In 1927, Ruth Snyder and her lover Henry Judd Gray were convicted of murdering Snyder’s husband Albert and were sentenced to death by electric chair. It was a sensational trial that filled headlines and drew celebrities to the courtroom. But the execution on January 12, 1928, was even more sensational because of a photograph surreptitiously taken as Snyder was electrocuted.
You’ve probably seen the photograph, and the linked article contains two versions, but there is no need to post it here. While it is not gory, it is disturbing. That picture appeared on the cover of a special edition of the New York tabloid Daily News the next morning, and sold half a million copies above their normal daily circulation. It wasn’t easy to get the picture, as cameras were not permitted at executions, and the guards knew every newspaper photographer in New York City. Photographer Tom Howard made history when he got away with taking it.
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The image not only sold a lot of newspapers, it sparked a debate that still rages today between the public’s right to see what happens and the unsavory appetites of those who would want to. Smithsonian looks at Snyder’s crime, how the photo was taken, and the controversy surrounding its publication.