Stat Counter

View My Stats

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Lady In The Chair

While researching for a lecture I am soon to give to lawyers on the subject of why our clients get caught and convicted despite our best efforts to defend them, I ran across this photograph.

The lady reclining in the un-easy chair is Ruth Snyder. She and the photograph were famous in their time. Both the photo and the lady inspired separate motion pictures. 

One night in 1927, police in Queens, NY, were called to a house where they found a woman who was unconscious and a man who had been garroted by a picture wire. The woman, Ruth Snyder, said she had been awakened by noises, had gotten out of bed and been surprised by a giant of a man who knocked her out. When she awoke hours later, her husband Albert was dead. Police found that some furniture was overturned and jewelry was missing. 

But there were problems with the story from the beginning. First, no signs of forced entry. Second, their 9 year old daughter had slept through it all, hearing no noises. Ruth’s nervousness in the face of serious questioning raised suspicions. 

Then a detective found a note with the letters J.G. on it. Ruth seemed very upset by the note’s presence, and under questioning, revealed the name of her lover, Judd Grey, who she presumed was the J.G. (In fact, the note was one belonging to her husband, and the J.G. referred to Jessie Guishard, his lost love.) Soon, they found the jewelry, hidden in Ruth's bed.

It didn’t take police very long to expose the truth. 

Ruth had been married to Albert Snyder for 10 years. He had turned to Ruth after the death of his soulmate, a woman named Jessie Guishard. All during their marriage, Albert grieved for his lost true love, keeping her portrait in a prominent place.  

Understandably, Ruth resented her husband’s frequent reminder that Jessie G had been “the finest woman I have ever met. . . .” She steamed and began to imagine her husband dead. Over time, she concocted several schemes to make her dream come true, but never carried any too far beyond the planning stage.  

Then one day, a knock on her door was the sound of fate. It was a corset salesman, Judd Grey. Grey was also unhappily wed, and shared Ruth’s dream of a different, better life. He knew an insurance salesman whose ethics were also flexible. 

Ruth persuaded Arthur to buy a life insurance policy. Ruth, Albert, and the agent secretly added a rider: it would pay double if the insured died violently. 

(If it sounds familiar: James M. Cain remembered the case and adapted it to his novel (1943) and Billy Wilder made the movie the next year. "Double Indemnity" (1944)  

Judd Grey was found in upstate New York where a friend gave him a temporary alibi, which soon crumbled under threat of perjury prosecution. Grey eventually confessed.

This shabby, common, little domestic tragedy might have passed with little notice but for the circumstance that it occurred in the biggest city with the most voracious news machines in history needing to be fed every day. . . .

It was the golden age of yellow journalism. Many newspapers and magazines competed for sensational headlines about celebrities, crime, scandal. If it bled, it led. If they didn’t have all the facts, they made them up. In other words, just like today.

As now, pop culture bloomed in the 1920's, and criminals and their trials were events then as now, some contrived for publication. The public got to know all the names: Al Capone and other Prohibition era gangsters, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scopes "monkey trial," all competing with Lindbergh's flight, Babe Ruth's swats, and Fatty Arbuckle's rape trial for space in the tabloids and 'zines.

The difference between then and now, perhaps, was that the “journalists” for those Jazz Age rags were young, well educated, very sophisticated, hip, cool, and very talented writers who were learning their craft while making a living. Eventually, they all turned to legit fiction: short stories, plays, novels, movies: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Haywood Broun, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyan. 

The case was also noted by famous personalities of the day: the evangelist,Aimee Semple McPherson who herself had been the subject of Lewis's novel, "Elmer Gantry," which was published that year; the cynical observer, H. L. Mencken; the novelist, Theodore Dreiser, who had written "An American Tragedy".  

During the trial both Ruth and Judd continued their poor strategic choices: each blaming the other for the crime. As defense lawyers could have predicted, both were convicted and sentenced to die.

In January, 1928, Ruth’s execution at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, NY, was the first of a woman since 1899. Tom Howard, an enterprising newspaperman from the Chicago Tribune who had been lent to The NY Daily News, snapped the photo from a miniature plate camera strapped to his ankle seconds after the first jolt of electricity shook her body. (Howard is the great-grandfather of Jason Sudekis, per Wikipedia.) 

Also of trivial note: Robert G. Elliott was the executioner, known as the “state electrician,” a job he held for almost 400 executions between 1926 and 1939 in New York and neighboring states. He also presided over the last moments of Sacco and Vanzetti and Bruno Richard Hauptmann. He claimed to oppose capital punishment and proudly proclaimed that his skill saved his subjects from excessive pain. 

Warner Brothers took the story of the execution and used it in a picture starring James Cagney called "Picture Snatcher" (1933). Hecht and MacArthur incorporated the gimmick into their play, "The Front Page." 

No comments:

Post a Comment