Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Last Stop

Femme Fatale

In 1915, Ruth Brown, 20, was employed as a secretary for Motor Boating magazine in Manhattan. Throughout her teen years, Ruth had visions of marrying money. More than anything, she wanted a wealthy businessman for a husband so she could retire to a big mansion in Long Island and bond with the idle rich. Since the only thing Ruth had going for her was her fine looks, she played up to men whenever she could. Ruth was a curvy, good-looking blonde with blue eyes and tough demeanor. Years later, after her death, she became the model for the "femme fatale" character in James M. Cain's novel Double Indemnity.

Ruth Snyder (CORBIS)
Ruth Snyder (CORBIS)
Eager to make her dreams happen, Ruth courted and eventually married the editor of Motor Boating magazine, Albert Snyder, in 1915. Although they soon had a daughter, Lorraine, in 1918, the couple did not get along well. Albert still carried a torch for an old girlfriend who passed away and Ruth carried a torch for another kind of life. She loved traveling in the fast lane. She liked dancing; drinking and listening to the latest music that was sweeping the country, jazz. Albert was the opposite of Ruth, stoic, formal, reserved, while she was outgoing, gregarious and friendly. Often, Albert would simply stay at home taking care of Lorraine while Ruth updated her image and did the night scene in the bars of Manhattan. This arrangement continued until the summer of 1925 when she met a susceptible corset salesman named Henry Judd Gray.

Ruth and Judd Gray, 33, became a familiar sight in the local dance joints around town. But soon Ruth complained to Judd that her husband was cramping her style and she might be better off without him. Besides, she told Judd, Albert had lots of insurance. During 1926, Ruth made several attempts on Albert's life at their home in Queens Village, according to Judd's testimony at a later trial. But by March 20, 1927, Ruth had enough.

That night, she and Albert went to a party in Manhattan and returned to their home in the early morning hours. At about 7 a.m., Lorraine awakened and found her mother tied up on the floor and her father unconscious in his bed. The little girl ran to a neighbor, who later summoned the police. Albert was dead, his head smashed in by an unknown object. His hands were tied together and so were his feet. There was a length of wire wrapped tightly around his neck. When the neighbors tried to untie Ruth, she insisted on remaining tied up until the police responded. Ruth then told the police that soon after she and Albert arrived home, an "Italian looking man" entered the house and bashed her over the head, knocking her out. When she woke up much later, it was all she could do to make it over to Lorraine's room and call out for help. She also told the police that her jewelry was missing. But Lorraine blurted out to the police that "Uncle Judd" was in the house the night before. When a search was made through the home, police discovered a bloody metal sash in the closet. Her jewels, which she reported stolen, were also found hidden in the mattress.

She was questioned throughout the day into the night. Then one of the detectives mentioned her boyfriend.

 "What about Judd Gray?" he said.

"Has he confessed?" Ruth asked. It was the beginning of the end. Soon she blurted out the whole plot. Albert was killed for the insurance money that totaled over $100,000, an enormous sum in 1927. But Ruth denied any hand in the actual murder. She said that Judd Gray killed him while she waited in the other room.

Cops soon located Gray hiding out in a flophouse in upstate Syracuse, New York. At first he denied any involvement. "It is ridiculous," he said. But when he heard that Ruth blamed him for the murder, he caved in. He promptly confessed and said Ruth seduced him with her charms and egged him on to murder. He also said that she was the one who actually strangled Albert with the wire while he only held him down on the bed.

In New York City, the local newspapers, The Daily News, The Tribune, The Daily Mirror and others soon published graphic accounts of the Ruth-Gray murder plot along with plenty of photos to tell the whole sexy story. The public was fascinated with the secretary who married the boss, became a frustrated wife, who turned into a fun-loving party girl, who met a corset salesman from New Jersey who she seduced and convinced to murder her husband for cash. The lovers had secret codes for each other and big plans to spend the insurance money afterwards. Ruth frequently met Judd at the Waldorf where they rented a room for afternoon sex while her daughter Lorraine played in the lobby or on the hotel's elevator. It was all too much for the public and they ate up every morsel. The trial, held during the spring of 1927, was a media sensation. Every day brought new revelations of the frantic life and love of a real "femme fatale" who would stop at nothing to get what she wanted, including murder. Hollywood celebrities and many politicians appeared daily at her trial. Hundreds of photos were taken of Ruth and published in the New York tabloids that competed viciously with each other for every scrap of information.

On May 9, 1927, Ruth Brown-Snyder and Henry Judd Gray were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Over 1,500 people applied to witness her execution. At Sing Sing, executioner Robert G. Elliot, a distinguished looking gentleman who had been on the job for only a year, was upset. He had never executed a female before, but he realized the significance of the event. A few days before, he told the press, "It will be something new for me to throw the switch on a woman, and I don't like the job" (Mustain). He went to Warden Lewis E. Lawes and demanded more money for the extra stress involved. His request was turned down. Ironically, both Elliot and Lawes were against the death penalty and spoke out against it many times during their careers. Of the Snyder execution, Elliot said, "I hope this thing ends capital punishment in New York State" (Dolan).

For months, Snyder's lawyers appealed the verdict and fought as best they could to save their client from the death house. The press continued to report daily on her fate and still the public clamored for more. Ruth received 164 marriage proposals from her fans while she sat on Death Row. Her attorney, Edgar F. Hazelton, told reporters: "She cries continuously and bitterly in the last minute cell. She has made her peace with God and is reconciled to her fate" (Dolan). On January 12, 1928, Ruth Snyder became the first woman to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in the 20th century. Just before she died, Ruth whispered these words: "Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do!" Not ten minutes later, Judd Gray met death in the same chair. Elliot described Gray in his journal in these words: "He walked to the chair unassisted and made no statement. He had taken to reading the Bible and seemed anxious to have the ordeal ended." Elliot also remarked on the tension surrounding the execution of Snyder and Gray. "This was a very exciting night, second only to the Sacco Vanzetti night ...," he wrote under the H.J. Gray entry.

Witnesses after last respects paid to Ruth Snyder
Witnesses after last respects paid to
Ruth Snyder
In the crowd of spectators, a young reporter from New York City's Daily News was one of the official witnesses. At the moment the electric current was dispatched into Ruth's body, he reached down and pressed the button on a camera that he had strapped to his leg hours before. The resulting photograph of Ruth strapped firmly into the chair with a mask over her head, which appeared full page on the next day's New York Daily News, became one of the most famous in the annals of photojournalism.