She Had To Die!

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In 1925 a woman named Ruth Snyder too up with a salesman—a corset and brassiere salesman to be exact—and together on March 20, 1927, they murdered her husband in his bed. Months later, they were both electrocuted. To the public Judd Gray was just another murderer, but the crime of Ruth Snyder was as subversive to American domesticity as the anarchism of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti was to the American political and economic order. Like Sacco and Vanzetti, Ruth Snyder died in the electric chair while the whole country watched the clock. The limits of acceptable American behavior in the twenties were drawn by these highly publicized punishments: the electrocution of two “bolsheviks” and a “flapper”—two immigrant workingmen and a suburban Long Island housewife. But while the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti prompted outraged demonstrations, the execution of Snyder seemed to gratify the public. Almost everyone agreed that Ruth Snyder had to die.

She was born Ruth Brown on 125th Street in Manhattan in 1895, the daughter of a working-class Scandinavian family. She left school after the eighth grade and got a job with the telephone company; at night she took business classes in shorthand and typing. She was a hard worker and determined to get ahead, but like most young women of her time, she said that she “thought more of marriage than [of] a business career.” So when at nineteen she landed a secretarial job with Motor Boating magazine and handsome thirty-two-year-old Albert Snyder, an art editor, took an interest in her, she didn’t discourage him. Albert Snyder was Ruth Brown’s first real “gentleman friend,” and after keeping company with him for a few months she married him in 1915.

The couple lived first in Brooklyn; after their daughter Lorraine was born in 1918 they moved to a larger apartment in the Bronx. And as Albert advanced with the magazine, he moved his family to an eight-room house in Queens Village on Long Island. For Albert the move to Queens was a mark of success. For Ruth it was a lonely step into the isolation of suburban life, but she worked hard at housekeeping, sewing curtains and slipcovers and clothing for herself and Lorraine. By 1925 Ruth Brown Snyder had achieved “everything that most women wish for.” The newspapers, telling her story after she came to public attention, reported that “she had a house of her own, an automobile, a radio, good furniture, money in the bank, protection and an athlete for a husband.” Albert Snyder was not actually an “athlete” but he kept a motorboat for weekend outings and often had a tan. He was also, according to the papers, “a good man, a faithful husband. He took pride in his wife, his child and his home. Made little things to ornament the house. Was thrifty. Worked hard and late. Bought a home, an automobile, a radio and turned in most of his money at home. A model husband.”

Unfortunately, he was also gloomy and evil-tempered. His mother-in-law, Josephine Brown, who moved into the Queens Village house with the Snyders when she was widowed, told reporters that while Ruth was gay and fun-loving, Albert was almost always “glum.” Ruth liked people and parties; her friends nicknamed her “Tommy” because she was such a good sport—like one of the boys. Albert liked to stay at home. Ruth enjoyed restaurants, the theater, bridge. Albert’s hobbies were tinkering with his car and puttering in his garden. Ruth loved animals and would have filled the house with them; Albert grimly tolerated a lone canary and filled the house instead with inanimate “artistic knicknacks,” of his own devising. Ruth loved children and was devoted to her daughter Lorraine. Albert, who hadn’t wanted children at all, was doubly disappointed at being stuck with a girl. On the whole, Albert found Ruth too young and giddy for him; he often told her about his previous, more “serious” fiancée, Jessie Guischard, who had died before the wedding. It was a pity, he said, that Ruth couldn’t be more like her. The unfortunate Snyders probably were no more badly mismatched than any of hundreds of other couples behind the drawn curtains of Queens communities, but they were unhappy enough so that Josephine Brown advised her daughter to seek a divorce, so that Ruth Snyder found a lover, and so that little Lorraine Snyder mentioned to a policeman, after her father had been found dead in bed, that her mama and daddy fought all the time.