decade of the 20th Century, and rumors that the victims were being driven into white slavery. There was so much concern at the time that these missing girls were being stolen, drugged, and sold into a vast network of prostitution that John D Rockefeller Jr., the American businessman and philanthropist, led an investigation to determine what was going on. The Rockefeller Commission on White Slavery released a report in 1913 finding that there was no vast network of white slavery in the United States, and New York’s own statistics bore this out: in 1915, 1,439 women and girls went missing. By year's end, 1,229 had turned up.
When Cruger’s father grew impatient with the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) inability to solve the crime, and convinced that his daughter had not merely run away, he hired Humiston to get the job done. Toiling day and night to solve the mystery, Humiston worked with her team of investigators to interview residents of the area where Cruger disappeared. She ultimately narrowed her investigation to focus on the owner of a motorcycle repair shop, Alfredo Cocchi, where Cruger brought her ice skates for sharpening on the day she went missing. At the motorcycle repair shop at 524 W. 127th Street, the owner had placed a sign that read “SKATES SHARPENED.” Embarrassing the NYPD brass, Humiston and her team discovered the body of the 18-year-old missing girl buried in Cocchi’s basement, after the NYPD had searched Cocchi’s shop multiple times.
Through her role in solving a disappearance that captivated the nation, Humiston acquired the nickname “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes.” The nickname was not one she would have chosen herself. In June of 1917, The New York Times ran an article on the now-famous “lady detective” with the headline, “Mrs. Humiston, The Woman Who Shamed Police In The Ruth Cruger Murder Case.” Humiston told the Times reporter, “No, I never read Sherlock Holmes. In fact, I am not a believer in deduction. Common sense and persistence will always solve a mystery. You never need theatricals nor Dr. Watsons if you stick to a case.”
Ricca continues with this compelling story of one of America’s first female attorneys, following her to Mississippi and Alabama, where she exposed vast peonage systems, specifically inhumane turpentine and cotton industries. Her work was so well received that Attorney General Charles Joseph Bonaparte asked her to work for him, as a special assistant to the Attorney General of the United States, on breaking up the lumber trusts in Florida. “She accepted and traveled to New Orleans,” Ricca writes. “Her arrival marked the first time in the history of the U.S. government that a woman served in this capacity under a cabinet member.”
This is a whirlwind of a story, in which the reader is whisked up and down the east coast, across the Atlantic to Europe, but mostly taken around early 20th century New York City. Ricca did an admirable amount of historical research to bring the little-known story of Mary Grace Quackenbos Humiston to life. The book’s lengthy bibliography is a testament to that work, which provides color and crucial context to his continent-spanning narrative.
Ricca spins an inspirational tale of a fearless female advocate who dedicated her life to pursuing justice by locating and marshaling evidence. The media liked to attribute her successes to ”women’s intuition,” but Humiston proved time and again that she was able to solve the many crimes that she did not by hunches, but rather through her “determination to keep going until the case had cleared up.”