Panic of 1907, Outside U. S. Subtreasury building at Wall and Broad St. in October 1907
The Great Depression wasn't the first depression for the US economy, but it's certainly the best known. The most famous story is that on Black Tuesday, 29 October, 1929, that stock investors, realizing that they were financially ruined, threw themselves from their office windows down to the pavement below.
I was taught in high school that when the stock investors realized that they'd lost so much money they'd never be able to get out of the debt, they jumped from the windows of their high office buildings
It wasn't even 100 years ago, so how wrong could it be?
29 October 1929 Tyrone Daily Herald
Nobody jumped to their deaths on the 29th of October. It actually took a while for the actual numbers and the affect to the economy to sink in. On Black Tuesday over 16 million shares were sold -- each one cheaper than the the last. See that headline above? The records shattered was the number of stocks traded -- and the amount of money lost. It was reported that around $50 billion US dollars were lost that week. With a B. In 1929 dollars, when $1 had the purchasing power of $13.20 in 2012 dollars. [*]
It was mind boggling -- people didn't jump, instead they mostly wandered around Wall Street in a state of shock.
Outside the New York Stock exchange after closing 29 October, 1929
So where did the idea of the jumping stock traders come from?
There was one suicide that jumped from a building the day after Black Tuesday, reported by none other than Winston Churchill who was visiting New York. He recorded that, "Under my very window a gentleman cast himself down fifteen storeys and was dashed to pieces, causing a wild commotion and the arrival of the fire brigade." [**] But we don't know why the man committed suicide. It could have been because of the crash, or it could have been because of any number of other reasons that people kill themselves over.
The first suicide that I could find that was definitely related to the stock market crash didn't happen until 8 November -- nearly a week and a half after Black Tuesday. And he didn't jump from a window, he shot himself in the head. Others breathed gas, which seems to have been the most popular form of suicide. Wellington Lytle, with only 4 cents left to his name, chose the gun for his suicide, and willed that ''my body should go to science, my soul to Andrew W. Mellon, and sympathy to my creditors." [***] In fact, the highest number of people who jumped to their deaths in Wall Street because of the stock market crash was a grand total of... 2.
The story itself came from Will Rogers.
Yes. That Will Rogers.
He wrote in his newspaper column, "When Wall Street took that tail spin, you had to stand in line to get a window to jump out of, and speculators were selling space for bodies in the East River."
It was intended as a humorous column post -- he was a comedy writer. But other newspapers picked it up as a factial article, kind of like when an article by The Onion gets passed around as a real news article today. And thus the legend was born.