An Execution at Sing Sing


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. 





15 thoughts on “An Execution at Sing Sing

  1. the photographer was whisked away to Cuba as soon as the picture was taken to avoid prosecution, according to the author of the excellent book “the Poisoner’s Handbook” amazing that i should find this picture online.

    • My father, Jimmy The Shiv DeStefano gave Ruth Snyder her final hair cut. My interest goes beyond him being the barber. How do you know Howard was sent to Cuba to avoid legal battles? Please tell me

      • Howard eventually became the head of photography at the White House. He was not “whisked away to Cuba.”

    • You dumb-as-a-brick conservatives need to do your homework. The death penalty does not deter, mere retribution is not a sufficient justification, and not everyone who is executed is guilty.

  2. Probably the most disingenious murderers ever. You should never fuck up like that in a capital punishment country if you want to live..but I do hope that the US will get rid of the death penalty and join the ranks of civilized nations.

  3. Robert Greene Elliott was the New York State executioner at the time of the Snyder trial. He was standing on the courthouse steps when Snyder passed him and looked him right in the face. Of course she did not know who he was. In his book Agent of Death, Elliott states that Snyder was agitated as she entered the chamber. Snyder said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” She settled down, he said and sat down in the chair. The straps were attached and the electrodes applied to her head and right leg. A black covering was placed over her head. This is done to keep the witnesses from possibly seeing the eye balls from coming out or watching the horrible contortions of her face. Its been a long time since I read Elliott’s memoir, but I think he said he hit Snyder with two thousand volts initially. This no doubt rendered her unconscious. The second administration of current was at12amps. It s this current that cooks all the organs and results in the death of the victim. This is all Ruth needed. Two doctors placed they’re stethoscopes on her chest and pronounced her dead. Talk about failing a physical. Snyder suffered a gruesome death that came about because of her own stupidity. She also left a daughter behind. And, too, the ultimate humiliation of having a photo of her execution on the front page of a major newspaper. Her headstone at her gravesite reads Ruth Brown her maiden name. She never would have been executed in our day.

  4. I want to make a retraction to something I stated in my last post. I said that two doctors pronounced Snyder dead and then stated “Talk about failing a physical.” There was nothing amusing about her death and the comment I made was out of bounds. I apologize for that. Ruth Snyder displayed a certain amount of courage and poise in facing her death. Imagine entering that chamber knowing you only have minutes to live. It makes me wonder how I would have reacted sitting in that chair straps being tightened around my body and the electrodes attached. And finally the hood being placed over my head. My heart would be beating like a trip-hammer, as hers undoubtedly was. I have a strong feeling God had mercy on her.

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