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She Had To Die!
One of Ruth Snyder’s Crimes Was Murder
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
The newspaper-reading public, which doubted Ruth Snyder and condemned her, eagerly supported her right to die in the electric chair. State senator William Lathrop Love of Brooklyn urged “equal ‘rights’ for Women Criminals.” “Women should suffer the same penalties that are meted out to men for the crimes they commit,” he maintained. “If a woman enters the competition with men, she has a chance to gain the same ends, and I see no reason why she should not suffer the same penalties.” While the verdict was being awaited in the Snyder case, several papers published accounts of the death in 1899 of Martha Place, the last woman to die in the electric chair in New York; and the Mirror quoted approvingly from then-governor Theodore Roosevelt’s decision denying clemency: “In the commission of a crime...I would deal with the woman as with the man—no whit differently.” On January 10, 1928, while Snyder and Gray waited on death row at Sing Sing, Governor Smith issued a similar statement denying their application for executive clemency. “The execution of this judgment on a woman is so distressing,” he said, “that I had hoped that the appeal to me for executive clemency would disclose some fact which would justify my interference with the processes of the law. But this did not happen.” Pleased with Smith’s decision, the New York Times said in an editorial: “Equal suffrage has put women in a new position. If they are equal with men before the law, they must pay the same penalties as men for transgressing it.”
Feminists scarcely could quarrel with the argument for equal rights, yet in this case it smacked unmistakably of expediency rather than justice. No one could claim that Snyder and Gray had been treated “no whit differently” in the courtroom, where Snyder had been tried for adultery and murder, Gray for murder alone. But Ruth Snyder had claimed for herself sexual prerogatives that belonged only to men; through her execution the full implications of “equality” could be brought home to feminists and flappers alike. Arguing that both Gray and Snyder should be executed, Willard Mack gave away the vindictiveness behind the equal rights argument. Ruth Snyder had wanted “one bed” with her lover, Mack said. Let her have “one chair.”
In the last act of the drama, both Snyder and Gray did go to the chair on the night of January 12, 1928. And even then Snyder got a bad press. When the sentence was passed on May 9, 1927, the “stone woman” became hysterical, and afterward in her cell she suffered from “nervous paralysis” and “epileptic spasms,” which the papers called “the forerunners of insanity.” Gray, on the other hand, received the sentence “with calmness and prayer.” “Gray finds enough of traditional manhood in him to take his medicine without whining,” reported the Mirror. But “Ruth Snyder—woman—turns to the immemorial device of her sex to wring pity from male hearts. Already she is ill and suffering. Expect her to grow worse and worse as the hour of atonement nears.” In keeping with a Sing Sing tradition of executing the more distraught prisoner first, she went first to the electric chair. She was a “a disheveled wreck” in a drab prison shirtwaist and smock; her blonde hair had gone almost gray. She entered the death chamber murmuring prayers, but cried out and collapsed when she saw the electric chair and had to be lifted into it by the two matrons who accompanied her. Quickly the executioners strapped her in, the matrons retired, Warden Lewis Lawes, who opposed capital punishment, turned away, and while the priest intoned prayers and Snyder, sobbing, cried out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” chief executioner Robert Elliott threw the switch. An imaginative reporter for the New York World wrote that as the current passed through her body, “her left hand twisted back and upward as if trying to escape the imprisoning strap and the index finger of this hand stiffened in a pointed accusation at herself.” And an imaginative photographer from the Chicago Tribune, smuggled in by the New York Daily News in a last attempt to one-up the Mirror, raised his trouser leg and snapped her picture with a miniature camera strapped to his ankle. She died under the eyes of thirty reporters, doctors, and prison officials—all men—wearing a regulation football helmet wired to two thousand volts.
A few minutes later Judd Gray, wearing a well-pressed dark gray suit “with invisible stripe,” entered the room with the prison chaplain. “Here was a man,” said the New York Sun, “who was going to his death with a controlled spirit. He crossed the threshold without the need of a supporting hand. His step was firm and assured. He walked upright, with shoulders thrown back slightly. There was no weakening of the knees, no trembling of hands or lips.” The chaplain recited the Beatitudes, and until the switch was thrown, Gray followed them inaudibly: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”