Evelyn McHale: A Beautiful Death on 33rd Street

The Empire State Building shortly after its completion in 1931.

When the Empire State Building officially opened in 1931, it was an engineering marvel: by far the tallest structure on the planet, and built in just 16 months during the depths of the Great Depression. Though the weak economy caused it to sit almost empty for many of its earlier years, the building’s lofty observation deck drew crowds in immense numbers. In fact, the building’s owners made roughly as much in observation deck ticket sales during its first operational year as it collected from office rentals in the tower itself.

Women on the Empire State Building’s 86th floor observation deck in the 1940s. Note the low guard rail.

The observation decks on the 86th and 103rd floors were an instant hit. Tourists and locals alike happily took rides in the building’s sleek high-speed elevators hundreds of feet above the street to absorb the breathtaking views, which on clear days, stretched all the way to Connecticut.

NY Times, November 5, 1932

But the building also became rather quickly known for something far more tragic. One by one, people in their darkest moments ascended to its upper decks, climbed over the railing, and threw themselves to the ground far below. Many ended up landing on the roof of one of the building’s many setbacks on their way down. At least one woman was actually blown back onto the observation deck by a strong gust of wind, and survived. But some cleared the building completely and sailed all the way down to the pavement, more than 1,000 feet away.

Evelyn Francis McHale

Evelyn Francis McHale was born in Berkeley, California, on September 20, 1923, the 6th of 7 children born to Vincent and Helen McHale. In 1930, the family moved to Washington D.C. for Vincent’s job, but within a few years, Helen moved out of the house for unknown reasons. Vincent retained custody of their 7 children, and later moved with them to Tuckahoe, New York, where Evelyn attended high school.

After graduation, Evelyn joined the Women’s Army Corps, and was stationed in Jefferson, Missouri. It was reported by friends that when she left the Corps, she burned her uniform. She moved to Baldwin, New York, on Long Island, where she lived with her brother and his wife, and she got a job as a bookkeeper at the Kitab Engraving Company on Pearl Street in the Financial District of Manhattan.

During this time, Evelyn met a young former Airman by the name of Barry Rhodes, who was a student at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, about 90 minutes west of New York. The two were soon engaged, but a shadow seemed to hang over Evelyn. In the Spring of 1946, she served as a bridesmaid in Barry’s brother’s wedding. After the ceremony, she ripped off her dress, declaring, “I never want to see this again,” and burned it like she had done with her A.W.C. uniform.

On April 30, 1947, Evelyn took the train from New York to Easton to visit Barry for his 24th birthday. All seemed well between the couple, and the next day, Barry kissed his fiance goodbye as she boarded the 7:00 AM train to Penn Station. “When I kissed her goodbye, she was happy and as normal as any girl about to be married.” Their wedding was set to be held at Barry’s brother’s home in Troy, New York, that June.

The Hotel Governor Clinton, ca 1932
(Columbia University Library)

What was really running through Evelyn’s mind that morning, no one will likely ever know. Upon arriving in Manhattan, she left Penn Station and walked across the street to the Governor Clinton Hotel at 31st Street and 7th Avenue. She obtained a room, and set about writing a note. It read (strike-throughs included), “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. He is much better off without me. Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.”

She folded her note, and tucked it into her small purse along with a few dollars, her make-up, and some family photos. At 10:30 AM, she walked to the Empire State Building, and purchased a ticket to its famous 86th-floor observatory. She slipped off her coat and placed it along with her pocketbook on the floor against the railing. And she jumped.

The entrance of the Empire State Building, 1931
(NYPL)

That morning, Patrolman John Morrissey was directing traffic at 34th Street and 5th Avenue. At 10:40 AM, he noticed a white scarf fluttering down from the upper reaches of the tower. Just a moment later, the day’s serenity was interrupted by a terrific crash that sounded like an “explosion.” A crowd formed on 33rd Street beneath the building as pedestrians swarmed to see what had happened.

Robert C Wiles

Lying on her back, clutching a strand of pearls at her neck, Evelyn looked to be resting peacefully. Were it not for the fact that she was nestled snugly into the crushed roof of a United Nations Assembly Cadillac, she could even be mistaken for being asleep. But the poor woman, just 23 years old, was dead. A young photography student by the name of Robert C. Wiles happened to be across the street at the time of her demise. Stunned by her beauty, even in death, he snapped a photo of her just 4 minutes after her crash. Almost overnight, she became a pop culture icon: a symbol of tragic beauty.

Evelyn incorrectly labeled as 20 years old.
NY Times, May 2, 1947

Evelyn’s sister, Helen , fulfilled the task of identifying her body. Per her wishes, she was cremated and there is no grave dedicated to her. But she lives on through that iconic photo of her final moment. First published in the May, 1947 issue of LIFE Magazine, it has been discussed and reproduced for decades. Even Andy Warhol produced a series of pieces inspired by Robert C. Wiles’ photo of Evelyn.

Andy Warhol, from his “Death and Disaster Series,” 1962-67

Evelyn was the 5th suicide or attempt from the Empire State Building within a 3-week period in 1947. In response to her death and its publicity, the building erected a much taller fence to deter would-be jumpers, and they now train security guards to recognize the signs of a potential suicide case attempting to climb the building. Despite everything, more than 30 people have ended their lives in this way since the tower’s construction, including one distraught construction worker.

It seems that Evelyn’s wish for there to be “no remembrance” of her is never to be fulfilled. The romance of her story and her morbid glamor live on in the imaginations of generations who, perhaps, see a little bit of themselves in this tragic bride-to-be.

Evelyn’s photo in LIFE Magazine, May, 1947

A note to readers: I have received a number of E-mails questioning the originality of this blog post. I have tried to personally respond to each of my accusers, as I take the idea of “plagiarism” very seriously. I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in History, and I understand fully the need to give credit always where credit is due. That said, this blog is (was) a silly hobby of mine with a readership that barely reached beyond my mother and a few facebook friends. When I originally decided to write about Evelyn McHale in October 2012, I was deeply disappointed to find an almost complete lack of “new” information about her life anywhere on the internet. My main source, The New Yok Times archives, had but one article, dated May 2, 1947, which offered a few quotes, some vague details about her life, and little else. So, like any good 21st-century historian (whose daily readership at the time numbered in the dozens), I turned to Google, where I was disappointed again. Blog post after blog post telling essentially the same story. Evelyn McHale: sixth of seven children, rode the train into Penn Station, left a suicide note, jumped to her death, immortalized by a photograph. Frustrated, I took these loose details, jumbled them together using my own “voice,” and considered the post to be among my weakest. Somewhere along the line, however, the piece was picked up by first one, then several other websites. My blog now receives thousands of hits per day, almost all of which go directly to Evelyn’s story (and, disappointingly, seldom anywhere else on the page – we’re talking 99% of my traffic goes only to Evelyn). I can’t hope to understand why this particular post has taken off with such velocity, but I assure you all that it is perhaps the least-original and least-satisfying of the stories I’ve told through KeithYorkCity (no offense meant to Evelyn – but I like a story where I am able to dig up hitherto undiscovered historical details in my scholarly research). But short of trying to track down her surviving family, I couldn’t imagine a way to add anything “new” to the tale. Plagiarism, however, was never intended, and any similarities to other blogs are genuinely coincidental. The long-and-short of it: I collected what data I could from a variety of online sources, dug up whatever photographs were available to me through Google, cited those where I could , and pieced what I had together into an essay that I wouldn’t be proud to turn in to my High School English teacher, much less to any discerning historical audience as I hope I have attracted here. Please do visit the blog which I am accused of copying. Codex99 is a superior blog to mine in all ways and I tip my hat to its author. I welcome discourse on my blog and its topics, but do wish to put a cap on the plagiarism accusations. Please take time to peruse my blog’s numerous other articles of much greater depth and detail: Evelyn Nesbit, The Grand Central Hotel, Audrey Munson. I thank you all for reading!

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About keithyorkcity

Name: Keith Age: 20-something Location: New York Passion: History You'll find a million blogs like mine, but mine is better.
This entry was posted in Biography, Skyscrapers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

163 Responses to Evelyn McHale: A Beautiful Death on 33rd Street

  1. keres says:

    i love her feet

  2. Peter Gilgen says:

    If you want more info on Evelyn McHale please visit the Facebook Tribute Page I have created for her.
    https://www.facebook.com/EvelynFrancisMcHale

    • Ryan says:

      Thats sort of rude to go against a dying womans wishes. The media cant help it. But memorializing her when she clearly asked not to be memorialized?

      • jana says:

        This complaint is 83 years too late. She was memorialized in a photo four minutes after she died. It really doesn’t matter that the media picked it up and ran with it. If you don’t want to be memorialized after death, you don’t throw yourself off a building.

    • Jen says:

      You created a tribute page to a woman who, as a final wish, asked for no tributes?

  3. Karen says:

    I would love to read more of your piece’s! Euber Talented!!

  4. Matt says:

    Nice article and website. I went back and read several of your articles… very well written and interesting! I think maybe if you made it easier to find your posts by using tags and categories and displaying them on the sidebar more people would read more of your (awesome) posts. Just a suggestion!

  5. Kelly Livett says:

    Please disregard the negative comments you’ve been getting. People like that are the reason I often find myself saying that stupid should hurt. This was well written and thought provoking and I thank you for taking the time to post it.

    • Thank you for reading and thanks for the kind words! My skin has thickened since the initial deluge of negative comments, and my “adendum” onto Evelyn’s article seems to have served its intended purpose. Reminding people I’m human! Anyway, I really do appreciate you taking the time to check out my page and I plan to post more articles soon.
      -Keith

  6. MaitoMike says:

    I commiserate with your stance on plagiarism. I, too, hold a Bachelor’s Degree in History and I understand how difficult it is to produce original work in this day and age without someone flagging it down – especially when your sources are limited. I know precisely how that feels! That being said, I commend you on your post. It was an easy and captivating read. Cheers!

  7. Antionette says:

    I would love to know why her mom left the family and why she references her mom’s tendencies in the suicide note….now that would make for an interesting story….

  8. Pingback: “Feet, what do I need them for, if I have wings to fly?” | (inte så) Anonyma Biblioholister

  9. sanguinehaze says:

    Came here from a Reddit “TIL” link. “http://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/1xa8eb/til_evelyn_mchale_is_referred_to_as_the_most/”

  10. Pingback: TIL Evelyn McHale is referred to as the “Most Beautiful Suicide”. On April 30, 1947 she jumped from the observation deck of the Empire State building and fell 86 floors onto the United Nations Assembly Cadillac. The picture was taken by a phot

  11. startacfan says:

    Excellent post. One question on her feet: they almost appear to be bound at the ankles but that would not be possible…are they just somehow crossed at impact? And a hand can clutch pearls all the way down, including imact??…remarkable. Sad story and I agree the mother’s story would be interesting…

    • Judging by what I’ve heard in other discussions about Evelyn (which should obviously be taken with a grain of salt), I assume her position in the photo is a mixture of luck and angle. It would be interesting to see any other photos taken of her that day from a different perspective. But it would probably ruin some of the mystique that surrounds Evelyn.
      Anyway, I’m rambling. I just keep hoping more details will arise about her and her life somehow.
      -Keith

  12. Marcelo Carro says:

    Keith,
    A friend send me a bunch of pictures from the past and among those I found hypnotic Evelyn Mchale’s. I visited more than ten sites with information about her until I found your site. It is true that information is almost the same everywhere, but your talent in telling the story is what makes the difference. Great piece!
    Hope I convey my message in spite of my poor english.
    Thanks
    Marcelo

  13. drew says:

    My father was bipolar (they called it manic depressive in the 60′s when I grew up) and her actions seem very similar to his: very happy one moment and suicidal the next. Perhaps her mother was, too. I’m not a doctor, just a thought. Very sad in any case. A respectful article.

  14. Christy spry says:

    if it was suicide, why does it look like her feet are bound?

  15. Ivettte says:

    More please!

  16. Keith, I came across this particular article doing some homework for photography. (Trying to capture things and being at the right place at the right time.) Anyway, I like your style and will come back to read more.

  17. Anna says:

    I think the reason for all the ‘sudden’ interest in her story stems from a series of photographs from last century going viral. Among the weirdness of some of them, the one of Evelyn is the most haunting. Her beauty in life as much as in death, the tragic end to her very young life, the mystery surrounding her final message – the insistence of not wanting to be seen and/or remembered (which I can now couple with the information you added about burning her uniform and bridesmaid dress), the reference to her mother…. all of that inspire curiosity, and a desire to understand a little better how such a beautiful young lady which seems to have ‘everything’ going for her ends up with such a skewed sense of self-worth, and a desperation so deep which can seemingly only find release in such a desperate and final act.
    As for your other posts…. take in consideration how many more visitors this story got you. Maybe not all, but I’m sure many will start wandering around your blog, and read some of your other ones, especially considering how well written this one is. I know I will.
    Best of luck to you, and keep writing! :)

    • Thank you for your kind words! I am incredibly grateful for the traffic that the popularity of Evelyn’s story has brought to my blog. My adendum seems to have steered many readers deeper into my site to discover other bits of New York history that they might not otherwise have stumbled upon. And that makes the nerdy historian in me incredibly happy! Thanks for reading and I hope you stop back by in the future!
      -Keith

    • Aaron Baxter says:

      Anna is right. I was checking out the “Must-See Photos from the Past” (http://pulptastic.com/40-photos-from-the-past/) and, when I got to this photo, I couldn’t help but want to know: “What the heck happened there?”

      A quick Google search brought up this entry. I enjoyed this telling of the story. Nothing sub-par about the way this essay is written.

  18. Phil says:

    Good job.. I have read other versions of this story, but yours is the best so far.. :)

    I was looking for the story of that famous picture and it led me to your blog! :)

  19. Kathy says:

    This is the first time I’ve heard of this story and did come by it through the “viral” series of pictures. Thank you for sharing. You covered it well and I look forward to reading your other posts.

  20. Eric B. says:

    Here’s another pic I found when searching for info on Helen mchale.
    http://lobitty.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/evelyn-1942.png?w=177

  21. Renate says:

    people are ridiculous to scrutinize your writing and or anything else here….there will always be negative people whom will try to bring you down. Great writing, clear, concise and quite entertaining even with its morbidity. Keep up the great work!

  22. Lisa says:

    I googled “Evelyn McHale” and “Evelyn McHale Wikipedia” and both search results turned up your page. There is no Wiki article on Evelyn McHale; the Empire State Building comes up when you search Wiki. So your blog, being at or near the top of the Google is driving everybody here every time that photograph pops up on social media. Thanks for the interesting article!

  23. Elizabeth says:

    This was the top Google result for Evelyn McHale, so there you have it. :) Very informative post, thank you!

  24. R says:

    I came across your blog on Google. It was among the first results to pop up. It was very informative. Might I recommend you start up a Wikipedia page for Ms McHale? There isn’t one available currently.

  25. ntexas99 says:

    I ended up here from a link on facebook that is going viral that depicts “40 Must-See Photos From the Past” of which the photo of Evelyn is one of them (#38). I’m conflicted about viewing the photo, much less about following a link to yet another story about her, considering her final wishes. It’s all so very complicated, and tragic, but I do feel that your post was very respectful and decidedly well-written, and I was curious to learn a bit more about the photograph.

    As someone who has lived with bipolar disorder for more than fifty years, the photo stirs a jumble of emotions. I realize that nothing in what is widely known about her necessarily points to her having bipolar disorder, but as someone who has known the horror of suicidal thoughts that demand action, I can imagine that it is possible she was similarly afflicted. If nothing else, she had obviously reached a point where she felt obligated to rid the world of her presence. So tragic.

    As to the plagiarism commentary, I can only say this – bravo for speaking your mind, and for offering a reasonable and thoughtful explanation as to where you stand on the subject. I have bookmarked your site for further exploration at a later time, and look forward to absorbing more of your writing. I find it original, thought-provoking, and quite interesting.

    • I want to thank you for not only visiting KeithYorkCity, but also for sharing your very personal insight regarding this difficult subject.
      -Keith

    • Carolyn Schroeder says:

      Thank you for sharing your story. I have a family member similarly diagnosed and that was my first thought after reading this tragedy. The burning of the clothing on separate occasions and the jumps from being happy to suicidal ring true. Best wishes to you.

      • ntexas99 says:

        In my 56 years, I’ve had to learn a lot of different techniques to quiet the constant barrage of suicidal thoughts that cycle on and off with random abandon. Unfortunately, it is always true that the family of someone that deals with bipolar disorder is undeniably affected, especially when they feel helpless to offer a solution to the constant need for that person to take their own life. I have experienced horrifying lows (burning of clothes, giving away one hundred percent of my possessions, tying up loose ends by trying to make amends with people that were wronged, writing lengthy goodbye letters) but ironically, it almost always is the case that these things are done incrementally, so as not to raise the awareness of the people around us. We become adept at withdrawing from life, sometimes slowly, and sometimes all at once. Either way, we withdraw.

        Unfortunately, my family has had to endure much because of my struggle with bipolar disorder. It has caused them much turmoil and frustration, and often there will be those family members that believe the affected person should just “snap out of it” or “get it together already” or those family members are incapable of recognizing it as a disease. They can become exhausted at the constant ups and downs, and because of all the instability, they tend to withdraw from the affected person, which only helps the affected person withdraw from life even more.

        As a person who has put my family through the wringer on more than one occasion, I fully support their need to place some distance between them and my disease, even though it can feel like outright rejection at the time. In my case, it has helped to open the discussion with my family, and to try to let them know that my own frustration and disappointment with the symptoms of the disease is very much equal to their own, if not worse. It breaks my heart to cause them distress, and yet, even though it takes an extreme amount of conditioning and effort on my part, the best I can do is try to minimize the damage. In my case, it has caused strained relationships in many directions.

        I’m always empathetic when I cross paths with someone who knows a person or is related to a person with bipolar disorder. The chaos is painful, and can sometimes end in tragedy. Even when an afflicted person is determined and actively working at minimizing the symptoms, the truth is that they will likely be fighting that battle until the day they draw their last breath. Loving them is nearly impossible, but sometimes it helps if you can love the person, but hate the disease. Best of luck to you as you continue down the path.

  26. Dennis Giesbrecht says:

    such a captivating photo and article. Tastefully done. I’m no psychiatrist, but I know the pressure that families and peers can place on people and it seems like a classic case. As others have stated, it would be interesting to know more details behind the story, but, on the other hand, they mystique would be lost.
    Thanks for your effort.

  27. shazay@yahoo.com says:

    This was so interesting. It would be stellar if you were able to find some of her living relatives, or information on her mothers situation. Well done!

  28. Ben says:

    Well done article. Please do not listen to the negative posts here or anywhere. Anyone with anything worthwhile to say is at the very least constructive. Keep up the good work and thank you to all of you who do this kind of work for those of us that don’t have the knack.

    • Thanks for the kind words. It truly is appreciated when people take the time to let me know the work is appreciated – heck, it’s often all that keeps me researching and writing! Thanks again.
      -Keith

  29. Carolyn Schroeder says:

    I queried her name when I saw the photo on another site as I thought I knew her name from somewhere. Hale sounds familiar like a prominent family or similar. Perhaps other visits to your blog are like mine?

  30. Plaid Cat says:

    Sad story. But the photo is eerie. I am not an expert but I think if you jump from the 86 floor onto a hard car roof, your body would not look that good and the impact of hitting would jar the hand so that they would not be hang onto her necklace anymore. The Lord must have wanted her pretty in death as she was in life

  31. ara says:

    hey, sorry for hitting this blog because of McHale’s story. really sorry. it’s just that (shallow) me found a picture of her through one of those meme-filled web. and yes, your page here hit top of google’s search result.
    i think i’m that kind of person who would never gather around some (horrifying) accidents or disaster’s victim scenes, just to watch and do nothing, and i personally hate those who take pictures of such event for personal ‘fun’ to claim their existences (telling their friends ‘hey, i watched that incidents, i was there, i got pictures of their bleeding limbs everywhere, wanna see?’).
    so i don’t really know how to feel about her picture. It’s a great picture (after edited, i imagined the original one probably featured lots of blood here and there), but it just feels wrong. yet i still come here. so i confused myself.
    but anyway, that’s just me, so thank you for this nice article and nice pictures. promise will browse more in this blog.

    • Please don’t apologize for anything! My little adendum was written at a time when a relatively high number of (sometimes extremely) mean-spirited messages and e-mails were pouring into my inbox. So if there’s some bitterness there, I apologize! Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed Evelyn’s story, despite its tragic theme.
      -Keith

  32. i saw evelyn’s photo in this article, and i googled her name
    your site came up in the number 1 slot
    i’m so glad it did, because i just read a brilliant story that i really enjoyed, despite its tragic end

  33. We’re a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community.
    Your web site provided us with valuable info to work on.

    You have done a formidable job and our whole community will be grateful to you.

  34. 12tenmedia says:

    Reblogged this on The Life & Times Of The Funky Chilli… and commented:
    Nice little write up and very interesting to read.

  35. DeborahDeb says:

    I admit that it was this story that led me to your blog, but I’m so glad I was led to it one way or another, because I’m already totally engrossed in this blog. Thanks for doing all the work to unearth New York stories that we might neer otherwise hear about.

  36. Jose cerveza says:

    Your article moved me to tears. I just happened upon it on a search of the tragic death of Evelyn McHale. There are many who appreciate a good story. I do, and enjoyed your article. Keep writing.

  37. Thanks for your article, I really enjoyed it as well as other articles within your website.

    I read your note at the end of your article, in which you mentioned (with some regret) that the vast majority of your web traffic comes to this particular article, and doesn’t necessarily cross over to some of your other articles.

    I saw the famous photograph of Evelyn McHale on another website, and curious to learn more about her story, I typed her name into Google. Yours was the first article to come up on the search engine.

    I know that many companies are going to great efforts to try and get a presence at the top of Google for their desired key search terms… so although I can see why it’s frustrating for you that this article receives so many visits in comparison to your other articles (particularly as you don’t think of it as the most interesting piece of history you’ve written about), I wanted to honestly congratulate you on getting to the top of the search engine… which is why this article receives so many hits! There are SEO companies who charge tens of thousands in fees to do what you have done here, by getting to the top of Google! And you have done it by putting together a really well-written, engaging and informative article, which people are interested in.

    Nice one!

    • Thank you so much for this note! I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for the traffic that Evelyn has brought to my page. I’m just glad that more people are finally branching out and reading other articles when they visit! Thanks again.
      -Keith

  38. Misty Rowland says:

    This girl DID not commit suicide. It is very clear in the picture.

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