In 1927 America was gripped by a sensational suburban murder, which became the inspiration for James M Cain’s classic crime novel, Double Indemnity.
There were two opinions going around about Ruth Snyder, even before she became notorious in 1927 for killing her husband in a pact with her lover, Judd Gray. Some of her neighbours in the suburban community of Queen’s Village, Long Island thought her a great gal and all-round good wife and mother. She kept a neat and frugal house, dressed her daughter well, cooked, sewed, bottled her own preserves, and made her husband comfortable. And so what if she also liked a tipple of bootleg rye and a night out occasionally? For other neighbours, her bleached bob and fancy perfume created an air of Jazz Age licentiousness, which was confirmed by her suspiciously frequent trips to Manhattan.
When she and her lover were charged with bashing Albert Snyder with a window-sash counterweight, drugging him with chloroform, and strangling him with picture wire, these more upright citizens could not help feeling, mixed with their shock and horror, a little gleeful vindication.
Of the two opinions of Ruth Snyder, the second, the Flapper Murderess, sold more newspapers, so that became the truth – though it was a truth hard to reconcile with the photos of Snyder published with the unfolding story. Dumpy and somewhat plain – the marcelled bob and the fashionable fur-trimmed coat notwithstanding – she hardly seemed the type to drive a mild-mannered corset salesman to murder. But, as Judd Gray explained from the witness box, he was under the spell of powerful sexual forces. He told the jury Snyder was a ‘Tiger Woman in bed’ (the newspapers really went to town on that phrase!) and he’d known nothing like it. For more than a year they met two or three times a week for trysts at the Warldorf, following up sometimes with a dance and drink at a nightclub.
As a topic of their post-coital pillow talk, Snyder would frequently turn to her degrading mistreatment by her husband. A picture editor for a boating magazine, Albert Snyder had made it plain to his wife soon after they married that he still held a torch for his former fiancée who had died young. A picture of the dead sweetheart hung for some years on the living room wall, he wore a tie-clip with her initials, and named both his boat and the family cat after her. On top of this and other mental cruelties, Ruth Snyder would complain of beatings. ‘I’d like to kill the beast,’ she would conclude, to which Gray eventually responded that he’d like the beast dead, too. ‘Do you really mean that?’ she asked coyly, and by such small degrees an intention was formed and, ultimately, a plan.
The plan was pretty lame. Kill the husband while he slept and make it look like a robbery was the general idea, but too many specifics were not properly thought through, especially if something went wrong. And it all went wrong from the start. The blow of the sash weight on Snyder’s skull only woke him up; there was a struggle; Gray called out for Ruth, who leapt into the melee in her nightie. It became a matter of conflicting testimony later in court as to who stuffed the chloroform-soaked rags in the husband’s face and who wound the picture wire around his neck and tugged, but the jury agreed that it would have needed two people.
Arriving at the murder scene, the investigating officers smelt a rat right away. In their experience, burglars try to avoid murdering householders in their beds, but, if that were their inclination, surely a knife or gun are less cumbersome than juggling sash weights, picture wire and bottles of chloroform. Very soon they found the purported stolen jewellery stuffed under the mattress. Under sceptical questioning, Mrs Snyder’s story fell apart and in her flustered state she mentioned the name of Judd Gray.
Meanwhile, Gray was on his way back upstate, where, to establish an alibi, he had booked into a Syracuse hotel the previous day. He thought the best course was to act normally, so he struck up conversations with fellow travellers, railway porters and even a cop on his beat, all of whom would later identify him. A cab driver distinctly recalled the little guy with the spectacles and the cleft chin because he stiffed him with a measly nickel tip.
As if to bolster their testimony, Gray neglected to destroy his train ticket, which was later found, with its incriminating date stamp, in his jacket pocket. Some tabloids called it the ‘Sash Weight Murder’, but Damon Runyon, reporting for the Hearst papers, quipped that it ought to be called the ‘Dumb Bell Murder’.
Open and shut from get-go, the case got an unnecessary boost when insurance policies were found in a safe deposit box under Ruth Snyder’s maiden name. One policy insured Albert Snyder against mishap for $48,000, with double indemnity for accidental death. There was evidence that he had signed it unwittingly. His wife had paid the premiums without his knowing, bribing the postman to ring twice to alert her if there was any letter from the insurance company.
The Snyder-Gray trial held America in morbid fascination for almost a year, right up to the moment, on 12 January 1928, in Sing Sing prison before a crowd of dignitaries, journalists and well-connected gawkers, the switch was pulled to send the fatal amperage through a shaved section in Ruth Brown Snyder’s famous blonde bob. Henry Judd Gray took his turn in the chair a few minutes later, contrite and reciting the Beatitudes.
MTC’s World Premiere stage adaptation of Double Indemnity is now playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse but must close this weekend. Book your tickets today.