In 1917, an 18-year old Harlem resident named Ruth Cruger vanished. The case seemed destined for permanent “Unsolved” status until Grace Humiston appeared on the scene. Dubbed “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes” by the press, she solved the case and in the process, exposed rampant corruption within the NYPD. How did she do it? And why was she subsequently erased from history?
A Mysterious Disappearance?
On February 13, 1917, Ruth Cruger visited a motorcycle repair shop in Harlem in order to have her skates polished. She was never seen again. The next day, her sister Helen went looking for her. Helen visited the shop only to find it closed. A few hours later, the owner, a man named Alfredo Cocchi, reopened the shop. He told Helen that Ruth had dropped off the skates and picked them up later in the day without incident.
Suspicious, Helen returned home and told the story to her father, Henry Cruger. Henry contacted the police. The police were reluctant to get involved on account of the fact that Cocchi was a “respectable businessman.” Eventually, an officer performed a cursory search of the shop’s cellar, which revealed nothing.
Grace Humiston, the real-life Mrs. Sherlock Holmes?
Ruth’s disappearance quickly became national news. At the time, many people lived in fear of “white slavery,” or the forced prostitution of respectable white girls. The NYPD poured fuel on this fire by claiming that Ruth wanted “to be lost” in order to pursue a career as a prostitute. Understandably irked, Henry Cruger hired a lawyer named Grace Humiston to solve the case. Grace had founded the People’s Law Firm, which specialized in serving low-income individuals. She was known for battling the notorious turpentine slave labor camps as well as securing the acquittal for a wrongfully-convicted man on death row.
“Mrs. Sherlock Holmes” worked pro bono on the case, putting in 15-hour days interviewing Harlem residents. After gathering eyewitness testimony of suspicious activity, she attempted to enter Cocchi’s motorcycle shop. Although Cocchi had fled to Italy, his wife prevented the intrusion, threatening Grace in the process.
Undeterred, Grace used the threat to secure a search permit from Police Commissioner Arthur Woods. On June 16, she and Patrick Solam searched the shop’s cellar. After some digging, they found Ruth’s bloodied body. Her skull had been crushed. Then, while still alive, her abdomen had been ripped open with her own skate.
Although Italy refused to extradite Cocchi, they convicted him of the murder all the same. He was given 27 years in prison. His creepy confession is below.
“I had never seen Ruth Cruger before she came to my shop to have her skates sharpened. From the very beginning Ruth did all in her power to attract my attention. I felt something strange when her dark, penetrating eyes fixed on mine. I was still more disconcerted when she came again to get her skates. An overpowering attraction for the young woman seized me. What happened afterward seems like a dream.” ~ Alfredo Cocchi
“Mrs. Sherlock Holmes” Grace Humiston became a national celebrity and even found herself compared to Sherlock Holmes. It was a comparison that she didn’t exactly appreciate.
“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.” ~ Grace Humiston
The Downfall of Mrs. Sherlock Holmes?
So, if Grace Humiston was so famous, why has she been largely forgotten today? One reason may be the Camp Upton incident. Despite Cocchi’s confession, she was convinced that his true intention was to force Ruth into prostitution. She subsequently formed the Morality League of America to rescue missing girls from “white slavery.” A few months later, in November 1917, she accused the U.S. Army of hiding 600 pregnant white slaves at Camp Upton. Unable to back up her claim, she subsequently lost her police powers.
A more compelling reason is that she leveled accusations at the NYPD in the aftermath of the case. A subsequent investigation revealed that the police had a motive for not investigating Cocchi…some of its officers had a profitable kickback relationship with him. After arresting someone, these officers would tell the person to visit Cocchi. Cocchi would “settle” the case for a fee, part of which he would kick back to the officers.
Two years after solving the murder, she was arrested by Patrick Gargan for operating a dance hall without a license. Gargan had served as Captain of the precinct where the Cocchi investigation took place. Since evidence to back up the charge was nonexistent, the arrest appeared to be motivated by revenge. The case was thrown out of court.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
Although she escaped imprisonment, Gargan achieved a more important victory. Within a few short decades, Grace Humiston had been almost completely whitewashed from history. Even her name and gender were removed from stories written about the Ruth Cruger case. It’s time to correct that wrong. Grace was a remarkable lawyer and private-eye who risked much of herself to see justice done. She was truly, for lack of a better moniker, “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes.”
I just finished reading Colin Evans’ Slaughter On A Snowy Morn.It’s about the railroading and wrongful conviction of Charles Stielow. Grace Humiston was a remarkable woman that helped to save an innocent man from the electric chair. After finishing the book, I myself was left wondering why I’ve never heard her name before.I’m hoping my son will be asked to write about a famous woman in history as he is entering the eighth grade this year.
Agreed…Grace was a terrific private eye. Hopefully, her story will be more widely known in the future.