A housewife and salesman have an affair, then hatch a plot to kill her husband and claim insurance money on his death. If this sounds like a film noir plot, that’s because it is; it’s the plot of James Cain’s 1943 hardboiled crime novella Double Indemnity and the 1944 film adaptation. But it’s also what happened in the real-life crime that Double Indemnity was based on.
On March 20, 1927, Ruth Snyder claimed two “giant Italians” had broken into her house in Queens and knocked her unconscious. They tied her up and left her in the hallway, she said. Then, while her 9-year-old daughter was still asleep, they killed her husband and stole her jewelry.
Police were immediately suspicious because Snyder didn’t look like she’d been knocked out. They also found her “stolen” jewelry stuffed under her mattress. Within a few hours, she gave up the name of the married corset salesman she was sleeping with—Henry Judd Gray—and pinned the murder on him.
When the police got to Gray, he confessed but accused Snyder of seducing him and planning the murder of her husband, an art editor at Motorboat magazine. Police also discovered that just before her husband’s murder, Snyder forged a double-indemnity insurance policy in his name for nearly $100,000 in the event of his accidental death.
Besides the failed insurance fraud, one of the most notable aspects of the crime was how ineptly Snyder and Gray committed it. They killed Snyder’s husband by hitting him with a weight from a window sash, stuffing chloroform-soaked cotton up his nose and strangling him with picture frame wire. They tried to cover it up as a poorly staged “break-in,” and when that story fell through, the former lovebirds immediately turned on each other.
At the time, journalist Damon Runyon called it the “Dumbbell Murder” because it was just so dumb. Yet for almost a year, it received “press attention far out of proportion to how important the murder was to society as a whole,” says Maurine Beasley, a journalism professor emerita at the University of Maryland. “These were not political figures, these were not people of importance, these were not celebrities—these were ordinary people.”
The driving force behind this coverage was a New York tabloid press war between the Daily Graphic, the Daily News and William Randolph Hearst’s Daily Mirror. To outsell each other, they latched onto stories with little relevance to the public and used lurid details to draw readers in. The tabloids “did not hesitate to make up details because there wasn’t a strict adherence to facts by any means,” Beasley says. Before Snyder and Gray, New York tabloids created a similar media sensation out of the 1922 murder of a reverend and choir singer in New Jersey.
In its coverage, the tabloid press turned Snyder and Gray into sensational figures straight out of a Hollywood movie. This was especially true of Snyder, who became the story’s femme fatale. Tabloids described her as a “synthetic blonde murderess,” a “vampire wife” and—most unusually—“Ruthless Ruth, the Viking Ice Matron of Queens Village,” write Penelope Pelizzon and Nancy West in an October 2005 Narrative article.
Gray also spoke frequently to the tabloids, painting himself as a victim. Before Snyder and Gray’s trial even began, he described his affair with Snyder to the Daily News like this: “She would place her face an inch from mine and look deeply into my eyes until I was hers completely. While she hypnotized my mind with her eyes she would gain control over my body by slapping my cheeks with the palms of her hand.”
This kind of coverage generated huge public interest in the case. “Fifteen hundred people packed the courtroom every day of the trial, while up to 2,000 people mobbed the streets outside,” writes Jessie Ramey in a Spring 2004 Journal of Social History article. Hawkers sold fake tickets for $50 and souvenir vendors sold stick pins featuring a murder weapon—the sash weight—for ten cents.
So how did this whole saga end? In James Cain’s novella, the salesmen (who sells insurance instead of corsets) escapes on a boat to Latin America only to find his female accomplice is on the boat, too. Afraid they will be caught since newspaper accounts of their crime have become “a sensation,” they both commit suicide by jumping overboard at night. In the film version of Double Indemnity, neither make it out of the country. The celluloid salesman kills his girlfriend and waits for the police to take him away.
But somehow, the real ending to the story is even more morbid.
Snyder and Gray were convicted; both died in the electric chair on the same day in January 1928. There were no cameras allowed in the room at Sing Sing Correctional Facility where Snyder’s execution took place, but a photographer still snuck one in on his ankle. At the moment of her electrocution, the photographer lifted his pants leg and pressed a shutter release in his jacket, capturing a blurry picture of her body shaking from the electricity.
The next day, the Daily News ran the photo of Snyder—bound, masked and dying—on the front page under the headline “DEAD!” It sold out in 15 minutes.