The person on the chair was one Ruth Snyder, a woman convicted of killing her husband for insurance money. It was the sensational story followed by a tragic verdict–Ruth Snyder would become the first woman to be electrocuted since 1899. [Her adulterous partner Gray met the same fate]. “Ruthless Ruth,” the press called her; her story would become a Hollywood blockbuster with ‘Double Indemnity’. However, it was “the most famous tabloid photo of the decade” (as TIME-Life put it) that immortalized Ruth Snyder.
Photographers are not permitted into executions in the United States. For the notorious Ruth Snyder case, the New York Daily News was desperate to get pictures; so they hired a Chicago Tribune photographer Tom Howard–virtually unknown to the prison warders or journalists in the New York area. On that fateful day (12 January 1928), Howard, posing as a writer, arrived early in Sing Sing Prison and took up a vantage position. A miniature camera was strapped to his left ankle, the shutter release button was concealed within his jacket. As Snyder’s body shook from the jolt, Howard hoisted his pant leg and secretly snapped with a one-use camera.
That day’s Daily News’ cover simply said, ‘DEAD!’ with the final blurry image above, which instantly become one of the most indelible images of the 20th century. Howard gained overnight popularity. He received a princely sum and went on to become the head of photography for the White House. The state attempted to prosecute Howard and the newspaper, but nothing ever came of it. For many years afterwards witnesses to executions were searched and asked to hold up their hands so they could not operate hidden cameras. But the damage has already been done. The photo has become a rally cry for the opponents of the death penalty.