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The Dumb-Bell Murder

by Doris Lane


Ruth Brown was only 13 when she went to work as a  telephone operator. She worked the night shift. During the day she studied shorthand and bookkeeping and dreamed of growing up and marrying her boss. Not the boss at the telephone company, but some ideal of a wealthy executive with whom she would live happily ever after. Not that Ruth would lack for marriage proposals. Later in life, while on trial for murdering her husband, she would receive a total of 164.

Ruth was 20 in 1915 when she married her employer, the editor of Motor Boating magazine, Albert Snyder. Before marrying Ruth, Snyder had been engaged 10 years to Jessie Guishard and he hadn’t exactly gotten over her. When Albert and Ruth set up housekeeping, one of the first pictures to hang on a wall of the family home was Jessie's. When Albert bought a boat he named it after Jessie. When Ruth objected, Albert declared that Jessie was "the finest woman I have ever met."

Needless to say, this was not the marriage Ruth had dreamed it would be, but she and Albert managed to have a daughter, Lorraine, in 1918.

In the early 1920s Ruth bobbed her hair and took up dancing, playing bridge, and otherwise cavorting her way through the Jazz Age. Albert took no interest in these pursuits, or in his wife, staying home with Lorraine in Queens Village, N.Y., while Ruth had her fun. Ruth called him, "the old crab," and went out dancing the nights away.

Ruth was a good-looking woman. Damon Runyon described her as "A chilly-looking blonde with frosty eyes and one of those marble you-bet-you-will chins." It was just a matter of time before this disgruntled housewife found another man to occupy her time.

In June of 1925 she met a quiet New Jersey fellow named Judd Gray. Judd was a 33-year-old salesman for the Bien Jolie Corset Company. They met on a blind date and continued their affair afternoons at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Ruth would leave Lorraine in the lobby, while she went with Judd up to his room.

In the following year, Albert became strangely "accident-prone." Judd would later say that Ruth had several times tried to drown, poison, and gas her husband. But Albert managed to survive until March 20, 1927.

Albert and Ruth returned from a party at 2:30 a.m., according to Ruth. They put Lorraine to bed and Albert retired. Ruth wasn't tired yet and sat up in the living room reading. Suddenly a burglar with an "Italian-style" moustache entered the room and struck her over the head. After five hours unconscious and bound, Ruth came to and crawled to her daughter's room and woke the child. Lorraine ran to the neighbors for help. Ruth refused to allow the neighbors to untie her before the police arrived.

Albert's body was found in the bedroom, tied hand and foot. He had been chloroformed, and his head bashed in. There were three bullets on the floor and a revolver on the bed. Picture wire was tied tightly around his neck. Money from his wallet was missing and, Ruth told police, so were her jewels. Unfortunately for Ruth, the missing jewelry was found tucked under her mattress.

In the police search of the house a bloody pillowcase was also found and a five-pound, bloodstained sash weight. Police found a $200 check in Ruth's desk made out to H. Judd Gray and a tie clip with his initials on the bedroom floor. They found his name, among 28 other men, in Ruth's little black book. They later found $90,000 in life insurance on Albert Snyder, including double indemnity clauses, in a safe deposit box registered in the name of Ruth Brown.

Judd hadn't played it too smart, either. When he left the scene of the crime he walked to a bus stop, asking a policeman how long before the next bus would come. He took the bus to Jamaica where he grabbed a taxi to Manhattan. The cabbie remembered Judd very well, he said, because of the crummy five-cent tip.

In the popular view, Ruth was the stronger of the two. Judd was seen as a wimpy fellow led around by his lover. (Judd's nickname for Ruth was "Mommie.") Damon Runyon wrote of Judd that he was, "an inert, scared-drunk fellow that you couldn't miss among any hundred men as a dead set-up for a blonde, or the shell game, or maybe a gold brick – on trial for what might be called for want of a better name: the Dumb-bell Murder. It was so dumb!"

Both Ruth and Judd confessed to the crime, but they proceeded to blame each other. Judd said that Ruth had hypnotized him with "drink, veiled threats, and intensive love." He claimed that Ruth had tied the wire around poor Albert's throat. All Ruth knew, she said, was that Judd went into the bedroom and came out again, saying, "I guess that's it."

It took a jury only an hour and a half to convict them on May 9, 1927.

The day before the executions, Judd spent his time quietly reading the Bible. Ruth pounded on the bars of her cell and screamed her head off. She had been undergoing a Death Row conversion to Catholicism when a prison matron asked her if she was serious. "Go to hell," Ruth answered.

They were electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison on Jan. 22, 1928. Judd's feet caught fire during his electrocution, but nobody remembers that. Instead, it is Ruth's three minutes in the hot seat that is burned into the public memory.

James M. Cain wrote Double Indemnity about the Snyder-Gray case. Billy Wilder made it into a film with Barbara Stanwyck as the murderous wife. In 1928, Clark Gable played the part of Judd Gray on Broadway in a play called Machinal, which was revived around the country in 1999.

The Snyder-Gray case had already gotten more publicity than the sinking of the Titanic, but it is a single photo that still holds the imagination today, and this can be viewed all over the Internet.

A New York Daily News photographer wore a camera strapped to his ankle and caught one of the most famous tabloid photos in history: the execution of Ruth Brown Snyder, also known as "The Iron Widow" and "The Bloody Blonde."

E-mail Doris Lane: Jerseycoa@yahoo.com

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