She Had To Die!

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The newspapers, then, in cooperation with the court, took up the task of excising that social cancer, of re-establishing old standards, of ensuring, as the Herald Tribune put it, that the “slightly pale yellow dawn of a new decadence, which rose after the lurid sunsets of the war,” would deepen “into the clear blue of another, an almost Victorian earnestness.” The more respectable dailies tended to serious reflections upon the case while the tabloids went in for sensational, and often wholly fictitious, sidelights. Among them all, they turned the Snyder case into one of the top media events of the decade—and its most important morality play, designed like medieval moral drama to point the way to heaven.

The hundreds of thousands of words written about the case repeatedly sounded two refrains. In the first place, as one reporter coolly noted, everyone is interested in things that are “sexy” and “vile.” The tabloids increased their circulation by reporting every little kink in the Snyder-Gray love affair, so that every reader could indulge vicariously in the forbidden; it was a heyday for voyeurs, at least until Gray was called upon to enumerate from the stand every drink he had ever drunk at every lunch he had ever eaten with Ruth Snyder—and the thrilling affair became so tedious that bored spectators left the courtroom. But this exposure of every detail of the adulterers’ conduct appealed to the readers’ prurient interest and also served to define precisely what conduct was bad and what was permissible. Before it was all over, avid readers had learned that respectable women did not smoke, drink, dye their hair, cross their legs, lunch out with strange men, or feel ingratitude toward their husbands. Still, despite the obvious lessons of the Snyder case, the notion of slipping off to the Waldorf for an afternoon of clandestine sex did have a certain sinister appeal to bored wives and husbands; so the newspaper carefully stressed that Snyder and Gray were not ordinary folks. They might appear ordinary to reflective publications like the Outlook, given to raising ponderous questions better left alone; but at heart they were very different. Gray was not truly a man, and Snyder was certainly no woman. As the trial went on, more and more reporters noticed that Snyder didn’t even look like a woman anymore. Luckily, the reassurance that Snyder and Gray were not, after all, ordinary people made it easier for newspaper readers to indulge vicariously in their crimes without fear of falling into such sin. And the inescapable conclusion, by the end of the trial, that Ruth Snyder was scarcely human made it that much easier to send her to the electric chair.

These two themes of the trial coverage—establishing the standards of right conduct and setting apart the evildoers from the great mass of upstanding citizens who supposedly followed those standards—came together in the public presentation of Ruth Snyder: a bad woman, a bad wife, a bad mother, and at the same time an utterly cold, inhuman vampire completely unlike those good, warm, self-sacrificing wives and mothers who represented the best of American womanhood.

In the first reports of the Snyder murder, Ruth Snyder was described as “the beautiful wife” of the slain art director; but the newspapers quickly realized their mistake. After her confessions the Mirror made one attempt to point up the contrast between Ruth’s lovely appearance and hideous crimes; on March 24, just after she confessed, the paper ran a full-page studio portrait with instructions to “study this face, pretty, soft, smiling, with curling hair and delicate features. One of a loving wife and devoted mother, you would say. Yet it is that of Mrs. Ruth Brown Snyder....” But that line was quickly abandoned. Ruth Snyder became instead the “fiend wife,” the “faithless wife,” the “blonde fiend,” the “marble woman,” and “Ruthless Ruth the Viking Ice Matron of Queens Village.” The more sober New York Post found her to be a “hard-faced woman” probably “oversexed” and certainly overly interested in “power and authority.” Physically, the Post said, she was “heavy and coarse.” The New York Herald Tribune, apparently casting about for the right approach to the story, called her a “woman of steel” and then criticized her for having rough skin, straight hair, and a wrinkled dress, concluding its report of the first press interview given by the confessed conspirator in murder with the apparently damning judgment: “She is not well groomed.”