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Ruth Brown Snyder (1895 – 12 January 1928) was an American murderer. Her execution, in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison, for the murder of her husband, Albert, was captured in a well-known photograph.

Contents

The crime

In 1925, Snyder, a Queens Village, Queens housewife, began an affair with Henry Judd Gray, a corset salesman. She then began to plan the murder of her husband, enlisting the help of her new lover.

The grave of Ruth Snyder in Woodlawn Cemetery

Snyder first persuaded her husband to purchase insurance, but with the assistance of an insurance agent (who was subsequently fired and sent to prison for forgery) 'signed' a $48,000 life insurance policy that paid extra if an unexpected act of violence killed the victim. Ruth then made a series of varied attempts to kill him, all of which he survived. On March 20, 1927, the couple garroted Albert Snyder and stuffed his nose full of chloroform-soaked rags, then staged his death as part of a burglary. Detectives at the scene noted that the burglar left little evidence of breaking into the house; moreover, that the behavior of Mrs. Snyder was inconsistent with her story of a terrorized wife witnessing her husband being killed.

Finally, stolen property started turning up in the house. Albert Snyder had dated a young woman named Jessie Guischard, who had died, before meeting Ruth. A detective found a paper with the letters "J.G." on it, and asked about it. Mrs. Snyder immediately asked what Judd Gray had to do with this, which was the first time Gray had been mentioned at all.

Gray was found upstate, in Syracuse. He claimed he was there all night, but eventually it turned out a friend of his had created an alibi, setting up Gray's room at a hotel. Gray proved far more forthcoming about his actions. (Dorothy Parker told Oscar Levant that Gray tried to escape the police by taking a taxi from Manhattan to Long Island, which Levant noted was “quite a long trip.” According to Mrs. Parker, in order “not to attract attention, he gave the driver a ten-cent tip.”[1]) He was caught and returned to Jamaica, Queens and charged with Mrs. Snyder. This became a 'cut-throat' case. Snyder and Gray's defense was that the other was responsible for killing Albert. The jury ended up believing both, and Gray and Snyder were eventually convicted and sentenced to death.

The inmates on death row were excited that a woman was going to be on death row; they were all sure she would never be executed. Some said it will be like home having a woman here, although none of them ever saw Ruth Snyder, not even when she exercised in her private yard. During the time she and Judd Gray spent in the Sing Sing Death House they developed a close friendship with Jimmy "The Shiv" DeStefano, the death house barber of Sing Sing. He was their barber and became their friend. He was there to console them both when their final hours were near and the Governor did not intervene on their behalf. Jimmy was the last person to have physical contact with them. He said it was hard enough to cut the hair of a man, but a woman going to the electric chair was the most difficult thing he was ever asked to do by Warden Lawes. Aside from spending time with the prisoners, Jimmy also carried personal messages from Ruth Snyder to her mother Mrs. Brown, and personal notes she had written to her daughter Lorriane.

The final moments of her execution (by "State Electrician" Robert G. Elliott) were caught on film with the aid of a miniature (one time use) camera strapped to the ankle of Tom Howard, a Chicago Tribune photographer working in cooperation with the Tribune-owned New York Daily News. The camera is part of the collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Minutes after the execution of Snyder, Gray was put to death. Ruth Snyder was interred in a marked grave in the Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

The entire case was treated as a monument to the ballyhoo of the 1920s. Newsmen made attempts to try to buy the clipped hair of both Snyder and Gray. Jimmy "The Shiv" DeStefano, the barber immediately notified the Warden of their attempts. The trial at the Long Island City Courthouse was covered by such figures as Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Mary Roberts Rinehart, D. W. Griffith, and Damon Runyon among others. Runyon in fact dismissed the value of the crime as a clever attempt at a murder - he nicknamed it "the dumb-bell murder case" because "it was so dumb!" It has fallen into a set pattern with other crimes in the 1920s that made headlines: the Sacco-Vanzetti Case, the Hall-Mills Case, the Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters Case in England. In each of these the conclusion was not fully satisfying to the public or posterity.

Appearances in popular media

The grave marker of Ruth Snyder

Sophie Treadwell's play Machinal (1928) was inspired by the life and execution of Ruth Snyder, as was the novel Double Indemnity (1935) by James M. Cain, which was later adapted for the screen (1944) by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Cain also mentioned that his book The Postman Always Rings Twice took inspiration from the crime. The 1933 movie Picture Snatcher, starring James Cagney as a newspaper photographer, contains an incident inspired by Howard's photo of Snyder in the electric chair. In the film Blessed Event, starring Lee Tracy as a gossip columnist, Tracy frightens Allan Jenkins by reminding him of the electric chair (regarding Ruth Snyder, whose execution he mentions watching).

Ruth Snyder was mentioned as the first female in New York history put to death in Polly Adler's autobiography, A House is Not a Home. This is incorrect, however; Martha M. Place was executed in 1899, as were several other women dating back to the 1700s.

Ruth Snyder's cell at Sing Sing was also used for Eva Coo and Lonely Hearts killer Martha Beck.

Photographer Scotty (Douglas Spencer) in "The Thing From Another World" (1951) informs the USAF crew that he attended the execution of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray.

See also

References

  1. ^ Levant, Oscar (1965). The Memoirs of an Amnesiac. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. p. 90. 

Bibliography

  • MacKellar, Landis: The "Double Indemnity" Murder: Ruth Snyder, Judd Gray, & New York's Crime of the Century: (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006). ISBN 0-8156-0824-1

External links








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