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She Had To Die!
One of Ruth Snyder’s Crimes Was Murder
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
But it was to the tabloid Mirror that readers turned for murder news, and in its pages Ruth Snyder was compared to Lucretia Borgia, Messalina, and Lady Macbeth. The paper hired Dr. Edgar C. Beall, a well-known phrenologist, to study three photographs of Snyder and prepare an analysis that guided the subsequent observations of many celebrity reporters. Dr. Beall noted that Snyder had “flattened” eyelids, “especially on the left side,” a configuration “very pronounced in Brigham Young” and clearly indicating a “polygamous disposition.” Her other distinctive feature—which everyone was to notice—was her mouth: “as cold, hard, and unsympathetic as a crack in a dried lemon.” Athough some reporters commented on her square “masculine” jaw, Dr. Beall thought that her chin tapered “like the lower face of a cat,” suggesting her “treachery” and “cruelty.” All in all, Dr. Beall judged that it was easy to see in her face “the character of a shallow-brained pleasure-seeker, accustomed to unlimited self-indulgence, which at last ends in an orgy of murderous passion and lust, seemingly without a parallel in the criminal history of modern times.” Thanks to such pseudoscientific clues, celebrity-reporter Natacha Rambova, second wife of Rudolph Valentino, was able to conclude after watching Ruth Snyder for one hour in the courtroom: “There is lacking in her character that real thing, selflessness. She apparently doesn’t possess it and never will. Her fault is that she has no heart.” “If Ruth Snyder is a woman,” thundered playwright Willard Mack in a highly acclaimed article, “then, by God! you must find some other name for my mother, wife or sister....”
On the other hand, Henry Judd Gray, Snyder’s lover and codefendant, was thought to be an awfully nice fellow. Even the detective who arrested him commented that “he’s as nice appearing a gentleman as you’d want to meet.” Married for eleven years to his childhood sweetheart and, like Snyder, the parent of a nine-year-old daughter, he was regarded in his community—East Orange, New Jersey—as a “model” citizen. As the Herald Tribune reported: “He was a Red Cross worker in the World War, was an assiduous worker for the Sunday school of the First Methodist Church, was quiet mannered in the home and a local country club man. He golfed and bridged and motored. He was a member of the Orange Lodge of Elks.” In short, a regular fellow. But he also seemed to be a murderer. How could that be explained?
His defense team first followed up the suggestion of Gray’s shocked wife: “He must be insane!” Four “alienists” tapped Gray’s spinal fluid, X-rayed his head, and interviewed him for days; but they could not find him insane. In fact, he seemed to Dr. Sylvester Lahey, spokesman for the group, a “fine cultured fellow” and “very affable.” So the alienists reverted to a theory first advanced by the police on the very day that Gray confessed. As the Herald Tribune reported at the time: “All facts now adduced point to a love-mad man completely in the sway of the woman whose will was steel, and brain active and intelligent. She dominated him, police said, and forced her will upon him, even when he desired to back out on some of her proposals.” The alienists took up the notion and repeated it to the press before the trial began: “A strange charm of Mrs. Snyder made him do it.... Her personality dominated him—he was helpless. ” At five feet five inches and 120 pounds, Gray suited the part of the cringing weakling. So by the time Attorney William J. Millard summed up the case for the defense of Henry Judd Gray, the theory had become gospel. “That woman,” he said to the jury and the ranks of reporters who copied down every word, “like a poisonous snake, drew Judd Gray into her glistening coils, and there was no escape. It was a peculiarly alluring seduction. Just as a piece of steel jumps and clings to the powerful magnet, so Judd Gray came within the powerful, compelling, attractive force of that woman. She held him fast. This woman, this peculiar venomous species of humanity, was abnormal, possessed of an all-consuming, all-absorbing passion, an animal lust, which seemingly was never satiated.” In the updated Eden of Attorney Millard’s imagination, Ruth Snyder became the temptress Eve and the serpent too, while poor Judd Gray, like Adam, unwisely but helplessly succumbed. Fortunately, the very weakness that made Gray a creature to be pitied also distinguished him from ordinary men, for the true manly man retained the power to dominate and control women.