The 1942 Genesee Hotel Suicide: Why “The Despondent Divorcee” is Not the Actual Story Behind the Picture

Russel Sorgi, a photographer for the Buffalo Courier-Express in Buffalo, New York, was returning from a job assignment on May 7, 1942. When Sorgi decided to follow the police cars, he was passed by them as he took a different route than usual. At 530 Main Street, Russell Sorgi noticed a woman “sitting on a ledge outside an eighth-floor window” near the corner of Genesee and Pearl Streets.

According to Sorghi, “I snatched my camera from the car and took two quick shots as [the woman] 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.”

Ms. Miller claimed that the woman was from Chicago and checked into the hotel under the name “Marry Miller.” In the hotel’s communal women’s restroom, she locked the door and stepped out onto the ledge through the window. Mary Miller, a Buffalo resident who lived with her sister, had booked into the Genesee Hotel after informing her sister she was visiting relatives in Indiana.

Mary Miller is not well known, but what is known is that her sister was shocked at her suicide. Mary Miller was not married at the time of the photo, which was titled “The Despondent Divorcee.” Mary Miller did not have a marriage and was never married. One of the most disturbing aspects of her case is that there is no known motive for the suicide, no note was ever found and she waved to the crowd before taking her life.

The body of Mary Miller, surrounded by investigators. “She waved to the crowd below… her body plummeted toward the street.”

The picture was also published in the New York Times and LIFE magazine on May 8, 1942. It appears a policewoman entered the building in an attempt to reach Mary Miller before she could commit suicide; perhaps seeing the officer enter the building prompted Mary to jump before she could be deterred.

The photo is not only intriguing because it shows suicide in progress. During 1943, world war II was raging, and most men were serving in the military. Women were still apprehensive about entering the workforce. One of the first women to work in law enforcement in Buffalo was the policewoman running inside the Genessee Hotel. Two men in a coffee shop are pictured next to a propaganda sign, displaying the words “Give until it hurts Hitler,” while seemingly unaware of the panic present on the street outside.

Room rates at the Genesee Hotel were advertised as “$1.00 and up” per night (but you had to share a bathroom, of course), and sandwiches at the downstairs coffee shop cost only 10 cents. The Genesee Hotel was built in 1882 but has since been demolished.

“The Despondent Divorcee” photo, more accurately known as “The Genesee Hotel Suicide,” was used in a psychological study. According to the study, 96% of participants in the study failed to notice Mary Miller falling to her death upon first viewing the photo.

In 1942, Sorgi probably used a Graflex Speed Graphic camera, which was used almost universally for newspaper photography. An SLR was taken with a 5″ by 4″ sheet film, which accounts for the incredible detail in this photograph. A 35mm SLR camera could take up to 36 images before reloading, but Sorgi removed each exposed slide and reloaded the camera before taking a new shot. He waited for just the right moment to capture this shot, or he would have been too busy reloading the camera. The two “establishing shots” he took must have seemed like a massive risk to him.

Postcard of the Genesee Hotel showing the window from which Mary Miller jumped.

Written by Benjamin Grayson

Former Bouquet seller now making a go with blogging and graphic designing. I love creating & composing history articles and lists.

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