The Intriguing Story Behind The ‘Most Beautiful Suicide’ Photograph
On May 1st, 1947, around 10:40 am, Patrolman John Morrissey noticed a white scarf floating down from the upper floors of the Empire State Building as he was directing traffic at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue.
Moments later, there was a resounding crash; the sickening crunch of flesh against metal as the body of a woman plummeted from the sky into a Cadillac limousine parked on Thirty-fourth Street.
A crowd immediately converged, and amidst them was Robert C. Wiles, a photography student who happened to have his camera and took a photo of the woman as she lay on the roof of the crumpled car. It was snapped just four minutes after her death.
This compelling portrait of suicide, often referred to as ‘the most beautiful’, remains a haunting piece of photojournalism to this day.
Here’s a summary of the events that led up to it.
The woman in the photograph was 23 year-old Evelyn McHale, who worked as a bookkeeper in Manhattan.
A day before, on April 30th, Evelyn took the train from New York to Easton to visit her fiancé, Barry Rhodes, for his 24th birthday. When she boarded the 7:00 AM train back the next day, there seemed to be no sign of any trouble.
“When I kissed her goodbye, she was happy and as normal as any girl about to be married”, said Barry.
Their wedding was set to be held that June, but little did Barry know that it would never be.
After Evelyn alighted at Penn Station, she stopped by the Governor Clinton Hotel across the street where she scrawled out a suicide note on their stationary.
Shortly before 10:30 am, she bought a ticket to the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building.
About 15 minutes later, Evelyn had jumped.
1040 feet below, her body landed atop the car. She had leaped clear of the setbacks.
On impact, the metal roof caved in and the windows shattered. Evelyn, however, showed no evidence of trauma.
In Wiles’ photo, everything about her — her calm demeanor; her gloved hand clutching her pearl necklace; her elegantly crossed ankles; the way the metal is folded like sheets around her — suggests that she is momentarily resting.
And if reports are to be believed, she essentially “fell apart” only after they moved her body.
Later, on the observation deck, Detective Frank Murray found her neatly folded coat. Along with it was her pocketbook, a make-up kit filled with family pictures and a note that read –
“I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me.”
“My fiance asked me to marry him in June. I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody,” she wrote. Then she crossed it out.
“He is much better off without me. Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies”.
She was referring to the episodes of depression that she’d inherited from her mother, a little-known condition at the time.
Unfortunately for Evelyn, her wishes to have her body destroyed before anyone learned of the tragedy were not fulfilled.
While she was cremated, her photograph lived on.
Immortalizing a woman lying dead amid shattered glass and twisted steel, it’s inexplicable beauty will always be a mystery.
But it seems fitting that we remember both Evelyn and Robert Wiles by it, because he never published another photograph again.
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