This is a 2-part post about a very famous case. This is a little outside the time period Old Spirituals usually covers, but it’s a fascinating story that has a little star power: 15 years after the case ended, the wonderful actress Barbara Stanwyck starred in a film called Double Indemnity, which is based loosely on the case.
When she met Albert Snyder in 1915, Ruth Brown was the life of the party. She was a vivacious 20-year-old with a blonde bob, and Albert was a quiet 33-year-old artist. They had little in common, but they soon married and people assumed they were happy. Albert found work at a magazine and their only child, Lorraine, was born in 1918.
In reality, they were not happy and never had been. “I don’t know what possessed me to marry him,” Ruth said later. “His interests were not mine.”
One interest Ruth definitely did not share was Albert’s preoccupation with his former fiancée, Jessie Guishard. Not long before she and Albert were to be married, Jessie became sick and died. Albert was brokenhearted and never got over her.
He married Ruth years later, and apparently thought his new wife would understand that he still loved Jessie. He hung her picture on the wall of their home and named his boat Jessie. In attempting to explain this to his wife, he unwisely told her that Jessie was “the finest woman he ever met.” Ruth was outraged and the picture disappeared from the wall. Shortly afterwards, Albert’s boat was renamed Ruth.
By the time they had been married 10 years, the relationship between Ruth and Albert had noticeably decayed.She still loved to go to parties and have flirtations. She was dissatisfied with Albert Snyder, she didn’t appreciate his artisitic ability or his quiet wit. He seemed elderly; he was deaf in one ear and preferred wearing old clothes and tinkering with his car or boat.
In 1925, Ruth met Henry Judd Gray. Judd was a traveling corset salesman, and had a wife and a daughter who was the same age as Lorraine. It was not her first affair; nor was it his, and on the surface, there seemed to be little to attract them to each other. But “she got control over me,” Judd said.
Judd’s job made it easy for him to sneak around. Ruth had no reason to be away at night, but she often managed to do so. Soon after they began their affair, Ruth confided in Judd that she’d tried to kill her husband a few times, but he was surprisingly hardy. Once she slipped some rat poison in his food, which gave him what he called indigestion.
Outwardly, the Snyders appeared to be doing well in 1927. They owned a nice home in Queens and Albert was the art director for a motor boating magazine. He gave his wife $85 of the $115 he earned each week, to pay the family’s expenses, and to save. ($85 in 1927 is roughly equivalent to $1,225 in 2019.) But 32-year-old Ruth saved little. She had a penchant for fur coats, amongst other things.
She was insistent that Albert needed to buy life insurance – a lot of life insurance. Albert thought it was a waste, but in response to his wife’s repeated demands, he purchased a small policy for $1,000. It was not enough for Ruth. Without Albert’s knowledge, she took out a $48,000 policy on his life, with a double indemnity clause. That meant, if Albert happened to be violently murdered, that amount would be doubled. $96,000 is worth about $1.4 million dollars today. When the premium came due, she was forced to tell Albert what she had done, and he paid the premium.
Apart from paying the premium, it’s unclear how else Albert reacted. Maybe he threatened to let the policy lapse. That would be one explanation for why Ruth informed Judd the time had come to murder Albert.
Ruth told Gray she would go out with Albert and their daughter Lorraine Saturday night to a card party at the home of some friends. She would see that Albert drank a lot. Judd was to come into the house while they were out and lie in wait. When they came home, Albert would fall asleep quickly. Then Judd would strike and kill him, Ruth announced. He would tie her up and then go through the house ransacking it to make it look like a burglary.
Judd didn’t want to do it, but the insurance money was persuasive and Ruth was insistent – and even threatened to expose his cheating to his wife. Accordingly, the Snyders went out for the evening on Saturday, March 19, 1927, and returned home late. As Ruth predicted, Albert went into their bedroom and immediately went to sleep. Ruth put Lorraine to bed, then she went to the guest room, where Judd was waiting.
Albert was fairly drunk, she told him. She’d also managed to sneak some kind of anesthetic into his drink, The Bridgeport Telegram later revealed. It was going to be easy, Ruth assured him.
Led on by Mrs. Snyder, Judd Gray entered the bedroom and looked at Albert Snyder, who was fast asleep. Ruth handed Judd a heavy iron sashweight and told him to strike. Thanks to the drinking and his partial deafness, these slight noises didn’t awaken Albert.
Judd struck, but the first blow did not kill Albert. Instead, he awoke and grabbed Judd by the tie, fighting him. At 45, Albert was 11 years older than his assailant who also had the advantage of taking him by surprise while he was sleeping. And yet, Judd sensed Albert was about to beat him. He cried out, and Ruth grabbed the sashweight and struck her husband again, killing him.
Judd felt numb and Ruth commanded him to change into one of Albert’s shirts, pointing out that his own shirt was bloody. She said she would burn Judd’s shirt. According to the plan, they tied up Snyder and then Judd tied Ruth up and went through the house, smashing glasses and pulling out drawers, making it look as though it had been ransacked. He finished his work and before the sun came up, he crept away.