AS THE CANYONS of Wall Street echo again with an avalanche of sliding stocks a la 1929, can the thud of falling bodies be far behind? Certainly one enduring image of the Crash, by now almost a part of the national folklore, is that of ruined financiers pitching themselves out windows and off buildings and bridges.
Will Rogers happened to be in New York on "Black Thursday," Oct. 24, 1929. In his nationally syndicated newspaper column for that day, he wrote: "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 space for bodies in the East River." The New York correspondent for one of London's sensationalist tabloids wired home that lower Broadway was clogged with corpses.
Visiting New York at the time of the "slump", as it was bravely called at first, was Winston Churchill. In an article in a London newspaper he later recalled the sight of a workman smoking his pipe on the girder of an unfinished building 400 feet above Manhattan. The fellow was inadvertently causing a traffic jam in the street below. A crowd had gathered, believing that the man was a broken speculator bent on self-destruction, and it was "waiting in a respectful and prudently withdrawn crescent for the final act."
So goes the legend. What are the facts? How many people jumped in 1929? From "Black Thursday," Oct. 24, until the end of the year, 100 suicides and attempted suicides were reported in The New York Times, including cases around the country and overseas. Eight of these people had jumped from building, bridge, boat or airplane. Half of these plunges were attributed to losses suffered in the Crash. The number of suicide leaps in Wall Street during this period was a mere two.
Of course, "Black Thursday" and "Black Tuesday" of October 1929 were but the beginning of a series of stock market dislocations that lasted into the 1930s, ushering in the Great Depression. It seems likely that collective memory shifted later finance-related suicides back in time to the remembered hysteria of the Crash.
The suicide rate which, surprisingly, had been rising steadily through the prosperous '20s, actually peaked in 1932 when 17.4 of every 100,000 Americans took their own lives -- an all-time high. (The national figure for 1985 was only 12.0. New Yorkers especially seem to have become more resilient. Their suicide rate, 4 points higher than the national figure in 1932, was 4 points lower in 1985.)
Such statistics tell quite a different story from the "suicide wave" portrayed in contemporary newspaper headlines. The suicide rate in New York City for the first several weeks after the Crash was in fact lower than it had been during the summer of 1929 when the bull market was still raging, and likewise lower than for the same period the year before. When New York City's chief medical examiner produced these mortality statistics, they flew in the face of conventional wisdom -- a New York Times headline from Nov. 14 read: "City's Suicides Fewer/Figure Refute Tales of Increase Owing to Stock Losses."
This is not to downplay the toll of misery that the Crash exacted. Morgues were not the only places registering victims. Physicians treated a rash of nervous breakdowns. The apple sellers, the breadlines, and the "Hoovervilles," too, soon bore witness to the consequences of the Crash. In five-hours' time on Oct. 29, "Black Thursday," an invisible, odorless, weightless phenomenon -- numbers changing on a ticker tape -- cost the American people as much money, by one estimate, as the United States had spent on the First World War.
Contemporary newspaper and wire service accounts detailed some of the casualties.
Ignatz Engel was a retired cigar maker in the Bronx who invested in the market in time to be wiped out by the Crash. On Nov. 13, depressed over his losses, he lay down on a blanket in his kitchen and opened all the jets of the gas range. The next day, the president of the Rochester Gas and Electric Corp., no longer able to endure his loss of more than $1,200,000, ended his own life using -- what else? -- gas.
A Chicago dentist snuffed himself with gas on Dec. 12; police said that he had succumbed to remorse for having persuaded his young woman assistant and laboratory aide to put all of their savings into the market in the euphoria before the Crash.
Guns were another popular way out. A bullet was the choice of the New York banker J. J. Riordan, the most prominent financier to commit suicide in the last months of 1929. Announcement of his death was postponed until Mr. Riordan's bank closed for the weekend. A hurried audit revealed that only his personal holdings, not the bank's, had been caught up in the Crash.
Confirming the international implications of Wall Street's debacle, there were suicides by a broker in Chile and another in Cuba, the latter found hanged in the Members' Room of the Havana Exchange. In Philadelphia, one broker shot himself at the Penn Athletic Club and another was hauled out of the Schuylkill after "the cold water had changed his mind." The retrieval of Julius Umbach from the Hudson was less auspicious. His suicide was explained by notes in his pocket calling for more margin.
During the early hours of New Year's Day 1930 a Brooklyn broker kept his neighbor awake with whistling and hymn-singing before turning on the gas and lying down on his bed wearing a blue serge suit, grey kid gloves, and pearl-colored spats. A young man named Lytle shot and killed himself in a hotel in Milwaukee, leaving behind four cents and a suicide note directing that "my body should go to science, my soul to Andrew W. Mellon and sympathy to my creditors." The note also asked that his body not be removed from the room until the rent was up.
As in this past week's events, record activity as well as record losses marked the Crash of '29. Brokers were reported sleeping in shifts atop pool tables. Even the stock ticker couldn't keep up -- a problem still unsolved by computer technology. Hulda Borowski was trapped in the pandemonium. At the time of the Crash she had been employed for 28 years as a clerk for a Wall Street brokerage house. Tuesday, Nov. 5 found the 51-year-old Mrs. Borowski working late into the night, a labor repeated the following night until she fell asleep in the wire room and was ordered to go home. The next morning she returned to work at 9:00 appearing extremely fatigued. Early in the day she rode the elevator up to the roof of the 40-story building on lower Broadway where she worked. She came down in a state of distraction, according to the elevator man, forgetting to get off at her floor. Around 10, she took another ride up to the roof. This time Mrs. Borowski came down directly, smacking against the curbstone of Cedar Street, narrowly missing some passers-by. In the ensuing commotion, rumors rippled through Wall Street to the effect that an important member of the Exchange had just ended it all.
The suicide of an influential figure was naturally more newsy than that of a clerk. But shining a spotlight on them distorts the reality that that these Crash-related suicides from October through December 1929 represent only about 1 percent of all the Americans who took their own lives during that same period. The rest were driven by different, particular desperations.
Perhaps a few lives were saved because the Crash of 1929 was followed so closely by the Holiday Season and its mandated good cheer. Thanksgiving may have restored the will to go on for many, but not for Margaret Mason. The 58-year old woman raised turkeys in a town in upstate New York. The day that the turkeys were to be killed and taken to market for Thanksgiving diners, she set fire to the small barn containing the birds. She died in the flames with her turkeys, declared the coroner, handing down a verdict of suicide.
Bennett Lowenthal is a Cincinnati writer.