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The 1942 Genesee Hotel Suicide January 19, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture.

So: I’m minding my own business, surfing around, when I stumbled across this amazing photograph:

I had to go searching for more information; my original source was an article about suicide in general that did not even bother to identify the year the photo was taken. It turns out that in 1942, a photographer for the Buffalo Courier Express, I. Russel Sorgi, was sent out on assignment. On his way back to the office, Sorgi decided not to follow his usual route. A few minutes later, a police car sped by him, and Sorgi seized the moment and followed the cops. The trail led to the Genesee Hotel, where a woman was “sitting on a ledge outside an eighth-floor window.” (The Genesee was built in 1882; a 1910 postcard (shown here) and an undated photograph both depict it as being only six stories tall. Neither image shows much of what I would consider a “ledge.” Two links on the web allege that the Genesee only lasted until 1922, ceasing to exist at 530 Main Street a mere 20 years before the dramatic photograph above was made — and if you look closely you can see the “530” painted on the transom over the door the cop is rushing through.)

The May 8, 1942 edition of the New York Times reported that 35-year-old Mary Miller had checked into the Genesee as “M. Miller, Chicago.” She “entered a women’s restroom, locked the door from the inside, and crept out onto the ledge.” (Leading us to the inference that in May 1942, hotel rooms at the Genesee did not have individual bathrooms, as we take for granted today.) Two days later, the Times confirmed that the suicide was indeed Mary Miller, who lived with her sister in Buffalo, but had told her sister that she was going to Indiana to visit relatives.

The sister had no idea why Mary Miller would want to commit suicide, but this has not stopped history from referring to this dramatic photo as “the Despondent Divorcée.” My own fantasy — let me stress that I have been able to discover no facts — is that Mary Miller was in love with someone who had just been killed in World War II. The Germans had begun bombing cathedral cities in England in late April, and the Bataan Death March had just taken place, in which the Japanese killed between 6,000 and 18,000 American and Phillippine POWs with appalling savagery. (The Japanese government formally apologized for the massacre on May 30, 2009.) The legendary Battle of the Coral Sea, in which the U.S. Navy defeated the Japanese after days of bloody fighting, began on May 4, 1942 — days before Miller’s suicide. Perhaps Mary Miller was so deeply in love with a sailor killed in that battle that she could not imagine life continuing without him; perhaps she had just learned she was pregnant. Divorce was deeply shameful in 1942, particularly for women. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy could look like an unthinkable disaster for which death was the only reasonable answer.

According to Sorgi:

“I snatched my camera from the car and took two quick shots as [Miller] seemed to hesitate . . . As quickly as possible I shoved the exposed film into the case and reached for a fresh holder. I no sooner had pulled the slide out and got set for another shot than she waved to the crowd below and pushed herself into space. Screams and shouts burst from the horrified onlookers as her body plummeted toward the street. I took a firm grip on myself, waited until the woman passed the second or third story, and then shot.”

Sorgi was probably using a Graflex Speed Graphic camera, which in 1942 was used almost universally for newspaper photography. This was an SLR that used 5″ by 4″ sheet film, which is where the amazing detail in this photo comes from. Whereas with a 35mm SLR one could snap off up to 36 images before reloading, Sorgi had to remove each exposed slide and reload the camera before he could make his next photograph. His coolness is evident: He had to wait for just the right instant to capture this shot, or he would have been too busy reloading the camera. He must have seen his two “establishing shots” as a huge risk. I only hope I can track them down some day. (One of the commenters at Snopes.com wants a photo of the splat. For me: UGH! — no, thank you!)

Although I’m sure it all happened in less than five minutes, I’m a little sorry that Sorgi’s first instinct was to photograph the imminent suicide rather than try to stop it. But I wasn’t there; I can’t know what was in his mind, or her demeanor. Sorgi might have seen his role as chronicling the efforts of the police to stop the suicide and his own potential involvement as impeding them.

Now I look at the photo and think about the instant in early May 1942 that is now frozen in time:

  • The policewoman who appears to be running into the hotel, perhaps with the idea of stopping the suicide. (Sexists must remember that able-bodied policemen were mostly off fighting in World War II. If you enlarge the photo, you can see that the police officer has long hair — in 1942 — and is wearing a skirt.)
  • The man sitting in the window of the coffee shop, apparently unaware what was going on, or the shirt-sleeved man standing behind him (maître d’?), who may have been wondering what the screaming was all about.
  • The apparent calm of the woman, who looks almost as if she’s turning her fall into a dive. Her long blonde hair, which at first I thought was one of those silly hats so popular at the time. Did she feel embarrassed knowing that her skirt had flown up and the crowd she had been waving to could see her underwear?
  • The signs that say “$1.00 up” (presumably the room rate) and “Sandwiches 10¢.” The sign in the café window that says, “Give till it hurts Hitler.”
  • Where was the crowd whose “screams and shouts” Sorgi remembered? The sidewalk looks empty.

W.H. Auden had just published his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” in 1940, a poem about a 16th-century Old Master painting depicting the fall of Icarus from the sky.

Pieter Brueghel's "Fall of Icarus," 1558

In his poem, Auden talks about the painting’s everyday setting and the obliviousness of passers-by to the oil’s central drama. Auden takes note of how humans suffer while all around them life continues its humdrum way, oblivious.

One of the links I found today via Snopes compares Auden’s poem, the Brueghel that Auden wrote about, and this photo: the prosaic details (is the seated man wearing a napkin under his chin?), the people depicted who had no idea of how their lives were about to change. After reading the excerpt below, you decide:

[Horror] takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
. . .
[a passer-by] may
Have heard . . . the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the [woman] falling out of the sky,
[while life] sailed calmly on.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

According to one of the links I followed, a psychologist did an experiment involving this photograph, and only 4 percent of the students noticed Mary Miller!

I got most of the details about this photograph from Terence Wright’s 2004 The Photography Handbook; if you follow this link to the Amazon listing, do a “search inside” for “Sorgi.”

Action hero Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

comedian Harold Lloyd

Unrelated cool trivia: Wondering whether Mary Miller knew about Superman (she looks almost as though she were trying for a “Superman in flight” pose), I checked Wikipedia and discovered that yes, Superman was introduced as a villain in 1932 and morphed into a superhero in 1933. Superman was based on Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., while Clark Kent was based on Harold Lloyd!


1. Don’t Miss The Moment. | themargefactor - September 1, 2011

[…] When the discussion of the importance of “the moment” came up in class, this image immediately came to mind: Genesse didn’t miss the moment. […]

2. Edgar Sinclair - September 29, 2011

It is not a female cop and I am not a sexist. It is a male motorcycle officer who wore long boots as was the standard issue uniform. The hair…I have no idea what you are seeing in terms of hair as it is obscured by a hat.

Yeah, large numbers of men were off fighting, but many older cops stayed behind at the request of local and federal governments. There is no record of a mass exodous of male cops to fight in the Big Two to be replaced by female officers. If so, the path for female to become officers would have been much easier than it has for them. Please do not rewrite history.

marie - January 26, 2013

Either way its a great in depth post!

Edgar Sinclair - April 1, 2013

“Either way”? Dismissive. Typical. Rewrite history and then get called on it and some person then says “Either way, it is a great in depth post!”. No, it is not. It is rewriting history with some twist.

3. Anthony White - October 19, 2011

“….began on May 4, 1942 — days before Miller’s suicide. Perhaps Mary Miller was so deeply in love with a sailor killed in that battle that she could not imagine life continuing without him.”

People would not find out for weeks or months that their loved ones died. Usually their first indication would be that letters would stop coming. So, saying it happened right after a huge battle might mean she found out someone died in said battle is highly unlikely.

4. marie - January 26, 2013

Wow this is awesome! ! Great post!

5. Dani - January 28, 2013

Where is the crowd? Obviously, off camera! The police wouldn’t let them just stand around under the victim.

6. » Picture of person at cafe and suicide in back? somethingaboutw.org - February 11, 2013
7. Radley Horwitz - April 8, 2013

I have 1 of these original pictures, complete w/ the copyright stamp on the back: “photo by I. Russell Sorgi” with “copyright” hand-written above it…
My great-grandfather was Buffalo Medical Examiner, Rocco DeDominicis

8. James A. Gielow - June 13, 2013

I remember this photo from when I was a kid. Iggy Sorgie was my great uncle. His son married my Dad’s sister. Uncle Joe Sorgie showed me this photo in a magazine or something he kept. Random other connection; years later, while in college, my first landlord was a photographer and I was a photography student at Buffalo State College. My old landlord, when he was young, apprenticed under uncle Iggy at the Buffalo Courier Express. This was shortly before the paper ended. I may be able to get more information from my uncle Joe or my mom…

9. Susan - November 16, 2013

I have zoomed in on this picture and those are stockinged legs I see on the police officer, not boots. Her hair looks like it’s in a bun under her hat.

radley - November 16, 2013

my great grandfather was Buffalo medical examiner, Rocco N. DeDominicis. I have An original of this hanging on my wall. The police officer is a man.

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The 1942 Genesee Hotel Suicide | Half Wisdom, Half Wit

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[…] Image source […]

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[…] Image source var td_screen_width = document.body.clientWidth; […]

13. Lee Ann Scherman Fralick - June 28, 2015

People tend to romanticize.suicide, which drives me nuts.. Depression or other forms of mental illness are usually the cause.

14. Deb - August 25, 2015

I notice the barber pole and wonder if the man in the window is going to get a haircut and shave. the tucked in napkin would be explained, as well as the man in the white behind the seated man, who seems rather high up to be sitting in a normal dining chair, when compared to the height of the man in white.

15. Conor - November 25, 2015

As to your question about where the crowd is, I would assume the police cleared the sidewalk below the jumper to protect passers by, and are watching from the same vantage point as the photog. I hope you discover more information about this photo. It reminds of that jumper photo of the woman from, maybe the 1930’s, who lands on a car in an almost sleep like position, still clutching her necklace. Great post.

16. 11 Disturbing Photos With Even More Horrifying Backstories | Thought Catalog - December 14, 2015

[…] In 1942, a woman named Mary Miller entered the women’s restroom of the Genesee Hotel in Buffalo, New York, climbed onto the ledge and committed suicide. The photo was taken by I. Russel Sorgi, a photographer for the Buffalo Courier Express who had only arrived on the scene because he’d followed the sirens of police responding to Miller standing on the hotel ledge. […]

17. 11 Disturbing Photos With Even More Horrifying Backstories - Snap Tips! - December 15, 2015

[…] via WitWisdom […]

18. 11 Disturbing Photos With Even More Horrifying Backstories - Status Bomb - The Most Viral News from Around the Web - December 16, 2015

[…] via WitWisdom […]

19. Away | brucelarochelle - March 18, 2016

[…] “35 year-old divorcée”. Who and what? As discussed by Mary W. Matthews: […]

20. will - October 8, 2016

The author of this article errored in telling us that the police officer is a female. I have enlarged and examined the photo. It is a male officer. The date in the photo 1942 should also tell you something about gender discrimination in American History. Women were not police officers in inner cities at that time.

21. 18 Horrifying Photos With Insane Backstories That Will Keep You Up At Night - Mind Blowing Facts - June 11, 2017

[…] via witwisdom […]

22. 18 Horrifying Photos With Insane Backstories That Will Keep You Up At Night - June 11, 2017

[…] via witwisdom […]

23. 12 Gambar yang diambil sebelum sesuatu yang teruk terjadi.. – I AM NOPE - February 11, 2018

[…] Image credit: Russel Sorgi via witwisdom.wordpress.com […]

24. Robin Sorgi Croce - October 21, 2018

In other photos from that day you would see the police and onlookers who were watching. He couldn’t stop her as others had tried. Btw, the photographer is my grandfather and we have all the other photos after.

25. Rusty Jarmain - November 26, 2018

The poem that follows was inspired some years ago when, quite by chance, I came across the Genesee Hotel Suicide photo while paging through a volume in the Life Library’s “Frontiers Of Photography” encyclopaedia (© 1971, 1972). Under the title “Street Scene,” the poem appears in my WordPress blog “Life Thoughts,” alongside and in amplification of an article on the topic of suicide, which I titled “The Unkindest Cut.” It wasn’t until yesterday morning that I came upon your article and was able to glean some facts surrounding the tragic event and the remarkable provenance of the photograph.

I turn the page
and the photograph hits me
like a prizefighter’s blow
to the solar plexus.
Frozen in time,
mere metres above the flagstones,
a woman’s figure:
horizontally positioned,
limbs splayed
in reflexive anticipation
of instant extinction.

How bland the scene –
so commonplace, so everyday:
A streetcorner hotel,
curtained windows (hiding who knows what
microcosmic pixels in the eternal charade);
A coffee shop (sandwiches, 10 cents each, and milkshakes);
A barber’s pole and free garage – so mundane, so dull –
Except for the focus:
except for the figure, frozen in free fall,

Thus the photograph.

The reality?
No ‘hanging momentarily in space’
against an uncaring sky;
just a sickening plummet,
terminated in seconds
by the unyielding concrete.

Was she incredibly brave?
A coward, perhaps, copping out at last
on life’s remorseless challenge?
Don’t be absurd!
There was but one driving force, one, only one –

26. Jim Wheeler - May 22, 2019

I think the white area above the officer’s head is a reflection of the light higher up. It is blurred because the reflection seems to be in the glass of a revolving door. Notice the apparently curved door-header.

27. Ted Delaney - May 29, 2019

This is the fifth website saying it is a female officer walking through the door. It isn’t. It is a male motorcycle officer. There is a photograph of Mary laying in the gutter dead and the same officer is standing next to her corpse along with about 10 other men. The only woman in the photo is poor Mary Miller. He has a white hat, long boots, and his shirt is cut to go past his waist as was what a motorcycle cop wore then and what the figure walking through the door was wearing. This was the earliest article referencing the female cop and others are now plagiarizing and perpetuating this myth.

28. Christopher NISPEROS - June 27, 2021

Christopher Nisperos

29. Christopher NISPEROS - June 27, 2021

You’re right that Sorgi was probably using a Graflex Speed Graphic camera, but this camera —which *does* use 4×5 inch sheet film— is NOT an SLR, which stands for Single Lens Reflex, a type of camera in which the photographer can view and focus through the actual ‘taking’ lens up until the moment the photograph is taken, thanks to an internal mirror situated behind the lens which re-directs the image into a prism on top of the camera, and flips up when the photographer pushes the shutter release button. The Graflex has a optical viewfinder on top of its body, and also a “sports finder” system (wire composition frames) which allow the photographer to follow action once he has pre-focused the distance by means of a focussing device attached to the camera body and lens tracking, called a rangefinder. 35mm SLRs were not even on the market yet, so they were not an option . *Some* press photographers were using 35mm RANGEFINDER cameras, but these were mostly for magazine use (such as LIFE magazine). In general, the relatively tiny size of the 35mm image (roughly 1 inch X 1.5 inch, compared to 4×5 inches on the Graflex) was not yet generally accepted for press photography in the U.S.

30. Christopher NISPEROS - June 27, 2021

Just to clarify, I think it’ would be more accurate (of me!) to say that 35mm SLR cameras were not “generally” on the market yet, in 1942. There were a couple German-made brands that had come out with some models, but it wouldn’t be until the mid-1950s that Asahi Pentax and Nikon really started to take hold of the market in the U.S., and press photographers and the news industry start to embrace the use of this format.

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