In 1927, the United States – and many countries around the world – were transfixed by the murder of Albert Snyder, a staid magazine editor in Queens, New York, by Ruth, his wife 30 years his junior, and her secret lover, Judd Gray, a travelling salesman for the Bien Jolie Corset Company. Ruth tricked her husband into signing a life insurance policy with a double indemnity clause providing nearly $100,000 in the event that he met a violent end.
On the surface, the case was a dull one – a love triangle turned deadly. Newspaperman Damon Runyon called it the Dumbbell Murder Case. The perpetrators were not particularly attractive or imaginative. But it had enough juicy details: that Gray called Ruth ‘mommie’, that Ruth had tried various ways attempting to kill her husband – poisoning his food and drugs – before the pair crushed Albert Snyder’s skull with a sash weight, that she received Judd Gray in a red kimono on the night of the murder; that Gray had constructed an elaborate alibi, that his alibi was blown up because he was remembered by a taxi driver to whom he had given a paltry tip. Cast of characters surrounding the case also provided enough color: the presiding judge, Townsend Scudder, lived with 125 dogs on his Long Island estate; one of the lawyers, Dana Wallace, was the son of the owner of the Mary Celeste, the cargo ship found drifting in the Atlantic in 1872, its crew mysteriously vanished.
The case would receive more column inches of coverage than any other crime of the era – an early example of the hyperbolic “trial of the century” moniker that would later be bestowed upon many others. Outside the courthouse, one of the most popular souvenirs were tiepins in the shape of sash weights for 10 cents each. One hundred and thirty newspapers from across the nation and as far afield as Norway sent reporters. Western Union installed the biggest switchboard it had ever built – bigger than any used for a presidential convention or World Series. The coverage in column inches would not be exceeded until the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby in 1935. In terms of its effect on popular culture, it perhaps deserved the name, the trial of the century – the central crime repeated time and again in fiction, Hollywood, and Broadway.
Paramount set the story in British East Africa and titled it The Woman Who Needed Killing (the title was later toned down to A Dangerous Woman). Sophie Treadwell turned her trial coverage for the Herald Tribune into a play called Machinal, which enjoyed both critical and commercial success, with the main part once played by young Clark Gable. But the most enduring works were by James M. Cain, who used the story in two books: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. Billy Wilder turned the latter into a movie of the same name in 1944 – the movie considered at the original film noir. As Bill Bryson noted, “Double Indemnity the movie is the Snyder–Gray case, but with snappier dialogue and better-looking people”.
Such was their notoriety when Ruth Snyder went to the electric chair on 12 January 1928, the excitement was palpable. Although Judd Gray was also to be electrocuted, “Ruthless Ruth” was to be the first woman to be sent to be chair since 1899. more than 1,500 people applied to witness the execution, and voyeurs dotted the hills overlooking Sing Sing Prison. Photographers are not permitted but the New York Daily News was desperate. They called up Tom Howard, a Washington-based photographer for the Chicago Tribune, the News’ parent company — virtually unknown to the prison warders or journalists in the New York area.
Howard, posing as a writer, arrived early in Sing Sing Prison to be an official witness. He had sneaked in a miniature camera strapped to his shin, the shutter release button concealed within his jacket. As the switch was thrown, sending a surge through Snyder that cut her off in mid-sentence (“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” were her last words), Howard discreetly lifted up his trouser leg and secretly snapped. Howard spent several days prior to the execution practicing the technique in a hotel room. The photo, cropped and accompanied by injudicious headline ‘DEAD!’ filled the whole of the front page the next morning and the edition sold out within minutes. Inside, the paper noted modestly, “This is perhaps the most remarkable exclusive picture in the history of criminology,” while providing a breathless 289 inches of coverage on the execution. Even the New York Times gave the story 63½ inches – over five feet – of coverage. (Note: The original negative was torn through mishandling).
Howard gained overnight popularity. He received a princely sum and went on to become the head of photography for the White House. The state attempted to prosecute Howard and the newspaper, but nothing ever came of it. For many years afterwards, witnesses to executions were searched and asked to hold up their hands so they could not operate hidden cameras. But, the damage has already been done. The photo has become a rally cry for the opponents of the death penalty.
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