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May 25, 2024

The Incredible Story Behind the First Photograph of an Electric Chair Execution in 1928

Press cameras were forbidden from the prison execution chamber in Ossining, New York, where Ruth Snyder was to be electrocuted on January 12, 1928, for the murder of her husband. Editors at the New York Daily News believed it their duty to have both a journalist and photographer cover this event. Since all witnesses to the execution would be searched and frisked upon entry to the chamber, the newspaper planned their coverage well in advance.

One month before Ruth Snyder’s execution, editors in New York enlisted the help of Chicago Tribune photographer Thomas Howard to prepare for their news coverage. Howard, who would not be recognized by New York prison officials, was brought to New York a month before the execution. He stayed in a hotel practicing making exposures with this modified miniature plate camera. He strapped the camera to his ankle with a long cable release run up his trouser leg into his pants pocket. He lifted the pant leg to take a photograph.

Thomas Howard’s photograph of the execution of Ruth Snyder in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison has been called “the most famous tabloid photo of the decade.” The photograph is the first known image of a execution at Sing Sing and the first photograph of an execution by the electric chair.

The full-frame image of the execution captured by Tom Howard.

May Ruth Brown met Albert Edward Snyder in 1915 in New York City, when she was 20 years old and he was a 33-year-old artist. The couple had little in common; Brown, who went by her middle name Ruth to most people and was known as “Tommy” to close friends, was described as vivacious and gregarious, while Snyder was described as very reserved and a “homebody.” Despite their differences in personalities and age, the couple married and settled in a modest house in Queens. In 1918, Ruth gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Lorraine. Albert Snyder worked as an art editor for Motor Boating magazine, published for most of its run by Hearst Magazines, and made $100 per week.

In 1925, Ruth began an affair with Henry Judd Gray, a married corset salesman who lived in the New Jersey suburbs. She began to plan the murder of her husband Albert, enlisting Gray’s help, but he was reluctant. Some claim that Ruth’s distaste for her husband apparently began when he insisted on hanging a picture of his late fiancĂ©e Jessie Guischard on the wall of their first home and named his boat after her. Guischard, whom Albert described to Ruth as “the finest woman I have ever met,” had been dead for 10 years. However, others have noted that Albert Snyder was emotionally and physically abusive, blaming Ruth for the birth of a daughter rather than a son, demanding a perfectly maintained home, and physically assaulting both her and their daughter Lorraine when his demands were not met.

Ruth first persuaded Albert to purchase insurance, and with the assistance of an insurance agent (who was subsequently fired and sent to prison for forgery), “signed” a $48,000 life insurance policy that paid extra if an unexpected act of violence killed the victim. According to Gray, Ruth had made at least seven attempts to kill Albert, all of which he survived. On March 20, 1927, the couple garrotted Albert with a picture wire, stuffed his nose full of chloroform-soaked rags, and beat him with a sash weight, then staged his death as part of a burglary. Detectives at the scene noted that the burglar left little evidence of breaking into the house. Moreover, Ruth’s behavior was inconsistent with her story of a terrorized wife witnessing her husband being killed.

Police discovered that the property Ruth had claimed had been stolen was still in the house, but hidden. A breakthrough came when a detective found a paper with the letters J.G. on it (it was a memento Albert had kept from former lover Guischard) and asked Ruth about it. Flustered, Ruth’s mind immediately turned to Gray, whose initials were also J.G., and she asked the detective what Gray had to do with the murder. It was the first time Gray had been mentioned, and the police instantly became suspicious. Gray was found in Syracuse, New York. He claimed he had been there all night, but it was found out that a friend of his had set up Gray’s room at a hotel to support his alibi. Gray proved far more forthcoming than Ruth about his actions. He was caught, returned to Queens, and charged along with Ruth.

Ruth and Gray turned on each other, contending the other was responsible for killing Albert; both were convicted and sentenced to death.

Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray.

Snyder (center) behind bars.

Snyder in court.

Ruth was imprisoned at Sing Sing in Ossining, New York. On January 12, 1928, she became the first woman to be executed at Sing Sing since Martha Place in 1899 and the third woman to be executed by the State of New York. She went to the electric chair 10 minutes before Judd Gray, her former lover. Her execution was surreptitiously photographed at the moment electricity was running through her body with the aid of a miniature plate camera strapped to the ankle of Tom Howard, a Chicago Tribune photographer working in cooperation with the Tribune-owned Daily News.

The camera was rushed to the city and the film developed overnight. Editors and writers marveled at what was to be one of the most shocking photographs ever made: Snyder in the chair, the legs of the prison guard to the right. The image, shot on an angle, was cropped and published immediately with the headline: “DEAD!”

The January 13, 1928, front page of the New York Daily News’ extra edition.

Both Snyder and Gray were electrocuted by New York State Electrician Robert G. Elliott, Snyder being the first woman he executed. In his autobiography, Elliott recalled that Ruth Snyder almost fainted when she saw the electric chair and that she had to be seated with the help of the matrons who had taken care of her while on death row. About the published photo of Snyder’s execution, Elliott remarked that if such photos were routinely printed in newspapers they either could have served as a deterrent against crime or have persuaded the public that capital punishment had to be abolished.

The black and white image was shocking to the U.S. and international public alike. There sat a 32-year-old wife and mother, killed for killing. Her blurred figured seemed to evoke her struggle, as one can imagine her last, strained breaths. Never before had the press been able to attain such a startling image—one not made in a faraway war, one not taken of the aftermath of a crime scene, but one capturing the very moment between life and death here at home.

Tom Howard’s photo of Ruth Snyder’s execution, on January 12, 1928, was published the following day on the front page of the New York Daily News.

Tom Howard received a $100 bonus for taking the photo. For decades after, anyone attending an execution had to lift their pant legs for camera checks.

His camera was later owned by inventor Miller Reese Hutchison and later became part of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Tom Howard’s ankle camera. The Daily News donated it to the Smithsonian in 1963

Tom Howard (seated) shows how he strapped a camera to his ankle to secretly photograph Snyder’s execution.

Tom Howard shows camera strapped to his leg. This was how he so famously captured the image of Ruth Snyder’s death in the electric chair in Sing Sing prison.

To this day, photographers are not allowed into executions. Many newspapers and online news sources still publish the frame before and after death, but rarely, if ever do we see the moment of death. Ruth Snyder’s last words, borrowed from the Crucifixion: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”


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