The mysterious case of the first female U.S. District Attorney, and the morbid murder investigation that put her on the map.
There was important news on the front page that day, but it was the photograph of a girl in a white dress that made people stop and stare. Appearing just below the headline, the young woman was not famous, but she certainly looked familiar. She was seated with her hands at her side, her dark hair pulled up and back, topped off by a great bow. She smiled out past the stories of U-boat attacks and President Woodrow Wilson, her face blurred by grey, halftone dots. Ruth Cruger was eighteen years old when she appeared on the front page of the New York Evening World on the day after Valentine’s Day, 1917. She had been missing for two days.
Ruth had left her family’s apartment on the previous Tuesday to have her ice skates sharpened. When she didn’t come home, the family called the police. Detectives tramped through the snow and rapped on doors. They tracked down rumors of a secret boyfriend and talked to witnesses who said they saw her stagger into a mysterious cab – but these clues led nowhere. The owner of the motorcycle shop where Ruth had picked up her skates, an Italian named Alfredo Cocchi, let detectives search his store until they were satisfied. As the snow melted and weeks turned into months, the police concluded that Ruth had probably just eloped with an unknown suitor. Ruth’s father, Henry, was furious when he heard this. He wrote a pointed letter to the mayor. Then he held a press conference.
In front of reporters representing many of Gotham’s nearly twenty daily newspapers, Henry Cruger, a short, bald accountant, told New York City that his daughter was a good girl, and had unquestionably been kidnapped. Henry’s wife and two other daughters stood beside him, their eyes red and wet. Perched behind them was an older woman wearing a black dress with a matching hat that swept down over her neck. She looked to be in her fifties and was presumed to be the missing girl’s grandmother, apparently already grieving. So when Cruger introduced the woman in black as the family’s new lawyer and primary investigator, the reporters were surprised when she snapped forward and asked that from now on, all clues be given directly to her.
Her name was Mrs. Grace Humiston. For the work she was about to do on the sensational Cruger case, facing off against corrupt police, an unseen criminal society, the insatiable media, and a mysterious pale man, reporters would give her the singular moniker of “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes.” In two short months, Grace would become the most famous female detective in America.
In less than a year, she would disappear.
* * *
Born in 1869 with a claim to some old New York money, Grace went to Hunter College before embarking on what she thought would be a long teaching career at the all-boys Collegiate School on the Upper West Side. After she was married, her husband, Dr. Henry Quackenbos, was accused of “peephole practices” at his office, Grace divorced him, quit her job, and enrolled in an evening class at the NYU School of Law, the only school in the city that admitted women. Seated in the front row, she graduated in two short years – ranked seventh in her class. Around this time, she started to wear black. After a short stint at the Legal Aid Society, she passed the bar and opened the People’s Law Firm.
The woman in black began to get an almost legendary reputation among the New York immigrant poor. She challenged government deportations, helped underage child workers who weren’t being paid at their jobs, and even recovered lost jewels for a grateful foreign ambassador. After winning a highly-publicized appeal that saved the life of a young Italian mother who killed a man who was trying to rape her, Grace became known as the “People’s Friend,” and was soon one of the busiest lawyers in the city. She noticed a pattern of young men going missing, and followed the clues to Florida, where she uncovered a system of forced slavery through debt. She reported her findings directly to Washington and was soon named the first female U.S. District Attorney in history. After testifying before Congress and making front-page news, Grace returned to New York, and once again threw herself into the strange and unusual cases that somehow always found their way to her desk. She fought against the same doctor who tormented famous reporter Nellie Bly when she went undercover at an insane asylum, and was marked for death by the sinister Black Hand, the Italian crime organization that used secret codes and mystical rituals. Eventually one of her rich society friends, Mrs. Felix Adler, called to tell her that a girl had gone missing and begged her to meet with the father of the girl, one Mr. Henry Cruger.
* * *
By the time Grace agreed to take the case, Ruth Cruger’s photo had appeared in newspapers all over the country. Her image even flickered in front of movie theater audiences. The press, drawn to the story of a pretty Sunday school teacher who had vanished, openly suspected white slavery, foul play, and romantic entanglement, sometimes in the same story. Juicy clues were flooding the detective precincts, but none of them panned out. Grace’s approach was different. She locked herself in her office for a week straight to study every scrap of paper related to the case. Grace had been trained as a lawyer, but her inability to trust the police (or even the law itself) had, over the last few years, turned her into more of a detective. Now at age 48, her formula was to search for clues herself, verify them, and use them in the courtroom to make her argument.
In this case, Grace kept coming back to Alfredo Cocchi, the man who had sharpened Ruth’s skates. Since being questioned by detectives, Cocchi had also disappeared, though most of his neighbors speculated he simply feared being made a scapegoat for the crime, especially because he was Italian; the police, it seemed, could blame his people for anything in those days. But though Cocchi’s place had already been searched, his motorcycle shop was the last place Ruth had been seen. Grace wanted to see it, too.
This is how Grace ended up standing in the middle of Manhattan Avenue in Harlem and staring up at the Metropolitan Motorcycle Shop in June of 1917. Grace craned her neck and took in the tall glass windows that ran almost ten feet high across the front of the store. The white lettering across the glass read “MOTOR CYCLES STORING” on the left and “AUTO SUPPLIES” on the right. She saw tin signs for Mobil Oil that hung still in the air. A single globe lamp hung off a pole in front of the entrance. A huge billboard for graham crackers, as big and long as the shop itself, rose off the roof and into the bluish sky. The inside of Cocchi’s shop was dim behind the smoked glass.
Maria Cocchi, Alfredo’s wife had been left behind and was now desperately trying to keep the store afloat. She had two small children. Maria, who claimed to have no knowledge of where her husband was, had refused any searching of the premises. The police were no help, either. As Grace moved from desk to desk, trying to gain entrance to the store, police officials smiled and said their hands were tied. Grace was limited to what she could see from the outside. There were two signs in the window that read “MECHANIC’S HELPER WANTED” and “SELLING OUT.” On the outside, to the left of the front door, was a narrow stairwell that sank into the ground and served as a separate entrance to the basement. Grace walked near these stairs as unobtrusively as possible.
Grace knew, like it or not, that all of her misgivings about Cocchi and his store were circumstantial. The police had searched the cellar at least twice and found nothing but absence. The rest was just gossip and headlines. Why was Cocchi missing? Because he had taken the girl? Because he’d been spirited away by the same fiends who had taken poor Ruth? Or was he just terrified of being blamed by proximity? Perhaps there were more sinister forces at work, such as the rumored white slavery ring that stretched all the way down to Brazil. Or was this the work of the Black Hand? There were even rumors that Cocchi had been very friendly with the motorcycle cops in the neighborhood. Grace knew that those questions might be the most dangerous ones. But they still had to be asked.
Grace paused, considering the options at play in her mind, intersecting like the city itself, still struggling to connect its boroughs into one unified whole. Perhaps Ruth and Cocchi were the happy couple in this after all. That version of the truth seemed remote. But still. Grace went back to her office, thinking through the heat, trying to come up with a plan. When she got to her office, she called a good friend of hers, a private detective named Julius J. Kron.
Kron was a federal agent when he was first assigned to Grace during her U.S. district attorney days. A proud son of Hungary, with dark features and a scar under his left eye, Kron had a keen mind and chomped on cigars. When he was first hired, representatives of a Southern plantation offered him a substantial amount of money for a jury list on a peonage case. Kron smiled and agreed, but not before setting up a sting in an Italian restaurant with the help of the Secret Service. After that, he was known as “The Man Who Could Not Be Bribed.” They had been partners, when needed, ever since.
At the Hotel Manhattan on Madison Avenue and 42nd Street, Grace filled Kron in on the particulars of Ruth Cruger’s disappearance. Kron knew about the case from the newspapers.
“I want you to meet Mr. Cruger, the girl’s father,” Grace told her grim friend, between sips of tea. “He is a mental and physical wreck. If this isn’t solved soon, he’ll be in a sanitarium.”
When they left the hotel at eight, Grace gave Kron the bulk of the files she had on the case – hundreds of typewritten pages. Kron took the papers home and studied them all night long, making big blue pencil marks over the promising leads. In the morning, he blinked his eyes, took an icy shower, and ate breakfast. Before leaving, Kron kissed his wife Estelle and his three young daughters goodbye. After what he had just read, he tarried over them a moment more.
When Kron arrived at Grace’s office, he found her already talking to Henry Cruger, who looked completely washed out of color and form. When Grace introduced Kron, Cruger’s eyes pleaded at him from under his bushy eyebrows and bald head.
“Mr. Kron,” he said. “Won’t you find my little daughter? Someone is keeping her – she would never stay away – she would never have gone away.”
“We hope to, Mr. Cruger,” Kron replied, with his sliding accent. He added: “Just remember that of all the thousands of girls who disappear every year, over 98 percent are located,” Kron managed a persuasive smile.
“Yes,” Cruger cried, “but where?”
Kron had no immediate answer.
Both Grace and Kron knew that in the past year, 828 people had gone missing from the city; 244 people had been murdered. “Either New York is the most criminal city in the world,” Grace would say, “or the police force is inefficient.” After Cruger left, Grace looked at her right-hand man.
“Kronnie,” she said, “you are the only man I can trust to dig up the real facts. There is something crooked behind the whole thing.”
* * *
For the next week, Grace split her time between the office and searching cellars, vacant lots, and asking questions around the tenements. The police made fun of her. But Grace was adamant that Ruth was not a “wayward girl” who had eloped as a result of a senseless head. Every interview she had with Ruth’s friends and acquaintances had suggested otherwise.
Kron had disappeared as well, as Grace knew he would. When he finally called, Grace had started to set her own larger plan into motion.
“Mrs. Humiston,” Kron said. “I’ve got something on Cocchi.”
An hour later, Kron sat across from Grace at the hotel again. He looked over his shoulder and dropped his voice. Kron told Grace about someone he had talked to who used to live on Cocchi’s street. Her name was Madame Mureal and she was a French actress who lived with her sixteen-year-old daughter, Philippa. Their house was across the street from the motorcycle shop.
When Philippa’s bicycle broke one summer, her mother sent her to get it fixed by Cocchi. When Philippa came back, her bike was not only fixed, but wiped clean. The girl opened her hand and showed her mother a rose that Cocchi had given her.
Another day, Philippa went over to see if Cocchi could attach a small motor to her bicycle. Cocchi wiped his hands on his rag, looked at her bike, and said he’d do it cheap. Just for her.
“Oh, really?” said Madame Mureal, when her daughter told her.
“Yes,” said Philippa. “Because he told me he likes me.”
As Madame Mureal watched from the window, she saw Cocchi and her daughter go into his store. Suddenly, she had a sense of unease and ran down to the street. When she reached the head of the basement steps, she heard her daughter screaming “Mother! Mother!” Madame Mureal screamed her daughter’s name and she came flying out, sobbing and shaking with terror. The sleeve of her dress had been ripped loose from the shoulder. “I could see the spots already turning blue,” her mother said, “from the grip of the man’s fingers.”
“I want all mothers to know,” Madame Mureal said, “how easily these things can happen. There was that man, right across the street from us, and yet he dared to commit this deed in broad daylight within a few yards of Phil’s home. I wanted to go at once to the police and am sorry now that I didn’t … I had forgotten the name of the motorcycle man on Manhattan Street, until his face stared at me from the paper.”
Finishing her tea, Grace was seeing someone new appear in her mind. Something worse. And he had been under their faces the whole time. She had a new fact she was now absolutely sure of.
“This man,” Grace said, “should have been behind bars years ago.”
“We’ll make up for that,” said Kron.
But they needed evidence to catch the monster and to find Ruth alive. They needed to get into that store and the cellar beneath it. Grace had been thinking about this problem herself. She saw an opening that wouldn’t make them reliant on the unhelpful police. In fact, it would probably be best if they didn’t know about it. She then asked Kron a very strange question.
She asked him if he knew how to fix a motorcycle.
* * *
That night, Kron took out some ragged clothes and puzzled over a borrowed motorcycle repair manual. He stayed up late, with the aid of coffee and light, trying to figure out how to fix an all-chain drive.
The next morning, Kron knocked on the door at Cocchi’s store. When Maria Cocchi answered, Kron told her he was here for the job. She looked him over and then asked what experience he had.
“Several years,” replied Kron quickly, looking her directly in the eyes.
“Then get to work,” Cocchi said. “Clean out that clogged gasoline on the red one first.”
Kron paused for a second. He had never monkeyed with a motorcycle before. He had a car of his own and could tinker it up all right, but he’d have to experiment with the cycle. And he hated these clothes. But she was standing right there, watching him.
For a week, Kron fumbled and bluffed his way through motorcycle repairs as Cocchi watched over him like a hawk. Kron would commit the bikes’ maladies to heart, learn how to fix them at night by reading the manuals, and try to put this knowledge into effect the next day.
All the while, Kron reported back to Grace everything he was learning about the shop. They would meet at her office or in hotels and he would pass on the information. The one-story building itself was largely taken over by motorcycles, most of their repairs now far overdue. There was a workshop in the cellar, but it was only accessible thru the outside stairs in the front. Cocchi never let him go near there, Kron told Grace. Whenever he needed tools, Cocchi would bring them up herself. Kron didn’t think she trusted him, or anyone, for that matter.
On the fifth day of Kron’s new job as a mechanic, a customer brought in a motorcycle that needed three of the front wheel spokes replaced. All Kron needed to do was to solder it – but the equipment was in the basement. Without pause, Kron began to put on his hat and coat. Cocchi stopped him.
“Where you going now?” she asked.
“The smithy. To get these spokes soldered.”
“You don’t need to go to no smithy,” Cocchi said. “I’ll take you downstairs and you can use the heater there.”
Kron put his hat and coat back on the tack. He made sure to control his breathing and to conceal his eyes. Cocchi wiped her hands and he followed her outside the shop. At the front sidewalk there were four steps that led down to the cellar. As Cocchi remained standing on top to watch the store, Kron jumped down. She kept an eye on him as he went inside.
When Kron entered the basement, he tried to take it all in as quickly as possible. There was no lavish furnished space or medieval dungeon; there was only a workbench, a massive tool chest, some rags in a corner, and the slick smell of motor oil. There were two windows facing the front small alley. Kron scanned the wooden boards on the floor for new damage or shiny bright nails. But even the dust was uniform. Kron knew that the police had already searched this room twice.
“Don’t you see the heater there in front of you?” Mrs. Cocchi shouted from the stairs. There was a pause. Cocchi looked around again for a footprint or a scuff – anything. He started searching the back wall when he suddenly realized that he had taken too long. “Never mind, come on up,” Cocchi said, quickly. “Take the spokes to the smithy.” At that moment, Kron was convinced of two things by her high-pitched voice: One, that there must be some kind of tiny clue in that basement, and two, that the jig was up.
Kron grabbed the spokes, and scrambled up the stairs. He could hear a customer in the shop upstairs. Maybe Cocchi just wanted him out of the cellar rather than leave him unattended. Maybe there was nothing down there after all. The tools were valuable, but not as valuable as what he was looking for. There was no secret cell or hiding place. Or at least he hadn’t seen one. It was just an ordinary cellar. Maybe Cocchi hadn’t noticed his absence at all. But when he came up the stairs, he saw her eyes locked on him.
“I know you now!” she shouted. “You’re another one of those detectives that chased poor Al away – you’re no mechanic! You’re hounding after him still even after—” She broke down, crying. “Get out! Get out!”
As Kron was pushed out into the street, he knew he had failed Grace. Her plan had worked beautifully until he got in that basement and blown his cover. Kron slouched and sighed and walked away from the store alongside the black cars. He was convinced, completely, that he had missed something in that underground room. He understood now. He would stop at nothing – nothing – to get back to that still space, to find out what happened to Ruth Cruger.
* * *
This is an adapted excerpt from “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York’s City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case that Captivated a Nation” (St. Martin’s, 2017). Buy the book here.