With Tennessee Senators voting Wednesday to reinstate the electric chair to execute capital inmates, TIME looks at the first known photograph of this controversial form of capital punishment.
In 1925, Ruth Snyder, a housewife from Queens, New York, took a lover, Judd Gray, a corsetmaker from upstate. Already married to Albert Snyder, an arts editor at MotorBoating magazine, she hid the affair for nearly three years. But on March 12, 1927, she and Gray planned a murder. After taking out a forged insurance policy, the two killed Ruth’s husband and staged a burglary scene. It didn’t take long for law enforcement to connect the dots, and a few months later, Gray and Snyder found themselves charged with first degree murder.
The court case was front page news and both Ruth and Judd found themselves constantly photographed for ever-evolving stories. Sing Sing, not one to change policy for press, reinstated that no photographers were to be present at the execution. But the public wanted to see.
The New York Daily News knew that the prison was familiar with many journalists from their staff, so they hired someone from out of town, Tom Howard, a then-unknown local photographer from the Chicago Tribune. Knowing he would never be allowed in with a camera, Howard strapped a single-use camera to his right ankle and wired a trigger release up his pant leg. Remarkably, he was allowed in. From across the room, Howard pointed his toe at the chair and took but one photo as Snyder took her last breaths.
The camera was rushed to the city and the film developed overnight. Editors and writers marveled at what was to be one of the most shocking photographs ever made: Snyder in the chair, the legs of the prison guard to the right. The image, shot on an angle, was cropped and published immediately with the headline: Dead!
The black-and-white image was shocking to the U.S. and international public alike. There sat a 32-year-old wife and mother, killed for killing. Her blurred figured seemed to evoke her struggle, as one can imagine her last, strained breaths. Never before had the press been able to attain such a startling image—one not made in a faraway war, one not taken of the aftermath of a crime scene, but one capturing the very moment between life and death here at home.
Tom Howard received a $100 bonus for taking the photo. For decades after, anyone attending an execution had to lift their pant legs for camera checks.
To this day, photographers are not allowed into executions. Many newspapers and online news sources still publish the frame before and after death, but rarely, if ever do we see the moment of death. Ruth Snyder’s last words, borrowed from the Crucifixion: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”
Erica Fahr Campbell is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME
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