Empire State Building suicides: a morbid tradition

Yesterday, the media reported grim news that a woman committed suicide by leaping out a 39-story window of the Empire State Building. The woman was an employee in the building; unfortunately, New York’s most recognizable symbol and its 102 floors have been the final destination for over 30 people since it opened its doors in 1931. (According to one source, 35 as of 2006. Make that 36, I guess.)

Why do people choose famous places to leap from? Is it simply to grab attention, to attach a sense of the iconic to your final moment? Are they hoping they get caught before leaping? The Empire State, destined to represent the city’s promise and pure ambition, has also been a magnet for morbid thoughts even during its construction.

A construction worker laid off in a swath of Great Depression job cuts jumped from the building before it was even completed. (He chose to go in a different direction: the elevator shaft.) In 1947, a 23-year-old woman jumped from the building to hit a United Nations limousine, resulting in an extremely famous Life Magazine photograph. (Go ahead, look. It’s strangely serene.) In fact, there was a rash of suicide attempts from the observation deck in 1947, including one jumper who seriously injured a pedestrian walking in the street below.

According to a paper by the New York Academy of Medicine, midtown Manhattan has seen dozens of suicides over the years, particularly from non-residents of the city, combining fantasies of their own ends with those of the city’s grandeur. This has, of course, caused safety concerns for people on the ground — “They said the man landed on a van parked on 33d Street” says a New York Times account of one event in 1981 — to the extent that the Empire State Building has had ‘suicide fences’ on its observation deck for many years. (Since, no surprise, 1947.)

However, believe it or not, somebody did survive a leap from the Empire State Building. She just didn’t fall very far.

As the story goes, in 1979, a depressed woman named Elvita Adams jumped from the 86th floor to end her life. Yet the wind gusts can be quite powerful that high up and, unfortunately for her, one powerful gust actually blew her back into the building one floor below, breaking her hip. She was apprehended before she could try again. (And really, if something that extraordinary happens, she might have wanted to reconsider it anyway.)

Of course, not everybody who attempts this horrible leap has a deathwish. Stunt aficionado Jeb Corliss was arrested in April 2006 when he tried to leap from the building wearing a parachute. Some of you may remember the heart-stopping video of the man being apprehended from the other side of the fences. (A screenshot is below.)

Having just written all of that, I almost feel required to put information for the New York Suicide and Crisis Hotline. You may now return to enjoying the Empire State Building as the vibrant, living, joyous icon of the city.Read more and listen to our podcast episode on the history of the Empire State Building.

1 reply on “Empire State Building suicides: a morbid tradition”

In summer of 1963 my sister and I witnessed (from inside the observation room) a suicide jump. it was a very windy day, so the outdoor walkway was empty on one side. The jumper leapt onto the wall and hoisted himself over the metal barriers. He stood there facing us with his back to the street holding on to the metal bars. Looked over his shoulder several times… A security guard ran out and grabbed his ankles
The jumper kicked the guard’s hand away and was gone! He hit the sidewalk.

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