Mrs. Sherlock Holmes by Brad Ricca is a book about Mary Grace Winterton Quackenbos Humiston (September 17, 1869 – July 16, 1948) and the Ruth Cruger case.
Humiston was the first female Special Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York meaning she was the chief federal law enforcement officer for eight New York counties: New York (Manhattan), Bronx, Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Orange, Dutchess and Sullivan. She was the first woman to hold a senior position in the Justice Department.
After spending one year with the Legal Aid Society she was admitted to the bar in 1904 and founded the People’s Law Firm in 1905. Her focus was on the working poor, immigrants, and later missing women and girls. That’s how we meet Ruth Cruger. Her story is the red thread that runs through the book.
The beginning of the book is confusion as it skips around to highlight the divers cases Grace Humiston handled in her career. I think the book would have benefited from a chronological approach.
The author introduces us to the 1905 case of Antionetta Tolla. Tolla was accused of murdering Joseph Sonta and sentenced to death. Three days before her execution by hanging, Humiston managed to convince the New Jersey Board of Pardons to commute Tolla’s death sentence to seven and one-half years of incarceration. Humiston showed convincingly that Tolla had acted in self-defense. Sonta had sexually harassed her before. Moreover, during the initial trial Tolla, from Italy, did not have the assistance of a proper language translator casting doubt on the correct translation of all that was said, whether Tolla understood all proceedings, and whether her answers were translated correctly to the judge and jury.
From there we go back to the Cruger case (1917), then back to 1905 for Grace’s career, back to 1917 for the Cruger case, then to 1907 and 1916 for more cases Humiston handled before returning to 1917 again. To me, this is confusing and unnecessary.
Ruth Cruger (Dec 8, 1898 – Feb 13, 1917) was just eighteen years old when she went missing. She left her family’s home on Claremont Avenue Feb 13, 1917, to get her ice skates sharpened. She wore a blue velvet coat, a black hat with a flowered ribbon, white kid gloves, and her new graduation ring from Wadleigh High School. She walked towards the motorcycle repair shop from Alfredo Cocchi. After she went inside, she was never seen again.
Ruth’s story includes victim blaming and shaming, conflicting elements in Cocchi’s confessions, possible police negligence in properly searching and incompetence in examining the crime scene, falsifying police documents, false accusations against Mrs. Maria Magrini Cocchi, and a lot of speculation.
Because I found the hopping around in the beginning of the book somewhat annoying, I started a timeline:
- Feb 13, 1917: Ruth Cruger disappears.
- Feb 15, 1917: Alfredo Cocchi, owner of the motorcycle repair store where Ruth went to get her skates sharpened, disappears leaving behind his wife, their two children, and the shop.
- May 31, 1917: Cocchi is found in Bologna, Italy.
- June 16, 1917: Ruth Cruger’s remains are found underneath the basement of Cocchi’s shop.
- June 23, 1919: Cocchi appears before the Italian Court of Assizes in Bologna.
- Aug 9, 1919: Trial is delayed to wait for statements from Cocchi’s wife.
- Oct 24, 1920: The second trial against Cocchi starts in Bologna.
- Oct 29, 1920: Judge Bagnoli considered proven the attempted rape and consequent murder of Ruth Cruger. The sentence is an accumulation of all separate crimes committed by Cocchi: travelling to Italy under a false name, killing to avoid having a witness, murder, and rape (not attempted so I do wonder here about the evidence but from a forensic standpoint). Alas, falsely accusing your wife did not add anything to Cocchi’s ultimate punishment of 27 years, 2 months, and 26 days.
- Aug 1, 1947: Cocchi is considered rehabilitated and is released.
“A piece of hemp rope nine feet long was knotted tightly around the ankles, cutting into the flesh. A towel looped around the neck.
The feet bore shoes and stockings, both brown, and the blue of a velvet coat had faded to slate. Kid gloves still concealed the hands, and a black hat lay smashed deep inside the pit.
The final discovery was a pair of ice skates, covered with mottled blood.
The victim’s skull had been crushed from behind, just above the left ear.
An autopsy revealed a deep gash in Ruth’s abdomen extending to her spine, carved with the blade of her own skate—an injury that classified the case, in the parlance of the times, as a “ripper.”
Otto H. Schultze, medical assistant to the district attorney, determined that the killer inflicted the wound after the blow that crushed Ruth’s skull but before her death.”
On March 14, 1923, Humiston was involved in a trolley accident. Recovery and walking again took months. On July 16, 1948 Humiston is rushed to the hospital where she died of arteriosclerotic heart disease. She was 78 years old.
One of the many battles Humiston fought was prejudice when women disappeared.
“Just because girls bob their hair, wear short skirts, dance crazy dances, and
look a little more sophisticated than girls of the last two generations,
doesn’t indicate with absolute certainty – as many of our public figures have announced
in bold print – that the younger generation
is on the road to ruin.”
This statement to true to this day in 2019. In Ruth’s time they used the word “wayward” to show that the woman or girl probably ran away with a forbidden love or, needed to run to get an abortion or, found a more exciting life outside the home or, anything else to blame the victim instead of looking for clues in her character, how she was perceived by family, friends, and classmates, and what the evidence tells us.
if you are interested in researching Cocchi’s two trials in Italy the author has disappointing news for us: most of the court records were destroyed in a fire. Ricca says that “all that remains is a brief summary of his final trial in a heavy, handwritten book on a dusty shelf in Bologna.”
Ricca’s book has a table of contents, the epilogue lists all main characters and tells you what became of them, followed by the author’s note, notes about the book per chapter, a bibliography, further resources, and an extensive index.
The book combines part biography with true crime and the history of handling missing persons’ cases. It is perfect except for the hopping around in the beginning. This book is highly recommended if you wish to learn about Mary Grace Winterton Quackenbos Humiston’s career and the many cases she handled.
Other book reviews by me can be found here.