(The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case that Captivated a Nation) by Brad Ricca [St. Martin’s Griffin Books 2016]
I loved the history in Brad Ricca’s book about Grace Humiston, a lawyer and advocate for the voiceless in the early 20th century. She was a woman who certainly should be brought forward from the back pages of history. However, I felt that Ricca’s organizing choices often made his story difficult to follow.
The case in the subtitle takes up most of the book’s 371 pages, plus forty-some pages of endnotes. Ricca researched deeply, often using primary documents, and meticulously indicated these sources. This was both wonderful and puzzling—wonderful because he got the details right, but puzzling because some good editing would have taken out miniscule details that slowed down the pace of the book.
Ricca’s book shows that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The criminal justice system of that time needed reforming, and the country disregarded the lives of women, immigrants, and the poor. If you were all three, you were voiceless and often without hope.
Ruth Cruger was a young woman who disappeared in February 1917. At a time when girls and women often disappeared, especially from immigrant populations in the city, the police department used multiple excuses to explain those disappearances. A woman ran away to get married, or she had an argument with her parents, or she wanted her own life without the restrictions of her family. Unfortunately, many of those explanations revealed a justice system that didn’t take the disappearance of women seriously.
Grace Humiston was a tireless advocate for the voiceless population of New York City. Rarely charging money to the poor, she literally became a detective, rooting out the reasons for these disappearances. When the Ruth Cruger case came along, Grace was relentless in tracking down the answer to that crime. She believed that the high number of disappearances meant a white slavery ring was in operation in the city. And she found Cruger’s murdered body when the police did not. In that time, New York City newspapers competed for lurid stories and headlines. Grace Humiston was able to capitalize on that to bring about justice for her clients. After Cruger’s body was found, many policemen lost their jobs, and some ended up in grand jury indictments.
The book jumps back and forth through fifteen years of Humiston’s life. It covers other cases, making the book’s subtitle a curious choice. The case that interested me the most described a plantation in the South recruiting Italian immigrants with promises of a new life and high salaries. It was nothing more than slave labor under horrifying conditions. Humiston went to the plantation, and under truly life-threatening conditions, rooted out the owners and the whole system that literally imprisoned these immigrants. Then she exposed it to Congress and the public.
I had a difficult time putting this book down, although all the detail eventually was too much. It was amazing to me that a woman could do what Grace Humiston did at that time in history. Women didn’t even have the right to vote in 1917. She deserves to have her story told, warts and all. The book ended with a case she took where she didn’t do her homework, causing her reputation to suffer. Still, to become a lawyer and dedicate her life to helping those less fortunate was a worthy topic for this book.
I would call it a thought-provoking piece of nonfiction. It causes readers to consider how poorly our country has treated immigrants in the past, as well as today. Despite the lofty invitation of Lady Liberty to the “tired and poor,” we still have a lot to live up to.