It was just another day on the job for the surveyor walking back and forth atop a New York City skyscraper as he analyzed his measurements. Down below, however, October 24, 1929, was no ordinary day. With the New York Stock Exchange in free fall, the jittery crowd that had descended upon Wall Street heard the rumors that 11 speculators had already committed suicide. They looked up in horror at the surveyor, fearing the man teetering above their heads was another dispirited stockbroker who would make it an even dozen by jumping to his death.
On what became known as “Black Thursday,” false reports crackled around Wall Street that distraught bankers and investors were leaping out of high-rise windows and plummeting as quickly as the stock market itself. “If half the suicides which were reported to ‘TRADER’ yesterday had proved true, Wall Street would be a deserted village this morning,” the New York Daily News reported the day after Black Thursday.
Contrary to popular lore, there was no epidemic of suicides—let alone window-jumpings—in the wake of the Stock Market Crash of 1929. “In the United States the suicide wave that followed the stock market crash is also part of the legend of 1929. In fact, there was none,” wrote economist John Kenneth Galbraith in his book The Great Crash 1929.
Galbraith reported that the number of suicides in the United States in October and November 1929 were among the lowest of any month of that year. The suicide rate, in fact, had been substantially higher during the summer months before the crash. Yet, the false tales about a rash of Wall Street suicides had become so pervasive by mid-November 1929 that Charles Norris, New York City’s chief medical examiner, felt compelled to publicly refute them by reporting that while 44 suicides had occurred during the previous four weeks in Manhattan, that number was actually lower than the 53 recorded over the same time period in 1928.
So where did the myth of stockbrokers leaping from buildings originate? “One contemporary reference was written by a British reporter who had been very badly burned in the market himself,” says business and financial historian John Steele Gordon, author of An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power. “He had watched the crash from the visitor gallery and reported that a body fell not far from him. The reporter’s name was Winston Churchill.”
The future British prime minister had been staying at the Savoy Plaza Hotel during his visit to New York City when he witnessed the distressing scene. “Under my very window a gentleman cast himself down fifteen storeys and was dashed to pieces, causing a wild commotion and the arrival of the fire brigade,” Churchill recalled in London’s Daily Telegraph on December 9, 1929.
If Churchill is documenting the same incident, he had seen the aftermath of the fall of Dr. Otto Matthies, a German chemist, from the hotel’s sixteenth floor. Even if the fall wasn’t accidental, as newspapers reported, the tourist’s death came on the morning of October 24, hours before the market’s plunge so it couldn’t have been connected to the Crash.
Dark humor may have also contributed to the myth. The day after Black Thursday, many Americans read the following quip from humorist Will Rogers in their newspapers: “When Wall Street took that tail spin, you had to stand in line to get a window to jump out of, and speculators were selling spaces for bodies in the East River.” Vaudeville comedian Eddie Cantor, who lost most of his money in the Crash, soon after joked that when he requested a 19th-floor room at a New York City hotel, the clerk asked him: “What for? Sleeping or jumping?”
There were, in fact, at least two people who jumped to their deaths in Manhattan’s financial district in the weeks following the 1929 Crash. Hulda Borowski, a clerk who had worked for 28 years at a brokerage firm, leapt from the roof of the 40-story Equitable Building on November 7. The New York Times reported that “her employers said she had been near exhaustion from overwork” as a result of the recent trading frenzy.
Nine days later, 65-year-old George Cutler, head of a wholesale produce firm and a member of the New York Mercantile Exchange who had sustained heavy losses in the market, jumped from the seventh-floor ledge outside his lawyer’s office and landed on an automobile parked on Wall Street.
Behind 1929’s building-jumping myth, however, may be the larger truth that the onset of the Great Depression did correlate to an increase in suicides. Based on statistics reported by Galbraith in The Great Crash 1929, the suicide rate in the United States increased from 17.0 per 100,000 people in 1929 to 21.3 in 1932 during the worst of the financial calamity. The pattern was much the same in New York.
“In memory some of these tragedies may have been moved back a year or two to the time of the stock market crash,” Galbraith wrote.
People may not have been leaping off buildings by the dozens, but during the final months of 1929, American newspapers reported terrible incidents involving those who lost nearly everything in the Crash. The day after Black Thursday, Chicago real estate investor C. Fred Stewart asphyxiated himself with gas in his kitchen. When the market took an even further dive on Black Tuesday, John Schwitzgebel shot himself to death inside a Kansas City club. The stock pages of the newspaper were found covering his body.
In the weeks to come, Scranton, Pennsylvania civil engineer Carl Motiska doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire. His wife also died from burns sustained while trying to save him from the flames. St. Louis stockbroker John Betts, who had a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, drank poison to end his life. Down to his last four cents, Wellington Lytle left the following suicide note in his Milwaukee hotel room: “My body should go to science, my soul to [Secretary of Treasury] Andrew W. Mellon and sympathy to my creditors.”