2003: Nobody in Illinois 1759: The Tavora family

1928: Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray

January 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1928, a suburban femme fatale and the corset salesman who had murdered her husband were electrocuted at Sing Sing prison.

“A cheap crime involving cheap people,” one writer called it.

“Ruthless Ruth,” as the press inevitably called her, was on the wrong side of 30 and married to a wet blanket on the wrong side of 40 from whom she couldn’t even get away during the day because they worked for the same boating magazine.

The banal hell of the bourgeoisie.

Ruth had a banal solution: commence affair with handsome, limp-willed corset salesman (also married) from New Jersey.

Given a large enough metropolis with a large enough pool of adulterous data points, it must be statistically inexorable that a certain proportion will resolve the love triangle by throttling the cuckold with a wire.

But only that remorseless calculator in the sky can compute why these two, of all those thousands, were the ones not to run off together, or let the affair fizzle, or just continue to rendezvous indefinitely into the future. They certainly weren’t constitutionally cut out for crime; they set up the room in a poor simulacrum of a robbery, and told of a couple of unknown Italians* who’d broke in and done poor Albert Snyder to death.

For their poor judgment and for the speedy collapse of their crummy alibi, journalism owes them a debt of gratitude.

The execution of a woman was quite sensational; Ruth Snyder was to be the first electrocuted since 1899.

For the occasion, The New York Daily News hired a Chicago Tribune journalist to witness the execution … and at the moment the current struck, Tom Howard hoisted his pant leg and secretly snapped with a one-use camera one of the most indelible images the death chamber offered the 20th century, to be splashed in a few hours’ time on the Daily News‘ cover under the headline

DEAD!

The Snyder-Gray adulterous melodrama and its violent conclusion inspired novelist James Cain‘s Double Indemnity, and the noir film of the same title with Barbara Stanwyck as the black widow at the center of the web.

It also inspired the state of New York to begin searching official witnesses to its electrocutions.

* Blame-the-Italians here is a Roaring Twenties Queens version of fingering the black man. The murder was committed in May 1927, just as the Sacco and Vanzetti case was approaching its climax.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Murder,New York,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,USA,Women

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10 thoughts on “1928: Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray”

  1. Lane Brooks says:

    Excellent cautionary example of what can come from having an affair with a “limp-wristed corset salesman from New Jersey” – married or not. But if such a social blunder can – even at a distance – inspire a work of art like Double Indemnity, then cosmic justice will have been served.

  2. Headsman says:

    Point of order: I indicted his will, not his wrist, with limpness.

  3. susie connolly says:

    I wonder if anything became of the journalist who took the picture of ruth snyder in the electric chair? They were also called granite woman and putty man, probably because he was like putty in her hands.

  4. KYGB says:

    The guy that took the picture was Tom Howard for the Daily News sister paper in Chicago, the Tribune. Howard was a photographer, but used a reporters credentials to enter the death house.

    NY authorities tried to prosecute him for years, but nothing came of it.

    Howard went on to become a White House photographer and had a successful career. As a bit of trivia, he is George Wendt of Cheers fame’s grandfather.

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