“Actual Photo of Ruth’s Execution”

New York Daily News, January 13, p. 1 (Pink Edition, Final Edition, Final Edition)


Ruth Brown Snyder
Henry Judd Gray

STATE AVENGES ALBERT SNYDER’S DEATH! – Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray last night walked to a sitting death in the tall, yellow chair in which justice exacts payment from those found guilty of first degree murder. The state squared accounts for the strangling and bludgeoning to death of the woman’s husband, Albert Snyder, by taking two lives made glamourous by illicit love and murder. The late corset salesman, resigned to his fate, waited calmly for the end, while the woman he had called “Momsie” moaned and twitched when told that her last hope had been lost.
New York Daily News, January 13, p. 1 (Final Edition)

New York Daily News, January 13, p. 1 (Extra Edition)

This is perhaps the most remarkable exclusive picture in the history of criminology. It shows the actual scene in the Sing Sing death house as the lethal current surged through Ruth Snyder’s body at 11:06 last night. Her helmeted head is stiffened in death, her face masked and an electrode strapped to her bare right leg. The autopsy table on which her body was removed is beside her. Judd Gray, mumbling a prayer, followed her down the narrow corridor at 11:14. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing?” were Ruth’s last words. The picture is the first Sing Sing execution picture and the first of a woman’s electrocution.
New York Daily News, January 13, p. 1 (Extra Edition)

New York Daily News, January 13, p. 3 (Extra Edition)

Actual Photo of Ruth’s Execution
Just a second after the picture on Page 1 was taken. Ruth, her body stiffened by the powerful current, is shown as she met death in the electric chair at Sing Sing at 11:06 last night. On the extreme right is the Rev. John P. McCaffery, prison chaplain. The feet of a matron and of a prison attendant show in right center. Note the table, on the right of the death chair, on which Ruth’s body was wheeled to the autopsy room after the execution.
New York Daily News, January 13, p. 3 (Extra Edition)

Thomas Howard (1894-1961), Ruth Snyder in “Chair”, January 12, 1928 (2011.22.1) (actual size)

The actual photo of Ruth’s execution by electrocution is surprisingly small. The image is 1 3/8 by 2 1/8 inches (3.5 x 5.4 cm). The actual photo above is mounted to board that is 1 5/8 by 2 1/8 inches (4.1 x 5.4 cm). The diminutive size is because it’s a contact print from a negative made in a camera that was strapped to the photographer’s lower leg. The “modified miniature plate camera,” made by the Leica company, is one of the 1.8 million objects in The National Museum of American History, in Washington, DC.

Cameras were not allowed in the Sing Sing execution chamber. Thomas Howard (1894-1961), photographer for the Chicago Tribune, was recruited by the Daily News to photograph Ruth’s death. Howard practiced for a month in his New York hotel room. (si.edu.) On the night of the execution he was not recognized by the Sing Sing prison officials and he used the credentials of a journalist to enter the death chamber. He made the photo by lifting a pant leg and pressing the shutter release cable, that ran up his leg and into the pocket of his pants, of the camera strapped to his ankle. It “was the only picture ever taken of the electrocution of a woman in New York, or elsewhere in the country.” (The New York Times, October 9, 1961.)

There were a number of editions of the Daily News on Friday, January 13, 1928 that did not feature Tom Howard’s photo. Apparently the Extra Edition sold out very quickly. The Extra Edition featured a much less cropped version of the photo on page 3. (The caption: “Just a second after the picture on Page 1 was taken.” suggests that two photos were made.) In a grand guignol victory lap the News published the photo again on Saturday, January 14th, without the giant “DEAD!” headline.

New York Daily News, January 14, p. 1 (Final Edition)

CROWDS Follow Ruth and Judd to GRAVE

WHEN RUTH PAID HER DEBT TO THE STATE! The only unofficial photo ever taken within the death chamber, this most remarkable, exclusive picture shows closeup of Ruth Synder in death chair at Sing Sing as lethal current surged through her body at 11:06 Thursday night. Its first publication in yesterday’s EXTRA edition of THE NEWS was the most talked-of feat in history of journalism. Ruth’s body is seen straightened within its confining gyves, her helmeted head, face masked, hands clutching, and electrode strapped to her right leg with stocking down. Autopsy table on which body was removed is beside chair.
New York Daily News, January 14, p. 1 (Final Edition)

The lovers Ruth Snyder (1895-1928) and Henry Judd Gray (1892-1928), corset salesman, murdered Ruth’s husband, forty-four year old Albert Snyder (1883-1927), an art editor for Motor Boating magazine, on March 20, 1927. He was beaten with a “sash weight,” killed for the more-than $95,000 insurance policy on his life, in Queens Village, New York. ($95,000 had the same buying power in March 1927 as $1,412,413.87 in November 2019.)

Their last meal, chosen by Judd, was “chicken broth, roast chicken, mashed potatoes, celery, stuffed olives, and ice cream. Judd also asked for cigars and ‘good coffee.'” (New York Daily News, January 13, 1928, p.6.) Judd complained about the quality of coffee in Sing Sing a number of times. Ruth wore a dark green gingham dress and washed her blonde hair shortly before entering the death chamber.

When Ruth was killed by the executioner there were “twenty-four official witnesses” and fifteen uniformed guards in the execution chamber. Outside the prison there were over 400 people, “curiosity seekers,” men, women, and children, and a few flappers, who turned the late-night execution into a “gala occasion,” and into a frenzy, filled with “ribald shouts.” (New York Evening Post, January 13, 1928, p.2.)

The Post featured drawings, not photos, portraits of Ruth and Judd in their coverage of the execution, on Friday, January 13th. Robert Elliott, resident of Queens, was the executioner. Although he was an experienced executioner, killing a woman gave him “an attack of ‘nerves’ so severe that it demanded the presence of his personal physician.” (New York Evening Post, January 13, 1928, p.1.) The Post wrote that electrocution is a gruesome thing.

Sing Sing’s warden for over twenty years (1920-1941), Lewis E. Lawes (1883-1947), who supervised the deaths of over 300 people, was against the death penalty. Lawes didn’t watch executions. He was in the death chamber, looking at the floor, when Ruth was killed. Lawes, on the morning after the late-night execution, slept late, with his bags packed, before a vacation in Palm Beach, was quoted in the New York Evening Post, January 13, 1928:

“Of course, now that I can speak freely I want to express again my disapproval of capital punishment in general.”

“Electrocution is the most merciful way to inflict death, but after years of study here in this prison I believe the death penalty should be abolished.”

Thomas Howard (1894-1961), Ruth Snyder in “Chair”, January 12, 1928 (2011.22.1)

This entry was posted in Fans in a Flashbulb and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “Actual Photo of Ruth’s Execution”

  1. Nice report…Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s