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.

A glamorous Ruth, around the time she married Albert Snyder

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.

Albert Snyder, Ruth’s husband

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 Gray, Ruth’s paramour

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.

The Snyder’s home in Queens

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, around the time she and Judd murdered 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.

Murder victim, Albert Snyder

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.

Judd Gray

 

See Part II for the conclusion!

Continued from Part I

The next morning, Ruth managed to awaken her daughter, who had slept through everything and told her to go next door for help. When the police arrived, they quickly realized the scene was staged. First, they found some of Ruth’s “stolen” jewelry hidden under a mattress.

Lorraine Snyder

Then, they interviewed little Lorraine, who told them, “Mama and Papa quarreled lots.” When they pressed her, she told them that her mother frequently stayed away all night.  The police were very suspicious and one of them managed to find Ruth’s diary, where she wrote openly about her affair with Judd Gray and her contempt for Albert, who had never gotten over his dead fiancée. Another officer found a small pin with the initials JG inscribed on it. This tiny article sealed it, in the detective’s opinions.

They said nothing right away, but easily tracked down Judd Gray, and brought him in for questioning. Judd folded immediately under pressure and told the police that Ruth had gotten him to help her murder her husband. The light blue shirt in his hotel room was identified as one belonging to Albert Snyder.

Ruth was arrested and shown the diary and the pin, and told of Judd’s confession. Upon hearing Gray had confessed, Ruth turned on him. They would be tried together for the murder of Albert Snyder. In an ironic twist, the pin with the JG initials was later found to belong not to Mrs. Snyder’s lover, but to Mr. Snyder’s former fiancée, Jessie Guishard.

Mugshots of the lovestruck and murderous duo

The trial began April 11, and lasted three weeks. Ruth Snyder said Gray instigated and carried out the murder over her protests. Gray’s attorney said that his client tried to back out at the last moment, but Mrs. Snyder pulled him into the bedroom and commanded at him to strike. When Judd was about to be overpowered, “she finished the job herself.”

The jury didn’t believe either of the defendants. They deliberated for 71 minutes and returned with a guilty verdict for first-degree murder against Gray and Snyder. They would be sentenced later in the week.

Ruth being led into court

Throughout the trial, Mrs. Snyder was described as steely and cold. But the morning after the guilty verdict, Ruth had the first of many of what the newspapers called “collapses”. The doctors called it hysterical epilepsy, and noted that, if repeated often, would no doubt result in insanity. In his cell, Judd Gray breakfasted calmly.

The two were sentenced on Friday, May 13, 1927 by Justice Townsend Scudder. Though the Justice Scudder was outspoken against capital punishment, the law was the law. He told Ruth and Judd they would die in the electric chair in Sing Sing. Neither defendant displayed any emotion. They would be transferred to the prison Monday.

Washington, D.C.’s Evening Star described the famous couple in their respective cells that night. “[Judd Gray] sees himself as ‘one of the best examples of what whisky, lust, and sin will ultimately lead one into.’ He is described as resigned to his doom. Mrs. Snyder, the Queens Village housewife, sees herself a victim of injustice and is prepared to fight against the death sentence.”

Sing Sing (picture from deathhousebarber.com)

At Sing Sing, Judd’s intake papers noted he had a wife, Isabel, and a child. He was a high school graduate and an Episcopalian, who regularly attended church, and had no criminal record. He smoked and drank, but did not use drugs. His criminal acts, they wrote, were attributed to intemperance and women. Judd had $8.50 in his pocket, which was confiscated. He signed the form in his belabored handwriting: H. Judd Gray.

Judd’s signature

Ruth was a Catholic housewife, who occasionally attended mass. She had an 8thgrade education, and described herself as a moderate drinker. She did not use tobacco or drugs. She had no criminal record. Mrs. Snyder’s purse, which contained $15.24 was confiscated, too. She added her large, airy signature to the wrong field.

Ruth’s signature

Due to the appeals, Ruth and Judd were inmates at Sing Sing for eight months. On November 25, Ruth Snyder sent her mother and daughter a cheery telegram. “Feeling fine,” she wrote. “Have nothing to worry about.” Perhaps she thought the governor would stay her execution.

Ruth, with her mother, Josephine Brown, and daughter, Lorraine

On January 12, 1928, Mrs. Snyder was half-led, half-pulled into the death chamber. There was a gasp from the reporters. The cold, steely blonde they remembered from the trial was nowhere to be seen. In her place was a haggard, frightened woman who had aged 25 years in a matter of months. The prisoner was marched to the electric chair and strapped in. Just before the mask was placed over her face, Ruth Snyder cried out, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do!”

The case and trial were sensational and the room was crowded with reporters who were there to witness the execution. Photographs were strictly forbidden but photographer Tom Howard managed to sneak in a customized camera, by strapping it to his ankle. At the moment the electric current began, Tom snapped his picture. The next morning his blurry photo appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News.

The ghastly picture of Ruth’s execution

There is a horror about the photograph Tom Howard took. It’s the only photograph ever taken of an electric chair execution. Edison videotaped the electrocution of Leon Czolgosz, President McKinley’s assassin, but it lacks the nightmarish quality of this photo.

Ruth was pronounced dead at 11:09 a.m., and her body was removed. Seconds later, Judd Gray was brought in. The reporters remembered his “jaunty walk” from the trial and noted that he seemed calm. He had told the Warden that morning that his wife had written a letter to him, forgiving him, and he was “ready to go.” His lips moved in a silent prayer but no words could be discerned. He was pronounced dead at 11:15 a.m.

Judd Gray was pronounced dead six minutes after Ruth.

It fell to the record keeper at Sing Sing to take the last official action of the case. He pulled the files for Snyder and Gray and wrote, “Discharged by execution, January 12, 1928.”

I highly recommend True Crime Historian’s episode about the casewhich includes a performance with a full cast of actors. Very unique and entertaining!