Mrs. Sherlock Holmes by Brad Ricca is a true crime tale told in spine-tingling fashion (Available January 3, 2017).
Mrs. Sherlock Holmes tells the incredible true life story of Mrs. Grace Humiston, the New York lawyer and detective who solved the famous cold case of Ruth Cruger, an 18-year-old girl who disappeared in 1917. Grace was an amazing lawyer and traveling detective during a time when no women were practicing these professions. She focused on solving cases no one else wanted and advocating for innocents. Grace became the first female U.S. District Attorney and made ground-breaking investigations into modern slavery.
One of Grace's greatest accomplishments was solving the Cruger case after following a trail of corruption that lead from New York to Italy. Her work changed how the country viewed the problem of missing girls. But the victory came with a price when she learned all too well what happens when one woman upstages the entire NYPD.
True Detective Mysteries
A single electric bulb looped down from the uneven ceiling. It sparked hot white. A man with dark features stepped into the bright circle below it, which lit up a scar near his left eye.
The dark man palmed his hat and crunched his unlit cigar. He surveyed the entire room, fixing his eyes into its soft, webby corners.
Hello? he asked. His accent started from a growl and slid upward.
The room smelled of damp cement, wood, and oil. Two other men followed him in. One was enormous. The other was short and wore overalls. That one looked at everything with keen, moving eyes. He was looking for shiny nails. The fat man perspired. As the dark man searched, the short man knocked on the walls with his knuckles. He listened to the walls as if they were speaking to him.
He held up a hand and they all stopped.
There were pipes and a tin sign and some saws on the floor, but otherwise the room was more or less empty, except for a large bench against the wall. In the corner of the room was a bag that they were all staying away from. After a moment, the dark man began stepping in slow circles on the planked flooring. The others followed him into a corner, where exposed brick lay against the bottom half of the wall. The fat man took off his coat, then his vest.
The short man in overalls examined the large table. He motioned, and everyone helped him move it. They pushed it to the side and stared downward. The floorboards were missing. Instead, in the cement floor, they saw a door, set into the ground like a gate to hell.
The dark man dropped to a knee. He pulled back the door and stared down into a black hole in the ground. They listened again for voices. There was no telling where it went.
Call her, the man said, as he jumped in.
The Missing Skater
February 13, 1917
From the front window of her family’s second-floor apartment, Christina Cruger pressed her face against the glass, looking out on the street below. There was the usual mix of afternoon people in hats and coats on the sidewalk. They were walking with their bags and babies in the bitter February cold. The sun flashed through the clouds over the Hudson and onto Harlem. The snow fell when it wanted to.
Twenty-year-old Christina wiped away the steam and scraped at the spidery frost on the window. Her lungs strained this close to the cold air, a side effect of her illness. But her worry was growing elsewhere. She could feel it in her stomach.
When her little sister Ruth had left two hours ago, she was wearing layers of old winter clothes and a floppy hat. She had to run an errand, Ruth told her. So Christina, who was named after her mother, watched her sister leave, as she always did, from the same window: Ruth walked briskly up the hill on Claremont Avenue before she turned east, then crossed Broadway before disappearing behind the wooden buildings. Christina watched those same corners now, looking for her sister’s blue coat, swinging into the scene, framed by the peeling paint of the window frame. But the coat never appeared. This wasn’t like her, thought Christina. Not Ruth, who had just graduated high school with good grades and taught Sunday school. She would just be a minute, Ruth had assured her, with that smile of hers.
Just a minute.
Looking out on the falling snow, it occurred to Christina that her sister might have gone ice-skating. A huge sense of relief filled her. That made sense. Christina scolded herself for not seeing it sooner. Ruth loved skating more than anything and had said her errands included picking up her ice skates from getting sharpened. And Ruth had let it slip that there was a new boy from Columbia University whom she liked. That made Christina feel better. With their parents up in Boston, now would be a good day for ice-skating. Ruth could keep secrets; Christina knew that. At the same time, her sister wouldn’t let her worry like this, either. And Ruth wasn’t dressed for ice-skating, certainly not with someone from Columbia. Christina couldn’t remember his name.
Christina coughed, steaming up the window again. What if Ruth had become sick again herself? What if she was in a hospital somewhere? Christina shuddered; she had just left the hospital herself not that long ago. Or, worse yet, was Ruth passed out on a frigid sidewalk somewhere down there? Christina watched the clock. It clicked and whirred in the still room. What if she had been run down by one of those filthy automobiles on Broadway? Christina looked down. The shadows of the streetlamps were getting longer, like candles. She could see Ruth in her mind, smiling. Everyone thought of Ruth that way. Christina could not picture where her sister might be.
Christina picked up the receiver on the phone and pushed twice on the switch to call down to the operator. As she waited for her voice, Christina saw the people who had left their homes hours ago now returning, their shoes finding their earlier footprints. Christina was finally connected on the phone to her other sister, Helen. She worked as a bookkeeper at the Mexican Petroleum Company on Broadway and was three years older. Helen listened intently through the small black cone she held up to her ear. Like her father, Helen was very businesslike. She asked Christina to remember everything that Ruth had told her before she left. Christina recited that Ruth had left just after eleven o’clock to do some marketing for their mother. She then went to a store to cash a check for twenty-five dollars. After paying some bills, Ruth had come back home to give her sister the receipts and to have lunch. Ruth then said she was going to the bank at 125th Street and Eighth Avenue. Then she was going to pick up her sharpened skates, which she had dropped off in the morning.
Ruth had gone ice-skating, Helen said quickly, instantly arriving at the same conclusion as her sister. Probably at Notlek, Van Cortlandt, or the indoor rink at Saint Nicholas. This reassurance made Christina feel better.
But once Helen hung up, she packed up her things and left work. The air was chilling. There was a bit of snow on the ground. Helen finally reached the neighborhood and began retracing her little sister’s steps. The family’s bank, the United States Mortgage and Trust Company, was a big building on the corner with dark glass doors. It was closed. Helen looked around. Could someone have seen Ruth come in with the money she was going to deposit? Had she been the victim of a robbery? Helen glanced around at the people lost in coats around her. Helen tried to see inside the bank. The footprints by the door made one, uneven shape.
Helen then made a round of the shops along Eighth Avenue near 125th Street. She went to Soames Dry Goods, but no one had seen Ruth there. She saw a neighbor, John Gerbige, and quizzed him, right there on the street.
“I haven’t seen her since she made a stop at Gardella’s stationery store,” John said, shaking his head. He estimated that was sometime past two, but not much after. Helen went over to Gardella’s, but no one could remember her being there. No one at the Keysone Department store had seen her, either. Helen was puzzled.
Three blocks over, Helen went to the Metropolitan Motorcycles shop at 542 West 127th Street, one of those strange Harlem roads that came out of nowhere to cut across another at a sharp, sudden angle. It lay across the map like a broken stitch. Helen looked up. She was only about two and a half blocks northeast from home. Up close, the store was big and inviting, with a door in the center of two long windows. Helen saw black metal motorcycles poised behind the plate glass, which was covered with painted lettering. The store had a sign that read SKATES SHARPENED, so Helen knocked on the door, shaking the thin glass. She shivered. The sun had already set. The store was closed, which she sort of expected, so Helen turned back down the street, passing a candy store on the corner. They had conversation hearts for sale in the window.
There were cabbies in stands and people up in windows, who all seemed to watch her. Helen talked to a few other people here and there. Someone on the street told her that they did see a girl in a blue coat leave the motorcycle shop and head east. Helen’s eyes lit up. But why would Ruth be walking in the opposite direction from home? That didn’t make sense. Then it hit her that Ruth had probably headed for the ice.
Helen walked swiftly to the Notlek outdoor ice rink on 119th Street and Riverside. She knew they still had an evening session going on. Helen circled the low fence and peered at all the people in mackinaw coats pushing and twirling around. Her eyes focused. She saw hands that were held tight across the cold, white ice. Helen’s eyes watched spinning, moving figures, visible against the white, but she couldn’t—or didn’t think—she saw her sister. She cursed herself for not coming here first.
The skies were dark now, and almost everyone had gone back to their homes, high or low in the clear, cold air. Helen knew she had to go home, too. Ruth had probably been at the rink, she told herself, but had probably left before her arrival. Helen walked home with speed. She imagined walking into the apartment and seeing Ruth there, nursing a purple ankle. Helen would scold her sister, and they would all laugh, agreeing never to tell their father about any of it. As she made her way home, quicker now, her boots cracking the icy crust, the street was lit by a moon that was split in half between light and darkness.
When Helen returned home, Christina was crying. So Helen, age twenty-three, who had her father in her, picked up the telephone receiver and asked to be connected to Mr. Alfred Brown, a lawyer who was the corporation counsel of Mount Vernon and her father’s partner in an oil concern. Henry had told his daughters that if anything untoward happened at home, they should ring Mr. Brown straightaway. Helen filled him in, and the two immediately agreed to summon her parents back home.
On the way to the apartment, Mr. Brown sent a telegram to their father. It read:
COME HOME QUICKLY, RUTH HAS DISAPPEARED.
At the apartment, Mr. Brown tried to calm the girls down. He called the police, relating the details as Helen and Christina watched. By the time their parents came home, early the next morning, it was Valentine’s Day, 1917. And pretty Ruth Cruger, eighteen years old, was lost.
Somewhere out in the snow.
* * *
Ruth Cruger was smiling from under a deep pompadour of pulled-back hair, her mouth spread into an easy smile. She was wearing a soft white dress and had a great bow in her hair. Her hands were clasped on her lap. Her dark eyes were made up of tiny black dots. As she looked out, unmoving, from the front page of the New York Evening World, over the crease and with a handwritten “Ruth Cruger” beneath her photograph, she seemed closed in by the hand-drawn, curlicue frame. She looked positively happy. In fact, the photo seemed purposefully cropped to show only her face. Henry Cruger, her father, stared at the photo even though he had a hard time doing so. He had not imagined that everyone would see her so soon, in the evening edition on February 14, amid reports of Germany and war.
Henry was a short, unassuming man. The top of his head was bald, framed by two clumps of black hair. He wore dark, circular eyeglasses and had a mustache shot with gray. Henry was a public accountant of some renown and had offices at Grand Central Terminal. The night before, he had been eating dinner in Boston at the Grand Hotel with his wife when he was told that he had a long-distance call from his friend Mr. Brown. As Henry put the receiver to his ear and tried to hear over the clinking of silverware, Mr. Brown said words that made no sense to him. Henry found himself nodding and agreeing anyway. He and his wife left the restaurant immediately and got on a train at twelve thirty in the morning, bound for New York.
Later that morning, from home, Henry called the police himself. After he was transferred to the Fourth Branch detective house, Henry told the story of his daughter’s disappearance. He could almost hear the detective on the other end of the line skritching out words on his notepad like blue coat and tam-o’-shanter hat. When Henry was done, the detective said that the police would be back in touch soon. When the detective hung up, Henry thought he must have forgotten to tell him everything.
Henry stayed home that day as his family watched the door and the phone. Henry had to focus. When the mail came, he went through each square envelope very carefully, fearful of what he might find. There was nothing. Henry had to be strong for his family. So he said good, hopeful things. Henry finally decided that he should hire a private detective. As Henry reached for his worn New York City directory, his daughter Helen slipped away from the small apartment.
Henry had already given the police a list of Ruth’s destinations, including the bank, the motorcycle shop, and the stationery store, whose purpose on Ruth’s excursion was still mysterious. So when he talked to the detective agency, he told them the same things. Henry also tried to explain what kind of girl she was, how she was bright, helped at church, and watched over her sister when Christina was sick, but he felt the words came out all wrong. So he stuck to numbers and facts. She went here, then there, and then disappeared. Henry hung up. That afternoon, two police detectives came by the apartment. Detective Lagarenne was tall and had brown hair. His partner, McGee, had dark hair and looked like Fatty Arbuckle. When they came to the door, Henry’s heart was in his mouth.
Helen was still gone when the detectives arrived. She wanted to check the bank and the other stores that were closed the night before. Helen first went to the motorcycle store at ten thirty in the morning, but it was still closed. As Helen approached the door, she saw something new. There was a movable sign with a small black hand pointing downward. She followed the direction with her eyes and saw a small stairway under the sidewalk that led to a cellar, but it was locked up. Helen tried the bank next. It was busy, but no one had reported a robbery or had seen her sister. She returned to the motorcycle store at 12:45, but it was still closed. The pointed little hand was gone.
When Helen went back to the motorcycle store at 2:30 in the afternoon, it was finally open, and Helen walked in through the glass doors. She saw a man kneeling by a bicycle, turning a heavy wrench. When he saw her, he stood up. He was dressed in khaki. He smiled at her with a warm, dopey grin.
“Yes?” the man asked. He spoke with an accent.
Helen explained that she was looking for her sister, who had her skates sharpened the day before. She described her, with her funny hat and blue coat.
“Yes,” the man said, nodding. His voice seemed like it was starting and stopping as he figured out the right words. “She left her skates here in the morning and came for them in the afternoon, paid me, and went on.”
Helen’s heart lifted and fell in an instant.
“What kind of shoes did she have?” asked Helen. The man looked down at her feet.
“Like yours,” he said, cheerily, raising his eyes back to hers.
Helen then asked if he had seen which way she had gone. He thought for a moment, trying to remember.
“At 1:20. She went east,” he said, his hand pointing out the direction. He wanted to help more, but Helen excused herself, thanking him for his kindness. She ran home to tell her father. When she walked in, Henry had a twinge of alarm. The two detectives—Lagarenne and McGee—had just left. They had told Henry that they had so far found nothing. But Helen did have something. A direction.
Helen told her father about the motorcycle shop. Henry immediately called Fourth Branch to leave a message. Henry stared at his strong daughter. She had the right idea. As she retired to her room, exhausted, Henry went out himself to search the empty, ramshackle buildings around 123rd and 124th. Theirs was a nice neighborhood, but the buildings in the shadows, wedged between alleys and streets, were still there, still occupying space. Henry could hear crying children and parents screaming in strange languages. Henry stared up into the dark windows of the tenements, sometimes catching someone’s eye. There were so many occupied places here, known and not, all throughout the city. Parents and children and dogs and babies seemed to fill every invisible corner, pushing out against the city’s uneven seams. As the afternoon sank into night, Henry made his way home. He paused at the stairs of his own building, his eyes drawn downward to the closed cellar door. He descended the steps down and entered the basement. He looked tensely into every black corner, where the walls met each other in shadow. He could almost hear his heart beating, the sound reverberating against the cool walls.
The next day, Henry put on his coat and went down to the Fourth Branch detective house at West 123rd Street near Manhattan Avenue. Mr. Brown accompanied him. Henry told Detectives Lagarenne and McGee that he wanted his whole neighborhood checked and everything possible done in terms of publicity. “I want the property searched all around,” Henry demanded.
Henry then asked the detectives about the man his daughter had talked to. The motorcycle man with the accent. The detectives said he was an immigrant named Alfredo Cocchi. Lagarenne assured Henry that he had personally searched the store the day before—through and through—and found nothing. They even searched the basement and the closets. Henry insisted that they put this Italian man under surveillance anyway, but Lagarenne calmly assured him that there was no reason to do so. Cocchi was respectable; he had been in business there for a year and a half and had a wife and children. Lagarenne said that Cocchi’s wife was a little troublesome, but that was all. Henry asked about the bank, too—if there could have been criminals in the area, looking for easy targets who had money in their pockets. The police said they would look into it.
There was a pause as the detectives looked at each other. Lagarenne fixed his gaze back on Henry and asked if his daughter had been involved in any kind of romantic affair. Henry stared right through the two detectives as if they were made of glass. They suggested that she was perhaps on some youthful love affair and nothing more. Henry, asked them, in so many words, how they could ask him about his daughter like that. Henry Cruger saw things in absolutes. The thought of his daughter running away with a man was an utter impossibility to him.
Lagarenne then revealed that they had their first clue and pulled out his notebook. In their canvass of the area, a cab driver said that he had driven that night to 127th and Claremont Avenue, which was no more than a block from the Cruger apartment. There, he picked up a man and a young woman who matched the newspaper description of Ruth Cruger. Henry froze. The cabbie said he picked them up near Ruth’s home and dropped them off near a subway entrance.
Henry put his head in his hands, reeling. The detectives cautioned him against talking to the newspapers. If the cabbie’s story was true, and they warned him that the account was uncorroborated, it suggested an elopement rather than a kidnapping. They had to proceed carefully. They didn’t even have the cab driver’s name yet, the detectives explained. Henry didn’t believe them.
Henry was furious that the detectives had not told him this immediately. So when a reporter called later that day, he didn’t heed the detectives’ request for silence. This was his daughter, after all.
“She is very attractive in appearance,” Henry told the reporter. “She cared more for her studies than for social life. She was happy and contented at home and, I am sure, had no love affair. She was endeavoring to recuperate from the slight overexertion to which she subjected herself in passing the examinations that enabled her to graduate from the high school early this month. She taught Sunday School.” He took a breath.
“She is not the kind of girl who would stay away from home without letting us know of her whereabouts,” Henry said. She had just gone out to get “a pair of skates attached to a pair of tanned shoes,” he said. “She wore a long velour coat.” Repeating it acted as a tonic on his unquiet mind. As he read it, he wondered what man out there might help him.
By Friday afternoon, anyone who read the papers—or even looked at the front page on the cold city streets, layered with streetcars and motorcars—knew that Ruth Cruger was the Harlem girl who had disappeared. The New York Times headline on February 16 read PRETTY GIRL SKATER STRANGELY MISSING. People all over the city read the story and shook their heads. The photograph spoke for itself. When Henry finally got home that night from walking the streets, looking and studying every face he could, he heard his wife crying in the other room. He had to find this driver.
The next day, Saturday, a short dark-haired woman walked up to the Fourth Branch detective house. She walked quickly, her body set against the cold as she led a small boy in a heavy coat that covered everything but his wide eyes. The woman carried a bundle of something in her arms. It was noon. She entered the building and proceeded to the main desk. She uncovered her head to reveal medium-length hair. She then announced that her name was Maria Cocchi and that her husband, Alfredo, who owned a motorcycle shop in Harlem, was missing.
Copyright © 2017 Brad Ricca.
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Brad Ricca is the author of Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—the Creators of Superman, winner of the Ohioana Book Award for Nonfiction and the Cleveland Arts Prize for Literature.