Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Last Stop


Throughout the day and night, she paced the eight by eight cell, one hand wrapped around the other. The sweat rolled off her palms. Her feet and mind went over the same ground again and again. "If only I hadn't done this, or if only I was more careful," she thought, torturing herself with what could have been. Several times, she collapsed upon her creaking bed, exhausted, her nerves shattered, nodding off for a few seconds here, a few minutes there, until she abruptly jumped to her feet once again, convinced it was a nightmare, some distant dream of horror whose origins surely must be in hell. She may have gazed out of her window, a 12" by 12" concrete opening framed by thick, steel bars, to stare at the rolling waves of the Hudson, watch sailboats drifting down the river or linger over a solitary fishing boat anchored off shore to catch the morning run of striped bass. Too soon, there was a rude tapping on her cell door.

The metal gate swung open and ice ran through her veins when she saw them. Into the cramped cell, four large, serious looking men entered and went about their business in a cold, deliberate manner. "Good evening Ruth," one of them said without emotion. They shaved the back of her head, arms and upper legs. They groped, probed and examined her young body as if she were a piece of meat. She stared at her trembling hands and it was all she could do not to urinate on herself. Her heart was pounding so loud, she was convinced that it could easily be heard by anyone standing near her. "I am ready to die," she said, "oh, my poor baby, Lorraine!"

From some faraway place, she heard the solemn prayers of Father George Murphy in the hallway, his voice bouncing off the cold, metal walls. "Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me..." the priest said. Within a few moments, she began the brief journey through the steel corridors toward the death chamber. "The Last Mile" they called it, but actually only 200 feet long. The young, stern guards offered their muscled arms for support as she dragged herself down the hallway to the barren room where she would die. She sat in the chair as the matrons fumbled with the straps. They placed a strange leather helmet on her head and then secured her firmly to the rough, wooden frame. Tears poured down her face but oddly, she didn't imagine herself crying. She wore no underwear, just a brown, formless gown, at least two sizes too big, carelessly thrown over her body by the prison staff the night before. She stared out into the spectator gallery and saw the frightened faces of a familiar few. Suddenly, a lever was pulled outside the chamber that sent over 2,000 volts of electricity into her body, courtesy of Thomas Edison's ingenuity decades before. And then, there was darkness.

After a short pause, a second jolt was sent coursing through the woman's lifeless body, causing it to violently stiffen for a moment and then become flaccid. Within 30 seconds, she was dead, a smoking mass of flesh and bone that could not be moved until it cooled down. Electrocution raises the temperature of the body to around 150 degrees, too hot to touch. A doctor stepped forward from the dozens of spectators, listened briefly through a stethoscope and said "she's gone." The executioner, Robert G. Elliott, grandfather of three, who recorded in his own diary details of the almost 400 executions he administered, prepared for his next victim. A few yards away and out of sight, a broken and terrified man, Henry Judd Gray, waited his turn to die. Ruth's body was hoisted onto an autopsy table a few feet away and wheeled into a room where a post mortem could start immediately. And so ended the brief and tumultuous life of Ruth Snyder, 33, wife, mother and girlfriend, convicted of murdering her husband in 1927.

An aerial view of Sing Sing prison in 1928 (CORBIS)
An aerial view of Sing Sing prison in 1928
Six hundred and fourteen eventually died in that same room. This was Sing Sing prison, situated on the banks of the majestic Hudson River, just 30 miles north of New York City. It was one of the most prolific and feared death chambers in America, and not without cause. The state that executed the most prisoners during this era was not Texas, nor Georgia, as is commonly believed. New York performed the majority of executions in America up to 1950 and as such, was the epicenter of the death penalty in the Western world. And, up until 1972, when the Furman v. Georgia decision brought a temporary halt to executions nationwide, Sing Sing prison was responsible for nearly a third of all the women executed in the United States.

This is their story.


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