The case of Ruth Snyder is a Jazz Age classic, one whose influence in popular culture was huge in the 1920’s and continues to this day. Considered one of America’s ‘classic’ crimes, it inspired the classic movie Double Indemnity, the book The Postman Always Rings Twice and Sophie Treadwell’s stage play Machinal among other enduring cultural events.
Born Ruth Brown in New York on March 27, 1895, there was nothing to suggest that she would be anything other than an ordinary New Yorker of her time. She was bright, pretty, vivacious and only 19 when she met and married magazine editor Albert Snyder. Albert wasn’t pretty in any sense. He was staid, conservative, and possessed a volcanic temper, which could be easily roused. If opposites are meant to attract then things should have gone perfectly. Unfortunately for all concerned (Ruth, Albert, their daughter Lorraine and Ruth’s lover Henry Judd Gray), things were to go anything but perfectly.
Albert would be brutally murdered. Ruth (known in the press as the ‘Granite Woman’ and ‘Iron Widow’) and Gray (dubbed the ‘Putty Man’ for being so compliant to Ruth’s demands) would both be executed. And little Lorraine would be orphaned. Not what anybody could call perfect.
Ruth saw in Albert a man of means and social status. Being his wife didn’t seem like a bad idea and so the couple married in 1915, when Ruth was only 19 and Albert considerably older. Problems between them began surfacing almost as soon as the wedding cake had been cut.
Being young and spirited, Ruth loved nights on the town, cocktails, an active social life involving night after night of nightclubs, dancing, theaters and nice restaurants. Albert saw things differently. He only joined in Ruth’s passion for fun until they were married. After that he simply dropped the nightclubbing and reverted to his traditional role of homebody. By default, that meant Ruth also gave up the social life she loved. By the mid-1920’s she’d become bored, resentful and was looking for something extra.
It didn’t help that Albert had been engaged to one Jessie Guishard who died before he met Ruth. Albert didn’t seem to be over her untimely death, nor did he seem to want to get over it. He had a nasty habit of constantly comparing Ruth unfavourably to Jessie, often to her face, and especially during their increasingly regular arguments. He also named his boat after her and even insisted on hanging her portrait prominently in the home he shared with Ruth and daughter Lorraine. Couple that with his terrible temper and dull lifestyle and, to be fair to Ruth, it’s not too hard to see why she might seek consolation elsewhere.
Enter corset salesman Henry Judd Gray.
Gray was also unhappily married, bored, tired of his domestic troubles and looking for something on the side. He was also submissive by nature, whereas Ruth was the dominant partner in their illicit affair. It wasn’t long after they met that Ruth, who Gray later claimed admitted repeated attempts to murder Albert herself, started trying to persuade him to either help her or do it for her.
That she intended to either murder Albert or have him murdered is in no real doubt. With the aid of a crooked insurance agent later jailed for forgery, Albert was tricked into signing an insurance policy worth $48,000. With its ‘double indemnity’ clause it would pay $96,000 if Albert should happen to die from an unexpected act of violence.
He would indeed die of an unexpected act of violence, unexpected to him, anyway. But hardly news to Ruth and Gray. They knew exactly what was going to happen and, although they planned it poorly, executed their plan clumsily and showed every sign of being the amateur killers they really were, die Albert Snyder certainly did and in a most vicious manner.
Ruth met Gray in 1925 and she seems already to have had murder in mind. During their many illicit trysts she began working on him to help her murder her husband. Initially utterly resistant to the idea, Judd became increasingly worn down to the point that, by February of 1927, it was Judd saying that she would have to help him, not the other way around. They concocted a fictional home invasion during which Albert would be murdered, Ruth would be knocked out and left tied up for daughter Lorraine to find and Judd would concoct a false alibi placing him nowhere near the scene at the time of the crime.
This was their first mistake. The problem with establishing a false alibi is that it’s an ‘all or nothing’ tactic. If it works, it works perfectly. If investigators see through (which they soon did) it serves only to prove that a crime was premeditated. Proof of premeditation in New York, which had a mandatory death sentence for first-degree murder at the time, all but unlocked the door of Sing Sing’s notorious ‘Death House.’ In the case of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray this was exactly what happened.
On March 7 they planned to commit the murder, but Gray lost his nerve. Even after all Ruth’s lobbying and not-so-gentle persuasion he still had some will to resist. Having drunk a quart of rye whiskey in a failed effort to drink up the nerve to go through with it he promptly returned to New York City and then on to Buffalo where he had a business appointment the next day.
Ruth became persuasive to the point of desperation, sending no fewer than nine telegrams to him. The crime was now set for March 19 which is where his friend Haddon Gray (no relation) enters the story. Judd had a ‘man-to-man’ talk with him, telling him he needed a false alibi for a meeting with his mistress. Haddon Gray agreed to provide one. If anybody asked him he’d tell them Judd had spent the night of March 19 in a hotel on business and would even mess up the hotel room bed and hang a ‘Do not Disturb’ sign on the room door. He had no idea he was actually providing an alibi for capital murder and, needless to say, was both scared and outraged when he found out. Judd’s alibi would be shot full of holes, providing only proof of premeditation instead of ‘proving’ his innocence.
He arrived at the Snyder home in Queens just after midnight. Ruth had left him a heavy lead sash window weight, a bottle of whiskey and pliers to cut the telephone line. Judd himself had brought two strands of picture wire, a small bottle of chloroform, some cotton rags, a piece of cheesecloth, a handkerchief and to help with their home invasion story, an Italian newspaper he’d found on the train. All was ready for what New York’s tabloid press would soon label the ‘Crime of the Century.’
He slipped into Albert’s bedroom where he and Ruth set upon her sleeping husband with the sash weight. Blow after blow rained down as Albert, thoroughly befuddled, desperately fought back. It was hopeless. By the time he could have even realized what was happening he was already clubbed into insensibility with the weight, had chloroform-soaked rags forced into his mouth and nose and the picture wire twisted tightly round his neck. Soon he would be dead. His spouse and her lover would not be far behind.
Ruth asked Judd to tie her up and knock her out with a blow to the head but Judd, traumatized by the murder, couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he merely tied her up (and not very well, either), emptied Albert’s wallet into his own, stuffed Ruth’s jewellery under Lorraine’s mattress instead of ‘stealing it (it was almost immediately found by detectives) and left the house in something approaching a state of panic.
The crime was committed. Punishment would swiftly follow.
Ruth was found the next morning, as planned, by her daughter who rushed to fetch a neighbour. It was the neighbour who discovered Albert’s body and called police, with detectives arriving as quickly as possible. It was all downhill from there for Ruth and Judd. The police surgeon found no signs of injury despite Ruth’s claim that her assailants had knocked her unconscious for several hours. The jewellery Ruth claimed had been stolen was found stashed under the mattress. The pair had thrown cushions and small items around the living room to make it look as though the robbers had wrecked the place. In the light of her most valuable possessions being found stashed instead of stolen police didn’t believe her story about a bungled robbery, either. Her situation didn’t look like it could get any worse until they confronted her with their suspicions and, when they did, she almost immediately asked her likely punishment and, in the hope of sacrificing her rap partner to save herself, told them her version of the truth and that she’d been helped by a married lover who she promptly named.
Henry Judd Gray.
Detectives soon found Gray. They almost immediately demolished his false alibi. Gray had bought a return ticket between Queens and his home in Syracuse. The maid had done detectives a priceless favour by not having emptied the trash can in Gray’s office, a trash can in which the return portion of the ticket was found. When confronted with a destroyed alibi and his crime partner’s treachery, Gray instantly cracked and, in his version of events, named Ruth as the prime mover.
The stage was now set for perfect tabloid fodder. A racy tale of illicit love, raunchy trysts between two married lovers followed by a brutal murder, a dramatic trial and a swift double electrocution. Onlookers packed the Long Island Courthouse when their trial began on April 18, 1927. Celebrity trial-watchers like D.W. Griffith, Aimee Semple McPherson and Damon Runyon attended. Runyon was especially scathing of any attempt to portray this as a master crime. He called it the ‘Dumb-bell Murder’ because it had been so dumbly planned and executed.
Celebrity spectators and media hoop-la aside, Judge Townsend Scudder presided and, in the manner of judges before and since, made it abundantly clear to all involved that this was his courtroom and people would behave accordingly. Both defendants blamed the other in what lawyers often call the classic ‘cut-throat defense.’ Neither succeeded in convincing anybody including the jury of their own innocence and their lover’s guilt. The jury deliberated for only one hour and 47 minutes before rendering their verdicts. Snyder and Gray were, in the jury’s opinion, both guilty and the jury made no recommendation for mercy. Under New York State law in 1927 there could only be one punishment which Judge Scudder swiftly handed down.
Death by electrocution.
Scudder set their date for the week beginning Monday, January 9, 1928 and both were shipped under heavy guard to the Sing Sing ‘Death House.’ In practise, barring commutations or successful appeals, both would die at 11pm on Thursday, January 12. As New York death warrants specified a certain week, it became a grim tradition for executions to be carried out on what the world came to call ‘Black Thursday.’ A grim name for a grim ritual performed so many times at Sing Sing.
Appeals were quickly filed and, very quickly by today’s Death Row standard, denied. The wheels of Justice moved far faster on the Row in the 1920’s than they do today. Then it was almost unheard-of for a prisoner to stay the executioner’s hand for 20 months or even 20 weeks, never mind the 20 years that they often have today. As the months passed Ruth became increasingly agitated while Judd became increasingly resigned to his fate.
January 12, 1928 arrived all too quickly for the doomed pair. For Ruth it was especially hard, thinking as she was of daughter Lorraine’s future. It wasn’t made any easier by two things. One was that, fearing for her increasingly-fragile mental state, Warden Lewis Lawes had decided not to offer Ruth her choice of the traditional last meal. While Judd calmly selected his final feast, Ruth became increasingly convinced that, as Lawes hadn’t asked her about it, that a reprieve or even a commutation was in the offing. Further hope was raised when a Death House guard heard a rumour that she had in fact been reprieved and told her as much. These hopes were brutally dashed when Lawes and Catholic Chaplain Father McCafferty arrived later in the day.
Ruth smiled at them and suggested they’d arrived to tell her about her reprieve. They hadn’t. Lawes explained, as gently as he could in terribly trying circumstance for all concerned, that there was no reprieve and that they had in fact come to move her from her cell to one of the pre-execution cells in the ‘Dance Hall’ only 20 feet or so from the death chamber. Ruth’s nerve immediately collapsed.
Judd, on the other hand, calmly ate his way through a very decent last meal. Broiled chicken, mashed potatoes, celery, olives and ice cream, followed by cigars, was his meal of choice. By 7:40pm both were occupying cells in the ‘Dance Hall’ watching the clock ticking away their final hours. At 9pm Ruth’s lawyer arrived with the final answer from State Governor Al Smith.
There would be no executive clemency for either of them.
While Lawes attended to the final administrative details ‘State Electrician’ Robert Elliott was in the death chamber checking his equipment. No sound of his checks and tests reached the two prisoners in the ‘Dance Hall,’ the ‘Death House’ having been specially-constructed so that inmates were quartered nowhere within earshot either of Old Sparky or the subsequent autopsies required under state law. The first ‘Death House’ had kept prisoners so close to the death chamber that they could hear everything down to the current flowing through a prisoner’s body, which had the unfortunate effect of often driving inmates insane. But the second one was designed on a more merciful, though no less practical or secure, basis.
At 11pm the stage was set. When executing more than one prisoner at a time, a common event at Sing Sing, Lawes always consulted with guards, the prison doctor and the chaplains and rabbi about which was most likely to cause a problem. With that in mind, those thought most likely to crack under the strain were taken first. Thus it was Ruth who went first, walking past Judd’s cell without any comment. She didn’t crack, but if Judd had gone first she might well have done. As she was led into the death chamber she sat terrified in the chair while the straps and electrodes were positioned. Her last words were a panicked:
“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
Three minutes after Lawes gave Elliott the signal, Ruth Snyder was dead.
Now it was Judd’s turn. He walked in silently, fearful but not panicking. He sat down quickly, declining to give a final statement as Elliott positioned the helmet over his head. Lawes gave another signal and, although his feet caught fire, Henry Judd Gray was only moments behind his paramour in death. He was placed on a trolley and wheeled into the adjoining autopsy room to lie beside his mistress. Now that the law was finished with them there was nothing to separate them any more.
The executions went as smoothly as could be expected, but for one major problem. Photographer Tom Howard had been hired by a New York newspaper to witness the executions and, if at all possible, take a secret photograph of Ruth as the current scorched through her. This he managed using a hidden camera concealed up his trouser leg. The resulting image is still considered one of the all-time legendary events in tabloid news photography. Howard managed to catch Ruth while she was jittering from the 2000 volts and the picture was front-page news the next morning. As a result subsequent witnesses at Sing Sing were searched on entry to the execution chamber. In New Jersey it became a standing order for witnesses to button their jackets and for a large sheet to be hung at waist-level between the witnesses and the chair. Never again, authorities determined, would anybody be able to repeat Tom Howard’s dubious media triumph.
All in all, a tabloid sensation in every sense. One that still lingers long after the main actors had exited stage-down.