Ruth Snyder — Forbidden Love Leads to a Daring Murder

Last week’s post had its funny side but there is nothing funny about the story of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray. The case became famous as the sash weight murder because the murder weapon was the weight from a window sash. Writer Damon Runyon dubbed it the “Dumbbell Murder,” because it was so dumb.

Warning: one of the pictures near the end of this blog may be disturbing to some people.

Ruth Snyder

Ruth Snyder (born Ruth Brown) was a housewife living in Queens Village in the borough of Queens, New York City. She married a man named Albert Snyder, art director for Motor Boating magazine. It’s unclear just why Snyder married her as his heart still belonged to his long-dead fiancée, Jessie Guischard. He even hung a picture of Jessie in their house. He told Ruth that Jessie was “the finest woman he ever met” and planned to name his boat after her. Who wouldn’t find that off-putting? Ruth certainly did. She tore down the picture and raised enough of a stink about the boat that Snyder named it “Ruth.”

Ruth Snyder at about the time of the murder.
Ruth Snyder at about the time of the murder.

Despite the unusual circumstances, the Snyders remained married and even had a daughter, Lorraine, in 1918. But Ruth decided to look for satisfaction outside her marriage. In 1925, she met traveling corset salesman Henry Judd Gray (he went by Judd) and the two began an affair. Gray was also married but that didn’t keep them from spending a lot of time together. They frequently met in the Waldorf Astoria. Ruth would leave Lorraine to entertain herself by riding the elevators while she and Gray carried on in private.

Corset salesman and murderer Henry Judd Gray (1892 - 1928), circa 1927. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Corset salesman and murderer Henry Judd Gray (1892 – 1928), circa 1927. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

A Sinister Plot

Ruth Snyder wanted to be rid of her husband Albert. She and Gray conspired to kill Snyder after first taking out three life insurance policies on him. Ruth forged Snyder’s name to three policies worth a combined $100,000 (about $1.2 million today). She and Gray then set about killing Albert.

Albert E. Snyder, Ruth Snyder's husband.
Albert E. Snyder, Ruth Snyder’s husband.

It turns out, the pair weren’t particularly good at murder. At least seven times they tried, and every time Albert survived. The third attempt on Sunday, March 20, 1927, finally succeeded. Ruth and Gray hit Albert with the weight from a window sash. They then garroted him with picture frame wire, and stuffed rags soaked in chloroform up his nose. Albert died from suffocation.

The next part of the plot was to stage the scene to look like a burglary gone wrong. But here, too, Ruth and Judd were inept. Detectives were immediately skeptical of Ruth’s story and noted that there was little evidence of a break-in. More suspicious, police found that items that Ruth said the burglars had stolen were still in the house.

Mugshot of Ruth Snyder prior to her transfer to Sing Sing prison

The final breakthrough came when detectives discovered a small pin with the initials “J.G.” on it. It was a memento of Jessie Guischard that Albert Snyder had kept. Police matched the initials to the entry for Judd Gray in Ruth’s address book. When detectives asked her about Gray, a flustered Ruth asked, “Has he confessed?” Police ran a bluff, saying he had, and Ruth’s story quickly unraveled from there.

Trial and Conviction

Police found Judd Gray in Syracuse, New York. He folded quickly under questioning and confessed. The state tried the two jointly, a point that Gray raised on appeal (he lost). During the trial, both Ruth and Judd admitting to conspiring together. But each claimed the other had committed the actual murder.

Ruth Snyder on the witness stand as her confession is read to the court (NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)
Ruth Snyder on the witness stand as her confession is read to the court (NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Press coverage of the trial was intense. The New York tabloid press were vying with each other for readership and went all out in their coverage. The primary papers involved were the Daily Graphic, the Daily News, and William Randolph Hurst’s Daily Mirror. Newspapers reported every salacious detail of the Snyder-Gray affair. It was an age when reporters weren’t above fabricating details to spice up their stories. And Ruth was especially demonized, with papers frequently calling her “Ruthless Ruth.”

In the end, Ruth’s and Judd’s competing claims didn’t matter. The jury convicted both of first-degree murder. In New York in 1927, the punishment for murder was death.

Epilogue

Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray both died in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York on January 12, 1928. Ruth went first, with Judd following about ten minutes later. In a macabre twist, photographer Tom Howard of the Chicago Tribune sneaked a homemade camera into the death house by strapping it to his ankle. As the “state electrician,” Robert G. Elliot sent the current through Ruth’s body, Howard clicked the shutter. The next day, fuzzy picture of Ruth Snyder appeared on front pages around the country.

Chicago Tribune photographer Tom Howard took this photo of Ruth Snyder during her execution using a homemade camera strapped to his ankle.
Chicago Tribune photographer Tom Howard took this photo of Ruth Snyder during her execution using a homemade camera strapped to his ankle.

Writer James Cain used the Snyder-Gray case as inspiration for a 1943 crime novella. The following year, Paramount Pictures released Double Indemnity starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. It was almost instantly a film noir classic.

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Jack Abbott — A Killer with Influential Friends

From our English case last week, we cross the Atlantic to a very American one. Jack Abbott was a criminal convicted of murder among other crimes. His made some influential friends who argued for his parole, only for him to kill again shortly after getting out.

Jack Henry Abbott

Jack Abbott was born in Oscoda, Michigan during World War II. His father was an Irish-American soldier and his mother was a Chines-American former prostitute. After the war, Abbott senior deserted his family. In and out of foster care, he earned his first stretch in juvenile detention at age nine. At 16, he entered the Utah State Industrial School, a long-term detention facility.

Jack Abbot  (David Handschuh/AP)
Jack Henry Abbott  (David Handschuh/AP)

In 1965, when he was 21, Jack Abbott was in a Utah prison serving a sentence for forgery. There he stabbed another inmate, James Christensen, to death and wounded another. He claimed he killed Christensen to fend off a homosexual attack because Christensen wanted to make Abbott his “prison wife.” Another version of the story is that Christensen had ratted out Abbott to guards for having contraband in his cell. In his writings, however, Abbott gave probably the true reason: men who have killed other men, especially other prisoners, earn the most respect.

Jack Abbot continued to collide with the law. He received a three-to-twenty-year sentence for killing Christensen but escaped in 1971. Authorities caught him after he robbed a bank in Denver and sent him back to prison. Freedom had lasted a month. Spending much of his prison time in solitary confinement for disciplinary issues, Abbott read widely, included Marx, Engels, Lenin, Sartre, and Nietzsche.

Enter Norman Mailer

In 1977, author Norman Mailer was writing a book about Utah killer Gary Gilmore. Gilmore, like Abbott, was a career criminal who murdered two people four months after earning parole. His case became a cause célèbre when he refused to appeal his death sentence. Gilmore was the first person executed in the United States after the reinstatement of capital punishment. Mailer’s book, a novelized true crime story a la Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, was The Executioner’s Song. Published in 1979, it won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

Norman Mailer helped Jack Abbot win parole (By Grlucas - Norman Mailer Society Conference 2006, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63095348)
Norman Mailer (By Grlucas – Norman Mailer Society Conference 2006)

When Jack Abbott learned about Mailer’s project, he wrote the author and the two struck up a correspondence. Abbot claimed that Gilmore had embellished his experiences and offered to provide Mailer a truer picture of life in prison. Mailer was instrumental in getting Abbott’s letters to him published in book from as In the Belly of the Beast. Mailer was also instrumental in obtaining parole for Abbott. Other supporters who helped in the effort include actor Christopher Walken and actress Susan Sarandon, and The New York Review editor Bob Silvers.

In the Belly of the Beast is a collection of letters Jack Abbott wrote to Norman Mailer about life in prison
In the Belly of the Beast book cover

Jack Abbott Kills Again

Jack Abbott moved into a halfway house in New York City and rubbed elbows with some of Mailer’s literary friends. But he preferred spending time with lowlifes on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

In the early hours of Saturday, July 18, 1981, Abbott and two women were at a the Binibon, a small restaurant on Second Avenue. Richard Adan, a 22-year-old actor and playwright working as a waiter, refused Abbott access to the employees-only restroom. Instead, Adan led Abbott outside to an alley to urinate where Abbott then stabbed him to death.

Fleeing New York, Abbott made his way briefly to Mexico. Not speaking Spanish proved to be a significant handicap. Therefore, he moved on to Louisiana, where he worked in the oil fields. A business owner recognized him and tipped off authorities.

During his trial for murder, Abbott repeatedly insulted Adan’s widow and claimed Adan “had no future as an actor.” His attorney, Ivan Fisher, managed to win an acquittal on murder charges, the jury convicting him of manslaughter instead. His influential supporters mostly stood by him, though. Mailer argued for a lenient sentence saying, “Culture is worth a little risk.” Cold comfort to the families of Adan and Christensen.

Epilogue

Following his return to prison, Jack Abbott saw his arty friends desert him. His second book, My Return, did not have the same glitzy reception as In the Belly of the Beast. Denied parole in 2001, hanged himself in his cell in February 2002, constructing a noose of bedsheets and shoelaces.

At the time, Norman Mailer defended his role in winning Abbot’s release. But in 1992, he told The Buffalo News that his involvement with Abbott was “another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in.”

Jack Abbott may have had literary talent (the point is debatable). But in the final analysis, he was a violent psychopath whose purported talent won him undeserved freedom.

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Dr. Crippen Murders His Wife for Love — Maybe

From last week’s tale of scandal in old Hollywood, we turn this week to a genuine classic of the true crime genre, the case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, dubbed by the press as the “North London cellar murder.”

The Background of Dr. Crippen

Despite the very English flavor of this case, Hawley Harvey Crippen was an American born in Coldwater, Michigan, in 1862. He qualified as a homeopathic physician and established a practice in New York. In that city, he met and married an aspiring opera singer, Corrine “Cora” Turner (born with the improbable name of Kunigunde Mackamotski), in 1894.

Doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was arrested for murder in 1910 while onboard a transatlantic liner, the SS Montrose, became the first fugitive caught by using wireless telegraphy; he was found guilty and hanged.
Doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was arrested for murder in 1910 while onboard a transatlantic liner, the SS Montrose, became the first fugitive caught by using wireless telegraphy; he was found guilty and hanged.

In 1897, Dr. Crippen and Cora moved to London, where he was a distributor for Dr. Munyon’s homeopathic patent medicines. Cora turned her attention from the operatic stage to the music halls, where she styled herself as Belle Elmore. Promoting Cora’s music hall career cost Dr. Crippen his job at Munyon’s, and he took a series of lesser-paying jobs.

Crippen's wife, Cora Crippen.  She also used the stage name Belle Elmore
Cora Crippen used the stage name “Belle Elmore” in her efforts to launch a music hall career

By 1910, the Crippens lived at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, a respectable address in the Holloway section of London.  Their marriage couldn’t have been happy. Dr. Crippen was meek and quiet, while Cora was overbearing and flamboyant. She was also unfaithful, taking a series of younger lovers and flaunting them in public. In 1908, Crippen took a mistress himself, Ethel Le Neve (born Ethel Clara Neave), his secretary.

Dr. and Cora Crippen lived at No. 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway, in 1910 (REX/Shutterstock 1135715a)
Dr. and Cora Crippen lived at No. 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway, in 1910 (REX/Shutterstock 1135715a)

Cora Disappears

No one saw Cora after a dinner she and the doctor had at their home on January 31, 1910. To friends who inquired, Dr. Crippen replied that Cora had returned to the United States. Later, he added that she had died in America and had been cremated in California. This explanation looked fishy when Ethel moved into the Hilldrop Crescent home and began wearing Cora’s clothes and jewelry when the pair appeared in public.

Prodded by Cora’s friends, Scotland Yard charged Chief Inspector Walter Dew with investigating her disappearance. Dew interviewed Crippen, who confessed that he fabricated the story of Cora returning to America. He was too embarrassed, he said, to tell people that Cora had absconded with one of her music hall lovers, Bruce Miller. Dew then briefly searched the house and, finding nothing, accepted Dr. Crippen’s story at face value.

Scotland Yard's Chief Inspector Walter Dew, ca. 1920
Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Walter Dew, ca. 1920

Dew planned to write a report on his investigation and close the matter. However, when he made a second visit to clear up a couple of points with Crippen, he learned that the doctor had suddenly left town. With his suspicions now aroused, Dew returned to Hilldrop Crescent and searched several more times. On his fourth search, a loose brick in the floor of the coal cellar led him to dig further. There, he found a mass of rotting human flesh wrapped in a pair of pajamas.

Dr. Crippen and Ethel Flee and the Chase is On

Unaware that Dew was about to close the investigation, Crippen and Ethel panicked and fled to the continent. At Antwerp, they engaged passage to Canada on the Canadian Pacific liner S.S. Montrose. On board, with Ethel thinly disguised as a boy, they passed themselves off as Mr. and Master Robinson, father and son.

Despite the attempted disguise, the captain of the Montrose, Henry Kendall, recognized the pair. As the ship passed Land’s End, he sent a message to the ship’s owners using the new Marconi wireless. “Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers.” The owners contacted Dew at Scotland Yard.

Now on alert, Inspector Dew boarded the faster SS Laurentic at Liverpool. With wireless updates from Kendall, the papers printed daily updates on the chase. Dew beat Crippen to Canada, and disguising himself as a pilot, he boarded the Montrose. There, he arrested the fugitive lovers.

Chief Inspector Dew (in Derby) leads a disguised and handcuffed Crippen off the ship at Liverpool. Ethel is in the large hat on the left.
Chief Inspector Dew (in Derby) leads a disguised and handcuffed Crippen off the ship at Liverpool. Ethel is in the large hat on the left.

Dr. Crippen Tried and Convicted

Crippen’s trial at London’s Old Bailey started on October 10, 1910, and lasted four days. Bernard Spilsbury, who would make a name for himself as a brilliant forensic scientist, testified that he found an abdominal scar in the remains. The scar corresponded to a surgical scar Cora was known to have. The defense contended that the “scar” Spilsbury found was a fold in the skin but was unable to overcome Spilsbury’s authoritarian demeanor on the stand.

Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve at their remand hearing at the Bow Street Police Court (Arthur Bennett, 1910)
Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve at their remand hearing at the Bow Street Police Court (Arthur Bennett, 1910)

Home office chemists also testified to the presence of hyoscine (scopolamine) in the remains. This dovetailed with records showing that Crippen bought five grains of the drug before Cora disappeared (as little as one-quarter of a grain could prove fatal). The prosecution contended he used it to poison his wife.

Throughout the trial, Dr. Crippen maintained that Ethel knew absolutely nothing of the business and denied that he killed Cora. It was all for naught. Based on the scientific and circumstantial evidence, the jury took just 27 minutes to convict him of murder. Mr. Justice Alverstone donned the black cap and sentenced Crippen to death.

Ethel was tried separately as an accessory and acquitted. She visited Crippen daily at Pentonville Prison up to the day before his execution. British justice being swift in the early twentieth century, he was hanged at 9:00 a.m. on November 23, 1910.

H.M. Prison Pentonville  in 2020 (Glyn Baker)
H.M. Prison Pentonville in 2020 (Glyn Baker)

Did Dr. Crippen Do It?

The Crown presented a solid case of circumstantial evidence backed by one of the early uses of scientific testimony. But there is still some question as to whether Crippen was guilty. One puzzling question is that having successfully disposed of the head, limbs, and skeleton (they were never found), why bury part of the torso in his coal cellar? Also, modern forensic science questions Spilsbury’s authoritative declaration that the tissue he examined was a scar rather than a fold in the skin.

In a potentially stunning development in 2007, Dr. David Foran reported that mitochondrial DNA from Cora’s great-nieces did not match the remains. He also found that the flesh sample was male. However, there is room to question the validity of DNA testing on such an old sample.

Probabilities are, based on the evidence and on Crippen’s and Ethel’s behavior, that Dr. Crippen did, indeed, poison Cora. Furthermore, it is possible (though not proven) that Ethel was not as innocent as she and Crippen claimed.

Hawley Harvey Crippen at trial
Hawley Harvey Crippen at trial

Epilogue

The Crippen case was significant for the role that wireless messaging played in capturing the fleeing doctor. The daily updates added spice to an already sensational case and aroused immense public interest. It also marks one of the earliest uses of forensic science in a murder trial.

Ethel never spoke of the case after Crippen’s execution. She briefly moved to Canada before returning to England, where she married. She had two children who never knew she was the infamous Ethel Le Neve of the Crippen case. Ethel died in 1967 at the age of 84.

An errant Luftwaffe bomb destroyed No. 39 Hilldrop Crescent (and much of the block) during World War II.

Read more about the Crippen case and the parallel development of wireless telegraphy in Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck.

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The Ruxton Murders

Photograph of Dr. Buck Ruxton around the time of the murders.
Dr. Buck Ruxton

Like last week’s blog, the Ruxton murder case is one of domestic homicide.  The Ruxton murders are a case from England in the 1930s.  The case is famous for the minute detail used by the forensic examiners and the innovative technique used to identify the victims.

A Grisly Discovery

September 29, 1935 was a Sunday.  A woman out for a stroll looked down from a bridge along the Edinburgh-Carlisle road in Scotland and saw what looked like a human arm on the stream bank below.  After notifying police, investigators found seventy pieces of human remains.  Forensic pathologists concluded that the remains were of at least two bodies but probably nor more than two.

The killer appeared to have gone to great lengths to remove any identifiable features from the bodies.  The heads, when found, had the flesh and eyes removed along with most of the teeth, leaving little more than bare skulls.

A Clue to the Victims

Investigators’ first order of business was to identify the victims.  They found an immediate clue when they discovered that some of the remains had been wrapped in newspaper.  The paper was the Sunday Graphic dated September 15.  This was a special edition of the Graphic published and distributed only in the Lancaster district of northern England.  When police learned that a woman had been reported missing from that area, they knew they were on to something.

The missing woman was Mary Rogerson.  Mary was twenty years old and employed as a nursemaid to the three children of Dr. Buck Ruxton and his wife, Isabella.  Ruxton claimed that his wife had left him, which authorities viewed as a sinister coincidence.

Dr. Ruxton was born Bukhtyar Chompa Rustomji Ratanji Hakim in what was then Bombay, India.  At some point, he anglicized his name to Buck Ruxton.  He met Isabella in 1927.  Friends and neighbors presumed her to be his wife, but famed pathologist Sir Sidney Smith contends they were never formally married.  Regardless, Dr. Ruxton kept himself in the spotlight by demanding several times that police attempt to find his missing wife.

Forensic Science Reveals the Truth

Professor Dr. John Glaister had whole sections of the Ruxton house dismantled and reassembled in his Glasgow laboratory.  His painstaking investigation discovered human blood in many areas, especially in the bathroom.  Although DNA testing was decades away, the blood stains were an important clue, nonetheless.  Additionally, Mary Rogerson’s mother recognized an item of clothing that police found with the remains as her daughter’s by portion that she herself had mended.

Meanwhile, Professor James Brash used a new technique to identify the victims.  He superimposed a photograph of one of the skulls over a portrait if Isabella Ruxton.  The result was an eerily obvious match.  Every detail in the photograph fit Mrs. Ruxton’s skull.  However, the same technique did not produce as conclusive results for Mary Rogerson because Brash did not have a good portrait of her to work with.

Portrait photograph of Isabella Ruxton (L) and James Brash's superimposition of the unidentified skull (R).
Portrait photograph of Isabella Ruxton (L) and James Brash’s superimposition of the unidentified skull (R).

Convicted of Murder

Given the evidence, it is not surprising that a jury found Dr. Ruxton guilty and Mr. Justice [John] Singleton sentenced him to death.  The Ruxton murders generated quite a bit of public interest at the time and, surprisingly, despite the overwhelming nature of the evidence and the nature of the murders, ten thousand people, including six thousand Lancaster citizens, petitioned the Home Secretary to intervene and grant a reprieve.  He declined, and Dr. Ruxton was hanged at Strangeways Prison on May 12, 1936.

An Epilogue

The Ruxton murders had an interesting postscript. The Sunday following Dr. Ruxton’s execution, the News of the World published his signed confession.  He had written the confession, sealed it in an envelope, and given it to one of the paper’s reporters just two days after his arrest for murder.

Dr. Ruxton had a reputation for being very jealous and unduly suspicious that his wife might be paying attention to another man.  Twice police had been called to his house for what we call today domestic violence.  No one knows for sure, but it is unlikely that Dr. Ruxton intended to kill his wife.  They probably got into an argument that escalated out of control and ended in her death.  Mary Rogerson probably discovered evidence of the crime and became the second victim.

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