Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Bloody Blonde and the Marble Woman: Gender and Power in the Case of Ruth Snyder

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Bloody Blonde and the Marble Woman: Gender and Power in the Case of Ruth Snyder

Article excerpt

In the wee hours of March 20, 1927, Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, brutally murdered her husband, Albert Snyder, while her nine-year old daughter slept across the hall. The pair bludgeoned Albert with a sash weight, strangled him with picture wire, stuffed chloroform-soaked cloth in his nose, and then set about ransacking the house to make it look like a burglary. As a finishing touch, Judd tied up Ruth and left her in the hallway where she would claim she had been attacked by two "giant ltalians." (1) The cover-up was sloppy, however, and police suspected Ruth from the beginning. She confessed quickly, then recanted and laid the blame on Judd, who, when captured, admitted his role entirely, but accused Ruth of being the mastermind. The case immediately made front page news across the country--quiet, unsuspecting Albert, art editor at Motorboat magazine, had been slain in his own bed in a peaceful, New York City suburb, by his own wife and her lover, a corset salesman--the story was a gold mine for the press. Within a month, the trial was underway and the public watched breathlessly as it raced from start to finish in just three weeks.

Over the protests of both defense attorneys, New York prosecuted Ruth and Judd together, forcing each to take the stand and viciously testify against the other. Thirty-two at the time of the murder, Ruth was accused of growing bored with Albert, fourteen years her senior, and attempting to kill him on several previous occasions. She had also tricked Albert into signing a double indemnity insurance policy on his own life shortly before the murder. The all-male jury debated only an hour and forty minutes before finding both Ruth and Judd guilty. All summer and fall, the reading public followed the pair as they appealed the verdict, lost, then desperately pleaded their case before Governor Al Smith. When he denied their appeal for clemency, Ruth and Judd died minutes apart in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison on January 12, 1928.

The Snyder-Gray case was extraordinarily well known, generating frenzied reporting in both the "legitimate" and tabloid press, and spawning popular literature, volumes of political rhetoric, and reams of government and court documents (often printed word for word in the papers). The normally reserved New York Times published a daily transcript of the trial and kept the story on page one, above the fold, for months on end. Fifteen hundred people packed the courtroom every day of the trial, while up to 2,000 people mobbed the streets outside; counterfeit tickets sold for $50 a piece; souvenir vendors hawked sash weight stick pins for ten cents; and stunt photographers vied for the best shots, one snapping what may have been the first aerial photo when he hired a plane to swoop down on Ruth from above. (2)

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The case was riveting drama, making Ruth and Judd overnight celebrities. The filmmaker D.W. Griffith sat through the trial, as did songwriter Irving Berlin, the producers of the then-in-process musical adaption of the Broadway hit play Chicago (about women murderers in prison), and authors such as James Cain (who based the classic film Double Indemnity on the case). (4) As Ruth's motorcade made its way from the county jail to Sing Sing, people hung from roofs and leapt from streetcars to get a better look and two city aldermen even joined the parade of cars, "accompanied by their wives and children, who seemed to enjoy the outing." (5) From the time of the murder in March 1927 through Ruth and Judd's electrocution in January 1928, the news coverage dwarfed nearly every other event--including Lindbergh's celebrated cross-Atlantic flight and the controversial execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.

An apt contemporary comparison would be the O.J. Simpson trial with its near-total saturation of the media, the elevation of bit players (including reporters) to celebrity status, and the almost universal struggle to find meaning in the case. …

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