1928: DEAD! (NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)
Sales: 1.000.000 copies – Sources: Reliable – Status: Big image needed
«The most famous tabloid photo of the decade» Time-Life Books (1969: 185): This fabulous century, 1920-1930.
Had you ever seen a woman on the electric chair? Neither do I: not on films, never on the magazines… cos you are used to see men in that tragic situation. So maybe now you are shocked about the image of this front page of 1928. ¿What did this woman do to be in the electric chair?
«For sure it’s a great photo to catch people attention, because everyone look at this newspaper and inside them head would born a thought ‘Why women?? Why on the electric chair?’’ It’s normal curious of people, which leads to buy (in this case) newspaper to read about it», says Eliza Tymczuk.
This is an atypical cover, both the image and the outcome. It wasn’t the headline which started a story but which ended it. And how! Joseph Medill Patterson was the co-editor of the Chicago Tribune along with his cousin, Robert R. McCormick, but they did not fully agree on the editorial of the daily, so Patterson handed over the daily control to Colonel McCormick and he moved to New York to found the New York Illustrated Daily News (June 26 1919), following the advices of Lord Northcliffe, who he met during a trip to London. Mario García wrote: «The first tabloid newspaper in the United States was The Daily Graphic (1873-1889)», (2005, pág. 4-5), but the first tabloid with success was the Daily Mirror (1903), founded by Lord Northcliffe.
The New York Daily News (first published June 26, 1919), «soon attained a circulation of nearly one million, the largest among American tabloids», because of its sensationalism, and it’s considered the first modern tabloid due to its famous front cover of “Dead!” (January 13, 1928). It was the ‘Jazz Journalism’ era, a movement heir of mass journalism and sensationalism, which emerged after the First World War with newspapers as the Daily News, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Graphic, which had a tabloid format and gave a prominent role to photographic illustrations, which often occupied the entire front page.
The protagonist of the first page would be Ruth Snyder, 32, Scandinavian blonde, tall, attractive, loving of the Roaring Twenties, a normal wife of Queens Village, married to Albert, 45, with whom he had a daughter. Ruth met Judd Gray, also married with a child, and the started a romance in which they were lovers for two years. Ruth and Judd wanted to be together and the Albert’s tempting life insurance to $ 48,000 (Ruth’s husband) gave them the fatal idea. On March 12, 1927, Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray garrotted and killed Albert, to collect Ruth husband’s life insurance. They simulated a theft; Gray went away from the house and he left Ruth tied, but their strategy was short-lived. During the search on the house for evidences, a detective read the name ‘Judd Gray’ both in a checkbook and in an address book, so the detective asked Ruth: “What about Judd Gray”. Ruth replied awkwardly: “Has he confessed?”.
Finally, the defendants were convicted in May 1927 to the electric chair, and the eight months that passed since the crime was done till the execution were followed by all the newspapers on the East Coast, in pursuit of gaining more media. Robert Elliott was responsible for activating the electrical current. He was reputed to be a technical expert by varying the voltage: first shock was high so that the victim was knocked unconscious quickly; then low for the organs to stop, and then he alternated the voltage for the heart to stop. It is said that Elliott was horrified at the point of having to electrocute a woman, and he tried to convince the governor to commute the sentence to life imprisonment.
Eliza Tymczuk: «There is a kind of scandal; people are beings who like when something going wrong, so they want to know everything about bad things. Usually people don’t talk about good things and the topic ‘’who that women on electric chair is and what she did’’ is good».
1,500 requests were received to see the death of the lovers, when there was only room for 20 witnesses. The execution was going to be taken place in prison ‘Sing Sing’ in New York (January 13, 1928), and cameras were forbidden. So the Daily News, whose slogan was “New York’s Picture Newspaper”, hired a foreign photographer so he wouldn’t be recognized by the guards and journalists of New York. Tom Howard, a journalist of the Chicago Tribune (newspaper owned by the Daily News), managed to take a snapshot of the execution through a tiny camera attached to his ankle, which had not been detected by the prison security. Howard trip the shutter with a cord through his trousers and a hole in his pocket. The next day the Daily News published an extra edition and the picture shocked the whole country; it was the first time that all people could see someone executed in the electric chair. The image of “Ruthless Ruth” Snyder came out as the regular edition of January 14. It was such a great success that the Daily News had to print an additional 750,000 copies, and it sold one million extra copies, doubling the usual sales at newsstands.
Tom Howard pocketed $ 100 for «the most famous tabloid photo of the decade». Howard became famous for overnight, and he even went to work for the White House. Curiously, he was the grandfather of actor George Wendt, best known for his character “Norm!” on ‘Cheers’.
Eliza Tymczuk: «First women on execution on the front cover…even for me strange. Women in that time was perceived as a being who doesn’t do some terrible things and of course when people things about execution on electric chair in front of eyes we have men not a women! And here is the shock, we have women, who made something so bad that she deserved execution…».
Snyder wasn’t the first woman to die in the electric chair, but the first person electrocuted that appeared on a front page. Eric Meskauskas, former director of photography at the Daily News, said: «In those days, nobody had seen this stuff. It wasn’t on the movies or television, so it had a great impact on people».
The state attempted to prosecute Howard and the newspaper, but nothing ever came of it. For many years afterwards witnesses to executions were searched and asked to hold up their hands so they could not operate hidden cameras.