Snyder, Ruth (1893–1928)

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Snyder, Ruth (1893–1928)

American murderer. Born Ruth Brown in New York in 1893; executed on January 12, 1928, in New York's Sing Sing Prison; daughter of Josephine Brown; educated through the eighth grade; married Albert Snyder (an art editor for Motor Boating magazine), in 1915 (murdered in 1927); children: Lorraine Snyder (b. 1918).

On the night of January 12, 1928, Ruth Snyder, a Long Island housewife, was electrocuted at New York's Sing Sing prison for the murder of her husband Albert Snyder. Following her to the death chamber was (Henry) Judd Gray, her lover and accomplice. The executions were the climax of one of the most sensational murder cases of the 1920s, made more so by the intense media war between New York's tabloid newspapers. The battle for exclusivity went down to the wire and reached new heights in poor taste. So eager was the New York Daily News to scoop the Mirror one last time that they smuggled a reporter into the execution with an unauthorized camera tied to his ankle. The picture he snapped of Snyder strapped in the electric chair, as the lethal current surged through her body, appeared the next day on the front page of the Daily News, under the one-word headline, "Dead!" The illicit photograph is still considered the most remarkable, albeit repulsive, exclusive in the history of criminal photojournalism.

Snyder's background hardly portended the way in which she would die. Born Ruth Brown in Manhattan in 1893, the daughter of working-class Scandinavians, she left school after the eighth grade and went to work at the telephone company while taking a business course in the evenings. Hoping more for an early marriage than a successful career, she took a secretarial job with Motor Boating magazine, where she met Albert Snyder, a handsome art editor 13 years her senior who became the first man she seriously dated. She married him after a few short months. The couple began life together in Brooklyn, where their daughter Lorraine Snyder was born in 1918. Then, with Albert's promotions and salary increases, they moved to a larger apartment in the Bronx, and finally to an eight-room house on Long Island. Outwardly, Snyder enjoyed all the trappings of a successful marriage, but the union was troubled at the core. While Snyder was gregarious and fun-loving, her husband was gloomy and ill-tempered. She adored children and would have liked more; he had not wanted children in the first place and resented the fact that his only child was a girl. Albert also frequently compared Snyder to his first and more "serious" fiancée, who had died before they could marry. According to Ruth's mother Josephine Brown , the marriage was so unhappy that she had advised her daughter to seek a divorce.

Snyder ignored her mother's suggestion and opted for adultery. Her lover Judd Gray, a corset

and brassiere salesman, was a married man with a daughter who also had several other mistresses around the country. The couple conducted their secret affair for 18 months before the murder, frequently trysting at the Waldorf while tiny Lorraine spent the afternoon riding up and down the elevators. Although it was never determined just who initiated the murder plot, the deed was carried out in the early morning hours of March 20, 1927, after Snyder and her husband had returned from a party. (The motive was said to be several insurance policies worth close to $100,000 which Snyder had taken out on her husband without his knowledge.) While Albert slept, Judd Gray, fortified by a bottle of liquor, entered the bedroom and attempted to kill Albert by striking him on the head with a five-pound sash weight. The first blow, however, only awakened Albert, who began fighting back. Unable to continue, Gray called out, "Help me, Momsie," and Snyder entered the room and finished the job, crushing her husband's skull. The pair then chloroformed and strangled Albert with picture wire before she called the police. When the authorities arrived, Snyder said she had been burglarized at the hands of a swarthy intruder who struck her on the head and left her bound and gagged. Under intense interrogation, however, she broke down and confessed, saying that it was all Gray's idea. Gray, who was later arrested at a hotel in Syracuse, also confessed, blaming everything on Snyder.

Legions of reporters were assigned to the case, generating hundreds of thousands of words and almost as many photographs. Every sordid detail of the affair was recounted. In the sexist climate of the times, Snyder was particularly vilified by the press, who dubbed her the "fiend wife," the "faithless wife," the "marble woman," and "Ruthless Ruth, the Viking Ice Matron of Queens' Village." The slightly more conservative New York Post deemed her a "hard-faced woman," no doubt "oversexed," and most certainly out for "power and authority." The Mirror went so far as to hire Dr. Edgar Beall, a well-known phrenologist, to study photographs of Snyder and prepare an analysis. Beall, after examining Snyder's image feature by feature, determined that her face revealed "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." Other celebrity reporters hopped on the pseudoscientific bandwagon; Natacha Rambova drew her conclusions after observing 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." In a highly acclaimed article, playwright Willard Mack declared, "If Ruth Snyder is a woman, then by God you must find some other name for my mother, wife or sister."

By contrast, Judd Gray was portrayed as a "model citizen," a "regular fellow" in the clutches of an "evil temptress." "All facts now adduced point to a love-mad man completely in the sway of the woman whose will was steel," wrote the Herald Tribune. "She dominated him, police said, and forced her will upon him, even when he desired to back out on some of her proposals." In the courtroom, Gray's lawyer reiterated the domination theory. "That woman," he told the jury and the hordes of eager reporters, "like a poisonous snake, drew Judd Gray into her glistening coils, and there was no escape." With Snyder cast as a source of evil, "as Eve in league with Satan," writes Ann Jones , her attorney had difficulty making her case. As one Post reporter described it: "He was a knight fighting a battle of terrific odds for a golden damsel disguised as a blonde, fattish and ice-hard housewife." Blocked by the judge from saying much on the stand, Snyder later wrote her story for the Mirror while awaiting execution on death row; it was "an erratic jumble of painful remembering, rage, religious platitudes, and grief," notes Jones. In it, Snyder claimed that as her affair with Gray proceeded, he began to blackmail her, threatening to tell her husband if she broke it off. Fearing that she might lose her daughter in a showdown, she did what he told her. She said the insurance policies and the murder were all his idea and that she tried to talk him out of it. On the night of the murder, she had set out a bottle of bootleg whiskey as he demanded, but instead of taking it and leaving the house, he stayed and was hiding when she and Albert returned from their party. After Albert went to sleep, she tried to convince Gray to leave, but he went upstairs and, while she was in the bathroom, committed the murder.

In the end, the jury found both Snyder and Gray guilty of murder, and at a sentencing on May 9, 1927, both were condemned to death in the electric chair. Snyder's hysterical reaction to the sentencing was reported by the Mirror as "the immemorial device of her sex to wring pity from male hearts," while Gray was praised as finding "enough of traditional manhood in him to take his medicine without whining." The press and the public also eagerly supported Snyder's execution, even though a woman had not been put to death in the electric chair in New York since Martha Place became the first in March 1899. When Governor Al Smith denied her application for clemency, The New York Times applauded the decision 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."

In her last interview for the Mirror, Snyder said that if she could live over again, she would opt for a "straight life." "I wish a lot of women who may be sinning could come here and see what I have done for myself through sinning," she ran on, "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."


Jones, Ann. "She Had to Die!," in American Heritage. October–November 1980.

Nash, Jay Robert. Look For The Woman. NY: M. Evans, 1981.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts