This is how a story starts:
In 1917, on the day before Valentine’s Day, eighteen-year-old Ruth Cruger left her family’s apartment to do some errands around their Harlem neighborhood. The snow was falling. She walked down the street and vanished.
It’s a kind of story we’ve heard before. But what makes it different from other kinds is that, unfortunately, it is true.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on true crime. In fact, I’ve spent much of my life avoiding it. I grew up in a nice suburb outside of Cleveland in the eighties. Like most places, ice cream in the summer was a big deal. We would always go to a huge Baskin-Robbins. I would get Triple Chocolate Mousse on a sugar cone or sometimes New England Maple Walnut, my Dad’s favorite. We would stand outside and watch the sun set. It was just outside that store, on October 27, 1989, that 10-year-old Amy Mihaljevic disappeared. Four months later, she was found alongside a road downstate. She was long dead.
The stories that ran in the paper afterwards—the grim details that surfaced and that photo of her with a side ponytail and a cross at her neck—affected everyone who read them. They affected me. There were words that could not be unheard or unread. The pink ice cream store that smelled like sugar was never the same afterwards. It was never the same before somehow, if that makes any sense. Her killer was never caught.
This is where I learned to hate true crime.
When I worked at a Borders bookstore after graduating college, I wouldn’t even walk past the true crime section. All those black-and-red covers—like Soviet propaganda posters—with the faces of blank white men creeped me out. Sometimes, somebody in the break room would open one up and point out some of the black-and-white photos in the middle. I would try not to look.
Then, I got older and realized this stuff was happening in the world around me and not just in mass-market paperbacks. The news would announce that someone was missing, and we’d all shake our heads and move on. And really, what else could we do? I don’t want to engage in any sort of mass cultural diagnosis, but it seemed like we all watched Law and Order: Special Victims Unit instead, almost as penance. Where I live in Cleveland, we still get a coupon book delivered in the mail every Wednesday that’s filled with ads for things like frozen spinach and flex hoses. And on the back page, every week, is a small photograph of someone who has gone missing.
Still, there is a lure to the subject that can’t be denied. At first, I thought it was some kind of morbid curiosity about our own ends. But I think it’s more than that. True crime writing has a concreteness to it that is different than other kinds of writing. Since the words are factual and violent, they don’t represent anything—they are those things. And those things are bad and bloody and real.
Don’t get me wrong, I have cried and gnashed my teeth plenty over fictional characters, but this is somehow different. It's unique because this type of writing is—at its best—about the central question we have of why? Not a why of plot, but a more central one. Why did this happen? Why did you do it? Why will it happen again? Plenty of other genres do that, too (it isn’t a contest), but they try to trick us—magically, wonderfully—into believing them to be true. True crime doesn’t have to. There is no escape from it. It is at the door.
But true crime has another story, too, that I think goes unnoticed.
When Ruth Cruger disappeared, the mighty NYPD conducted their investigation. But after a short time, they gave up, concluding that this pretty Sunday school teacher had run off with an unknown suitor. When the cops announced their conclusion, Ruth’s father hired his own detective: a middle-aged woman who only wore black named Mrs. Grace Humiston.
The press called her Mrs. Sherlock Holmes.
Grace was a lawyer and had a resume longer than any man in Gotham. She had halted death row executions at the last minute, uncovered illegal slave plantations in the South forty years after the Civil War ended, and was named the first female U.S. District Attorney in history. She fought for poor immigrants who couldn’t pay her and tracked down missing people from Trenton to Italy. She was an unstoppable force, both in the courtroom and in the aisles of Bergdorf Goodman.
When Grace took over the Cruger case, it was with all the hallmarks of a classic noir story. With her aide-de-camp detective, the hardboiled Julius J. Kron, at her side, Grace went up against corrupt Irish cops, a salivating media, and even a dark Spanish beauty who claimed to have seen Ruth in an underground lair. There were whispers of white slavery rings and the involvement of the Black Hand. There were rumors of a secret boyfriend, an Italian priest, and a photographer who witnessed her stumbling into a cab with a strange man. The story was a sensational dream for the newspapers, who reported on every aspect of the case. But at the same time, the grief of her family was very real.
This was the real story, I thought. Not that the girl disappeared—that was inescapable fact—but that someone was going after her. There was hope somewhere there in time. Maybe that is why we read and write about this stuff in the first place. The more I read and researched this story, the more I knew I wasn’t writing a true biography or even a true crime book, but kind of a book about true crime. But there is another crime here, too—not only what happened to Ruth Cruger and who really kidnapped her, but also the final fate of Grace Humiston, who has been nearly erased from history.
This is a true story, but it is not an uncommon one. And it has an ending, but I am not going to tell it to you. For me, I thought that solving the crime—or at least outlining it and telling it—would help me understand it all, including why we get pictures of girls in the mail and just throw them in the trash. Is it part of the problem or the solution? In the end, the dark end, I just found more crimes to consider—ones that stretched themselves out over decades through subtle hints and clues, across an ocean and through the earth, if only we had looked.
I still hate true crime. But that just means I want to fight it. Especially if it’s true.
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Brad Ricca is the author of Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City's Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation, out January 3, 2017 from St. Martin’s Press. He is also the author of the award-winning Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—the Creators of Superman (St. Martin’s Press, 2013).