Riding The Lightning
The press of the Roaring Twenties in America sensationalized many murders that became ingrained in the criminal oeuvre as “classics”. This is particularly true of Ruth Brown Snyder, a frumpy, homely New York hausfrau who, with her lover, conspired to kill her oldster husband for the insurance money.
What makes this case memorable isn’t its pedestrian motive (murder for insurance money) but the punishment for Ruth Snyder. She was the first woman executed in New York State since 1899; the machinations of a particularly inventive newsman insured her execution was forever engraved in the Twenties’ zeitgeist with a singularly famous photograph, one that stands out in the annals of crime.Credit: public domain
Any post-war period in American history has been one of major social change and turmoil. This was true after the American Revolution, after the Civil War, and it was certainly true after the Great War (later rechristened World War I). The 1920s in America were heady times – jazz was popularized, mores loosened, sexual attitudes were less constrained. The “Flapper” (named for the “fashion” trend of wearing unbuckled galoshes; thus, the “flapping” sound wherever they walked) was a name applied to the female scenesters of the day. It trended into the pop culture’s image of womanhood’s looser party girl with her bobbed hairstyle and bound breasts.
The uglier side of this post-war progressive coin was the idiocy of Prohibition. Organized crime grew into a tentacular institution because of the Volstead Act, turning what would have remained purely local nuisances into a nationally networked criminal enterprise (still with us today). Murder in the 1920s, although statistically not occurring with any greater frequency than any other time, seemed prevalent. This is because the decade saw several extremely high-profile cases. Many of crime’s classic murders were committed during this period (Leopold & Loeb murder, Wineville sex murders, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, et al). The era popularized the lurid, sensational murder story as entertainment.
In that era women enjoyed a level of freedom not known before. They could vote (with the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920). Before the Great War all bank tellers and telephone operators were men. Loss of male labor to soldiering meant these jobs needed filling, and women filled them. The original intent was upon the men’s return the replacement women would relinquish these jobs. This didn’t happen for a number of reasons. In the first place the working women found they liked working and making their own money, and they weren’t easily dissuaded to give up their positions. Employers realized by keeping women employed their businesses earned more profit by paying women less. These jobs then lost cachet as men no longer wanted them (low paying, no longer “respected” jobs). Bosses noted, especially in service-oriented businesses such as banking, an added bonus was simply the public’s favorable response to a woman’s presence in these positions. A woman’s voice on the phone, for example, was more pleasant than a man’s. The job market for women blossomed, most particularly in the nascent communications industry represented by the telephone.
For one ordinary woman, however, the 1920s weren’t “roaring” they were boring. Ruth Brown Snyder’s marriage to an older man was, to understate the case, “unfulfilling”. She wanted more in her life. Being a wife and mother were not enough.
She was born in Manhattan in 1895. Her parents were Old-World Nordic – her father, Harry Sorenson (changed his name to the more “American” sounding “Brown”) was Norwegian. Her mother, Josephine Anderson, was a Swede. Ruth grew up in Manhattan, and she managed, at the wizened age of 13, to get a job as a telephone operator. She continued to educate herself as her ambitions were great. She took business classes, learning marketable skills such as shorthand and bookkeeping.
Ruth also longed to marry well. She found work keeping office for an older man named Albert Snyder. He was the art editor of Motor Boating magazine. Ruth saw an opportunity and the two struck up an intimate relationship that led to marriage in 1915. She was 20 years old. Albert Snyder, however, carried a torch for a very old flame. He had been engaged for 10 years to a woman named Jessie Guishard. When Albert and Ruth moved in together, he kept a picture of Jessie on the wall of their home. He later bought a boat that he named after Jessie (to which Ruth, understandably, objected). Albert made it clear to Ruth, however, that Jessie was “the finest woman I have ever met”. To add insult to injury, Jessie was dead, and had been for a decade. Thus, Ruth had to compete with a ghost for her husband’s affections.
Despite this acrimony over Albert’s dead fiancée they had normal relations for a time and Ruth gave birth to a daughter, Lorraine, in 1918. Motherhood and domesticity were not to her liking, however, and when the Twenties roared to life Ruth became a Jazz Age party girl. Her husband was indifferent to her antics (Ruth referred to him as "the old crab"). He stayed at their Queens home with Lorraine while Ruth went out dancing.
Into this connubial catastrophe walked an unassuming character named Henry Judd Gray (born in 1882). He was a quiet man from New Jersey, aged 33. He worked as a corset salesman. He was short, had a cleft chin, woreCredit: public domain thick eyeglasses (which a reporter later said gave him a “perpetually surprised look”), and he was putty in Ruth’s hands. A married man himself, Henry Gray met Ruth in June of 1925, while having lunch in New York.
Ruth, feeling trapped in a loveless marriage with Albert, threw herself at Henry, and the two (though almost polar opposites) developed a voracious appetite for each other. They often had sex at Ruth’s Queens Village home while Albert was at work and Lorraine was at school. Other times, Ruth would bundle Lorraine off with her to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where she would meet Henry. The little girl was left to sit in the hotel lobby while Ruth and Henry had their assignation in a room upstairs. Sordid details of their shabby affair would later be sensationalized in the press. Embarrassing things such as their pet names for each other (Henry called Ruth, “Momsie” and “my Queen”; Ruth reciprocated by naming him “Lover Boy” and “Bud”) would later be published. It is interesting to note that Henry’s use of a maternal pet name for Ruth might indicate his submission to her in all things. She was definitely the more dynamic personality of the two.
Ruth’s adventures with Gray continued unabated. Her increasing unhappiness at home (combined with her desire for Gray) fomented the idea to kill her aging husband. She persuaded Albert to buy a large life insurance policy. Then, with the assistance of an insurance agent (who was later fired and sent to prison for forgery), she “signed” a $48,000 life insurance policy with a “double indemnity” clause attached (meaning if Albert died by accident or “misadventure” the policy would pay twice its face value). [It is highly likely the agent who helped Ruth with the fraudulent policy was probably provided with the extra incentive of Ruth’s sexual favors for his coöperation].
She then tried to get rid of Albert several times on her own. Twice she switched on their home’s gas while Albert slept; she slipped away, assuming he would asphyxiate (it is uncertain what, if anything, she thought about her daughter possibly succumbing to this same gas). Both times, though, Albert awakened and saved himself. On another occasion she shut him inside the garage while the family car’s engine ran. Again, Albert got out. She also put bichloride of mercury in his whiskey, hoping to poison him. This made Albert violently ill, but he survived. He never suspected his wife was behind any of the misfortunes that had befallen him of late.
Albert’s continued existence became a festering thorn in Ruth’s side. She told Henry that Albert mistreated her and that he must be killed. Henry wanted no part of that, but Ruth persisted (with hints, suggestions, and, finally, outright demands). Her constant carping about killing Albert unsettled Henry and he started drinking heavily.
Finally, Henry Gray caved in to Ruth’s demands to help kill her husband. This plan was for Albert’s death to look like a botched burglary in which Albert was killed. To that end, Ruth had set aside some murder supplies – a five-pound window-sash weight, a container of chloroform, some rubber gloves, and some bullets and a gun (for effect).
On Saturday, March 19, 1927, Ruth advised Henry the family had to attend a party the chosen night and wouldn’t be home till late. Henry was to lie in wait in a spare bedroom, and then he would kill Albert later as he slept. The plan called for Henry to take a train from Syracuse, New York (to help set up an alibi), and then a bus to Long Island. He spent most of the day drinking, trying to call up the courage to go through with the murder. When he finally arrived in Queens Village, where the Snyders lived, he stumbled around drunkenly for about an hour, leaning on street posts to take swigs from a flask. Henry’s actions seem as if he wanted to get caught before committing himself to murder; in the age of Prohibition, simply possessing the alcohol he drank was a federal offense. No one noticed him, however, and he finally went to Ruth’s house. He entered through the back door as planned and hid in the spare room (where Ruth had left the murder kit).
The family returned rather late from their party (around 2 AM). Albert went off to the couple’s room and went to bed. Ruth checked on Henry to insure he was in place (he hid in the room’s closet). Ruth waited until Albert was asleep, and then she went back to the spare room and to Henry. She wore only a slip; the two had sex as Albert slept down the hall. About an hour later (before daylight) Henry snatched up the sash weight. Ruth took him to the master bedroom; Albert was sleeping with the blankets pulled completely over his head. Ruth and Henry stood on opposite sides of the bed. Henry raised the five-pound weight and hit Albert a glancing, ineffectual blow to the skull. Albert awakened at this, and he struggled and begged for his wife to help him. Instead, Ruth picked up the sash weight herself and cracked Albert several times until he was unconscious. She then chloroformed him and strangled him with picture wire.
As the murder was meant to appear as part of a burglary, the two went downstairs, had drinks, and discussed the rest of what needed to be done. They knocked over some chairs to stage the effects of a robbery. Part of the murder plan also was to provide Ruth with an alibi. She was lightly tied up by Henry, who then high-tailed it back to Syracuse, New York. Ruth, “struggling” in her bonds, managed to kick and knock on her daughter Lorraine’s bedroom door. The nine-year-old girl came out, pulled the gag from her mother's mouth, helped untie her, and then Lorraine ran next door to the neighbor's and called police.
Police responded, and Ruth claimed they had been attacked and robbed by burglars. Albert's bound body (tied hand and foot) was found in his room. His nose was stuffed full of chloroform-soaked rags, and his head was bashed in. Three bullets lay on the floor and a revolver was on the bed. A length of picture wire was tied tightly around his neck. Money from his wallet was gone. Ruth told police her jewelry was missing as well.
Police were immediately suspicious of Ruth’s story. The “robbery” was not convincing to the experienced police officers. Detectives noted little evidence of a break-in. Ruth’s behavior was inconsistent with her story of a terrorized wife seeing her husband murdered by crooks. Officers found her “missing” jewelry, however, under the mattress when they began searching the home. A bloody pillowcase was also found as was the five-pound, bloodstained sash weight. They discovered a check in Ruth’s desk made out to “H. Judd Gray” for $200. A tie clip with Gray’s initials on it was found on the couple’s bedroom floor (Gray obviously losing it in the confusion). Ruth kept a “little black book” in which not only Gray’s name was recorded but the names of 28 other men as well. Police got a quick break – a detective found a paper with the letters “J.G.” on it (this was actually a keepsake of Albert’s from his beloved, dead fiancée Jessie Guishard). When asked about this, Ruth (not thinking about anything other than Henry) asked the detective what Judd Gray “has to do with this?”
It was the first time Gray’s name was mentioned, and the police were instantly alert. Other damning pieces of evidence were uncovered later in a safe deposit box taken out in Ruth Brown’s name. These were the more than $90,000 in life insurance documents on Albert Snyder (including the double indemnity clauses). Insurance fraud became a prime motive for murder.
Henry, upon leaving Ruth’s house after the murder, walked to a bus stop. He asked a police officer how long before the next bus came. He rode to nearby Jamaica, New York, then grabbed a cab to Manhattan (the cabbie would remember Henry because he’d given him a paltry 10-cent tip). Henry was found hours later upstate, in Syracuse. He was hiding out in his Syracuse hotel room. He insisted he had not been in New York. He was confronted with the train ticket stub he had carelessly tossed in the trash can of his hotel room. He maintained he had been in his lodging all night. Because of Ruth’s mentioning him at her home, Henry was taken into custody for further questioning and brought back to Queens. He claimed he was innocent of any wrong-doing. [Eventually, it was learned a friend had created Henry’s alibi, setting up his room (making it look as if it had been occupied all along) at the hotel where he was captured.]
The police played Ruth and Henry against each other. They told Ruth that Henry had confessed. She confessed in the wake of that lie. When Henry was advised Ruth had confessed, he confessed as well (although he would later prove more forthcoming than Ruth about his actions). Both were charged with the murder of Albert Snyder.
Despite their confessions, though, Ruth and Henry pointed fingers at each other about the other’s greater role in the murder-for-money scheme. Henry claimed incapacity as Ruth had hypnotized him with “drink, veiled threats, and intensive love.” He stated Ruth had tied the wire around Albert’s throat.
Each defendant had separate counsel, and the defense’s tactics relied heavily upon melodrama and emotional appeals. Ruth’s lawyer claimed Albert Snyder “drove love out from the house” because of his obsession with his dead fiancée. Ruth’s counsel also suggested it was Henry Judd Gray who had tempted her by setting up a $50,000 double indemnity insurance policy on Albert Snyder.
He then put Ruth on the stand. She wore a simple black dress and played the role of the long-suffering wife. She alleged Albert ignored her most of the time (except when they occasionally went out to see a movie). Ruth oversaw the Lorraine’s religious education, reading from the Bible to her and making sure the girl went to Sunday School. Although her lawyer down-played the part of Ruth’s life where she cheated on her husband multiple times with another married man over a period of almost two years he did allow that the illicit romance was justified as Henry Judd was also not happy at home. Ruth said, though, that Henry was a negative influence on her, dragging her to speakeasies and night spots, where she watched him drink himself senseless. Ruth swore she rarely drank and never smoked. She testified that it was Henry Gray who insisted she take out the large insurance coverage on Albert. “Once," she told the incredulous court, “he even sent me poison and told me to give it to my husband."
Henry also took the witness stand. His attorney described the situation as “the most tragic story that has ever gripped the human heart”. The lawyer avowed Henry had been duped and dominated by a “designing, deadly conscienceless, abnormal woman, a human serpent, a human fiend in the disguise of a woman”. Henry had been “drawn into this hopeless chasm when reason was gone, mind was gone, manhood was gone and when his mind was weakened by lust and passion”.
Henry Gray played his part well, feigning passivity and making eye-contact often with his elderly mother who sat in the courtroom. He testified Ruth had tried to kill Albert Snyder many times, even once putting “knockout drops” in his drink. When that failed, she tried to gas him. “I told her that she was crazy,” he said after testifying about how she had given Albert poison as a cure for the hiccups. “I said to her that it was a hell of a way to cure hiccups.”
He added that Ruth had tried to kill Albert on yet two other occasions with sleeping powders. Henry said it was Ruth who had taken out the insurance policy on Snyder, and he had nothing to do with that, nor was it his idea. He described how she had struck the death-blow to Albert.
Ruth, for her part, claimed to know nothing more than this: Henry walked into Albert’s room, he emerged a short time later, and told her, “I guess that's it” (implying he had killed Albert, and she was not a witness to the murder). The jury spent only 98 minutes to reach its verdict on May 9, 1927. Despite the see-sawing of the two defendants, in the end the jury found each culpable – both were convicted. Ruth and Henry were stunned; they were further shocked to learn their sentence was death.
The trial was a media frenzy fueled by all the lurid details that could be mustered: a passionate, purely-sexual affair between two otherwise married people; the cold-fish husband; the unhappy wife; the milquetoast boyfriend; cold-blooded murder with a hefty pay-out in insurance money as the prize. This case had it all, and newspapers ran “extra” editions to quote from love letters and to euphemistically describe the seedy romance between Ruth and Henry. Many celebrities of the day, such as the legendary film director D.W. Griffith, attended the proceedings.
Another well-known gawper was writer Damon Runyon. His take on the debacle was caustic. He described Ruth as “a chilly-looking blonde with frosty eyes and one of those marble you-bet-you-will chins”. He viewed Henry as henpecked, dominated by Ruth, calling him “an inert, scared-drunk fellow that you couldn't miss among any hundred men as a dead set-up for a blonde, or the shell game, or maybe a gold brick – on trial for what might be called for want of a better name: the Dumb-bell Murder. It was so dumb!”
Both were sent to Sing Sing, in Ossining, New York, to await execution. A rumor floated that the executioner was horrified at the thought of electrocuting a woman, and he intended to ask the governor to commute Ruth’s death sentence to life imprisonment.
The executioner, Robert Elliott, claimed he was neither horrified nor sympathetic to Ruth. Elliott said he received a large number of letters threatening him with retaliation if he executed Ruth Snyder (Gray did not generate such sympathy with the public apparently). The sensational nature of the case (combined with the fact Henry and Ruth were to be executed together) saw 1,500 applicants appealing to the Sing Sing warden for a spot in the executioner’s gallery (Sing Sing’s “Death Room” could hold only 20 witnesses).
On the day before her execution, the normally complacent Ruth pounded on the bars of her cell, screaming like a lunatic. She had been undergoing a Death Row conversion to Catholicism – a prison matron asked if she was serious about converting. Angrily, Ruth replied, “Go to hell.”
Ruth Snyder was the first woman executed in Sing Sing since 1899. She went to the electric chair only 10 minutes before Henry. At a minute after 11:00 PM on January 12, 1928, she was led into the death chamber. When she saw the chair, she broke down, and had to be assisted into it. “Jesus, have mercy on me, for I have sinned”, she sobbed. She prayed further, and as the mask was placed over her face, she said, “Jesus, have mercy.” Reporters on the scene recalled Ruth Snyder also saying “God had forgiven” her and she hoped “the world would”. The switch was thrown, and two minutes later, she was pronounced dead.
Security for the event was tight, but apparently not tight enough. Images were forbidden, and no one was to have a still or motion picture camera in the execution room. Thomas Howard, a Chicago Tribune photographer working out of the Tribune-owned New York Daily News office, figured out a way to beat the “no pictures” prohibition.
Ruth Snyder’s execution was the biggest news story of the day. Howard devised a miniature camera rig and custom-strapped it to his lower calf. By slightly drawing up his pants leg he would have an unobstructed shot of Ruth and the electric chair. He crossed his legs just as the chair powered up. He snapped the famous shot right at the moment the electric current entered Ruth’s body and jerked her against the chair’s restraints.
The photo headlined the front page of the New York Daily News the next day; Ruth was dubbed both “The Iron Widow” and “The Bloody Blonde” in the press. This picture was so jarring (and so outraged prison officials) that for all future executions witnesses were searched before being allowed into the Death Chamber. [The famous camera was first privately owned, then passed into the care of the Smithsonian Institution.]
Henry Judd Gray was next to ride the lightning. The day before the executions, he spent his time quietly reading a bible. On January 12, 1928, the day of his execution, he sat in his cell, apparently happy because he had received a letter of forgiveness from his wife. When the warden came to collect him Henry said he was ready to go and he "had nothing to fear." His feet caught fire during his electrocution (but this fact is generally forgotten because it is Ruth’s execution that was of paramount public interest and which was immortalized).
Ruth Brown Snyder was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York with a gravestone that simply reads "Brown". She was 33.
Lorraine, the Snyder’s daughter, had been in the care of Josephine Brown (Ruth’s mother) during the trial. She was then placed temporarily in a Catholic Institution while various relatives fought for custody of the girl in court. Lorraine lived in the Catholic Institution when Ruth was executed; Ruth had specifically asked that her daughter not be brought to the prison for a last visit. Josephine Brown was finally awarded guardianship of Lorraine.
Disputes continued with the insurance company that Ruth had used. One policy, for $30,000, was paid out uncontested. The insurer filed a lawsuit to void two other policies (totaling $50,000). These two latter policies would be declared fraudulent ultimately, and therefore void. A few months after Ruth’s execution the insurance company released $4000 of funds to go toward Lorraine’s care (considering the circumstances, an exceedingly excellent public relations move for that firm).
Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray were immortalized together in the novel and movie Double Indemnity. Their crime formed the basis for both – the movie, in particular, is anCredit: public domain outstanding piece of hard-boiled film noir of the 1940s (directed by Billy Wilder) with Barbara Stanwyck as the “Ruth” character and Fred MacMurray as the “Henry” character.
But it’s the photograph of Ruth’s execution that keeps this case (once well-known, now obscure) in the mind of the criminologist and certain members of the public.
The picture transcends its original documentary intent and has fixed itself in popular culture. It is certainly iconic. The blurred image horrifies and fascinates as one sees what one knows is a woman’s last breathing moments. The sharpness of the chair’s edges and other objects’ crispness suggests the blurring is a result of electricity slamming through and convulsing Ruth (and not from the newsman not being able to hold his leg perfectly still in his excitement to get the shot and in his wish not to get caught in the act by authorities).
This photograph actually achieves a level of “artiness”. The dynamically blurred shot of Ruth Snyder’s execution elevates her forever to the status of unforgettable.
Still great, since 1944
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