Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Profession of Executioner: Robert G. Elliott

Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray

Electric chair at Sing Sing
Electric chair at Sing Sing
 

There are several reasons for Elliott to single out the 1928 Snyder-Gray case as memorable in his career. As already mentioned, it was a sensational, lurid case. It was also the first woman that he was required to execute. In fact, Ruth Snyder was the first woman to die in Sing Sings electric chair since 1899. The Snyder-Gray case was sensational enough that it inspired James M. Cain to write his memorable novel Double Indemnity. An attractive blonde, goading her spineless lover into assisting her in murdering her dull, rich husband, was the juiciest of tabloid stories. After the conviction and sentencing of the pair, the newspapers covered their days in the Death House, relishing every detail.

Ruth Snyder
Ruth Snyder
As for Elliott, stories were published that he was horrified by the thought of electrocuting a woman, and that he intended to appeal to the governor to commute their death sentence to life imprisonment. Elliott, the dedicated servant of the state, was neither horrified nor sympathetic to the condemned. Unlike the Sacco-Vanzetti case, in which Elliott had surprisingly received no death threats, he received a large number of letters threatening him with retaliation if he executed Ruth Snyder. Evidently, Grays fate did not arouse such passions. The sensational nature of the case, and the fact that the two lovers were to be executed together, brought forth over 1,500 applications to Warden Lawes of Sing Sing for permission to witness the electrocutions. The Death Room at Sing Sing could hold only 20 witnesses.

Warden Lawes, Sing Sing
Warden Lawes, Sing Sing
At a minute after 11 p.m. on January 12, 1928, Ruth Snyder was led into the death chamber. When she saw the electric chair, she broke down, and had to be assisted by prison matrons into the chair. Jesus, have mercy on me, for I have sinned, she sobbed. She prayed, and as the mask went over her face, she said, Jesus, have mercy. Elliott threw the switch, and two minutes later, she was pronounced dead.

Henry Judd Gray
Henry Judd Gray
Judd Gray was next, and went quietly to his death.

Ruth Snyder execution, front page
Ruth Snyder execution, front page

In addition to the lurid elements of the case, what has persisted in the memory of those who recall it is the photograph that appeared in a New York tabloid the next day. At the very moment that the current ran through Ruth Snyder, a photographer, with a camera strapped to his leg, photographed her. It is a dramatic, horrifying photograph, and has become famous over the years. Its impact was so great that for all future executions at Sing Sing, witnesses were searched before being allowed into the Death Chamber.

Shortly after the executions, a newspaper reported that Elliott was haunted by what he had done, that the specter of Ruth Snyder bedeviled him. It was reported that Elliott required sedation to sleep, and that he was paralyzed with guilt. That, of course, was pure invention. Elliott does report that he was affected by the necessity of electrocuting a woman, but he was not the type of man to lose sleep over having done his job.

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