Thursday, March 20, 2014



On March 20, 1899, Martha Place of Brooklyn, New York became the first woman to be executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison. She had been sentenced to die for the murder of her step-daughter. Place would be the first of a number of women to be electrocuted in “Old Sparky,” as the chair at Sing Sing came to be known, but the most sensational would occur almost three decades later in the very same chair.

"Old Sparky" at Sing Sing was the last chair for 614 men 
and women over the years

Martha Place was the first woman to be executed in the chair, but she was not the first in New York’s history to be sentenced to death. That dubious distinction belongs to a woman named Maria Barbella, who was convicted of murdering her lover in 1895.

Maria Barbella
Barbella was born in Ferrandina, Basilicata, Italy. Her family immigrated to Mulberry Bend, New York in 1892 and after living in America for nearly a year, she met Domenico Cataldo, who was from the same region of Italy. She became infatuated with the handsome shoeshine man and passed by his stand every day on her way home from the factory where she worked. The two began spending time together, but when Maria’s overprotective father found out, she was forbade from seeing him – an order she disobeyed.

The only known photograph of Maria Barbella

One day Cataldo took her to a boarding house, where he allegedly drugged her and took advantage of her. Maria became upset afterwards and demanded that he marry her. Cataldo agreed, but kept putting of the wedding date. Maria continued to meet him at his boarding house, believing that marriage was soon to follow. She was devastated when he told her that he was returning to Italy and was ending the relationship. She again demanded that he marry her and this time, Cataldo told her the truth and revealed that he was already married to a woman back home in Italy. When Maria told her mother about the situation, the older woman confronted Cataldo and insisted that he marry her daughter. Cataldo agreed – but only if the family paid him $200. With little money to speak of, the family was unable to pay.

On the morning of April 26, 1895, Cataldo was playing cards in a saloon on East 13th Street in New York, waiting to board the ship that would return him to Italy. Maria Barbella entered the bar and there was a brief exchange. "Only a pig can marry you!" were his last words. Maria whipped out a straight razor and slashed his neck so swiftly Cataldo had no chance to scream. He staggered out the door, clutching his throat with both hands, knocking Maria over, spraying blood everywhere. He managed to stagger out into the street and fell down dead in the gutter.

Maria was quickly arrested and taken to the “Tombs,” New York’s House of Detention, and remained there for more than two months. Attorneys Amos Evans and Henry Sedgwick were appointed to represent her at her trial, which began on July 11. This case stirred up controversy because Italians felt that the verdict was unjust since there were no Italians in the jury. At the time of the trial, Maria was unable to speak or understand English. She confessed to everything and while the jury had sympathy for her, there was little they could do but declare her guilty. She was sentenced to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing on August 19, 1895, the first woman in New York history to receive such a sentence.  

Thanks to her attorneys, this was not the end of Maria’s story. Numerous complaints were filed with the governor about the trial, but there was little that could be done. Finally, her attorneys managed to appeal on the grounds that she was “epileptic” and “mentally ill” over the situation with Cataldo. She was found not guilty in a second trial. After her release from prison, Maria married an Italian immigrant named Francesco Bruno on November 4, 1897 and gave birth to a son two years later. She had narrowly escaped the electric chair, but her story does not have a happy ending. By 1902, records show that she was living with her parents and her husband had returned to Italy and married another woman. Whatever became of Maria after that is unknown, but it’s likely that she remained unlucky in love.

Martha Place
In 1899, Martha Place became the first woman in New York to “ride the lightning,” as the old guards often called a seat in the electric chair.

Martha Place

Born Martha "Mattie" Garretson on September 18, 1849 in Readington Township, New Jersey, her early life was uneventful. Then, at age 23, she was struck in the head by a sleigh. Her brother claimed that she never completely recovered and that the accident left her mentally unstable. In 1893, though, she married a widower named William Place, who had a daughter named Ida from a previous marriage. William married Martha to help him raise his daughter, although it was later rumored that Martha was jealous of Ida. William called the police at least once after his wife threatened to kill the girl.

On the evening of February 7, 1898, William Place arrived at his Brooklyn, New York home and was attacked by Martha, who was wielding an axe. William escaped for help and when the police arrived, they found Martha Place in critical condition. She was lying on the floor with clothes over her head. She had opened the gas pipes and was allowing gas to fill the room in a suicide attempt. Upstairs, they discovered the dead body of 17-year-old Ida Place lying on a bed. Her mouth was bleeding and her eyes disfigured from having acid thrown in them. The evidence later indicated Ida Place died from asphyxiation. Martha Place was hospitalized and arrested.

Place proclaimed her innocence while awaiting trial but the jury refused to believe it. She was quickly found guilty of Ida’s murder and sentenced to death. Her husband was a key witness against her.

The governor of the State of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, was asked to commute Place's death sentence, but he refused. Having never executed a woman in the electric chair, those responsible for carrying out the death warrant devised a new way to place the electrodes upon her, deciding to slit her dress and place the electrode on her ankle. Edwin F. Davis was the executioner. According to the reports of witnesses, she died instantly.

As far as executions go, it was relatively a simple one, but the same could not be said for the electrocution of the next -- and most famous -- woman to die at Sing Sing.

Ruth Snyder
The Snyder murder, as one crime writer put it, was a "cheap crime involving cheap people." Many considered it the low point in the history of the early 1900s but for those who lived in the thrill-hungry days of the "Roaring '20s," they devoured every sordid detail and made the otherwise mundane Ruth Snyder and her accomplice, Judd Gray, into infamous celebrities. In addition to murder, their second-greatest crime was simply being stupid.

"Red Hot Cutie" Ruth Snyder.... uh?

The events in the case began quietly in 1925 when Ruth Brown Snyder, a discontented Long Island housewife, met a corset salesman named Henry Judd Gray while having lunch in New York. Ruth, 32, was a tall blonde with solid good looks and a commanding personality. Judd Gray, 34, was short and almost instantly forgettable. He had a cleft chin and thick glasses that gave him a perpetual look of surprise. Despite the fact that they seemed to be polar opposites, sexual attraction flared between the two of them at their first meeting and they soon began a torrid affair.

Ruth Snyder's husband, Albert, was the art editor of the magazine Motor Boating and was never home during the day. The adulterous couple only had the Snyder's nine-year-old daughter, Lorraine, to contend with and the amorous pair would often meet at the Snyder's home while Lorraine was at school. On other occasions, the little girl would be left in a hotel lobby while her mother and her lover met upstairs. They met as often as possible and seemed unable to get enough of one another.

But Ruth Snyder soon changed from a sex-obsessed housewife to a woman with devious plans. Bored in her loveless marriage, she tried to convince Judd that her husband mistreated her and that he must be killed. Gray objected but Ruth continued to pester him with hints, suggestions and outright demands.

Finally, on Saturday, March 19, 1927, Judd gave in. It was a cold, raw day on Long Island and Gray spent most of the day drinking, trying to summon the courage to go through with the murder. He and Ruth had cooked up a plan that had him traveling by train to New York from Syracuse and then by bus to Long Island. When he arrived in Queens Village, where the Snyders lived, he walked around for an hour, stopping under street lights to take drinks from his flask. It was almost as if he hoped to be spotted and arrested for breaking the law. No one paid any attention to him, though, and finally, he had to enter the Snyder home. He came in through the back door, as he and Ruth had planned. The Snyder family was away at a party and would return late. Judd had promised to hide in a spare room, where Ruth had left a window sash weight, rubber gloves and chloroform, all the tools of murder.

The family returned around 2:00 a.m. and Ruth opened the bedroom door a crack. She whispered, "Are you in there, Bud, dear?" She soon returned wearing only a slip and the two had sex with her husband asleep just down the hallway. Finally, after about an hour, Gray grabbed the window sash weight and Ruth led him to the master bedroom, where Albert Snyder slept with the blankets up over his head. The two of them stood on opposite sides of the bed and then Gray raised the sash weight and brought it down clumsily onto Snyder's head. The weak blow merely glanced off the man's skull and while stunned, he let out a roar and tried to seize his attacker. Judd became terrified and let out a whining scream for help.

There was no panic in Ruth Snyder and with a snort of disgust and anger, she grabbed the weight from Judd's hands and crashed it down on her husband's skull, killing him. After that, the two of them went downstairs, had drinks and chatted about the rest of their plan. They faked a robbery by knocking over some chairs and loosely tying Ruth's hands and feet. Minutes after Gray left, Ruth began banging on Lorraine's door. The child ran out and removed the gag from her mother's mouth. She told her daughter to get help and Lorraine ran next door to the neighbor's house, where the police were called.

Damon Runyon, the celebrated newsman, later wrote that Ruth and Judd were "inept idiots" and called the whole mess the Dumb-bell Murder, "because it was so dumb."

A crime scene photo of Albert Snyder after his head had been bashed in. Unbelievably, Ruth received 164 offers of marriage while she was in the death cell.

Even though the pair believed they had planned well, their "robbery" was far from convincing to experienced police officers. All of the items that Ruth said had been taken by the mysterious burglar were found hidden in the house and detectives began to question her. Surprisingly, she gave up almost at once and confessed to the murder but not surprisingly she blamed everything on Judd Gray. He was found hours later, hiding in his Syracuse hotel room. He shrieked his innocence and insisted that he had not been in New York. When confronted with the train ticket stub that he had carelessly tossed in the trash can of the hotel room, he broke down and confessed. Like Ruth, he blamed everything on his accomplice.

By the time the case went to trial, the two former lovers were at one another's throats, each blaming the other for the deadly deed. The trial became a media frenzy. Celebrities attended in droves, including mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, director D.W. Griffith, author Will Durant, evangelists Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson and many others. McPherson even received a large sum from the New York Evening Graphic to write up a piece on the sordid case. Sister Aimee used her column to encourage young men to say, "I want a wife like mother -- not a Red Hot cutie."

Both defendants had separate attorneys arguing for their innocence. Ruth's lawyer stated that her husband "drove love out from the house" by longing after a departed sweetheart. He also said that Gray had tempted her by setting up a $50,000 double indemnity insurance policy on Albert Snyder. She was a loving wife, her attorney insisted, and it was not her fault about the conditions in her home. He then put the "wronged woman" on the stand, wearing a simple black dress. She played the role of the suffering wife, describing how her husband ignored her most of the time, except when taking her to the occasional movie. It had been she who had read from the Bible to daughter Lorraine and had made sure the little girl attended Sunday school. Her lawyer glossed over the Gray romance and Ruth justified their affair by saying that Judd was also unhappy at home. The affair had turned horrible as "Lover Boy" dragged her to speakeasies and night spots, where she had watched him drink himself senseless. She, Ruth swore, rarely ever touched a drink and never, ever smoked. Then she testified that Gray insisted that she take out the heavy insurance policy on her husband. She also told the court that he had once sent her poison and told her to give it to her husband.

At this, the excitable Judd Gray began whispering to his lawyers. A short time later, he also took the witness stand and his attorney described Judd's situation as "the most tragic story that has ever gripped the human heart." The lawyer claimed that Judd 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 the disguise of a woman." He then added that he 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."

Ruth Snyder’s Final Photograph

Judd played the victim when he took the stand, nervously glancing over at his elderly mother, who was sitting in the courtroom next to the actress Nora Bayes, who had come to watch the show. He testified that Ruth had tried to kill her husband several times, once putting knockout drops in his drink and when they failed, trying to gas him. He also testified that she had once given Albert Snyder poison as a cure for the hiccups. It made the man violently ill instead. Judd said innocently, “I told her she was crazy. I said to her that it was a hell of a way to cure hiccups.”

Finally, Judd stated that it had been Ruth who had taken out the insurance policy on Snyder and it had not been his doing, or his idea, at all. He also described how she had struck the death blow on the night of the murder. At this, Ruth began to sob loudly in the courtroom and even the judge glanced in her direction. The jury was out only 98 minutes before coming back with a verdict of guilty. Both defendants were stunned and then shocked even further when they learned the sentence for their crime was death.

Judd Gray was executed first on January 12, 1928. He sat smiling in his cell when the warden came for him. He had received a letter from his wife forgiving him. He told the warden that he was ready to go. He said, “I have nothing to fear.”

Ruth Snyder followed her former lover just minutes after she watched the prison lights flicker, signaling that the switch had been thrown for the electric chair. Reporters remembered that, as she was being led to the death chamber, that she had said days before that God had forgiven her and that she hoped the world would.

A clever reporter from the New York Daily News smuggled a camera into the death chamber by strapping it to his ankle. He managed to click off a photo just as the current entered Ruth's body and snapped her body against the chair straps. The photograph ran in the next day's edition of the paper but soon the lurid tale faded into history. Soon, people remembered the photo more than they remembered who had been sitting in the chair. 

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