Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray Trial: 1927
Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray Trial: 1927
Defendants: Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: For Ruth Snyder: Edgar F. Hazleton and Dana Wallace; For Judd Gray: Samuel L. Miller and William J. Millard
Chief Prosecutor: Richard E. Newcombe
Judge: Townsend Scudder
Place: Long Island City, Queens, New York
Dates of Trial: April 27-May 9, 1927
Sentence: Death by electrocution
SIGNIFICANCE: In a macabre way, the verdict and sentence in Ruth Snyder's case was a milestone in progress toward equality of the sexes. As a New York Times editorial summed it up after Governor Al Smith denied clemency to Ruth Snyder: "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." It was also significant that the two defendants, each of whom had confessed and tried to shift the burden of guilt to the other, were tried together, so that each was crossexamined by the other as well as by the State—a procedure labeled "novel and dangerous" by Ruth Snyder's attorney.
Nine-year-old Lorraine Snyder slept late on Sunday morning, March 20, 1927. She had gone to bed at 1:45 a.m. when she came home with her parents from a bridge party. Long after her usual 7:30 rising time, she was awakened by her mother, whom she found lying on the floor, her feet tied together, and her wrists tied. Her mother said burglars had knocked her out and tied her up, leaving her in the next room. After coming to, she had wriggled into Lorraine's room. Lorraine's father was dead.
The police found Albert Snyder in bed, smelling of chloroform. His head was bludgeoned, and picture wire was tied around his neck. The house had been ransacked. Bureau drawers were empty, their contents strewn everywhere. And Ruth Snyder claimed jewelry was missing. The house had already been robbed three times in the past year.
"It Don't Look Right"
Within two hours, New York City's best detectives were on the job in the Snyders' fashionable home, which 44-year-old Albert Snyder, art director ofMotor Boating magazine, had bought in the Queens suburb for his 32-year-old wife. The cops exhausted Ruth Snyder, questioning her through the day and into the night. When they told her the burglary was a fake, she indignantly replied, "What do you mean? How can you tell?"
"It don't look right," said a detective. "We see lots of burglaries. They aren't done this way."
The police explained. Mrs. Snyder said she had been hit on the head by "a tall man with a dark mustache" and knocked out for five hours, but she had no bruise or bump. Her wrists and ankles had been tied so loosely they bore no marks. Neither doors nor windows had been forced, so any intruder must have been let in. The missing jewelry had been found, under a mattress. Albert Snyder's revolver had been found on his bed, broken open at the breach but not discharged—a clumsy effort, the detectives said, to make it look as if he had resisted. And in the basement they had found a sash weight that was evidently the murder weapon.
"What About Judd Gray?"
The police did not disclose to Ruth Snyder the fact that they had found a small pin with the initials "J.G." on the bedroom floor. In Ruth Snyder's address book was an entry under "G" for the name Judd Gray. The investigators questioned her: "What about Judd Gray?"
Surprised, Ruth Snyder asked, "Has he confessed?" Bluffing, the police replied that he had, prompting Ruth Snyder's confession. For a year and a half, she and Gray had been lovers. Gray, she said, wanted her husband dead. Gray had hidden in the house while they were at the bridge party, then emerged from a closet to bludgeon Albert Snyder after he had fallen asleep. Ruth admitted she had helped to make the arrangements and ransack the house, but she said Gray had wielded the sash weight. The police later found Gray in the Syracuse, New York hotel she named.
When the Syracuse police arrested him, Gray first laughed at the accusation. "Ridiculous," he said. He had ample proof that he had been in Syracuse on Saturday night. But when he realized that Ruth Snyder had confessed, he admitted taking part in the crime. He said, however, that he had not wanted to kill Albert Snyder. Gray claimed he had been coerced by his lover, who threatened to tell Gray's wife about their affair.
By Tuesday, the front pages boasted pictures of Gray and Ruth Snyder, along with the full text of both their confessions. But while both had confessed, each said the other had proposed the murder. Queens District Attorney Richard Newcombe therefore obtained their indictment together as co-conspirators.
While Lorraine was in the Elevators
The testimony—and the newspapers that eagerly reported it—brought out the inherent drama of a situation that had culminated in a crime: The older, gloomy, ill-tempered and dull husband whose idea of fun was staying home and making artistic doodads; the lively, young, party-loving, suburban housewife dutifully sewing slipcovers for the furniture and dresses for little Lorraine; the Mr.-Nice-Guy friend, a Sunday-school teacher, family man, traveling salesman for a corset-and-bra manufacturer, and member of the Orange, New Jersey, Lodge of Elks, who took an interest in Ruth and became her lover; the bribed postmen; the coded letters; the afternoon lovers' trysts at the Waldorf-Astoria, while little Lorraine was dispatched to the fun of riding up and down with the elevator operators. It all added up to the inevitable need, said prosecutor Newcombe, to get rid of Albert Snyder so Ruth Snyder and Gray could be together. But Ruth Snyder's motive was twofold: unbeknown to her husband, she had recently increased his life insurance to $100,000 and she was quietly paying the premiums.
Then, too, testimony brought out that Ruth Snyder had tried twice to asphyxiate her husband by disconnecting the gas range, had nearly succeeded in killing him with carbon monoxide by closing the garage door while the car was running inside, had poisoned his whiskey so ineptly that he dumped it out and said he must change bootleggers, and had added narcotics to his medicine when he was ill—all without Albert Snyder suspecting her.
An ironic footnote to the case was that the "J.G." pin had been a keepsake of Albert Snyder's from his long-ago engagement to one Jessie Guischard, who died before they could be married.
Judge Townsend Scudder said a jury's task, amid the conflicting stories of the confessors, was to decide who had done what. The judge reminded the jury that Gray testified Ruth Snyder "arranged the joint plan and jointly participated in the actual killing," while she testified that "Gray was determined to take the life of Albert Snyder and that she endeavored to prevent him from so doing and that she was not present at the time Gray struck the blows … and she testified she believed she had dissuaded the defendant Gray from his alleged evil purpose.…"
"Her Fault is that she has No Heart"
If the jury had much to ponder, so did the public. The tabloids were filled with colorful analyses of the characters of the defendants. The Mirror hired a well-known phrenologist (one who studies the conformation of the skull based on the belief that it is indicative of mental faculties and character) to study photos of Ruth Snyder. His conclusion: Her mouth was "as cold, hard, and unsympathetic as a crack in a dried lemon." Natacha Rambova, a reporter best known as Rudolph Valentino's widow, wrote, "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."
In one hour and 40 minutes, the jury decided to accept Gray's version: He had struck the first blow with the sash weight, Albert Snyder had groaned and turned, and Ruth Snyder had finished him off with blows of her own, after which they together applied the strangling wire and added chloroform-soaked cotton for good measure. Both were found guilty and sentenced to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison.
Appeals were filed. One sought a stay of execution on the grounds that Ruth Snyder was a necessary witness in a civil suit to force three insurance companies to pay the benefits of Albert Snyder's life insurance to his daughter Lorraine. Another appeal sought a writ of habeas corpus (release from unlawful confinement) for Gray on the grounds that his constitutional rights had been violated by the joint trial rather than a trial of his own. Both appeals were dismissed.
Ruth Snyder went to the electric chair at 11:00 p.m. January 12, 1928. She was the eighth woman put to death for murder in New York State. As the power surged through her body, a Daily News photographer in the reporters' pool crossed his legs, thus triggering a forbidden concealed camera to take an unprecedented picture. When Judd Gray was executed six minutes later, no one took a snapshot.
—Bernard Ryan, Jr.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Jones, Ann. "She Had to Die." American Heritage, (October/November 1980): 20-31.
Sann, Paul. The Lawless Decade. New York: Crown Publishers, 1957.
Sifakis, Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York: Facts On File, 1982.