October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
One of Ruth Snyder’s Crimes Was Murder
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.
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.
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.”
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.
It was the detectives—all men—who first found Gray such a likable fellow and passed on to the public as fact his story that he had been bewitched and dominated. As it happened, in their initial confessions both Snyder and Gray lied, and with increasingly bitter recriminations each blamed the other for the actual killing, but the police believed Gray; and even when he later changed his story, neither he nor they gave up the theory that he had been the woman’s puppet. In court the jurors were still by law in New York all men; they were all at midlife, married, with children—men very much like the dead Albert Snyder, or Judd Gray. Women, for their part, judged Ruth Snyder no more generously; she repeatedly appealed for the sympathy of wives and mothers, and apparently received none. Women journalists found her “unfeminine” and unsympathetic, and the wife of one of the jurors publicly expressed her hope that her husband could not be swayed by such a “brazen woman.” Snyder thought that women jurors would see her “side of the case better than a crowd of men” because they would “know the complications and cross-currents of domestic life,” but an informal press jury made up of six female and six male reporters condemned her to death. Women, like men, accepted the officially sanctioned version of the case.
Snyder and Gray had to be judged differently because they were not weighed on the same scales of justice. Ruth Snyder was marked as a “bad woman” from the moment she met Gray. It was bad to send him a note, bad to visit his office for a “corset fitting,” bad to have sex with him. And as the Post noted, when Snyder took the stand to face the prosecutor, she seemed to be on trial “for adultery instead of murder.”
Judd Gray, on the other hand, until he participated in killing Albert Snyder, had done nothing wrong. Officially adultery was frowned upon for both sexes, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., touted a single sexual standard—including marital fidelity for all—in an editorial for the Mirror; but off the record, men knew better. That is why playwright and Post columnist W. E. Woodward could approve Gray’s assessment of himself—“I have always been a gentleman and I have always been on the level with everybody”—although “everybody” obviously did not include Gray’s wife.
Gray had established his alibi for the murder with the help of an old friend, Haddon Gray (no relation), who posted two letters to Judd’s wife, rumpled his bed in the hotel, and hung out a Do Not Disturb sign to make it appear that Judd was still in Syracuse when in fact, so far as Haddon knew, he was really visiting a girl friend. Haddon even lied to the police, maintaining his friend’s alibi, until he learned that Judd had confessed to murder. When Haddon Gray took the stand at the trial to tell the truth, he was described in the press as a loyal friend and a true gentleman who had bravely done what any man would do for a good pal: lie so the man could visit his girl friend without his wife’s knowledge. To some commentators even Judd Gray’s elaborate plans for the murder seemed a harmless amusement. Columnist Woodward speculated in the Post that “this mild corset salesman” probably was entertained on “his lonely trips” by the thought “of crushing a rival, of being a strong, brutal caveman.” And just before the murder Gray had wrapped the sash weight in paper so it wouldn’t hurt Snyder quite so much—a “humane” gesture that showed that Gray was a “kindhearted man at bottom.” Playwright Willard Mack echoed in the Mirror that Gray had “never been a murderer in his heart.” He was simply, to one courtroom observer, the admirable “kind of fellow who’d do anything in the world for somebody he liked.” Snyder and Gray, who had sinned together, could not be judged alike. If they had stopped short of murder, Ruth Snyder would still have been a “bad” woman while Judd Gray would have been merely a regular fellow. As it was, Gray seemed to be what the papers called him: a poor boob, “a bunch of dough that somebody forgot to knead,” a man who couldn’t “put up a croquet set without help.”
The Snyder case as media event was meant almost exclusively for the edification of women. Gray’s sister, Margaret Logan, touched upon the need for the lesson in her prepared statement to the press during the trial: “I never before realized how much tragedy is concealed in houses all around us. This is created by evil women. Most of their depredations upon happy domestic life don’t become public. Few come to such a dreadful pass as the catastrophe in our own family.” With woman cast as the source of evil, as Eve in league with Satan, all the old-fashioned notions of chivalry were turned inside out. Ruth Snyder became a fiend “unworthy of the chivalry, protection and consideration which right thinking men have always accorded decent womanhood.” So when one of Snyder’s attorneys, summing up her case, made a misguided plea for chivalry, he was answered by titters from the audience. As the Post reporter described it: “He was a knight fighting a battle of terrific odds for a golden damozel disguised as a blonde, fattish and ice-hard housewife.”
True femininity in this case was represented by the loyal, grieving mothers of the defendants, Josephine Brown and Margaret Gray. Judd’s mother, in particular, was a woman so dignified in her relations with the press that rumors she had made Judd a mama’s boy quickly were squelched. She was not blamed for his crime but left to wonder aloud, “Wherein did I fail?” Little was said during the trial about Gray’s wife, Isabel, who had gone into seclusion, but when she visited the prison after his conviction to forgive him, she was praised for displaying the loyalty of a “good little wife.” The daughters, Lorraine Snyder and Jane Gray, were greatly pitied because both had been deprived of a father’s love.
If there was to be a hero of the drama, amid this chorus of weeping women, it could only be Judd Gray; and curiously enough, with the old chivalric code upended, he was able to fill that role not by protecting his ladylove but by ratting on her. In the final days of the trial, Gray took the stand to redeem his manliness by telling “the truth”: Ruth Snyder committed the murder. Judd was there, of course. He never denied that. But, he said, he had tried to talk her out of it, tried to leave the house; he was powerless against her. So, incited by Ruth and a bottle of whisky, he struck the first blow with the sash weight, only to have Albert wake up and fight back. Unable to carry on, Gray called out, “Help me, Momsie.” And Momsie finished the job. At the end of his testimony Gray broke into tears that swept all skepticism away. As the Mirror put it, Gray “emerged from the mire into which he slipped wearing a crown that few achieve—the crown of truth.” Even the district attorney, summing up the state’s case against Snyder and Gray, called Gray “a decent, red-blooded, upstanding American citizen.”
Ruth had her own story to tell, but no one wanted to hear it. In court the attorneys and the judge kept telling her to answer yes or no and stop trying to explain. One paper said she “lied like a dog to save her own cheap hide.” There were things she never got a chance to say, so later, on death row, she wrote out her story for the Mirror —an erratic jumble of painful remembering, rage, religious platitudes, and grief. She had been a respectable and faithful wife, she said, until she met Gray, a sweet-talking commercial traveler accustomed to “selling” women. She fell in love with him, though she knew he saw other women: Alice in Rochester and someone called “Snooks.” But he started asking her for money—$90 here, $100 there—and suggesting that he might have to speak to Albert if she didn’t come up with it. She did as he asked—even though she wanted to break off the affair—for fear that in a showdown with Albert she would lose her daughter. The insurance policies and the murder, she claimed, were Gray’s idea; he talked about it whenever he was “liquor-logged” as he was almost all the time, but Ruth thought she could talk him out of it as she had done before. On the night of the murder she set out the bottle of bootleg whisky he demanded, but Gray, instead of taking the bottle and leaving, as she expected him to do, drank it and stayed. He was still there hiding when she and Albert came home from the party. After Albert went to sleep, she tried to persuade Judd to leave; and just when she thought she had succeeded, he went upstairs while she was in the bathroom and murdered Albert. And ever since, the “lying, cringing jackal” had been hiding behind her skirts.
On the face of it, Ruth Snyder’s story was no less plausible than Judd Gray’s. And while witnesses established that Gray had bought the murder weapons and set up an alibi well in advance, the only evidence that Ruth Snyder had participated in the murder was the testimony of Gray himself. Still, no one believed any part of her story. Even when she converted to Catholicism in jail, most New Yorkers who spoke to the Mirror ’s inquiring reporter about it thought she had converted only in hopes of winning a commutation from Catholic governor Al Smith. Writing her final story, Ruth Snyder asked, “Don’t the ‘outside’ believe ANYTHING I tell?” But she already knew the answer.
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.”
Then it was all over. Judd Gray repeatedly had urged young men to stay away from bad liquor and bad women; and in the end he had died like a man. On the front page of the Mirror Ruth Snyder’s portrait was replaced by the smiling face of Charles Lindbergh. The show-business celebrities who had haunted the trial went back to Hollywood and the Great White Way: D. W. Griffith to the movies, Evelyn Law to the Ziegfeld Follies, and David Belasco—who had attended the trial out of his “duty to the public” to watch any dramatic proceedings—went back to Broadway where lesser shows had folded while thousands were turned away from the Queens courthouse. The Times hoped the execution of a husbandslayer—the first such execution in New York in forty years—would have a much-needed deterrent effect, while the Mirror congratulated itself that the “impressive lesson of the Snyder case—more effective than a thousand sermons”—would save countless people from their own “follies.” The morality play was over. After the executions, which the Post termed the “Finale of Queens Pageant,” Nunnally Johnson summed up the “drama of violence”: “That was the end. It was a grand show. It never failed once. It had no surprises, no Theatre Guild stuff, no modernisms. It was the good old stuff done well and fiercely. It was grim and grand. It moved slowly and inevitably like Dreiser. And it came at last, last night, to the magnificent, the tremendous, the incomparable curtain that the audience was counting on. Everybody walked out with a satisfied feeling. It was regular.”
And well might everyone feel satisfied, for the moral could not have been more clear. The final lesson of the Snyder-Gray drama was the lesson that had been taught to Ruth Snyder herself. In her last interview and in her final story for the Mirror she, in turn, restated the lesson for the public. “If I were to live over again,” she said, “I would be what I want my child to be—a good girl, really making the fear of God a guide to a straight life.” Again she wrote: “I said before ‘Go Straight’ and I mean it more than ever. And I wish a lot of women who may be sinning could come here and see what I have done for myself through sinning and maybe they would do some of the thinking I have done for months and they would be satisfied with their homes and would stop wishing for things they should try to get along without when they can’t have them."
“Maybe there are women who have nice homes (and husbands who do the best they can for them) even if they don’t like their husbands and they could bear it if they would only make up their minds everything can’t be just perfect.”
And again she wrote: "OH GOD, HOW A LOT OF WOMEN WOULD CHANGE IS THEY COULD COME HERE AND SEE MY PUNISHMENT.“