In 1927, Ruth Snyder, a Queens Village, N.Y, housewife, and her traveling salesman (corsets) lover, Judd Gray of Orange, New Jersey, bludgeoned her well-insured husband to death. When their alibis broke down, she accused him of the deed, and he implicated her.
Their murder trial became a national event. Many celebrities attended. Alexander Woollcott explained the widespread interest in part this way: "Ruth Snyder was so like the woman across the street that many an American husband was soon struck by the realization that she also bore an embarrassing resemblance to the woman across the breakfast table."
The pair were convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison.
Editors at the sensationalist tabloid New York Daily News decided to cover that with special intensity and imagination. Reporters were always at executions. The Daily News planned on sending a photographer, which was forbidden.
An out-of-town (thus unrecognized) photographer, Tom Howar of Washington, was hired. He began to experiment with a small camera strapped to an ankle. The camera had a cable running up his leg inside his trousers to a small bulb in his pocket. This silently released and held open the camera shutter. Given photographic technology at the time, the shot had to be a time exposure.
A Daily News police reporter somehow got a copy of the blueprint of the Sing Sing death chamber. This allowed Howard to figure out the exact angle and distance from his witness seat to the electric chair. He spent hours and hours practicing in a hotel room.
The camera was hidden by his cuff. At the last second in th death chamber Howard had to lift the cuff just enough to get the shot of the electric chair in action, not enough for other reporters (which he was posing as) or prison officials to spot the camera.
The executions took place on a Thursday evening in January, 1928. The Daily News' front page had a single-word headline "DEAD" over its front-page story in edition after edition Thursday evening and early Friday morning. When Howard returned to the photo lab the editors found that his efforts had paid off. They had a picture. They published an extra with the picture under the headline instead of the story, filling the whole page.
The picture stirred such interest that the editors ran it on the front page in every Saturday edition as well. I believe it was the first published photograph of an execution since executions were moved indoors. Also the last.
Theo Lippman Jr. writes editorials for The Sun.