The main gate of Sing Sing prison, some 30 miles north of New York City, was hardly a place for congregating. But at 11 p.m. on the night of January 12, 1928, hundreds of onlookers milled about below the guard towers. There was little for them to see; the night’s grim proceedings would take place deep inside the correctional facility’s grounds. But people came anyway, some from as far as Chicago. Cars clogged the streets. Women arrived with their children. Men—the vengeful and the aggrieved—hurled curses.
In four minutes, “Ruthless Ruth” Snyder, a woman who’d murdered her husband for insurance money, would die in the electric chair.
Henry Judd Gray, Snyder’s lover and accomplice, met his end that night, too. “Old Sparky,” in use since 1891, didn’t take long to do its work. By 11:14, both prisoners had been pronounced dead.
Soon after, the engine of a Ford sedan coughed to life as the car swung south toward Manhattan. Crouched down in the back was a photographer named Tom Howard. And inside his camera—snuck into Sing Sing in defiance of the prison’s ban on photographs in the execution chamber—was the one of the most disturbing pictures ever shown to the public.
It was 94 years ago this week that the New York Daily News published the photograph in question—a ghastly image with a headline to match: “DEAD!” As New Yorkers shuffled past newsstands on the morning of January 13, hundreds of thousands stopped in incredulous horror. The tabloid’s front page showed Snyder strapped to the electric chair, a black hood over her head as 2,000 volts coursed through her body.
Howard’s snapshot was the first photograph of an execution by the electric chair. Never before had a newspaper published such a graphic image of the killing machine in action. At the time, prisons banned cameras during executions as a matter of propriety.
“Snyder’s electrocution photo remains one of the most horrific pieces of photojournalism—an image that leaves the viewer feeling that they shouldn’t be seeing this,” says Marco Conelli, a retired detective with the New York Police Department and a recognized expert in the Snyder case. “Its enduring shock factor comes from that moment where, visible to the eye, life is leaving her body.”
Little wonder, then, that the image sparked debate both upon its publication and in the decades since. As critics and proponents alike asked, does the public’s right to know include a right to view? Where should news organizations draw the line between journalism and opportunism?
One point is beyond dispute. The elaborate scheme required to take the picture remains one of newspaper reporting’s biggest coups. It was, in the typically hyperbolic words of the Daily News itself, “the most talked-of feat in [the] history of journalism.”
Howard’s shocking photo wouldn’t have existed without the shocking crime that preceded it. Snyder was the wife of Albert Snyder, an art director whose love of alcohol had long since supplanted his affection for her. In the summer of 1925, Snyder met corset salesman Gray at a Fifth Avenue lunch counter; the pair was soon fogging up the windows of a room at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
Two years later, the couple decided to run away together. Funding the escape fell to Snyder, who took out life insurance policies on Albert worth $45,000 (about $770,000 today). Snyder added a double indemnity clause that doubled the payout in the event of “death by misadventure,” a legal term that originated in the United Kingdom and signifies some form of death outside of natural causes, including suicide, accident or homicide.
Misadventure duly ensued. After smashing Albert’s head with a window sash weight on the morning of March 20, 1927, Gray covered his rival’s face with a chloroform-soaked rag, then strangled him with picture frame wire.
Snyder attempted to stage the homicide as a robbery, but authorities were unimpressed. It didn’t help her case that she was discovered with her feet tied up but not her hands. What’s more, the purported burglar had failed to steal Albert’s gold pocket watch and its platinum chain.
According to Landis MacKellar’s The “Double Indemnity” Murder: Ruth Snyder, Judd Gray, and New York’s Crime of the Century, Deputy Inspector Arthur Carey told Snyder the scene didn’t look like a robbery. “What do you mean? How could you tell?” she asked. In response, he said, “We see lots of burglaries. They are not done this way.” Though Snyder and Gray initially maintained their innocence, they eventually confessed, each placing much of the blame on the other. The state charged the lovers with first-degree murder, securing a conviction in a highly publicized trial that ended in May 1927 with death sentences for both.
Coverage of the trial itself was hardly the apogee of journalism. Reporters crammed into the courtroom alongside a surprising number of celebrities (little wonder that the murder would later become the template for Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity). And while the newspapers—which devoted more ink to the Snyder case than Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic—pledged impartiality, reporters had it in for Snyder from the start.
Apart from critiquing her clothes, her voice and her face (“She is not bad looking,” wrote journalist Damon Runyon. “I have seen much worse”), the press cast Snyder as an archetype of the overly liberated 1920s woman. Her life, said the Ossining Citizen Sentinel, was “full of mystery, booze, illicit love [and] jazz.” The Daily Mirror referred to Snyder as “a shallow-brained pleasure-seeker, accustomed to unlimited self-indulgence, which at last ends in an orgy of murderous passion and lust.”
The Daily News was not above this fray. With a circulation north of one million, the newspaper nourished its readers on a steady diet of love triangles, tragic accidents and homicides. But the Daily News didn’t just write about these events—it showed them. Publisher Joseph Medill Patterson positioned his tabloid as “New York’s Picture Newspaper.” Realizing the Snyder execution was sure to be the story of the year, Patterson knew he had to get a photographer into Sing Sing.
Two obstacles stood in Patterson’s way. Since adopting electrocution as its method of capital punishment in 1888, New York State had banned cameras in the execution chamber. To complicate matters, the guards recognized every newspaper photographer in town. The only way to pull off this caper was to recruit an out-of-towner willing to sneak a camera inside.
The Daily News found both in Howard, a seasoned shutterbug with the Chicago Tribune, a paper run by Patterson’s cousin Robert R. McCormick. Howard had literally just one shot. Since low-light film hadn’t been invented yet and a flash was out of the question, Howard’s only option was to expose a single frame of film long enough to capture the image. The resourceful photographer ran a connecting cable up inside his trouser leg that allowed him to trigger the camera’s shutter by squeezing on a bulb in his pocket. Howard—ensconced in a Manhattan hotel room—practiced lifting his trouser cuff, opening his shutter for a few seconds, then quietly easing it shut.
Warden Lewis Lawes received more than 1,500 applications for the 20 reporter seats at Snyder’s execution. Securing one of these coveted spots, Howard elbowed his way into the front row, his camera hidden under his clothing.
Just after 11 p.m. on January 12, 1928, executioner Robert G. Elliott threw a switch that sent electricity coursing through Snyder’s body. The condemned writhed beneath the straps as the current crackled for a full two minutes—long enough for her hair to start smoldering. The witnesses turned pale. Even Elliott felt a wave of revulsion. “I am not heartless,” he later told Collier’s magazine. “This was a grisly business.”
In the front row, Howard hitched up his trouser cuff, squeezed the shutter bulb for six seconds and relaxed his grip. Minutes later, he was racing toward Manhattan in the Ford’s back seat.
Tabloids had run photographs of dead bodies before, but few as gruesome as this. The Daily News defended its exploit on journalistic grounds. The Snyder photo, the paper’s editors wrote, “throws light on the vividness of reporting when done by camera instead of pencil and typewriter.”
But others shuddered at the sight of the photograph—even Elliott. “It was, indeed, a horrible picture,” the executioner wrote in his memoir. For their part, prison officials were enraged that Howard had thumbed his nose at state law. Commissioner of Correction Raymond F.C. Kieb asked the attorney general to prosecute both Howard and the Daily News, but the lawsuit failed to pan out. “The man who took that picture,” Kieb said, “… violated not only a trust placed in him by the prison officials, but he violated the trust of the people.”
As longtime Daily News reporter John Chapman would later recall of the photo’s aftermath, “To many it was a great journalistic feat; to many others … it was a reprehensible breach of civilized taste.”
And indeed, the larger issue was moral rectitude. This was no workaday snapshot of a dead gangster. It depicted death at the hands of the state—the death of a woman, no less. The tabloid’s editors “knew that visualizing this would be voyeuristic and culturally sensational, because killing women has different cultural connotations than killing men,” says Shannon Thomas Perich, a curator in the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
For all its sensationalism, the photo inadvertently served a civic purpose by confronting the public with the reality of the electric chair: “what it means, what it looks like, and the kind of cruelty and pain that it induces,” Perich adds.
The photo also raised uncomfortable questions about the role the public played in its creation. Cringe as they might, New Yorkers also bought half a million copies of the extra edition that carried the image—above the paper’s usual daily circulation.
Susie Linfield, a social and cultural theorist at New York University, points out that the Snyder photo confronted the New Yorkers of 1928 with ethical complexities similar to the ones posed by graphic images published online today. “There is a kind of ethics of seeing,” Linfield says. “Each person has to really think about what they’re looking at and why.”
The Snyder image is but a Google search away—and so is Howard’s camera. The Daily News donated it to the Smithsonian in 1963. Now, it’s housed in the American History Museum’s collections—a fitting home, says author and former Daily News crime reporter David J. Krajicek.
“The photo defined jazz journalism, which is why the ankle camera and its story deserve a spot in the Smithsonian,” Krajicek says. “Patterson may have made a high-collar case that the public deserved to see the moment of death by electrocution to grasp the barbarity of capital punishment. But on another level, he knew the sneak [photo] would shock. Mission accomplished, even a century later.”