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The Story Behind the First Photograph of an Electric Chair Execution in 1928

The photograph of Ruth Snyder's execution in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison on January 12, 1928, remains one of the most infamous images in the history of American criminal justice. This photograph is not just a snapshot of a grim moment; it tells a profound story about crime, punishment, media sensationalism, and societal attitudes in early 20th-century America.

The victim, Albert Snyder

The Crime and Trial

Ruth Snyder's descent into infamy began with an extramarital affair and a murder plot. Married to Albert Snyder, an art editor for a trade magazine, Ruth was reportedly unhappy in her marriage. In 1925, she started an affair with Henry Judd Gray, a married corset salesman. Together, they concocted a plan to kill Albert Snyder and claim his life insurance, which Ruth had fraudulently increased and included a double indemnity clause for accidental death.

Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray.

It is suggested that Ruth's aversion to Albert originated when he insisted on displaying a portrait of his deceased fiancée, Jessie Guischard, in their first home and naming his boat in her honour. Albert, who referred to Guischard as "the finest woman I have ever met," had preserved her memory for a decade. Nonetheless, other accounts indicate that Albert Snyder subjected Ruth to severe emotional and physical abuse, berating her for bearing a daughter instead of a son, imposing stringent domestic expectations, and resorting to violence against both Ruth and their daughter, Lorraine, when his demands were unmet

On March 20, 1927, the couple garrotted Albert with a picture wire, stuffed his nose full of chloroform-soaked rags, and beat him with a sash weight, then staged his death as part of a burglary. Detectives at the scene noted that the burglar left little evidence of breaking into the house. Moreover, Ruth’s behaviour was inconsistent with her story of a terrorised wife witnessing her husband being killed.

Upon closer inspection Police discovered that the supposedly stolen property Ruth had reported was, in fact, hidden within the house. A significant breakthrough occurred when a detective came across a piece of paper marked with the initials J.G., a keepsake Albert had retained from his former lover, Guischard. When questioned about it, Ruth became flustered and immediately thought of Henry Judd Gray, whose initials also matched J.G. She inadvertently implicated Gray by asking the detective what he had to do with the murder, marking the first time his name had surfaced in the investigation.

Snyder behind bars

This raised immediate suspicion, leading the police to locate Gray in Syracuse, New York. Though Gray initially claimed to have been there all night, it was later revealed that a friend had arranged his hotel room to fabricate an alibi. Unlike Ruth, Gray was more forthcoming about their actions. He was apprehended, brought back to Queens, and charged alongside Ruth.

The Execution

Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray were sentenced to death. Their executions were set for the night of January 12, 1928, at Sing Sing Prison. The method of execution was electrocution, a relatively new and controversial form of capital punishment at the time. Ruth became the first woman to meet this fate at Sing Sing since Martha Place in 1899, and marking her as the third woman ever executed by the State of New York. She faced the electric chair ten minutes prior to her former lover, Judd Gray.

Tom Howard’s cropped photo of Ruth Snyder’s execution, on January 12, 1928, was published the following day

The Photograph

The story behind the photograph involves stealth, determination, and the burgeoning power of the media. Tom Howard, a photographer for the Chicago Tribune, was assigned the task of capturing the moment of Snyder's execution. Cameras were strictly prohibited in the execution chamber, and the authorities took great care to ensure that the process remained private.

Howard, however, devised a plan to outwit the prison's security. He fashioned a miniature camera and strapped it to his ankle, concealing a shutter release mechanism in his jacket. As Ruth Snyder was strapped into the electric chair and the switch was thrown, Howard discreetly triggered the camera, capturing the exact moment of her death.

The following day, the New York Daily News published the photograph on its front page under the headline "DEAD!" The image sparked a nationwide uproar, provoking discussions about the ethics of capital punishment, the role of the media in sensationalising crime, and the public's appetite for graphic content.

Snyder and Gray were both executed by New York State Electrician Robert G. Elliott, with Snyder being the first woman he executed. In his autobiography, Elliott recounted that Ruth Snyder nearly fainted at the sight of the electric chair and had to be assisted by the matrons who had cared for her during her time on death row. Elliott commented on the infamous photograph of Snyder’s execution, suggesting that if such images were regularly published in newspapers, they might either deter crime or prompt the public to reconsider the use of capital punishment.

Tom Howard’s ankle camera. The Daily News donated it to the Smithsonian in 1963

Tom Howard received a $100 bonus for taking the photo. For decades after, anyone attending an execution had to lift their pant legs for camera checks.

His camera was later owned by inventor Miller Reese Hutchison and later became part of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Tom Howard (seated) shows how he strapped a camera to his ankle to secretly photograph Snyder’s execution.

The photograph of Ruth Snyder's execution became a symbol of the intersection between crime, media, and justice. It demonstrated the lengths to which the press would go to capture a sensational story and the public's intense curiosity about the macabre details of executions. The image also forced society to confront the brutal reality of the death penalty, providing a stark visual counterpoint to the often-abstract debates surrounding capital punishment.



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