America’s ‘Mrs Holmes’: how one woman took on the cases the NYPD couldn’t solve
One hundred years ago, on the day before Valentine's Day, an 18-year-old girl named Ruth Cruger left her family's New York apartment and disappeared into the snow. After the police gave up, her case was finally solved by Mrs Grace Humiston, a middle-aged woman whom the newspapers nicknamed 'Mrs Sherlock Holmes'. Following the Cruger case, Grace enjoyed great fame as an investigator and lawyer – only to soon disappear from history herself. Here, Brad Ricca shares her remarkable story...
Born in 1869 as Mary Grace Winterton to some money and a name of some renown, Grace Humiston grew up in and out of courtrooms as she often accompanied her father, an insurance claims adjuster, on cases where his expertise was needed. After graduating from Hunter College, Grace became a teacher and married a doctor, both highly conventional actions for a young woman of her upbringing and position. But when she divorced her husband because of alleged ‘peephole practices’ at his office, Grace set her eyes on law school. New York University was the only law school in New York to admit women, so Grace enrolled in the night class, alongside part-time baseball players and immigrants. Grace's affinity for case law soon got her noticed and she was quickly bumped up to the day class. She graduated in two years, ranked seventh overall, one of only 12 women in her class.
After passing the New York bar, Grace didn't use her skills to help manage her family’s money, as most surmised. Instead, she opened the ‘People’s Law Firm’, a small legal clinic with an open-door policy to the poor immigrants of the city. The sign on the door read: “Justice for those of limited means for moderate fees.” Sometimes those fees were hot suppers or handwoven sweaters – or simply nothing at all. Grace didn’t care.
Grace took cases ranging from questions of European marriage legality to stolen Spanish gems. She earned herself an almost legendary status among the poor, opening satellite offices in all the ethnic neighbourhoods. They all had different nicknames for her in their own tongues, but she was always just the woman who wore black, though no one really knew why.
Soon, thanks to a few high-profile cases, Grace would make her name far beyond the confines of the city she called home.
“A necessary detective”
Grace’s first major case involved Antoinette Tolla, a young New Jersey wife who had killed a man who tried to rape her. Antoinette had shot him in the head. She claimed self-defence, but the police could not find a weapon on her attacker. Antoinette, who was Italian and could not speak English, was sentenced to hang. Grace took the case having never argued a case in court before. She used every bit of her academic legal skill, but she soon found that the law alone would not be enough to save Antoinette from the gallows. Grace became a necessary detective, tracking a thin line of innuendo and evidence across the state to the county coroner's house – where she found the pistol she needed, languishing in a drawer. Grace was able to save Antoinette's life and mitigate her sentence to seven years in jail.
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But it was a series of strange disappearances from New York City that took Grace’s work in a new – and historic – direction. When a woman came to the People’s Law Firm claiming that her husband had disappeared, Grace tracked him down to a swampy turpentine camp in Florida. Grace discovered that the missing man was a victim of peonage: he had signed on to work at the camp, but at such a high rate of interest and cost that he was now physically enslaved to his debt. In other words, he had to keep working; he couldn’t leave. For her work in uncovering this crime, Grace was made the first female US district attorney in history, tasked to wipe out peonage in the south.
Grace rode trains down to the southern states, often in disguise. Once, someone tried to shoot at her. Her investigations ultimately led her to an island in Arkansas called Sunny Side where she found a cotton plantation using slaves. These workers were Italian immigrants enslaved under contract, a full 40 years after the end of the Civil War. Grace uncovered Sunny Side’s secret, only to have her final, damning report shelved by President Theodore Roosevelt himself in a brazen display of cronyism. Grace was furious, but not defeated. She travelled throughout Europe until she found the source of the human-trafficking ring in Italy that was supplying Sunny Side with workers. She came back to present this information before the US Congress.
When Grace finally returned home to New York, she worked on several other major cases, including a death penalty appeal for a giant of a man named Charles Stielow who had confessed to killing his boss and his housekeeper in upstate New York. After meeting Stielow, Grace was convinced he didn’t do it. She scoured the back roads of the small town where the crime took place to find a hobo who had allegedly been seen in the area the night of the murders. Grace finally found him, but he was obstinate. As the clock began to tick closer to Stielow’s execution in the infamous electric chair at Sing Sing prison in New York, Grace used an elaborate sting operation, including a hidden recording device, to prove that Stielow's confession had been falsified by a corrupt detective. Stielow, who had the IQ of a child, was freed from death row and into the arms of his family. He had been spared the electric chair with only 15 minutes left before they pulled the switch.
The case of Ruth Cruger
By now, Grace had married a lawyer she knew named Howard Humiston, but she was soon called back to active duty when a man named Henry Cruger hired her as the chief investigator in the case of his missing daughter, Ruth.
After Ruth disappeared, the New York Police Department launched a standard missing person investigation. They searched the surrounding area, including a motorcycle shop where Ruth had had her ice skates sharpened that same day. The cops searched it twice, but found nothing. Eyebrows were raised when the shop's owner, an Italian named Alfredo Cocchi, also disappeared, leaving his family behind. Most of his neighbours believed that Cocchi’s sudden departure was because he didn't want to be scapegoated, as immigrants – especially Italian ones – so often were.
Meanwhile, new clues began to surface about secret boyfriends, white slavery, and a witness who claimed to have seen Ruth stumble, almost dazed, into a cab. After a few more weeks of searching, the NYPD closed their investigation and declared that Ruth had most likely eloped with an unknown man.
Henry Cruger didn't like that. Henry knew his daughter very well; she taught Sunday school and had just graduated from high school, and the idea of her eloping was unbelievable to him. Grace also believed that Ruth was a ‘good girl’. With her trusty sidekick, the hard-boiled Hungarian detective named Julius J Kron, Grace attacked the mystery from the perspective that someone had taken Ruth against her will. Focusing her energies on the mysterious motorcycle shop, which she was barred from entering by Cocchi's abandoned wife, Grace tried everything she could to get inside. She tried tunnelling through the street, setting Kron up with a fake job as a mechanic inside the store, and even brokering a background financial deal. In the end, it was an almost-unbelievable set of circumstances winding from Harlem to Italy that would lead to Grace’s stunning endgame as she solved the case and finally found Ruth Cruger – full details of which are revealed in my new book (see below).
“Celebrated in headlines”
Hailed as a hero, the press gave Grace the nickname of fiction’s greatest detective. As the NYPD began investigating their own prodigious missteps in the Cruger case, Grace was celebrated in headlines across the country. Shamed in the public eye, the NYPD responded by doing the only thing to save face they could: they offered Grace a job as a consulting detective for missing girl cases. Grace quit her practice and took the job, throwing herself headlong into the tragic cases that had so plagued the city.
But her fame was short-lived. On the eve of the First World War, Grace made shocking accusations about a US army camp on Long Island, believing that it was a centre of sex trafficking, and that unwanted children were being stowed there. Grace launched her own covert investigation to see if there was any truth to her suspicions, but the army intercepted her agents and accused her of trying to manufacture evidence. Grace cried foul, but the army, the newspapers, and her supporters, all turned against her. It was not good timing, among other things, to be a woman going against the army as boys were being sent to France.
There is, of course, much more to the life and work of Grace Humiston, both as a young attorney and as the incredibly dedicated, yet unpredictably funny ‘woman in black’ who solved the impossible Cruger case – all at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote. But she was human, not a fictional character, no matter what the papers said, and thus had her own difficulties.
After the army fiasco, there were a few cases and causes left for Grace Humiston, but she mostly disappeared from the public sphere. There was one assassination attempt on her life, perhaps two, as the list of enemies who held grudges against her had grown long and large over the years, including policemen she had publicly shamed and a major American statesman who didn’t like her disregard for the rules. Her enemies, for the most part, weren’t people she had wronged or put into prison, they were just men whom she had upstaged by her own victories as a lawyer and detective. This, then, was her own greatest crime – and the best testament to her success.
In the end, Grace vanished much like the girls she pursued, leaving an indelible space in the middle of the facts of her spectacular, noble and mysterious life.
Brad Ricca is the author of a new biography of Grace Humiston, Mrs. Holmes (Amberley Publishing 2017).
This article was first published on History Extra in May 2017