Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Last Stop


On August 28, 1949, one of the most traumatic and disturbing events in American history occurred on the barren, frozen plains of Siberia in Central Asia. At 8:15 a.m. that morning, the Soviet Union detonated a nuclear bomb, a development that had Americans everywhere trembling with confusion, apprehension and fear. "The resulting hysteria found Americans digging basement bomb shelters and teaching school children how to duck under classroom desks," writes Edward K. Knappman (p. 452). It is difficult to fully grasp today the paranoid atmosphere in the United States during this post-war period. It permeated every level of society, affected government policy and dictated its budgetary decisions. The sensational Alger Hiss case, in which a government employee was convicted of participating in a spy ring, which passed secret information to the Russian Communists, added to the belief that weapons of mass destruction had been given to the enemies of America. In the Spring of 1950, Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) began his rabid anti-Communist crusade and became part of the frenzied mosaic in which everything even remotely associated with Communism was viewed with suspicion and hostility. Against this backdrop of widespread paranoia and an unstable future, the notorious espionage case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg played out its hand.

Ethel (Greenglass) Rosenberg (AP)
Ethel (Greenglass) Rosenberg
Ethel Greenglass was born on September 28, 1915 in New York City. Her family was in the sewing machine business but was not wealthy by any standard. Ethel had an interest in music and especially singing. It was thought that she would become a professional singer when she was young but it was not to be. Ethel chronically suffered from various ailments throughout her life. "I have had a spinal curvature since I was about thirteen and every once in a while that has given me some trouble, and at that time it began to kick up again, and occasionally I have to get into bed and nurse a severe backache. Through the bargain, I developed a case of low blood pressure, and that used to give me dizzy spells, sometimes to the point where I almost fainted," she said at a later time (from the testimony of Ethel Rosenberg). After graduating high school, Ethel immediately went to work for a shipping company in Manhattan. There she became active in the labor movement and was soon fired for her union activities. Around this time, Ethel joined the American Communist Party.

Julius Rosenberg (AP)
Julius Rosenberg (AP)
That same year, 1939, she met Julius Rosenberg, a college student working towards an electrical engineering degree in City College, and a fellow Communist. Although they had attended the same high school in lower Manhattan, Ethel and Julius didn't know each other. They were married later that year. Both Ethel and Julius had a passionate interest in politics. During his college years, Julius was active in many political groups including Communism. He met another student named Martin Sobell at one of these group meetings and they quickly became friends. By 1941, Julius was working as a civilian for the United States Army Signal Corps. He was eventually promoted to a supervisory position where he remained until 1945 when the U.S. government discovered he was a member of the Communist Party.

In 1950, the Alger Hiss case made national headlines and emphasized the growing danger of spies in sensitive government positions. Hiss was a senior State Department official who was arrested and tried for the crime of espionage. Although he was acquitted of those charges, he was later convicted of perjury and received a prison sentence of 5 years. During the Hiss case, another suspect, named Klaus Fuchs was arrested for passing classified information to the Soviets. Shortly afterwards, in a famous press conference that shocked America out of its post-war euphoria, U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) announced he had evidence of widespread espionage activities. Waving a piece of paper in his hand which he said contained "all the men in the State Department who were active members of the Communist party and members of a spy ring", McCarthy started America down a path of fear and recrimination that is still remembered and reviled fifty years later (Johnson, p. 834). He shouted, "I have here in my hand a list of 205, a list of names which were made known to the Secretary of State" (Johnson, p. 834). It was high drama in an age when television was still in its infancy and few understood its persuasive power. Although he never offered proof and McCarthy never released the names of these alleged spies, his startling accusations increased the anti-Communist tensions in the public's mind.

Through Fuchs, the F.B.I. developed another suspect who was a U.S. soldier apparently stationed at Los Alamos, America's nuclear research lab, who was working for the Soviet Communists. Investigators soon discovered that this soldier had already sold atom bomb secrets to foreign agents. In June of 1950, the F.B.I. arrested David Greenglass, Ethel's brother, who admitted he was the soldier who gave the classified information to the Communists.

During interviews, Greenglass then implicated his brother-in-law Julius as part of the conspiracy. He told the F.B.I. the activities had been going on for years and on many occasions, Ethel was present when conversations between Julius and himself took place. That was enough for the F.B.I. On the night of July 17, 1950, F.B. I. agents arrested Julius Rosenberg at his home in front of his two sons. But Julius refused to cooperate and instead hired an attorney, Emmanuel Bloch, to represent him in the case. Meanwhile, Martin Sobell was found in Mexico City where he was surrounded by a group of angry revolutionaries who kidnapped him at gunpoint. He was quickly taken to the Texas border and turned over to federal agents. The F.B.I. kept the pressure on by arresting Ethel on August 11, 1950 after she testified at the Grand Jury in New York City. Agents relied completely on the statements of David Greenglass alone and used the arrest of Ethel as a wedge to extract more information from Julius. But Julius never wavered and the government was forced to take the case to trial.

In the Spring of 1951, the trial opened in U.S. Federal Court in lower Manhattan. The prosecutor was U.S. Attorney Irving Saypol, the same attorney who prosecuted the Alger Hiss case. Saypol was a dedicated prosecutor and knew the twisting connections between the Hiss case and the Rosenbergs. In his opening statement, Saybol set the tone of what was to come. He told the jurors the Rosenbergs and their associates, like Martin Sobell and David Greenglass, committed "the most serious crime which can be committed against the people of the country."

A parade of witnesses followed, all who gave endless details of late night meetings, secret codes and letters between Communist agents and the Rosenbergs. The court was told that atom bomb secrets, stolen from the most secure facility in America, Los Alamos, were passed to foreign spies by Julius and Ethel. Her own brother, David Greenglass, said that his sister was a devoted Communist who preferred Russian society to capitalism and once said that Russia deserved to get the information to build their own nuclear bomb.

Ethel, her health deteriorating under the tremendous pressure, languished in jail awaiting her court appearance. Ethel decided to testify, as did Julius, but her testimony did not help her. She took the 5th Amendment privilege several times and gave the impression she was hiding something. When asked if she knew why Julius was fired from his job with the U.S. Army, she replied: "Oh, you mean the time that the Government dismissed him? Well, it was alleged that he was a member of the Communist Party."

"And he was dismissed for that reason? " asked Bloch.

"I refuse to answer on the ground that this might be incriminating," Ethel said.

During further testimony, she was pressed as to why she invoked the 5th Amendment so many times. She tried to explain: "He (her attorney) advised me as to my rights, but he also advised me it was entirely up to me to decide, on the basis of what the question was, whether or not I thought any answer might incriminate me, and so I used that right." Although her right to 5th Amendment protection wasn't challenged, she was continually badgered as to why she needed protection. "I can't recall right now what my reasons were at that time for using that right. I said before and I say again, if I used that right, then I must have had some reason or other. I cannot recall right now what that reason might or might not have been..." she pleaded.

On March 29, 1951, all defendants were found guilty. Since the jury made no recommendation for mercy, Federal Judge Irving R. Kaufmann later sentenced Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to death for their crimes. Martin Sobell, 34, received thirty years for his role in the espionage conspiracy. Since federal law required any execution to be performed within the laws of the state in which the sentence was imposed, the executions were scheduled to take place at Sing Sing. But the sentences generated a public outcry across the country and the world. The death penalty for Ethel seemed particularly cruel since there seemed to be little hard evidence against her. But the testimony of her brother, David Greenglass, cut into her heart. "I once loved my brother, but I'd be pretty unnatural if I hadn't changed," she said (Time, p. 10, June 29, 1953). Lincoln.

For the next two years, a ferocious battle to save Julius and Ethel was fought on many fronts. Seven times the case made its way to the floor of the Supreme Court of the United States. The most dramatic of these came on June 17, 1953 when Justice William Douglas granted a stay of execution without the consent of the other members. Two days later, in an historic session during which all the justices were recalled from their vacations, the Court vacated the stay. Ethel's lawyers made a last ditch personal appeal to President Eisenhower. Just hours before the scheduled execution, he had this to say: "When democracy's enemies have been judged guilty of a crime as horrible as that of which the Rosenbergs were convicted, when in their most solemn judgment the tribunals of the United States have adjudged them guilty and the sentence just, I will not intervene in this matter" (Eisenhower, p. 115). Three other appeals submitted to U.S. Federal Judge Kaufmann were also turned down. Time had run out for Ethel.

On the night of June 19, 1953, as many as 10,000 people gathered at Union Square in lower Manhattan to protest the impending execution of Ethel Rosenberg. Thousands of telegrams and letters of support poured in from around the world. Clergymen, heads of state, scientists, politicians, college professors and many others sent letters begging mercy for Ethel's life. In Washington, D.C., Bloch rallied the crowds against the U.S. government: "I am convinced I am dealing with animals... Insanity, irrationality, barbarism and murder seem to be part of the feeling of those who rule us" (U.S. News and World Reports, June 26, 1953).

At about 8:00 p.m., at Sing Sing, Julius Rosenberg was led into the death chamber, its white walls harsh and glaring. His mustache had been shaved off and he wore only a 'T" shirt, baggy pants and cloth slippers. A rabbi read words from a sacred psalm as Julius almost staggered into the chair. As a mask was pulled over his face, he sat rigid in his seat. Three shocks of 2,000 volts were applied to Julius, causing his body to pound against the leather restraining straps. He was dead in the next few minutes.

Ethel entered the chamber wearing a green print dress with white polka dots. She also wore cloth slippers. Witnesses saw that the top of her head had been shaved to ensure for better electrical contact with the metal electrodes. As she was placed in the chair, she lightly kissed one of the matrons who bravely fought back the tears. Ethel was stoic, her composure solid and defiant. She closed her eyes when the leather mask was pulled over her face. Several shocks were applied to her frail body and minutes later, at 8:16 p.m., she was declared dead. When Ethel Rosenberg, 37, the little Jewish girl from Manhattan who dreamed of being a singer in temple, was carried out of the garish death chamber at Sing Sing that night, she became a part of a long and ignominious history. No female had been executed by the United States government since Mrs. Mary E. Surratt was hanged in 1865 for her role in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln.

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