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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Suicides at City Hall

Seven leaped to their death inside the Milwaukee landmark

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On Tuesday, Feb. 19, 1929, 36-year-old Frances Schurmeir climbed to the top of the brass railing of the fifth floor of Milwaukee’s City Hall overlooking the building’s open-air atrium. Just four days prior, Schurmeir’s husband had taken a complaint to the city district attorney over his wife’s neglect and habitual drunkenness. Acting on the complaint, the city had begun proceedings to have Schurmeir’s 15-year-old son removed from her custody.

Just after 2 p.m., she jumped. No one saw her leap, but her piercing scream as she fell attracted the attention of dozens of municipal employees and City Hall visitors. Schurmeir hit the ground floor with such a force that it shattered her skull beyond recognition.

Frances Schurmeir was the first of seven people who leapt to their deaths in City Hall’s atrium between 1929 and 1940. The depressed and despondent were drawn to the site because of the open public access to the walkways of the upper floors. From there, all that kept from them from the 100-foot drop to the tiled floor beneath was a waist-high safety rail.

Leo Kraemer was 60 when he checked himself out of the County Hospital for Mental Diseases and found his way to City Hall on August 12, 1931. The father of 13 was in failing health and had recently lost his sight. He needed to be helped into an elevator at the ground level and then spent 30 minutes feeling his way towards the rail before he leapt. He was still clutching his cane when the police removed his body from the premises.

After both of these suicides, there was a smattering of discussion about placing a net across the atrium or stationing guards near the top floors. But these ideas were dismissed as too costly.

It was almost seven years until the next incident. The wave of jumpers that followed corresponded with a national spike in suicides during the phasing out of the New Deal and the recession of 1937-38. On the morning of June 9, 1938, George Gazapian, age 52, jumped from the eighth floor, narrowly missing City Attorney Walter Mattison as he hit the ground. Gazapian was once a well-known saloonkeeper. A bankbook found on his body revealed that he had recently drawn the final $10 from an account that once contained more than $12,000. He was living with a married daughter at the time of his death.

The next February, Charles Darling, a 35-year-old housepainter, slowly climbed the eight flights of stairs to the top level. He spent nearly 90 minutes wandering the walkway before a cleaning woman asked him what he was doing. “Lady, watch me… I’m going to jump!” he told her. He tossed his hat over the rail and leapt. A note found in his truck told his wife it was not her fault. He had two children, aged 5 and 6.

Two and half months later, Harry Kumelski, just 24, dangled for a few moments off the eighth floor rail before dropping. He landed just feet from Albert Pauly, a 42-year-old milkman making his daily delivery to the building. Pauly collapsed minutes later and died that afternoon of cerebral hemorrhage caused by the shock of Kumelski’s plunge. A note in Kumelski’s pocket read, “Forget about me. I’m no good. My mind is a blank and my tongue is tied.” 

With four deaths in less than a year, talk of taking preventative measures was reignited. Suggestions ranged from the installation of nets to the extension of the railings all the way to the ceilings to a massive plan that would have filled in the atrium with elevators and additional office space. One low-cost proposal involved stringing razor wires across the atrium. The idea being not to stop anyone from jumping, but to make the potential fall so gruesome no one would dare try.

These ideas were still under consideration when 27-year-old John Gorski jumped from the sixth floor on April 1, 1940. Gorski had been unable to find regular work. He left behind a wife and 2-year-old daughter. Occurring less than 24 hours before that year’s mayoral election, the Gorski suicide pushed the issue into the political arena. Mayor Daniel Hoan, in the fight of his life for reelection, blasted the non-partisan allies of his opponent, Carl Zeidler, for dragging their feet on Hoan’s plan to hang a net across the atrium. The next day, with special guards on duty to prevent any election-day jumpers, Zeidler easily topped Hoan at the polls.

Just three weeks later, Herman Rehfeld, a 63-year-old unmarried traveling salesmen entered City Hall and asked a passerby, “What floor is it most of these people jumped from?” Minutes later, Rehfeld hit the ground so hard the impact cracked the glass covering of a lamp in a ground floor office.

Rehfeld’s jump finally drove the city to action. Mayor Zeidler announced his support for the installation of chain netting from the rail to the ceiling on every walkway overlooking the atrium. Two days later, the Common Council approved, allotting $2,500 for the installation of the nets and finally ending what the papers called the “City Hall suicide well.” The nets remained in place until September 1988 when, acting on a campaign pledge to improve the appearance of City Hall, Mayor John Norquist ordered the nets removed. Rehfeld remains the last person to make the City Hall leap.

To hear more strange tales of Milwaukee's past, join Matthew J. Prigge for the MONDO MILWAUKEE Boat Tour this Thursday, June 27. See facebook.com/mondomke or mkeboat.com for details and tickets. Matthew J. Prigge is a freelance author and historian from Milwaukee. You can email him at mjprigge@uwm.edu.

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