It had everything. Sex. Murder. Greed. Double Crossings. Sing Sing Prison. Electric Chairs. And at its center was a “femme fatale” from Queens named Ruth Snyder. The lurid details of the murder plot and trial of Ruth Snyder and her loverboy Judd Gray were the media sensation of the Jazz Age, and New York’s tabloids became a permanent American fixture as a result.
Imagine the following few sentences recited by Rod Serling: Take the case of Ruth Snyder, a well-to-do but frustrated Queens housewife who was having an affair with a corset and bra salesman named Judd Gray. So feverish had their trysts become that they found themselves plotting murder: of Ruth’s husband, a mild-mannered magazine art director named Albert. On March 20, 1927, they struck. Their plan was to make Albert Snyder’s death look like the result of a bungled burglary and then collect the insurance money. But their plan had a fatal flaw…it took place in The Twilight Zone…
Actually, Ruth Snyder’s plan had several fatal flaws. Among them was the deeply suspicious life insurance policy she took out on her husband a week before the murder, the one with a “double indemnity” clause that paid off double in the event of “accidental death.” But the “accidental death” scene on which Ruth and Judd hung their future hopes was a complete shambles. They had conked poor unsuspecting Albert over the head with a window sash, strangled him with picture frame wire and shoved wads of chloroform-soaked cotton up his nose. Ruth told the cops, when they arrived on the scene, that “two giant Italians” had broken in, tied her up, killed her husband and stolen all the jewelry. But the cops knew instinctively that the mess in the bedroom was not the work of professional burglars; plus, they’d found the allegedly stolen jewelry stuffed under a mattress in another room.
The priapic pair’s ruse quickly unraveled after that, and Ruth just as quickly turned on her erstwhile lover, blaming Judd for the murder. Gray, in turn, blamed Ruth for “seducing” him, telling the New York Daily News, “She would place her face an inch from mine and look deeply into my eyes until I was hers completely. While she hypnotized my mind with her eyes she would gain control over my body by slapping my cheeks with the palms of her hand.”
For some reason the public had more sympathy for the hapless Judd than they did for Ruth. In fact, the public had no sympathy for Ruth, who was depicted in the tabloids as “Ruthless Ruth,” “vampire wife,” “synthetic blonde murderess” and “Viking Ice Matron of Queens Village.”
The scandal of the murder and its seamy details shocked polite New York society. The ensuing arrests and murder trials were the talk of the town, and nation, for weeks. The city’s newspapers went into a collective frenzy over the story. The mad dash for the sensational was the pinnacle in what became known as “the war of the tabs.” That is, the city’s three tabloid newspapers—Daily Mirror, owned by William Randolph Hearst; Daily News, owned by Joseph Patterson; and Daily Graphic, by Bernarr Macfadden—vied for whose coverage could be most sensational or scandalous. Hearst’s Daily Mirror went the extra mile—par for the course for a man who invented “yellow journalism.” For example, Hearst hired a phrenologist to study photographs of Ruth Snyder. Phrenology was a pseudo-science popular at the time that purported to make judgments of one’s mental faculties and character based on the shape of one’s head. And, of course, the hired “expert” concluded that Ruth had “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”.
“She would place her face an inch from mine and look deeply into my eyes until I was hers completely. While she hypnotized my mind with her eyes she would gain control over my body by slapping my cheeks with the palms of her hand.”
The more respectable daily newspapers, like the Herald Tribune and the Times, saw the murder as a harbinger of civilization’s end, the predictable end result of Jazz Age hedonism. The Herald Tribune attributed the murder to “psychopathia suburbis” and said it heralded a “pale yellow dawn of a new decadence.”
The historian Ann Jones has written that the nation’s newspapers “turned the Snyder case into one of the top media events of the decade and its most important morality play…The tabloids increased their circulations by reporting every little kink in the Snyder-Gray love affair, so that every reader could indulge vicariously in the forbidden.”
If the murder was the crime of the year in New York, the trial itself was a major social event, with celebrities flocking to the Queens courtroom to see and be seen. It was a veritable orgy of scandal. After Snyder and Gray were both found guilty, they were sent “up the river” to Sing Sing State Prison, in Ossining, N.Y. While awaiting execution on death row, Snyder sold her story to the Daily Mirror, but it brought little sympathy. By the time of her scheduled execution, Snyder was suffering from epileptic spasms and hysteria, and her blonde hair had turned gray.
Adding to the scandal’s infamy was a photograph taken by a staffer for the Chicago Tribune who’d smuggled a camera into the execution chamber. He surreptitiously snapped a photograph of Snyder at the moment the 2,000 volts of electricity was sent through the football helmet strapped to her head. The photograph ran on the front page of a special “extra edition” of the New YorkDaily News the next day under the banner headline, “DEAD!” For once, a sensational caption matched an image: “This is perhaps the most remarkable exclusive picture in the history of criminology.” Later editions of the Daily News that day used the same headline but opted for a less shocking visual—mug shots of the two murderers—presumably in response to a backlash of outrage over the electric chair photograph.
It is because of photographs like this that cameras have been forbidden on death rows and at executions, or even inside courtrooms. It could be argued that the real scandal in this murder case was how New York’s media responded to it. It could also be argued, conversely, that the photograph in the Daily News—and the decision to run it (two different issues)—provided a public service, as the deterrent to capital crime that the death penalty is purported by its proponents to be. Indeed, it begs the question: should the media be allowed to film and broadcast executions in the United States?
Ruth Snyder’s story rippled through American culture in another way 15 years later when James M. Cain used the skeleton of hers and Judd’s story on which to hang the plot of his short crime novel Double Indemnity. The following year, 1944, Cain’s novel was adapted to the screen by another legendary crime novelist, Raymond Chandler, for the now-classic noir Double Indemnity. Directed by Billy Wilder, it starred Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in the roles based on Ruth and Judd (they are “Phyllis” and “Walter” in the film), and Edward G. Robinson as the insurance adjuster who unravels the deceit. As Robinson says in the movie, “A murder is never perfect, always comes apart sooner or later. And where two people are concerned, it’s usually sooner.”