She Had To Die!

PrintPrintEmailEmail

That remark coupled with the peculiarly amateurish look of the burglary of the Snyder house and the ferocity of Albert’s murder kept the police questioning Ruth Snyder long after she first told them of the swarthy intruder—“a tall man with a dark mustache”—who struck her on the head and left her bound hand and foot. They questioned her through the day and night while they searched the Snyder home and found her “stolen” jewelry under the mattress, the five-pound sash weight—with which Albert had been struck three times—in the basement, and her address book listing the names of twenty-eight men. On the floor in the bedroom where Albert had been bludgeoned, chloroformed, and finally strangled with picture wire, the police found a small pin bearing the initials J.G. for Jessie Guischard. Albert Snyder had carried it as a memento of his former sweetheart, but the police, thinking it might have been dropped by the murderer, matched the initials to a name in Ruth Snyder’s address book and asked her, “What about Judd Gray?” Exhausted and surprised, Ruth asked, “Has he confessed?” The police said he had. Then it was only a matter of hours before Henry Judd Gray, Ruth’s lover, was arrested at his hotel in Syracuse and returned to New York to confess his part in the killing. Both Snyder and Gray admitted they had conspired together, but each blamed the other for the murder.

Albert Snyder was murdered shortly after he returned from a party at two o’clock Sunday morning and went to bed. By Tuesday morning, all the New York dailies carried photographs of the illicit lovers and the text of their confessions of murder. The papers were delighted to have another big case to replace the Hall-Mills affair—a luridly reported murder trial that had just ended—in their columns. The tabloid Daily Mirror, which had dug up so much of the evidence in the Hall-Mills case, immediately reassigned its top reporters to the Snyder story and began recruiting celebrities to write about the upcoming trial. Even Charlotte Mills, who had made her name reporting on the murder of her own mother, was reassigned to the Snyder case. But what was to be said of it? There was no mystery about the Snyder story. The murderers had confessed their conspiracy, and the question of which one twisted the lethal wire around Albert Snyder’s neck seemed inconsequential. Certainly the people involved in the Snyder affair were, if anything, even more drearily ordinary than those associated with the Hall-Mills case. But there, according to the magazine Outlook, was the real mystery of the Snyder case. For if Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray were no different from their neighbors, what was to deter those neighbors from committing similar adulteries and murders?

The question was not an idle one. Certainly infidelity and murder of the sort made notorious by the Hall-Mills case seemed epidemic. Only the year before, in 1926, Fanny Soper was convicted of killing her husband, Harry, a deputy sheriff in Blauvelt, New York, and she very narrowly escaped the death penalty. In 1922, right beside the lurid Hall-Mills letters, newspapers reported the intimate correspondence between Harold GaNun and Ivy Giberson, whose husband, William, supposedly was murdered, like Albert Snyder, by intruders. Mrs. Giberson was sentenced to life. As prosecutors prepared for the Snyder trial, Sadie Raser confessed that she and her lover, Frank Van Sickle, had murdered her husband, Edward, in Newton, New Jersey, two years before. And during the Snyder trial, Ruth Snyder sometimes shared headlines with Lucy Baxter Earley, on trial in Newburgh, New York, for allegedly murdering her husband with the help of her lover, William Wegley. Overworked medical experts dashed between Newburgh and Queens, testifying in both trials at once. The adulterous mate-slaying was certainly nothing new, and whether it occurred any more often during the twenties than it had in the past is impossible to say. But there is no doubt that mate-slaying, like the extramarital relations that led to it, seemed to be increasing dramatically. The New York Post noted alarmingly that “if even a small percentage of irregular love affairs should lead to killings, the streets of our great cities would resemble the battle of Gettysburg.” There was good reason then to ask, as the Outlook did of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, “if these two could commit such a murder, why not any one of countless thousands of others?”

It was more than just a question of deterring murder, for these killings seemed, to contemporary commentators, to reflect a profound social malaise; the New York Herald Tribune called it “a social cancer” or “psychopathia suburbis.” Murder was only the last act in a long, sordid history of family obligations betrayed and common decencies violated. In the Snyder case, the rather commonplace, shabby affair between the two lovers had been going on for a year and a half—months of lies and coded notes and bribed postmen and clandestine afternoon sex at the Waldorf while Lorraine entertained herself by riding the elevators. And there was an even more mundane motive in three insurance policies which Albert Snyder did not know he held; they would have paid his widow, who secretly met the premiums, about $100,000. The Snyder murder, like so many others at the time, seemed to have been prompted by “the pettiest, the most ignoble, kind of self-indulgence.” And that self-indulgence was thought to be the besetting sin of a society that had lost track altogether of the boundaries of right conduct.