16 October 2008

Did investors really jump out of windows?i

Did investors really jump to their deaths when the stock market crashed in 1929? If so, was it just on Wall Street or all over the country?

— Alex Baxter, Aurora, Illinois

Admit it, you want this to be true. You want to believe there was a time when ruined tycoons, brought low through their own foolishness and greed, would do the decent thing and commit suicide, in contrast to the modern practice of going before a congressional committee and taking the fifth. You want to think that if you'd walked down Wall Street on Black Thursday--October 24, 1929--bankrupt plutocrats would have been falling out of the skies like rain. In short, you want to believe in a better world.

And you know what? People wanted to believe in it at the time. Even while the financial meltdown was in progress, reporters in downtown Manhattan were checking out a rumor that 11 busted brokers had jumped out of windows. London newspapers gleefully told of pedestrians threading their way through the bodies of fallen speculators. Legend has it that the cops dragged one poor guy off a ledge, only to discover that he was just a window washer. Will Rogers observed, "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." One senses in these stories an element of wishful thinking on the part of ordinary folks, many of whom had also lost money in the crash. Who can blame them? "The market has tanked! My life savings are gone! These people DESERVE TO DIE!"

Well, they probably did, but they probably didn't, at least not on October 24 or the even more catastrophic Black Tuesday, October 29. No less an authority than economist John Kenneth Galbraith addressed the subject in his book The Great Crash, 1929, first published in 1955. Studying U.S. death statistics, Galbraith found that while the U.S. suicide rate increased steadily between 1925 and 1932, during October and November of 1929 the number of suicides was disappointingly low.

That's not to say that a few failed investors, executives, etc., didn't kill themselves in the wake of the crash. But the suicides happened all around the country, didn't necessarily involve jumping out the window, and for the most part didn't take place immediately following the crash. For example:
On Friday, November 8, J.J. Riordan, president of the County Trust Company, took a pistol from a teller's cage at his bank, went to his home in downtown Manhattan, and shot himself. The news was suppressed until after the bank closed at noon Saturday, to avoid causing a run on the bank.
A vice president of the Earl Radio Corporation jumped to his death from the window of a Manhattan hotel. His suicide note read, "We are broke. Last April I was worth $100,000. Today I am $24,000 in the red." But this happened in early October, weeks before the crash.
Jesse Livermore, perhaps the most famous of the Wall Street speculators, shot himself--but not until 1940.

Several well-publicized suicides did fulfill the stereotype. Winston Churchill, visiting New York, was awakened the day after Black Tuesday by the noise of a crowd outside the Savoy-Plaza Hotel. "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," he wrote.

In 1929: The Year of the Great Crash (1989) historian William K. Klingaman says asphyxiation by gas was the most common method of doing oneself in, although there was considerable variety. He writes:

The wife of a Long Island broker shot herself in the heart; a utilities executive in Rochester, New York, shut himself in his bathroom and opened a wall jet of illuminating gas; a St. Louis broker swallowed poison; a Philadelphia financier shot himself in his athletic club; a divorcee in Allentown, Pennsylvania, closed the doors and windows of her home and turned on a gas oven. In Milwaukee, one gentleman who took his own life left a note that read, 'My body should go to science, my soul to Andrew W. Mellon, and sympathy to my creditors.'

You have to admire a guy like that. Now if only some of the current crop of pirates would take the hint.

— Cecil Adams

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