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Domestic Homicide

       September 21, 2011 3:08 PM

 Ruthless Ruth


Born into poverty in 1895, Ruth Brown had big dreams. As a teenager in New York, she longed for the fancy clothes she saw in department stores, but her job as a telephone operator barely paid the rent. Determined to get ahead, she took shorthand classes and dreamed of marrying Prince Charming.

And soon did. She landed a job at Boating Magazine as secretary to the editor, Albert Snyder, a wealthy older man. They married in 1915, but trouble arose immediately. Ruth had a rival.

Albert had previously been engaged to Jessie Guishard for ten years and still worshiped her. He kept a photo of her on the wall of their Long Island home and even named his boat after her. When Ruth objected, he told her Jessie was "the finest woman I ever met.”

In 1918, their daughter, Lorraine, was born. Bored and unhappy in her loveless marriage, Ruth began stepping out on Albert, whom she called "the old crab.” By 1920, Prohibition prevented the legal sale of alcohol, but that didn’t stop party-goers from frequenting speakeasies. Like many New Yorkers, Ruth became a Jazz Age flapper and went out dancing and drinking. Albert didn’t seem to care. 


Married, but not to each other

In June 1925 Ruth met her next Prince Charming. At first glance Judd Gray didn’t look the part. A short bespectacled man, the 33-year-old corset salesman taught Sunday school and sang in his local choir. He and his wife lived in New Jersey. But Judd belonged to the Club of Corset Salesmen of the Empire State. He had an appetite for cigarettes, bootleg whiskey, and Ruth. They began a torrid affair.

By now Lorraine was in school. Ruth wanted to live with Judd, but Albert was in the way, so Ruth decided to kill him. She persuaded him to buy a $48,000 life insurance policy that paid extra ("double indemnity”) if an act of unexpected violence killed him. But Albert did not go quietly. Seven times Ruth tried to kill him, first by asphyxiation, then by putting powdered mercury in his whisky. Each time Albert survived.

Finally, Ruth asked Judd to help her. At first he objected, but she wore him down until he agreed. They cooked up a plan. While Ruth and her family were at a party, Judd would sneak into the house through an unlocked door and hide in a spare room.

Saturday, March 19, 1927, was a cold, raw day. Judd spent most of it in a saloon, drinking to work up his courage. That night he crept into the Snyder home, hid in the spare room and waited. In the room were the window-sash weight, rubber gloves and bottle of chloroform Ruth had hidden When the Snyder's arrived home at 2 AM, Albert and Lorraine went to bed. Ruth didn’t.

Her plans didn’t include sleep. After waiting a while, she went to the spare room dressed only a slip. While Albert slept down the hall, Ruth and Judd had sex. Then Ruth handed Judd the sash-weight and led him to her bedroom. Judd raised the weight and struck Albert’s head a glancing blow. Stunned, Albert screamed and grappled with Judd. Terrified, Judd yelled at Ruth to help him. Grimly determined, Ruth grabbed the sash and slammed it against Albert's head, killing him.

They went downstairs to the kitchen and got out a bottle of whiskey. Over several stiff drinks, they cooked up the final details. To fake a robbery they knocked over some chairs. Judd gagged Ruth and loosely bound her hands and feet. After Judd left the house, Ruth undid the bindings and ran to her daughter’s bedroom. Lorraine removed the gag, and Ruth told her to run for help.

Lorraine ran next door to the neighbors, who called police.

A Simple Plan falls apart

Ruth told the police she and Albert had been attacked by burglars and showed them Albert's corpse, which lay in their bed, bound hand and foot. But, finding no evidence of a break-in, police became suspicious. They found Ruth's cool demeanor inconsistent with a woman who had just watched the murder of her husband. 

Ruth tried to convince them, saying that money was missing from Albert's wallet and so were some of her jewels. But minutes later the police found the jewels hidden under the mattress where her dead husband lay. They also found other incriminating items: the bloodstained sash weight, a $200 check made out to H. Judd Gray and a tie cllip with Gray's initials. They also found Ruth's "little black book." in it, they found Judd's name and 28 others.

Police arrested Ruth and located Judd in a hotel in Syracuse, NY. He claimed to have been there all night, but police learned that one of his friends had created the alibi for him by setting up the hotel room. Police told Judd that Ruth had already confessed. Judd immediately admitted to the crime. When they told Ruth that Judd had admitted everything, Ruth also confessed. However, each blamed the murder on the other. Police later found $90,000 in life insurance policies on Albert, including the double indemnity clauses, in a safe deposit box registered in the name Ruth Brown.

Their trial caused a media frenzy. Celebrities like novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart, film-maker D.W. Griffith, and newspaper reporter Damon Runyan covered the trial. Runyan call it "the dumb-bell murder case” because "it was so dumb!”

Ruth was painted as the stronger of the two. Runyan described her as "a chilly-looking blonde with frosty eyes and one of those marble you-bet-you-will chins.”

Most considered Judd a wimp led astray by his wicked lover, whom they called "ruthless Ruth" and "vampire" and the "blonde fiend."

Both took the stand to defend themselves. Each blamed the other. After deliberating less than 2 hours, on May 9, 1927, the jury found them guilty. They both received the death penalty. During her incarceration, Ruth received more than 160 marriage proposals.

Their electrocutions at Sing Sing Prison in January 1928 brought another media frenzy. Ruth was the first woman ever sent to the electric chair. Judd died first, a botched execution in which his feet caught on fire. Ruth came next. Sent to observe the execution, reporter Tom Howard enterprisingly strapped a miniature camera to his body and caught her final moments on film. The next day the photo ran on the front page of the New York Daily News. 

But what of poor little Lorraine? After her mother was found guilty, legal disputes broke out between the families of Ruth and Albert Snyder. Josephine Brown, Ruth's mother, petitioned for custody in 1927 and was awarded legal guardianship. And the insurance money? One claim of $30,000 was paid, but two other policies were not.

For more details on this and other cases, see DARK DEEDS, Volume one  http://susanfleet.com/darkdeeds-v1.html#.UubLSrQo4dU

The notorious case inspired two books by James Cain: Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, both later made into film noir hits. Two recent books are Landis Mackellar's The Double Indemnity Murder: Ruth Snyder Judd Gray And New York's Crime of the Century (2006) and Ron Hanson's A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (2011)

I look forward to your comments about "ruthless Ruth" and her two Prince Charmings. True crime seems to inspire some gritty fiction. Has anyone seen the movies made from the James Cain novels? Your thoughts ...

 Citations: quotes come from the defendants own words taken from transcripts of the trial and printed in newspaper reports. See also: New York Times article 6-19-2011: "Story of a Jazz Age Murder," Steven Heighton’s review of A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, a novel by Ron Hanson.

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[ Posted by Art Smukler, September 25, 2011 7:20 PM ]
     Fascinating! Very well written and exciting to read.

[ Posted by Myrna Griffith, September 26, 2011 5:30 AM ]
     Think I saw the movie a very long time ago. "Ruthless" is a fit name for her.

[ Posted by GregP, February 04, 2012 2:01 PM ]
     Thanks for this. I came across your writeup after seeing that Double Indemnity was listed as one of the top 25 films of all time. I haven't yet seen the movie, but I was curious about the events that inspired it. Good work.

[ Posted by admin, February 04, 2012 3:02 PM ]
     Thanks for the comment Greg. I'm glad the post on Ruthless Ruth piqued your interest. It was a sensational trial, with many reporters attending, and I think it inspired many of them. Do see Double Indemnity, it's a great film!

[ Posted by , July 31, 2012 2:26 AM ]
     I have been touched by this dramatic story. "Ruthless Ruth" was my grandmother's second cousin.

[ Posted by admin, July 31, 2012 7:34 AM ]
     Thank you so much for your comment. Could you tell us anything more about her?

posted by SUSAN FLEET   September 21, 2011 3:08 PM  Domestic Homicide 


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