THE "DUMB-BELL MURDER"
The Crime of Ruth Snyder & Judd Gray
The Snyder-Gray murder, as
one crime writer put it, was a "cheap crime involving cheap people". Many
considered it the low point in the history of the early 1900's but for those
who lived in the thrill-hungry days of the "Roaring '20's", they devoured
every sordid detail and made the otherwise mundane personalities of Ruth
Snyder and Judd Gray into infamous celebrities. In addition to murder, their
second greatest crime was simply being stupid.
The events began quietly in
1925 when Ruth Brown Snyder, a discontented Long Island housewife, met a
corset salesman named Henry Judd Gray while having lunch in New York. Ruth,
32, was a tall, blonde with solid good looks and a commanding personality.
Judd Gray, 34, was short and almost instantly forgettable. He had a cleft
chin and thick glasses that gave him a perpetual look of surprise. Despite
the fact that they seemed to be polar opposites, sexual attraction flared
between the two of them at their first meeting and they soon began a torrid
affair. Ruth Snyder's husband, Albert, was the art editor of the magazine
Motor Boating and was never home during the day. The adulterous couple
only had the Snyder's nine year-old daughter, Lorraine, to contend with and
the amorous pair would often meet at the Snyder's home while Lorraine was at
school. On other occasions, the little girt would be left in a hotel lobby
while her mother and her lover met upstairs. They met as often as possible
and seemed unable to get enough of one another.
(Left) Ruth Snyder being escorted
into the courtroom by a police matron. She no longer looked like a
suburban housewife, having been thrown into the grasp of notoriety.
(Right) Judd Gray, her accomplice,
smoked nervously as he was been booked for the murder of Albert
(United Press International Photos)
But Ruth Snyder soon changed
from a sex-obsessed housewife to a
woman with devious plans. Bored in her
loveless marriage, she tried to convince Judd that her husband mistreated
her and that he must be killed. Gray objected but Ruth continued to pester
him with hints, suggestions and outright demands. She would playfully soften
those demands with the terms of endearment that the two of them had created
for one another. They often used baby talk in which Ruth was "Momsie" and he
was "Bud" or "Lover Boy". Ruth's persistence so unsettled Gray however that
he took to drink, consuming huge amounts of Prohibition liquor in an effort
to settle his nerves. "Momsie" begged, argued and threatened but "Lover Boy"
continued to refuse.
Finally, on Saturday, March
19, 1927 -- Judd gave in. It was a cold, raw day on Long Island and Gray
spent most of the day drinking, trying to summon the courage to go through
with the murder. He and Ruth had cooked up a plan that had him traveling by
train to New York from Syracuse and then by bus to Long Island. When he
arrived in Queens Village, where the Snyder's lived, he walked around for an
hour, stopping under street lights to take drinks from his flask. It was
almost as if he hoped to be spotted and arrested breaking the law. No one
paid any attention to him though and finally, he had to enter the Snyder
home. He came in through the back door, as he and Ruth had planned. The
Snyder family was away at a party and would return late. Judd had promised
to hide in a spare room, where Ruth had left a window weight, rubber gloves
and chloroform -- all of the tools of murder.
The family returned around
2:00 am and Ruth opened the bedroom door a crack. "Are you in there, Bud,
dear?" she whispered. She soon returned wearing only a slip and the two had
sex with her husband asleep just down the hallway. Finally, after about an
hour, Gray grabbed the window sash weight and Ruth led him to the master
bedroom, where Albert Snyder slept with the blankets up over his head. The
two of them stood on opposite sides of the bed and then Gray raised the sash
weight and brought it down clumsily onto Snyder's head. The weak blow merely
glanced off the man's skull and while stunned, he let out a roar and tried
to seize his attacker. Judd became terrified and let out a whining scream:
"Momsie, Momsie, for God's sake, help!"
There was no panic
in Ruth Snyder however and with a snort of disgust and anger, she
grabbed the weight from Judd's hands and crashed it down on her
husband's skull, killing him. After that, the two of them went
downstairs, had drinks and chatted about the rest of their plan.
They faked a robbery by knocking over some chairs and loosely tying
Ruth's hands and feet. Minutes after Gray left, Ruth began banging
on Lorraine's door. The child ran out and removed the gag from her
mother's mouth. She told her to get help and Lorraine ran next door
to the neighbor's house, where the police were called.
Damon Runyon, the
celebrated newsman, later wrote that Ruth and Judd were "inept
idiots" and called the whole mess the Dumb-bell Murder, "because it
was so dumb".
Home in Queens Village on Long Island, New York (UPI Photo)
Even though the pair
believed they had planned well, their "robbery" was far from convincing to
experienced police officers. All of the items that Ruth said had been taken
by the mysterious burglar were found hidden in the house and detectives
began to question her. Surprisingly, she gave it up almost at once and
confessed but not surprisingly, she blamed everything on Judd Gray. He was
found hours later, hiding in his Syracuse hotel room. He shrieked his
innocence and insisted that he was not in New York. When confronted with the
train ticket stub that he had carelessly tossed in the trash can of the
hotel room though, he broke down and confessed. Like Ruth, he blamed
everything on his accomplice.
By the time the case
actually went to trial, the two former lovers were at one another's throats,
each blaming the other one for the deadly deed. The trial became a media
frenzy. Celebrities attended in droves, including mystery writer Mary
Roberts Rinehart; director D.W. Griffith; author Will Durant; evangelists
Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson; and many others. Sister Aimee even
received a large sum from the New York Evening Graphic to write up a
piece on the sordid case. Sister Aimee, who would be involved in a scandal
of her own a year later, used her column to encourage young men to say "I
want a wife like mother -- not a Red Hot cutie."
Both defendants had separate
attorneys arguing for their innocence. Ruth's lawyer stated that her husband
"drove love out from the house" by longing after a departed sweetheart. He
also said that Gray had tempted her by setting up a $50,000 double indemnity
insurance policy on Albert Snyder. She was a loving wife, her attorney
insisted, and it was not her fault about the conditions in her home. He then
put the "wronged woman" on the stand, wearing a simple black dress. She
played the role of the suffering wife, tell of how her husband ignored her
most of the time, except when taking her to the occasional movie. It had
been she who had read from the Bible to daughter Lorraine and had made sure
the little girl attended Sunday School. Her lawyer glossed over the Gray
romance and Ruth justified their affair by saying that Judd had also not
been happy at home. However, she claimed that it had been "Lover Boy" who
had dragged her to speakeasys and night spots, where she had watched him
drink himself senseless. She, Ruth swore, rarely ever touched a drink and
never, ever smoked. Then she testified that Gray insisted that she take out
the heavy insurance policy on her husband. "Once," she told the court, " he
even sent me poison and told me to give it to my husband."
At this, the excitable Judd
Gray began whispering to his lawyers. A short time later, he also took the
witness stand and his attorney described Judd's situation as "the most
tragic story that has ever gripped the human heart." The lawyer claimed that
Judd was a law-abiding citizen who had been duped and dominated by a
"designing, deadly conscienceless, abnormal woman, a human serpent, a human
fiend in the disguise of a woman." He then added that he had been
"drawn into this hopeless chasm when reason was gone, mind was gone, manhood
was gone and when his mind was weakened by lust and passion."
Judd played the victim when
he took the stand, nervously glancing over at his elderly mother, who was
sitting in the courtroom next to the actress Nora Bayes, who had come to
watch the show. He testified that Ruth had tried to kill her husband several
times, once putting knockout drops in his drink and when they failed, trying
to gas him. "I told her that she was crazy," Judd said innocently, after
testifying about how she had given Albert Snyder poison as a cure for the
hiccups. It made the man violently ill instead. "I said to her that it was a
hell of a way to cure hiccups," Gray added and told of two other times when
Ruth tried to kill Snyder with sleeping powders.
Finally, Judd stated that it
had been Ruth who had taken out the insurance policy on Snyder and it had
not been his doing, or his idea, at all. He also described how she had
struck the death blow on the night of the murder. At this, Ruth began to sob
loudly in the courtroom and even the judge glanced in her direction. The
jury was out only 98 minutes before coming back with a verdict of "guilty".
Both defendants were stunned and even more so when they learned the sentence
for their crime was death.
New York Daily
Judd Gray was
executed first on January 12, 1928. He sat smiling in his cell when
the warden came for him. He had received a letter from his wife
forgiving him. He told the warden that he was ready to go and that
he "had nothing to fear."
Ruth Snyder followed
her lover just minutes after she watched the prison lights flicker,
signaling that the switch had been thrown for the electric chair.
Reporters remembered that, as she was being led to the electric
chair, that she had said days before that God had forgiven her ---
and that she hoped the world would.
A clever reported
from the New York Daily News smuggled a camera into the death
chamber by strapping it to his ankle. He managed to click off a
photo just as the current entered Ruth's body and snapped her body
against the chair straps. It ran in the next day's edition of the
paper and then the lurid tale faded into history. What was a
"celebrity trail" in 1927 is a barely footnote in American crime
Return to Dead Men Do Tell
Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All