Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mrs. Humiston - Super Sleuth

There was something about the chest of drawers. It just didn’t look right. It sat among some tools and benches and boxes in a small corner of Mr. Cocchi’s basement and just seemed a bit ‘off’ somehow. Was it sitting on a slant? Perhaps extending a bit further into the room than the other furnishings? Just, maybe, by an inch or two?

The men in the basement moved the chest, and there was the concrete floor, cracked and smashed and not at all what it should be. The men began to dig. And dig. Three feet down, they found it - the bound body of 18 year old Ruth Cruger. Mrs.Humiston knew she’d be there. She had never bought the story the police had given out - that Ruth had run off and become a prostitute.

* * * * *

Mrs. Humiston (Mary Grace Winterton) was born into a wealthy New York family and grew up in Greenwich Village just after the Civil War. She graduated from Hunter College (high school) in 1888, opted to be independent and support herself, and went on to teach. Not satisfied with teaching, she attended the New York Evening Law School and graduated in 1904. She passed the bar a year later and established the People’s Law Firm, where clients paid according to their means. That’s when she caught the sleuthing bug.

As clients came to her with their legal issues, a missing persons case would come up every once in a while, and for some reason, many of the missing people seemed to have disappeared into the South. With a bit of investigating, Mary Grace learned about turpentine camps, where turpentine was extracted from trees, and where many of the missing people seemed to have vanished.

Mary Grace went down to investigate. Dressed in disguises, she traveled from camp to camp for an entire year and found an industry so desperate for workers that, when folks showed up for work, they often weren’t allowed to leave. Some people were even chained up to prevent them from leaving. Others were bound by debt to the company store. Mary went to Washington with her findings and ended peonage in the South.

A few years later, she did a bit of traveling overseas and noticed many of the steamship lines put out brochures aimed directly at immigrants. The brochures led them to believe America was a wonderful place where the living was easy. The idea, of course was to get them to book passage and collect their fares. It didn’t take Mary Grace long to put an end to that.

Eventually, Mary Grace married Howard Humiston and did what all good women of her time did. She gave up her career for a home life. But when she heard about Mrs Antoinette Tola, who was to be executed for murdering her husband, she came out of retirement, did some investigating, and got Mrs. Tola first a reprieve, and then a pardon. Her work on the Tola case led her to Gennaro Mazzelin on death row in Sing Sing prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and after some investigating into his case, she got him an acquittal.

Then came the case of German immigrant Charles Stielow. Stielow was accused of murdering his landlord, Charles B. Phelps, a wealthy farmer, and his housekeeper, Margaret Wolcott. Stielow, a farm laborer, was lucky enough to have friends who believed in his innocence and took up his cause. Even the Deputy Warden of Sing Sing believed he was innocent. They sought out Mary Grace, now Mrs. Humiston, to help. It didn’t take long for her to find Erwin King, seen in the area the day of the murder. He was picked up for the crime and admitted his guilt. He also incriminated his partner, Clarence O’Connell, who was already in jail for another crime they’d committed. Mrs. Humiston went back into retirement.

And then one day in February, 1917, a teenage girl named Ruth Cruger set out for Mr. Cocchi’s motorcycle repair shop to have her ice skates sharpened. She was never seen again. Her family called the police. They questioned Mr. Cocchi. Yes, she had been there. He had sharpened her skates and she had gone. Someone claimed to have seen her get in a car with a strange man. When the investigation ended, the police claimed Ruth was a girl who ‘wanted to be lost.’ They implied she had gone into prostitution.

Enter Mrs. Humiston. She took the case pro bono and spent 12-16 hours a day on it. She learned what she could about Ruth and determined she was a girl who would not run off. She said the police theory that Ruth had gotten involved in prostitution was ‘bosh.’ She believed Ruth had been murdered.

With the help of Kron, a Hungarian agent with the Federal Department of Justice, who she had once hired as an interpreter, she set out to find Ruth’s body. For five weeks they didn’t come up with one clue. And then they found a man who had seen Mr. Cocchi come out of his cellar at midnight on the day Ruth disappeared. An investigation into Mr. Cocchi revealed he was not a very nice man. Mrs. Humiston focused her efforts on him. She asked his wife for permission to search the cellar. Mrs. Cocchi said no.

Alfred Cocchi

Mrs. Humiston went to the Board of Health and got permission to dig up the street in front of Cocchi’s house. The Cocchi’s immediately sold the house and Mr. Cocchi departed for Italy.

The new owners did allow Mrs. Humiston to search the house, and the body of Ruth Cruger was found buried beneath the basement floor. Mrs. Humiston also accused the police of being involved with Mr. Cocchi in illegal activities from kickbacks to white slavery. Mr. Cocchi was picked up in Italy, tried and found guilty, and received 27 years in an Italian prison.

After the Cruger case, Mrs. Humiston got caught up in the problem of white slavery. The New York City Police Department named her ‘a special investigator and charged her with finding missing girls and uncovering evidence of white slave traffic.’ But when she claimed there were 600 pregnant, husbandless young women at the US Army’s Camp Upton, and that two of them had died, public sentiment turned against her. It was war time, and patriotism was in the air. No one wanted to hear anything bad about the army or the brave boys risking their lives for democracy, and Mrs. Humiston couldn’t prove her claim.

Mrs. Humiston continued her work, opening the Manhattanville Be Kind Club, where single mothers could leave their children when they went off to work, and boys could plays sports, and lectures were given - until she was arrested for running a dance hall without a license. The charge was brought by a police captain she had embarrassed during the Cruger case and the charges were dismissed. But by then, nobody seemed interested in Mrs. Humiston any longer, and she slowly faded from the public eye.

The Literary Digest described her once as being a ‘feminine Sherlock Holmes,’ but Mrs. Humiston didn’t agree. Unlike Sherlock, she didn’t use the art of deduction, nor did she put any store in ‘women’s intuition.’ Her process was based on common sense, persistence, and the basic desire to do what was right.


Andy said...

Wow! What an amazing woman! How many other unsung feminine heroes are in their graves, or toiling in the trenches as we speak? Fantastic post, Barb.

I'm Jet . . . said...

Mrs. H kicked ass!

lynne said...

She is right up there with Eleanor Roosevelt....they were both activist during the same time in history......what a time for women in our country......liberation, validationation,independence, commitment compassionation, brains, ideals......there is a part of me that wishes I was alive and part of the feminist/activists of those days....they made a difference!

Barbara said...

It was an interesing time, wasn't it!