Since the completion of the Empire State Building in 1931, at least 36 people have sought out the top floors of the building to commit suicide – with Evelyn McHale's jump being perhaps the most infamous. On the morning of May 1, 1947, just before 11 am, a traffic director who was working at the intersection of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue happened to look up and notice a white scarf drifting down from the side of the Empire State Building when, suddenly, he heard a large crash, and chaos ensued within the streets. He then followed a crowd of passerbys to a limousine parked along the curb – upon which the body of Evelyn McHale was found, having completed the "Most Beautiful Suicide."
Despite the eerily uncertain circumstances surrounding her suicide, it is not her death that has gained her such notable infamy, but, instead, the way she was found: softly enveloped within the wreckage of the car, ankles crossed effortlessly, and face serenely calm as she clutched her necklace in one white-gloved hand. The morbidity of the scene was forever encapsulated in one photograph, depicting the delicate tranquility with which this woman met her end.
However, the question remains: Why did Evelyn – a young woman who was newly engaged and who had a loving family – choose to end her life on that Thursday morning?
Barely four minutes after Evelyn was found lying across the top of a limousine belonging to the United Nations Assembly, a young photography student by the name of Robert Wiles took the heartbreaking photograph that would forever memorialize the death of a woman who did not want to be remembered.
Her suicide gained instant notoriety, due primarily to the photograph's depiction of her angelic repose – an image that was picked up by news and media outlets across the United States and led to her death being deemed "The Most Beautiful Suicide." TIME magazine even went on to use the photograph in a full-page spread describing the tragedy, giving it added acclaim by making it the official "Picture of the Week" on May 12, 1947. The caption that was paired with the image was morbidly poetic: “At the bottom of the Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes calmly in grotesque bier, her falling body punched into the top of a car.”
The events leading up the her death remain hazy and largely unknown. The days before she leaped from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, she had taken a trip to visit her fiancé, Barry Rhodes, and the couple was believed to have been in good spirits up until he took her to the train station early on the morning of May 1st, at which point she traveled back to New York City. Rhodes stated that she seemed normal and happy, and that "[when he] kissed her goodbye, she was happy and as normal as any girl about to be married."
Their wedding was to be in June, and, after her death, Rhodes never married.
It is believed that she
"arrived at Penn Station around 9 am [and] went across the street to the Governor Clinton Hotel where she wrote a suicide note [and] then walked two blocks east where, shortly before 10:30 am, she bought a ticket to the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building."
Following the completion of the one-year-and-45-day construction project in 1931 (the fastest of its kind), an estimated 36 people have committed suicide by jumping from the Empire State Building's observation deck and neighboring floors. However, due to the building's unique design, many people do not reach the ground level and are instead caught by the setbacks tracing the perimeter. In 1947, Evelyn was the 6th person to have reached the bottom of the building, though a total of 12 had tried.
In the three weeks leading up to Evelyn's death, four other people had attempted suicide from the top of the building, and, as a result, a 10-foot-wide wire mesh blockade was put in place to deter jumpers. Sadly, this effort has been less than successful.
When police arrived at the 1,050-foot-high observation deck of the building, they found a neatly folded coat and a small hand bag placed off to the side of the railing, along with a collection of family photos and a small notebook that contained her goodbye note, with some words scratched out:
"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.”
Unfortunately, her desire to disappear from this world unseen was hardly attained, as the image of her body has become one of the most widely recognized – and perhaps romanticized – pictures of suicide to date. However, her sister did recognize Evelyn's wishes and had her cremated.