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One crime writer called it, “a cheap crime involving cheap people.” Famous author and playwright Damon Runyon said the crime was so “idiotic,” he coined it, “The Dumbbell Murders,” because the murderers were so dumb.
Blonde, broad-shouldered, and buxom, Ruth Brown Snyder was involved in a marriage she could no longer take. She told people her husband Albert Snyder, 13 her senior, had taken advantage of her youth and tricked her 10 years earlier, when she was only 19 years old, into a marriage “she really didn’t want.” Snyder said Albert, an art editor with Motor Boating Magazine, was a mean man, who was able to convince her to marry him because she was young, innocent, and naïve. Snyder told people that on the day they were married, she was too weak and faint even to consummate the marriage with Albert.
Ruth Snyder said, “He had to wait till I was better before he got his way. But to him I was never any better than the ex-switchboard operator who worked in a typing pool.”
Yet, after Albert’s death, his editor and publisher, C. F. Chapman said about Albert, “He was a man’s man… a quiet, honest, upright man, ready to play his part in the drama of life without seeking the spotlight, or trying to fill the leading role. All the world is made up of good, solid, silent men like him.”
Judd Grey was a nondescript, bespectacled corset salesman, who was also involved in a loveless marriage. According to Grey’s coworkers, Grey’s wife Isabel was an enigma. She was seldom seen or heard by anyone, and had taken on the aspect of an “invisible woman.” Few of Grey’s coworkers at Bien Joilie Corset Company had ever met his wife, or had even spoken to her. In fact, some of his coworkers did not know that the 32-year-old Grey was even married.
As he awaited the electric chair, Grey described his wife, in his autobiography, as such: “Isabel, I suppose, one would call a home girl. She had never trained for a career of any kind. She was learning to cook, and was a careful and exceptionally exact housekeeper. As I think it over searchingly, I am not sure, and we were married these many years, of her ambitions, hopes, or her ideals. We made our home, drove our car, played bridge with our friends, danced, raised our child – ostensibly together – married. Never could I seem to attain with her the comradeship that formed the bond between my mother and myself.”
It started out as a blind date arranged by another couple. Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey first met in a tiny restaurant in midtown Manhattan called “Henry’s Swedish Restaurant.” After four hours of complaining to each other about the miseries of their respective marriages, they vowed to meet again soon.
On August 4, 1925, Albert Snyder and his seven-year-old daughter Lorraine were on a boating trip to Shelter Island. Grey took this opportunity to knock on the door of the Snyder residence in Queens Village. Judd implored Ruth Snyder to have dinner with him at “their place”: “Henry’s Swedish Restaurant.” After they dined and imbibed more than a few alcoholic beverages, Grey invited Snyder to his office on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. His excuse was, “I have to collect a case of sample corsets.”
Inside Grey’s office, Snyder complained to Grey that she had a bad sunburn. “I’ve got some camphor oil in my desk,” Grey said. “Let me get it for you.”
Grey retrieved the camphor oil, and he began rubbing the oil seductively on Snyder’s reddened neck and shoulders, which aroused both people sexually. After the rubdown, Grey offered to give Snyder one of his new corsets, which he would graciously fit for her. Of course, this necessitated Ruth removing her blouse, which exposed her corpulent breasts. One thing led to another, and in the Bein Jolie Corset Company, Grey and Snyder first consummated their relationship. Snyder was so overcome with Grey’s affections, she said to him, “Okay, from now on you can call me Momsie.”
For the next 18 months, while Albert Snyder was at work, Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey met for numerous trysts in Midtown hotels, or sometimes even at the Snyder residence. During these indiscretions, Ruth Snyder’s daughter Lorraine was either downstairs sitting on the Snyder living room couch, or sitting in the lobby of a sleazy Manhattan hotel. The slobbering love affair was such that Grey frequently knelt at Snyder’s feet, massaging her feet and ankles, and declaring, “You are my Queen, my Momsie, my Mommie.” She would look down lovingly at Grey and say, “You are my baby, my ‘Bud’, my loverboy.”
It was around this period of time, that Albert Snyder began having a series of strange “accidents.” In the summer of 1925, Albert was jacking up his family Buick so that he could change a flat tire. Suddenly, the jack slipped and the car fell, almost crushing Albert to death, as he quickly scrambled out of harm’s way. A few days later, Albert had a problem with the crank of his car. He somehow hit himself on the head with the crank, and he fell to the ground, unconscious. When Albert awoke, he still couldn’t figure out how his head could have been struck by that stupid crank.
After those two lucky breaks, or unlucky breaks, according to which way you look at it, Albert had a third accident. In August of 1925, Albert again was working under his car in his indoor garage, with the engine running. Being the good wife, Ruth brought her husband a cool whiskey and soda to help him battle the heat. Ruth also told Albert how proud she was that he was such a great mechanic. Ruth then exited the garage, and a few minutes after Albert drank the whiskey, he began to feel drowsy. Albert glanced at the garage doors, and was shocked to find that instead of the doors being open, they were now tightly closed, which was causing him to inhale noxious carbon monoxide fumes from the tailpipe of his running car.
Ruth Snyder related these three incidents to Judd Grey. Even if Albert Snyder didn’t realize what was happening, Grey sure did. “What are you trying to do?” Grey asked Ruth. “Kill the poor guy?”
“Momsie can’t do it alone,” Ruth said. “She needs help. Lover Boy will have to help her.”
At the time, Judd Grey thought, since they had been drinking, it was the alcohol talking, not Ruth. But the next time they met, Grey realized for the first time Ruth had been serious about killing her husband.
After a strenuous bout of lovemaking, Ruth blurted out triumphantly, “We’ll be okay for money,” she said. “I’ve just tricked Albert into taking out some hefty life insurance. He thinks it’s only for $1000, but it’s really for $96,000, if he dies by accident. I put three different policies in front of him, and only let him see the space where you sign. I told him it was a thousand buck policy in triplicate. He’s covered for $1000, $5000, and $45,000, with a double indemnity clause, in case of an accidental death.”
Even after Ruth Snyder had told Judd Grey that she was intent on killing her husband for the life insurance settlements, Grey still had his doubts. While the two love birds continued carrying on their torrid affair, Albert Snyder was nearly killed in three more “accidents.” In July of 1926, Albert fell asleep on his living room couch and almost died because someone had accidentally left on the gas jets in the kitchen. In January 1927, Albert had a violent case of the hiccups. Ruth Snyder said she had the perfect cure for pickups, and she handed her husband a glass of bichloride of mercury. Albert guzzled down the drink, and immediately he became violently ill. Yet, Albert did not die. The very next month Albert Snyder again fell asleep on his living room couch, and he almost expired, because someone had inadvertently left on the gas tap in the living room.
After trying to kill her husband six times, Ruth Snyder knew she needed help if she were to be successful. She told Judd Grey, “My husband has turned into a brute! He’s even bought a gun and says he’ll shoot me with it.”
In February 1927, Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey were trysting in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Ruth was firmly in charge, and after giving Grey a nice roll in the hay, she ordered Grey to go to Kingston, New York, to purchase chloroform, a window sash weight, and picture wire. She told him, that way “we have three means of killing him One of them must surely work.”
Grey protested, but Ruth was not to be deterred. She said, “If you don’t do as I say, that’s the end of us in bed. You can find yourself another Momsie to sleep with. Only nobody else would have you but me.”
Grey whined that he was not the type to commit murder, but Ruth kept on applying the pressure. One night, when Albert and their daughter Lorraine were not at home, Ruth brazenly brought Grey to her Queens Village house. They went upstairs to her daughter’s room, and had passionate sex. Grey at this point, absolutely terrified that he would not be able to enjoy Ruth’s mad lovemaking anymore, reluctantly agreed to participate in the murder of Albert Snyder.
From this point on, Ruth did all the planning, and Grey did what she told him to do. They had several clandestine meetings, where Ruth laid out the step-by-step procedure how they would kill her husband. One such meeting took place at “Henry’s Swedish Restaurant,” with Ruth’s daughter Lorraine sitting at the same table with them, but not truly understanding what they were talking about: that her father was in imminent danger of being murdered.
In the early morning hours of March 20, 1927, Grey fortified by more than a few sips of whiskey from a pint bottle, boarded a bus from downtown Manhattan to the Snyder house in Queens. The house was empty, because Ruth and Albert Snyder, along with their daughter Lorraine, were at a bridge party at the home of one of their neighbors, a Mrs. Milton Fidgeon. Ruth had left the side door unlocked, allowing Grey to enter the house. Grey hid himself in an empty bedroom upstairs. Grey even brought an Italian newspaper to plant later as a red herring for the police.
At around 2 AM, the Snyder family returned home. By this time Albert Snyder was quite drunk, and he immediately went to bed, and fell asleep in an alcohol-induced stupor. Ruth put Lorraine to bed, then she slipped down the hall to the extra bedroom, where Judd was hiding. Ruth was wearing just a slip and a négligée.
She kissed Grey, then said, “Have you found the sash weight?” Grey told her that he had. Ruth said, “Keep quiet then. I’ll be back as quick as I can.”
A few minutes later, Ruth left the master bedroom and entered the bedroom where Grey was waiting. They finished the last of the whiskey Grey had brought with him, then she grabbed Grey by the hand and said, “Okay, this is it.”
Ruth led Grey to the master bedroom. Grey was wearing rubber gloves so he wouldn’t leave any fingerprints. Ruth was carrying the window sash weight, the chloroform, and the piano wire. When they opened the bedroom door, Grey saw Albert Snyder for the first time. After they closed the bedroom door behind them, Grey raised the sash weight, brought it over his head, and smashed it feebly down on Albert Snyder’s head. It was such an inconsequential blow, Albert Snyder sat up in bed and tried to defend himself. Grey brought the sash down on Albert Snyder’s head a second time, this time drawing a little blood. Albert Snyder, now enraged, clutched Grey’s necktie and began to strangle him with it. Grey screamed like a little girl. “Help Momsie!” Grey said. “For God’s sake, help!”
Ruth grabbed the fallen stash weight, swung it over her head, and with all her considerable might, she smashed it down onto her husband’s head. It was a debilitating blow, but Albert Snyder, now semi-conscious, was still alive. With her man-like strength, Ruth Snyder pinned her twitching husband’s body down, and stuffed cotton, laced with chloroform, into his nostrils, and into his mouth. As Grey stood dumbfounded, Ruth Snyder tied her husband’s hands and feet, then she strangled her husband to death with the piano wire.
With Albert Snyder now quite dead, Ruth and Grey got busy washing the blood from their clothes. Having done so, Grey put on a clean blue shirt that belonged to Albert.
To make it look like a robbery gone awry, Ruth hid all her jewelry and furs, and also the sash that had been one of the murder weapons. Then they went down to the living room and messed up all the pillows and furniture, to make it look like robbers had overturned everything looking for valuables. That done, Grey loosely tied up Ruth, gagged her with cheesecloth, and left her in the empty bedroom, with the Italian newspaper next to her.
Grey was scheduled to travel to the Onondaga Hotel in Syracuse, New York to resume selling corsets. But before he left, he looked back at Ruth Snyder and said, “It may be two months, it may be a year, and maybe never before you see me again.”
Right after dawn the following morning, Lorraine Snyder was awakened by a loud tapping sound that seemed to come from the hallway. She called out to both her parents, but got no reply. Lorraine ran out into the hallway and spotted her mother bound and gagged on the floor. Lorraine untied her mother and took the gag out of her mother’s mouth. Ruth jumped to her feet and ran from the house screaming, waking her neighbors Harriet and Louis Mulhauser. Ruth told them, crying, “It was dreadful, just dreadful! I was attacked by a prowler. He tied me up. He must have been after my jewels.” Then she paused, “Is Albert all right?”
Louis Mulhauser ran into the Snyder house, up the stairs and into the master bedroom. He found Albert Snyder bound and dead, with two massive head wounds.
The police were called in immediately, and they quickly were suspicious about the way the living room had been tossed. The police interrogated Ruth Snyder as if she were the perpetrator of a husband’s demise. However, Ruth stuck to her outlandish story. She insisted to the police, “I was attacked by a big, rough – looking guy of about 35 with a black mustache. He was a foreigner, I guess some kind of Eyetalian.”
Dr. Harry Hansen was called in by the police to examine Albert Snyder’s dead body, and to examine Ruth Snyder for any sign that she had been assaulted. After examining Albert’s dead body, and Ruth also, Dr. Hansen was convinced that Ruth Snyder’s story was a complete fabrication. He gave his findings to Police Commissioner George McLaughlin, and the Police Commissioner agreed with Dr. Hansen’s conclusions. The Police Commissioner immediately sent 60 policeman to surround the Snyder residence, whereby Ruth was immediately arrested for questioning.
While Ruth was being grilled at the station house, the Snyder house was searched. The police found Ruth’s rings and necklaces under a mattress, and a fur coat hanging in a closet. That convinced the police that Ruth had made up the entire episode, and was most likely responsible for a husband’s death.
In the Snyder residence, the police also found an address book, with the names of 28 different men in it, including the name of Judd Grey. They also found a canceled check made out to Grey by Ruth Snyder for $200. Now the police knew that Ruth Snyder had had an accomplice.
Armed with this information, the police applied the screws to Ruth Snyder. They hoodwinked her into making a loose confession, by telling her that Judd Grey had already been arrested, and had named her as the killer of her husband. Ruth, incensed that her lover would rat her out so quickly, finally admitted that she indeed took part in the plan to kill her husband, but she pinned everything on the shy corset salesman. “But I didn’t aim a single blow on Albert,” Ruth told the police. “That was all Judd’s doing. At the last moment, I tried to stop him, but it was too late!”
Realized she had been tricked, Ruth Snyder then told police where they could find Judd Grey. The police cornered Grey in a Syracuse hotel and arrested him. Immediately, the usually quiet Grey began talking nonstop. He admitted everything, exactly as it happened, naming Ruth Snyder as the instigator of the whole sordid affair.
“I would have never killed Snyder, but for her,” Grey said. “She had this power over me. She just told me what to do, and I did it.”
The daily New York City newspapers played up the trial as “The Granite Woman,” versus the “Man of Putty.” The trial, which started on April 18, 1927, lasted 18 days. During the trial, Ruth Snyder was dressed entirely in black (obviously in mourning for her dearly-departed husband). She wore a crucifix on a chain around her neck, and she continuously fiddled with rosary beads, which were clutched in both hands on her lap. Judd Grey, dressed in a double-breasted, blue pinstriped suit, with fastidiously pressed trousers, sat impassively, as if he was resigned to his fate.
Celebrities from around the country attended the trial, with the thought of writing books, and possibly making movies about murder. Those people included mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, director D. W. Griffith, author Will Durant, actress Nora Bayes, and evangelists Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson.
One of the New York City’s top crime reporters, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, wrote in the New York Daily Mirror. “Poor Judd Grey! He hasn’t IT! He hasn’t anything. He’s just a sap who kissed and was told on. This ‘Putty Man’ was wonderful modeling material for the Swedish-Norwegian vampire. She was passionate, and she was cold-blooded. Her passion was for Grey; her cold-bloodedness was for her husband. You know woman can do things to men that make men crazy. I mean, they can exert their influence over them in such a way that men will do almost anything for them. And I guess that is what Ruth did to Judd.”
The trial itself was a three-ring circus, in which each defendant blamed the other for the murder of Albert Snyder. Ruth Snyder said on the witness stand that it was Judd Grey who had dragged her to illegal speakeasies and nightclubs. And it was he who drank until he got drunk. Snyder said she didn’t drink herself, and certainly never smoked. Then she told the big lie. She said under oath that it was Judd Grey who had insisted that she take out an expensive life insurance policy on husband’s life. Ruth told the court, “Once, he even sent me poison and told me to give it to my husband.”
When Judd Grey took the stand, he was a much more believable witness than Ruth Snyder. He told the court that Ruth Snyder had tried to kill her husband several times previously, but had been unsuccessful every time.
Grey said under oath, “I told her she was crazy, when she told me that she had given a husband poison as a cure for hiccups. I said to her that it was a hell of a way to cure hiccups.”
The entire time Grey was on the witness stand, Ruth Snyder sat with her head bowed, crying incessantly and fingering her rosary beads. Ruth’s outbursts of sorrow were so loud, the judge glared at her and told her to control herself.
Grey’s attorney tried to save his client from the electric chair, with a brilliant summation to the jury. Grey’s attorney told the jury that his client was, “The most tragic story that has ever gripped the human heart.” He said Judd Grey 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 a disguise of a woman.” His attorney also said that Judd Grey 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.”
On May 9, after the jury deliberated only 98 minutes, Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey were both found guilty of first-degree, premeditated murder. The judge immediately sentenced both of them to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison. In her prison cell while she awaited her execution, Ruth Snyder received 164 marriage proposals.
On January 12, 1928, Judd Grey sat in the electric chair first. After telling the Warden that he had received a letter from his wife forgiving him, he told the Warden that, “He was ready to go and had nothing to fear.”
Four minutes after Grey received the juice, Ruth Snyder sat down and was blindfolded in the electric chair. An enterprising reporter from the New York Daily News somehow entered the execution room with a tiny camera strapped to his ankle. At the instant the electric shock jolted Ruth Snyder’s body, the reporter snapped her picture. That death picture appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News the following day.
In 1944, the highly successful and critically acclaimed movie Double Indemnity, staring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, was released. The plot was based on the Ruth Brown Snyder and Judd Grey murder case. In 2007, the American Film Institute listed Double Indemnity as the 29th best movie on their list of the top 100 American movies of all time.
write by Joshua Olin