Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Tom Howard Jr., Chicago Tribune photographer, took one of the most famous photos in newspaper history. The shocking story behind Ruth Snyder's execution.

During the 1920s, a daily newspaper would go to outlandish lengths to top its rivals. If you were the first one with the big story, you sold more papers. Ditto if you had an exclusive story—a “scoop.”  Ditto again if you had an exclusive photo.

Thomas James "Tom" Howard Jr. was part of this milieu. In 1928 the young Chicago Tribune photographer took one of the most famous photos in newspaper history. And it all began with a scruffy little murder in Queens, New York.

Who Was Ruth Snyder?
Ruth Snyder
Ruth Snyder knew she wanted to kill her husband almost from the moment she met him.

Albert Snyder seemed to be continuously and hopelessly devoted to his late fiancee Jessie Guishard. Even after marrying Ruth, he proclaimed Guishard (who had been dead for 10 years) to be the finest woman he had ever met. At one point, he hung a picture of her on the wall of their home and then insisted upon naming his boat after her.

So Ruth, shunned by a man in love with a dead woman, took a lover by the name of Henry Judd Gray. Gray was a corset salesman who lived in Queens Village, where the Snyders made their home, and the two had met in town. Shortly after meeting, the two began to plot Albert’s murder.

First, Ruth persuaded Albert to purchase life insurance, a $48,000 policy ($704,000 today) that had a double indemnity clause, meaning that even if Albert died from an unexpected act of violence (say, murder), Ruth would still get her money. Then, Ruth and Gray began to plot.

According to testimony Gray gave after he was arrested, the couple tried to kill Albert seven times before they actually succeeded. Finally, on March 20, 1927, they managed to kill him. After garrotting him, and stuffing his nose with chloroform-soaked rags, they staged his death and the home to appear as if it had been burgled.

The police quickly saw through her lies, after a hastily constructed tale of the so-called burglary fell through. A few days after Albert’s death, both Gray and Ruth were arrested. Though Ruth maintained her silence throughout questioning, Gray folded almost immediately under pressure, fessing up to the entire crime. Upon hearing Gray had confessed, Ruth turned on him, claiming it was his idea from the start.

Both of them were found guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair at the New York State prison, Sing Sing, in Ossining, New York.

The press coverage of Ruth Snyder’s trial had been covered by the biggest names in crime reporting, such as James M. Cain. Cain would later write a novella that would be turned into the film “Double Indemnity,” which loosely mirrors the Snyder case.

The attention given to the case by reporters had successfully turned it from a small town murder into a sensational nationwide crime. As soon as the people heard there would be an execution, the first woman’s in 30 years, everyone wanted a piece of the action.

However, when the police heard that everyone wanted coverage, they shut it down. While photography was usually prohibited in executions, Sing Sing guards took it especially seriously in Ruth’s case. No member of the media would get in with a camera, that much the guards were sure of.

Little did they know what Tom Howard had up his sleeve – or up his pant leg, to be exact.

The New York Daily News was a tabloid that had built its reputation on sensational news photos. Ruth Snyder was going to be the first woman executed in several years, and publisher Joseph Medill Patterson wanted a picture of the execution. Trouble was, photographing an execution was not allowed, and prison authorities knew all of the Daily News photographers. So Patterson phoned his cousin, Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick who agreed to lend Tom Howard to the Daily News. In New York, Howard obtained press credentials to attend the executions as a writer.

On January 12, 1928, he arrived at the prison with a miniature single-shot camera strapped to his ankle. A wire attached to the shutter ran up his trouser leg to a trigger release concealed in his coat.
Tom Howard’s ankle camera.
Howard waited while Henry Judd Gray was executed. Then came Ruth Snyder’s turn. Howard edged forward. As the current surged through her body, Howard squeezed the trigger release. Then it was over, and he rushed back to the Daily News offices in Manhattan. The photo he took was angled slightly and blurry, but nonetheless priceless. Despite not being able to even see what he was taking a photo of, and having to guess his aim by using the toe of his shoe as a pointer, the photo was ultimately a good one. 

Howard had no way of knowing if the plan had worked until the photographic plate was actually developed. But it had worked. Four hours after Ruth Snyder’s execution, Daily News extras were on the street, the entire front page filled with Howard’s photo of her death throes. The headline simply read “DEAD!
The front page of the New York Daily News the day after Ruth Snyder’s execution.
Tom Howard Jr. was paid $100 ($1,500 today) extra for his photograph.

Prison officials were outraged by the picture. They talked about bringing charges against Howard and the Daily News. But since no laws had actually been broken, the matter was dropped. Still, in the decades since, anyone admitted to an execution site undergoes a thorough search for concealed cameras.

The photo was instantly hailed as the most famous tabloid photo of the decade, and indeed, it was. The photo itself — as hazy it was — was shocking. The image of Ruth Snyder’s fingers curled around the arms of the electric chair haunted audiences for years.
The camera Howard used to snap the shot is part of the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Tom Howard returned to his career in Chicago. When he died in 1961, he was the chief photographer at the Chicago Sun-Times Newspaper.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. this is a disturbing image by today's standards, but at the time people actually had no problem with it. It's much like the crowds of men, women and even children gathering around to watch public hangings... gruesome

  2. Replies
    1. Her fingers are not curled around, nor even touching the arms of the chair....


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