We may never fully know what happened on the night of December 18, 1923, but what we do know is bitter fact, based on details shared by a grieving family and hard truths that later came to light, and what I can tell you with confidence is this:
It was nearly midnight when Esther Sue Todd hurried out into that blustery night. She was bent against the wind, wrapped tightly in her coat. Her older sister, Ruth, stood just inside the front entrance to Harlem Hospital, under the large Christmas wreath hanging over the lobby door. She watched Esther’s thin, buffeted figure until it faded behind a wall of swirling snow. With a sigh, she repressed a sense of fear—You always thinking the worst, Ruth—and hurried back to the emergency waiting room to rejoin their friend Beth.
Beth Johnson had claimed a corner of a bench. She sat hunched over, gripping the seat’s rounded edge as though she’d pass out any minute. Her olive-toned complexion had taken on an undertone of pearl gray. The flat light of the waiting room added to her pallor, but it wasn’t entirely to blame. Bad fish for dinner: That was it.
“Want me to get you a cup of water?” Ruth asked.
Beth shook her head. She sagged and leaned her head back on the bench, but the wood was too hard to be comfortable, so she sat erect again with a groan.
“Why don’t you just stretch out?” Ruth asked. “There’s plenty of room. I’ll just go sit over there.” She pointed to one of the nearby benches.
As Ruth would say later, Beth was too weak to argue. She gave a weary nod, drew her feet up and lay down, curling into a tight knot of misery. Ruth took off her coat, rolled it into a ball and put it under Beth’s head as a cushion.
Ruth eased down onto a bench and shivered. The waiting room was poorly heated and a cold draft swept through the massive Victorian hall. She blew on her hands, rubbed them together and hugged herself. How, she wondered, had the evening turned out so wrong?
It had started well enough. They were going to see the Christmas Show at the Renaissance Ballroom, a large entertainment center on 138th Street and Seventh Avenue. All kinds of events were held at the Renaissance, everything from basketball games, to dances and musical shows.
It had been snowing off and on all day and the forecast predicted more, but not even warnings of a blizzard could’ve stopped their plans. The chance to go out was something special, but to have the time—and money—to see the Christmas Show at the Renaissance was extraordinary. Esther, especially, had looked forward to the evening. She’d been talking about it for weeks. Between working, taking care of her young son, and practicing the piano to please Mrs. Goodfellowe, she had little or no time for herself. That night was to have been different. She was going to kick up her heels and have fun.
Ruth glanced up at the huge clock above the door. Was it really only five hours ago that she and Esther had picked up Beth with Mrs. Goodfellowe’s car? They’d been so excited as they drove off and more than satisfied with their balcony seats. The performers had the audience laughing and clapping and everyone was having a fine old time. Everything was going swell until about twenty minutes into the show. That’s when Esther noticed that Beth was holding her stomach and grimacing.
“You all right?”
Beth could barely answer. She nodded that she was, but she’d broken out into a sweat. Esther touched Beth’s forehead. The girl was cold and clammy.
“Maybe I’d better go to the hospital.”
She worsened fast. By the time Ruth and Esther got Beth down the stairs and outside, she was so weak, she could barely stand. Esther put the pedal to the floor and sped to Harlem Hospital on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, going as fast as the snow would allow. She brought Ruth and Beth to the hospital’s front door, and then drove away to find a parking space.
She was gone twenty minutes.
By the time she got back, a doctor had seen Beth. He suspected it was something she’d eaten. Sure enough, Beth said she’d had fish for dinner and that it hadn’t smelled right. Beth would be fine, the doctor said. She had upchucked and gotten some medicine. She just needed rest. She could spend the night at the hospital, but she’d have to pay for the bed up front.
Well, they didn’t have the money for that. So the doctor said Beth could rest for a while, an hour or so, and then go home.
Esther and Ruth took up watch downstairs in the waiting room. Outside, the wind picked up and the snow fell harder—thick, heavy flakes that quickly accumulated. After two hours, a nurse brought Beth downstairs. She was still weak, but said she felt strong enough to go home.
Ruth and Esther eyed Beth with matching frowns.
“You sure you don’t want to rest here a little longer?” Esther asked.
“No, no, I want to go home.” Beth rubbed her forehead. Her eyes were bleary and unfocused.
Esther and Ruth exchanged another look.
“I don’t like it,” Ruth said.
“But we can’t force her to stay. Maybe taking her home would be the best thing to do. The doctor said he can’t do much more for her. What she needs is to relax. She can’t do that here. She can at home.”
Ruth was still unhappy, but she relented. “All right.”
“I’ll go get the car.” Esther tightened her coat. “Give me fifteen, twenty minutes.”
“Let me walk you out.” Ruth turned back to Beth. “You’ll be okay?”
Slumped on the bench, Beth nodded and closed her eyes. Ruth gave her a worried look, but decided she’d be all right alone for the five minutes.
“Where’d you park?” she asked Esther as they headed down the corridor.
“Over on 132nd and Madison, right at the corner, in front of the bakery. It’s not far, but it’s too far for Beth to walk.”
They were soon at the entrance. Esther started toward the door.
“Wait a minute,” Ruth said. She went past her sister to the door and peered out. The night was as dark as soot; the only light came from the gas lamps that lit Lenox Avenue. It was windy. The snow was coming down hard.
“Maybe I should go with you. I don’t like the way it looks out there. I don’t see nobody on the street right now and you know, this ain’t the best part of town.”
“This is a fine part of town.” Esther spoke with the pride of a new emigrant. She’d only come up from Virginia seven months earlier. “It’s the best part of New York City. Ain’t nobody hanging around this hospital who’d do me no harm.”
Ruth was unconvinced.
Esther gave her a peck on the cheek. “You stay here with Beth.” She swept out the door with a wave. “See you in a few!”
As the minutes crawled by, Ruth began to pace. She tried hard not to check the wall clock. But it was nigh on impossible not to. Beth turned over, trying to get comfortable.
“She’s not back yet?” Beth asked. “Just how far did she park that thing?”
Ruth told her not to fret, but she was feeling uneasy herself. More time passed. She headed toward the door.
“Where you going?” Beth asked.
“Just outside to see.” Ruth pushed open the door and stepped out into the night. A harsh wind slammed into her and she gasped. The night had turned so very cold. The wind sliced through her coat, as sharp and penetrating as a blade made of ice. The driven snowflakes scratched her face. A gust of wind kicked up her front coat flap. She pushed it down and held it in place with one gloved hand, while holding down her hat with the other.
She gazed to her left, down the way Esther must’ve gone. Lenox Avenue was a wide boulevard. Some people thought of it as the Fifth Avenue of Harlem, and it was usually brimming with people. But that night, the wind and snow had driven away every living soul. The avenue, poorly lit by street lamps spaced far apart, was an icy blur, shadowed, dark and desolate.
Teeth chattering, she snuggled deeper into her coat. As soon as they got home, she would make herself a hot cup of tea. That sure would be nice.
Esther must’ve found it hard going in the snow. The wind itself would’ve pushed her back. Ruth had to lean into it just to take the few steps to the curb. This kind of weather would’ve made the short walk to Mrs. Goodfellowe’s car seem double the distance. No doubt that was why Esther hadn’t returned yet. Ruth felt a stab of annoyance. Fighting your way through this weather was crazy. Esther should’ve come on back to the hospital. The three of them could’ve waited out the worst of it and then gone on home. A person could catch pneumonia out here.
Ruth pushed her way through the snow and wind to get to the corner of 135th Street. She peered to her left, eastward: nothing but darkness and shadows and more snow.
She stomped her feet to shake off the snow. Like Esther, she was wearing thin shoes, not boots. If her toes were curling at the cold after just two minutes of standing outside, then Esther’s feet must be soaked by now—or feeling like ice.
At the thought, Ruth’s sense of irritation vanished. She couldn’t stay angry with her baby sister for not turning back. Esther wasn’t the kind to give up. That’s all. She was the kind to set her head against the wind and keep on going.
Again, Ruth shivered. It didn’t make sense to stand out here too long. She just prayed that Esther wouldn’t come down with pneumonia. It sure wouldn’t be good if both she and Esther got sick. She’d better go back inside. She started toward the hospital entrance. She was nearly there, when a car honked, startling her. The sound was brief, harsh and abrupt. She turned in its direction.
With ghostly headlights, Mrs. Goodfellowe’s car came barreling around the corner of 135th Street, moving way too fast for the slippery street. The soft snow caught the front tires and sent the Packard into a slow spin. Ruth’s heart skipped a beat and her breath caught. For one terrible moment, she thought the car would flip over or crash into a lamppost.
It did neither.
The car swerved to a nerve-rattling halt and rocked on its axle. There was a dull moment when the whole world seemed to stand still. Even the battering wind and swirling snow paused.
In that split second, Ruth heard a terrified sob. She would never forget it, a gut wrenching, cut-off cry so familiar and yet so foreign that it engraved itself on her mind. I heard her, she would say. Impossible, people would answer, simply impossible given the distance and the conditions. After a time, Ruth would stop mentioning it. What others thought was irrelevant. She knew what she’d heard—and still heard every night, year in and year out, as that cry echoed within her, cutting deeper into her soul. But on that night, before grief took over, it was fear she felt, fear and puzzlement. Who was driving Mrs. Goodfellowe’s car? It couldn’t be Esther. It just couldn’t be. Esther didn’t drive like that. So, where was she? And who was behind the wheel?
As the driver put the car in reverse, straightened it out and headed up the street, Ruth could see that the driver was indeed Esther—Esther driving with a madwoman’s determination, heedless of danger.
Kicking up a spray of white dust, the Packard plowed through the snow with gathering speed. The car’s front end wove right and left. It was moving so fast it looked as though it would go on by. But as it approached the hospital entrance, it slowed. Enormously relieved, Ruth stepped off the curb.
The headlights died and the car gunned forward. It sped past Ruth and headed down the street. For a moment, she was too stunned to react. That was Mrs. Goodfellowe’s car, wasn’t it? Sure it was. It had to be. She could still see Esther at the wheel.
Ruth gave a yell and ran out into the street, jumping up and down, waving and calling out. But Esther just kept on going. If anything, she drove faster. Ruth couldn’t understand it. Esther must have seen her.
Confused and worried, Ruth stumbled back inside and told Beth what she’d seen.
“Maybe she went to get some gasoline,” Beth suggested.
“Where’d she be getting it this time of night? And what’s that got to do with her driving right past me?”
“You sure it was her?”
“Of course I am.”
Beth fell silent. Ruth paced. Esther was bound to come back. And she’d have a good explanation for driving away like that. They’d just have to wait. Esther would come back. Of course, she would.
She had to.
But it was a while—a long while—before Esther Todd was seen again.