In March 2020, a viral TikTok unleashed a new source of nightmare fuel upon the world—or at the very least, apartment-dwelling netizens. Samantha Hartsoe, the TikTok's original poster, discovered a large hole behind her bathroom mirror. To further add to the mystery, the hole led to the abandoned apartment next door.
The four-part series followed Hartsoe through the various stages of her investigation and provided gripping viewing for an audience grown increasingly stir-crazy from pandemic-related restrictions. It also conjured comparisons to Candyman, the 1992 horror film about a supernatural killer that haunts the projects of Chicago. In one scene, the movie's heroine climbs through a hole behind a bathroom mirror and finds the titular Candyman’s lair.
But savvy true crime aficionados might recall the real-life case that served as the inspiration for Candyman: the murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy.
Who Was Ruthie Mae McCoy?
Ruthie Mae McCoy was a living example of how our institutions fail the marginalized and underprivileged. A Black woman who grew up on Chicago's South Side, she began exhibiting symptoms of mental illness in her twenties. Despite the consensus that McCoy was mentally ill, those close to her weren't able to identify her condition—only that she would talk to herself or curse at strangers on the street suddenly and unpredictably. She would later be diagnosed with residual-type schizophrenia—a diagnosis that arises when someone has experienced schizophrenic episodes in the past, but is not currently exhibiting symptoms.
When she was in the throes of mental illness, it affected McCoy's ability to hold down a steady job. She was never able to maintain employment for longer than a month. To make matters more difficult, she was institutionalized several times throughout her life. Eventually, in 1983, McCoy would find herself living in ABLA Homes, public housing which was coincidentally located near Cabrini-Green, the setting for 1992's Candyman.
Despite her circumstances, there was evidence of McCoy taking steps to leave the projects in the months before her murder in 1987. McCoy had received approval for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Not only did this double the monthly monetary assistance she received, SSI paid retroactively to the date of application. This meant that McCoy's first check was nearly $2,000, a hefty sum of money for someone struggling with poverty in the 80s.
Failure to Act
McCoy intended to use the check to help her leave ABLA Homes, but she also used some of the money to buy new clothes and a few household items. It wasn't extravagant spending by any stretch of the imagination, but the acquisitions would have drawn notice. Whoever killed McCoy likely targeted her because they believed she had a large sum of money stashed in her apartment.
On the evening of April 22, 1987, the Chicago PD received a phone call from McCoy. The frantic call confused the dispatcher. Recordings showed that McCoy told them that people threw the cabinet down and were coming through the bathroom. While today we know this meant that attackers were breaking in via the bathroom medicine cabinet, the dispatcher didn't immediately make the connection. Despite the confusion, a police car was sent in response to the call. What followed was a bewildering display of negligence.
Unfortunately, the dispatcher didn't note down McCoy's call as a break-in; it was recorded as a disturbance. Perhaps the misreporting can explain the lack of urgency on the part of the officer sent to ABLA Homes. Before the car even arrived, the Chicago PD received more 911 calls from neighbors reporting that they heard gunshots and shouting.
Several officers eventually arrived at McCoy’s home but when they knocked on her door, no one answered. A couple officers went to ABLA Homes’ management office to retrieve the key to her apartment but for unknown reasons, it didn't fit the door’s lock. Given McCoy's frantic phone call and the follow-up reports from neighbors, you would think the officers on the scene would attempt to overcome these setbacks. Instead, they left.
The next evening, Chicago PD would receive another phone call from another of McCoy's neighbors. The neighbor told police that McCoy normally greeted her twice a day—once in the morning and once in the afternoon—but she hadn't seen the other woman since the day before.
Several police officers returned to McCoy’s apartment. Once again, they knocked on McCoy's door. Once again, their calls went unanswered. And once again, instead of ascertaining McCoy’s welfare, they simply left.
Debra Lasley, the neighbor who regularly saw McCoy, was not deterred. Seeing that the police would be of no help, she contacted the management office. The office sent a couple people to McCoy's apartment, who finally got the door open. There, they came upon a grisly scene.
Ruthie Mae McCoy was found in her bedroom, shot multiple times and lying in a pool of blood. The room had been ransacked. And because it'd been a couple days since the break-in had happened, the smell of decomposition had begun to pervade the apartment.
The Case Goes Cold
Unfortunately, crimes committed in Chicago's public housing projects rarely garnered widespread media coverage—especially when the victim was a mentally ill Black woman. In fact, the only reason the McCoy murder case made the Chicago Tribune as a news brief was because detectives learned that the killers had entered the home from the adjacent apartment by breaking through the bathroom’s medicine cabinet.
The mode of entry may have shocked some people then, but residents of ABLA told a different story. According to a 1987 article by Steve Bogira published in the Chicago Reader, people had been breaking into apartments via medicine cabinets for over a year prior to McCoy's murder.Two men would later be arrested for the break-in, burglary, and murder, but they were found not guilty in court.
Perhaps the case of Ruthie Mae McCoy would have been forgotten, had Candyman not hit theaters a few years later. Not only did the film feature similar details to her murder, such as the Chicago projects setting and duplicitous bathroom mirrors, one of its characters bore the McCoy surname. With a new Candyman film set to premiere in summer 2021—as well as another protagonist with the last name of McCoy—it looks like the real-life case of Ruthie Mae McCoy will live on in our collective memory.