Thursday, March 27, 2014



The year 1906 marked a turning point in American medicine. It was the year when the new science of bacteriology gained public attention when it was used in the investigation of a typhoid outbreak in New York City. The outbreak was a mysterious one to the doctors of the time because it led the authorities to a healthy woman who was unknowingly spreading the disease. As these same authorities struggled to convince her that she was infecting the people she worked for, they eventually quarantined her for 26 years, starting on March 27, 1915.

The story of “Typhoid Mary” has had a lingering effect on American history. Her name alone has become a metaphor for fear of contamination from contagious disease and her plight now symbolizes the need to balance the civil liberties of disease-carrying individuals when the population at large is at risk.

Her story has had other lingering effects as well, namely on the place of her confinement, a now-abandoned hospital on New York’s North Brother Island. Is one of the ghosts that still walks the hallways of the hospital that of Typhoid Mary? Perhaps, for hers was a strange history…

The tale of Typhoid Mary began in the summer of 1906, when New York banker Charles Henry Warren rented a summer home for his family in Oyster Bay, Long Island. The house was rented from George Thompson and a large staff was hired, including an Irish immigrant named Mary Mallon, who was employed as a cook.

Mary Mallon, who became known as “Typhoid Mary”

On August 27, one of the Warren’s daughters became ill with typhoid fever. Soon after, Mrs. Warren and two maids also became stricken with the same symptoms of high fever, diarrhea, vomiting, chills and a rash. Days later, another daughter became sick, as did the Warrens’ gardener. In all, six of the 11 people in the household came down with typhoid.

Since the most common way that typhoid was spread was through food and water sources, the owners of the house feared that they would not be able to rent the property again without first discovering the source of the outbreak. The Thompsons first hired investigators to look into the situation, but they were unsuccessful in finding the cause. Then, they hired George Soper, a civil engineer who had experience with typhoid fever outbreaks. It was Soper who believed that the recently hired cook, Mary Mallon, was the cause of the sickness. Mallon left the Warrens about three weeks after the outbreak and went to work for another wealthy family. Soper began researching her employment history, looking for clues.

Mary Mallon had been born on September 23, 1869 in Cookstown, County Tyrone, Ireland. According to what she told friends, Mary came to America at the age of 15. Like many Irish immigrant women, she found work as a domestic servant. She became a cook, which paid better than most domestic service positions.

Soper traced Mary’s employment history back to 1900 and found that typhoid outbreaks had followed her from job to job. From 1900 to 1907, Soper found that Mary had worked at seven jobs in which 22 people had become ill, including one young girl who died from typhoid shortly after Mary came to work for her family.

Soper was convinced that this was not a coincidence, and yet he needed stool and blood samples from Mary to prove that she was a carrier. The idea that someone could be healthy and still carry a disease – and spread it to others – was a concept that had been announced by Robert Koch but had not yet been proven in any individual. Mary, Soper knew, might be the first such person discovered by science.

In March 1907, Soper found Mary working as a cook in the home of Walter Bowen and his family. Soper needed samples from Mary and he confronted her at her place of work. She was shocked, as anyone would have been. As far as she knew, she was quite healthy and now she was being approached by a stranger who not only told her that she was spreading some sort of disease that was killing people, but wanted her to give him samples of her blood and her feces. Mary not only refused, she became quite angry.

Soper later wrote:

I had my first talk with Mary in the kitchen of this house. . . . I was as diplomatic as possible, but I had to say I suspected her of making people sick and that I wanted specimens of her urine, feces and blood. It did not take Mary long to react to this suggestion. She seized a carving fork and advanced in my direction. I passed rapidly down the long narrow hall, through the tall iron gate . . . and so to the sidewalk. I felt rather lucky to escape.

But Soper was relentless in his pursuit. He followed Mary to her home and tried to approach her again. This time, he brought an assistant, Dr. Bert Raymond Hoobler, for support. Again, Mary was enraged and made it clear that they were unwelcome. She cursed at them as they made a quick retreat. Soper, now realizing that it was going to take more persuasiveness than he was able to offer, handed his research and theories over to Hermann Biggs at the New York City Health Department. Biggs agreed with Soper’s theories and sent Dr. S. Josephine Baker to talk to Mary.

After Soper’s clumsy attempts to obtain blood and stool samples from her, Mary was now extremely suspicious of doctors and health officials. She refused to listen to Baker and sent her away. Baker returned a short time later, this time with five police officers and an ambulance. When they arrived at the house, Mary met them at the door with a long kitchen fork in her hand (likely the same one she had chased away Soper with) and lunged at Dr. Baker with it. As Baker stepped back, colliding with police officers behind her and knocking them down the steps, Mary slammed the door shut and made a run for it. By the time they got the door open and followed in pursuit, Mary had disappeared. Baker and the policemen searched the house but found nothing. Eventually, footprints were discovered leading from the house to a chair placed next to a fence. Mary had apparently escaped into a neighbor’s yard – or so they thought at first.

They searched both properties for the next five hours until, finally, they found what Dr. Baker later described as “a tiny scrap of blue calico caught in the door of the areaway closet under the high outside stairway leading to the front door.”

Mary was dragged from the closet “fighting and swearing” and even though Dr. Baker spoke to her calmly about the specimens that she needed, Mary refused to listen. Dr. Baker wrote, “By that time she was convinced that the law was wantonly persecuting her, when she had done nothing wrong. She knew she had never had typhoid fever; she was maniacal in her integrity. There was nothing I could do but take her with us. The policemen lifted her into the ambulance and I literally sat on her all the way to the hospital; it was like being in a cage with an angry lion.”

Mary was taken to Willard Parker Hospital and there, the specimens were finally taken. Laboratory results showed that Mary indeed had typhoid bacilli in her stool – she was a carrier of typhoid fever. As the first healthy typhoid carrier in New York City, Mary was made an example of by public health officials and was punished for her resistance to their tests. She was promptly detained and was quarantined on North Brother Island, located in the East River near the Bronx, which housed hundreds of individuals infected with highly contagious tuberculosis and other conditions. The otherwise healthy Mary Mallon was confined in a cottage on the island, making newspaper headlines and creating her infamous nickname of “Typhoid Mary.”

Mary had been taken by force and was being held against her will without a trial. She had not broken any laws but, because of the fact that she was a lowly Irish immigrant with no money or political clout and also because she was infected with an illness that people dreaded at the time, she found few to rally to her cause. Mary believed that she was being unfairly persecuted. She could not understand how she could have spread disease and caused a death when she, herself, seemed healthy. She wrote, “I never had typhoid in my life, and have always been healthy. Why should I be banished like a leper and compelled to live in solitary confinement with only a dog for a companion?”

Public officials felt they had every right to lock up Mary indefinitely, basing their power on sections 1169 and 1170 of the Greater New York Charter, which read:

The board of health shall use all reasonable means for ascertaining the existence and cause of disease or peril to life or health, and for averting the same, throughout the city. [Section 1169]

Said board may remove or cause to be removed to [a] proper place to be by it designated, any person sick with any contagious, pestilential or infectious disease; shall have exclusive charge and control of the hospitals for the treatment of such cases. [Section 1170]

The charter was written before anyone knew that “healthy carriers” – people who seemed healthy but carried a contagious form of disease that could infect others – could even exist. But the health officials of the early 1900s believed that healthy carriers were even more dangerous than those that were sick with a disease because there was no way to visibly identify a healthy carrier so that they could be avoided or quarantined. For this reason, they had no issues with locking Mary away for as long as they deemed necessary. 

Mary was initially confined for two years on North Brother Island, during which time she wrote letters and filed a legal suit pleading for her freedom and release from the island.

A scathing story about Mary Mallon in the New York American in 1909 subjected her to public scrutiny.

During the time of her confinement, health officials had taken and analyzed her stool samples about once a week. The samples mostly came back positive with typhoid, but not always. For nearly a year, Mary also sent samples to a private lab, which tested all of her samples negative for typhoid. Feeling healthy and with her own lab results in hand, Mary believed that she was being unfairly held.

But in truth, Mary did not understand much about typhoid fever and, unfortunately, no one tried to explain it to her. Not all people have a strong bout of typhoid fever; some people have such a weak case that they only experience flu-like symptoms. Because of this, Mary could have had typhoid fever without knowing it. Though it was commonly known at the time that typhoid could be spread by water or food products, people who are infected by the typhoid bacillus could also pass on the disease by not washing their hands after using the bathroom. For this reason, infected cooks (like Mary) or food handlers had the most likelihood of spreading the disease.

In 1909, Mary argued to the Supreme Court that she was never sick and was never given due process before her confinement. The court ruled against Mary, setting the precedent for the courts to rule in favor of public health officials when individual liberties were at stake. Mary was remanded to the custody of the Board of Health of the City of New York and went back to her isolated cottage on North Brother Island with little hope of ever being released.

In 1910, however, the new health commissioner of New York decided to release Mary as long as she agreed to regularly report to the health department and to promise that she would never work as a cook again. Anxious to regain her freedom, Mary accepted the conditions. On February 19, she was let free.

Mary vanished into obscurity after her release – but not for long.

In January 1915, the Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan suffered a typhoid fever outbreak in which two people died and 23 others became sick. During the investigation, evidence pointed to a recently hired cook, Mrs. Brown – who was actually Mary Mallon using a false name.

Some believe that Mary never had any intention of following the conditions of her release, but most likely she found that not working as a cook forced her into domestic positions that did not pay as well. Feeling healthy, Mary still did not believe that she could spread typhoid. Mary first worked as a laundress and at a few other jobs, but for some reason that has never been documented, Mary eventually went back to working as a cook.

If the public had shown Mary any sympathy during her first period of quarantine because she was an unknowing typhoid carrier, it disappeared after she was locked up again. This time, Typhoid Mary knew of her carrier status – even if she didn’t believe it – and so she willingly and knowingly caused suffering and death to her victims. The fact that she had been using a false name made her look even more guilty.

On March 27, 1915, Mary was sent back to her cottage on North Brother Island and she remained there, imprisoned on the island, for the next 23 years. The exact life that she led on the island is unclear but it is known that she helped around the island’s Riverside Hospital, earning the title of nurse in 1922. In 1925, she began helping in the hospital’s lab.

Mary Mallon’s cottage on North Brother Island

In December 1932, she suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed. She was then transferred from her cottage to a bed in the hospital’s children’s ward, where she stayed until her death six years later on November 11, 1938.

In the years that followed her death, the term “Typhoid Mary” stopped referring to Mary Mallon and became a term for anyone who has a contagious illness. People who change jobs frequently are also sometimes joking referred to as a “Typhoid Mary.” Mary Mallon changed jobs frequently. Some believed that it was because she knew she was guilty, but it was likely because domestic jobs at the time usually didn’t last long.

But how did Mary become such a legend? Yes, she was the first healthy carrier to be found, but she was not the only once discovered at the time. An estimated 3,000 to 4,500 cases of typhoid fever were reported in New York City alone and it was estimated that about three percent of those who had typhoid fever became carriers, creating more than 90 new carriers a year.

Mary was also not the most deadly. There were 47 cases of typhoid connected to Mary, while Tony Labella (another healthy carrier) caused 122 people to become sick and five deaths. Labella was only isolated for two weeks and then was released.

Mary was also not the only healthy carrier who broke the health officials’ rules after being told of her contagious status. Alphonse Cotlis, a restaurant and bakery owner, was told not to prepare food for other people. When health officials found him back at work, they agreed to let him go free when he promised to conduct his business over the phone.

So, why was Mary singled out? Why was she the only carrier isolated for life? These questions are impossible to answer. Some historians believe that it was prejudice that contributed to her extreme treatment by health officials. She was Irish; she was a woman, uneducated, a domestic servant, had no family and was basically a “nobody.” She didn’t have the money or the position to fight back and when she did, she was dismissed by the courts for all of the same reasons. Despite Mary’s temperament and her violation of the conditions of her release, one has to wonder if the “crime” really deserved the punishment she was given.

   The question remains unanswered today, which is perhaps the reason why her spirit is still said to linger at the abandoned hospital where she spent her final days.

The ruins of Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island

North Brother Island is a place of ghosts.

It lies on 13 acres just southwest of Hunts Point in the East River. It is a remnant of a long-forgotten era in New York history. The island has been abandoned since 1963, when the city closed down Riverside Hospital, which had opened in 1886 to treat and isolate victims of contagious diseases. It gained its notoriety during the tenure of Mary Mallon and remains a mysterious place today, off limits to the public because it is the nesting place of a species of rare black-crowned herons.

It is, without question, a spooky place – and some say a haunted one. Time seems to have bypassed North Brother Island’s gaslight-lined streets, brownstone hospital buildings, crumbling doctor’s houses and sandy beaches littered with cookware and heavy glass tonic bottles.

Tragedy first bloodied the island’s history in June 1905 when the General Slocum disaster took the lives of 1,141 people, most of them German immigrants from the Lower East Side. They were on their way to a Sunday picnic on Long Island when the overcrowded steamer was accidentally set ablaze. The ship ran aground on North Brother Island and doctors and patients from the hospital ran to try and save the hundreds of passengers who had jumped from the burning ship. For hours after the tragedy, bodies continued to wash up on the island’s shore and the beaches were strewn with victims.

For decades after, island residents spoke of seeing the ghosts of these victims as they wandered the grounds, weeping for their lives and those of loved ones lost in the disaster.

Perhaps these spirits do not walk alone…

Riverside Hospital was closed as a quarantine hospital in 1942. It was abandoned for a short time before briefly being used as housing for World War II veterans who were studying at New York colleges. It was serviced by two ferries that regularly stopped at the western slip, but this proved inefficient and expensive, and when cheaper housing was found for these men, the island was abandoned again.

In 1952, it opened again, this time as an experimental juvenile drug treatment facility that was offered as an alternative to going to jail. The tuberculosis pavilion of the hospital (which was built in 1942 and never actually used to house tuberculosis patients) became a dormitory and then a main residence and treatment building for the program. The doors to many of the rooms were retrofitted into seclusion rooms with sheet metal reinforcement and heavy deadbolts that could be used for withdrawal management.

The experimental plan would take a patient, newly arrived and addicted to heroin, and place him in one of these rooms with no conveniences except for a bare mattress and a mess bucket. They would be forced to undergo withdrawal in the seclusion room without any kind of medicine. After several days, when withdrawal was complete, the patient would be introduced into the general population. It was believed that this harsh return to reality, followed up by a stay of no less than 90 days on the island, and bolstered by athletics and education, would provide the best chance against relapse.

All of the buildings on the island were renovated. The services building became the school, the nurses’ residence became the girls’ dormitory, and the tuberculosis pavilion became the admissions hospital and boys’ residence. The building next to the tuberculosis pavilion – originally the hospital’s children’s ward, where Mary Mallon spent her final days – was turned into a library and annex to the school.

The grand experiment was a failure. Recidivism rates were extremely high, and even at the isolated island hospital, patients still found means of obtaining and using drugs. There are accounts of boyfriends making the trip to the island in order to visit in the middle of the night; accounts of orderlies getting paid in cigarettes to smuggle heroin on the ferries; and accounts of physical and sexual abuse on and by patients. The hospital was shuttered and the island was abandoned in 1963 for the final time. 

The lost souls of this era certainly left an indelible mark on the island but the most famous troubled spirit that may linger is that of Typhoid Mary herself. Mary was first quarantined on the island in 1907 after causing a number of outbreaks of typhoid fever. She was set free in 1910 but returned to the island five years later after an investigation into an outbreak of typhoid at a Manhattan hospital revealed that she was once again working as a cook, under an assumed name. She was send back to her cottage on the island, this time for good.

Mary never understood that she was a carrier of a possible deadly disease. Instead, she felt she was a victim of persecution at the hands of officials who could neither prove that she was the source of these outbreaks nor explain to her why she felt so healthy and why she seemed free of any of the typical symptoms of typhoid. In 1938, she died on the island due to complications from a stroke she had suffered six years earlier.

Mary’s cottage was demolished after her death – officials felt that it was unsafe for habitation – but she spent much of her time working, and later dying, at Riverside Hospital, where her ghost is still believed to walk.

Over the years, visitors to the island – those who brave the river and the warnings against trespassers – have reported the spirit of a woman who wanders the corridors of the crumbling old hospital. She has been seen a number of times by a wide variety of people, including staff members at the hospital during the era when the drug treatment program was in place. One account details an orderly who followed the woman down a corridor, only to see her walk into one of the rooms. Thinking that one of the inmates had gotten out of her room, the orderly hurried down the hall and entered the exam room – only to find there was no one there!

Was this woman one of the many tragic spirits of North Brother Island, or could it have been the ghost of Mary Mallon, unable to rest after nearly three decades of punishment that she never felt she deserved?

No one will likely ever know for sure.

Saturday, March 22, 2014



On March 22, 1820, the still young United States lost one of its greatest heroes – naval commander and legend of the Barbary Wars, Stephen Decatur. His life was not lost in battle, though, he was shot to death in a duel just outside of Washington, D.C. – the bullet fired by a bitter fellow naval officer named James Barron.

This was not the first time – or the last – that lives were cut short on Washington’s dueling grounds, or even in the halls of Congress.

Hamilton and Burr
The idea of a politician having a murderous streak must have begun with Alexander Hamilton. Even before his fateful duel with Aaron Burr, this member of the contingent of Founding Fathers had a penchant for bickering with just about everyone. He despised John Adams and actively disliked Thomas Jefferson and James Madison but his hatred for Aaron Burr bordered on pathological. Although Hamilton and Burr maintained a superficial relationship, Hamilton seemed bent on destroying his “friend” politically from the time Burr was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1791, if not before that.

No one knows what originally caused the rift between Hamilton and Burr, although Hamilton always maintained that it was purely political. Others have suggested that a romantic rivalry may have existed between them, with both men competing for the same woman. It should be noted that Hamilton and Burr were both unapologetic adulterers. Hamilton even had an affair with his own sister-in-law and was forced to make a public account of another affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds.

Whatever the cause of Hamilton’s hatred, he criticized Burr relentlessly. He was particularly cruel during the election of 1800, when Burr was running for president. (He lost by a handful of votes to Thomas Jefferson in one of the most contested presidential elections in history and, coming in second, became vice president).

For years, Burr ignored Hamilton’s writings and caustic jibes but that changed in 1804, when Burr was running for governor of New York. He suffered an embarrassing loss, mostly due to Hamilton’s efforts against him. During the campaign, a letter appeared in a newspaper that was unfriendly to Burr. Although it was not written by Hamilton, the letter noted, among other things, that Burr was “a dangerous man… who ought not to be trusted.” When the letter writer, Dr. Charles D. Cooper, was challenged on this statement, he defended his position and stated: “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”

No one has ever learned what this “still more despicable opinion” that Hamilton may have expressed but some have ventured that he accused Burr of incest with his daughter. Whatever it might have been, Burr decided that it needed clarification and he demanded that Hamilton provide it. Hamilton was evasive in his replies and refused to state what he allegedly told Dr. Cooper. More letters were exchanged between the two men, growing more heated with each passing day. Finally, their animosity led to what has become one of the most famous duels in American history.

On the hot morning of July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States, and Alexander Hamilton, one of the country’s most eminent statesmen, faced one another with pistols on a stretch of land overlooking the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey. Each man was seeking to kill or maim the other in what was referred to as “the court of last resort.”

Hamilton had spent the previous evening preparing for his possible death at the hands of a superior marksman. He settled his affairs and penned letters that stated that he had no personal animosity toward Burr, only political. He concluded his letter: “I shall hazard much and can possibly gain nothing.” This sentiment did not stop him from going to the field of honor, with gun in hand, the following day.

Perfect decorum was displayed at Weehawken. When Burr and his second saw Hamilton approaching the field with his own second, they stood straight, removed their hats and saluted in a gentlemanly manner. The seconds made the arrangements, measuring the distance between the combatants and carefully loaded the pistols. Then, Burr and Hamilton took their assigned places. At the moment of truth, Burr pulled the trigger. Hamilton lurched upward, spun to the left, and fell on his face. When he hit the earth, his finger convulsively jerked the trigger and his pistol discharged into the air. The bullet clipped off a tree branch high over Burr’s head.

While Hamilton bled into the earth (he died the following day), Burr was taken away from the site. He had survived the encounter and received the satisfaction that he sought. He paid the price for that satisfaction, however. He soon faced murder indictments in New York and New Jersey and faced the scorn of the nation, horrified by Hamilton’s demise. Burr’s political career was ruined, giving Hamilton in death what he had tried so hard to accomplish during his life.

The Code Duello
It comes as a surprise to many modern readers that eminent politicians like Burr and Hamilton would engage in such a bloody business, but their duel was hardly an isolated event. Deadly duels were frequently fought throughout the country – from before America’s independence to well after the Civil War – by some of our most esteemed citizens. Future presidents, members of Congress, judges, governors and generals often found themselves on the field of honor, settling real and imagined attacks on their dignity. Both Burr and Hamilton had been involved in other duels, as had many politicians close to them. On one occasion, Hamilton had nearly dueled with future president James Monroe but (ironically), Aaron Burr stepped in and helped to settle the situation.

Dueling began in medieval Europe and became popular over the centuries, especially in Ireland, where it became a sport as well as a means of settling disputes. The Code Duello, developed there in 1777, became a set of rules that covered nearly every American duel and contained a list of provisions for all aspects of civilized combat. It outlined the exact number of steps to be measured between combatants, rules about cowardice, proper behavior and more.

Across the country, Americans enthusiastically killed one another with style and nowhere was this more true than at the Bladensburg Dueling Ground. This place, located just over the Maryland border from Washington, became known as “The Dark and Bloody Grounds.” There were more than 50 duels fought here during the first half of the nineteenth century but perhaps the most famous involved naval hero Stephen Decatur. The conqueror of the Barbary pirates was at the height of his national popularity when he was shot to death by a bitter fellow officer, James Barron, in 1820.

Stephen Decatur

Barron’s hatred of Decatur stretched back more than 13 years. Barron had been in command of the frigate Chesapeake when it encountered the British ship Leopold off the coast of Virginia. Britain was then in the habit of boarding American ships and kidnapping sailors, claiming that they were British citizens. Barron’s ship was so unprepared for defense that he decided to pull down his colors, submit his vessel to be searched and allow several of his men to be taken. All of this occurred without the firing of a single cannon! The encounter outraged America and became one of the events that led to the start of the War of 1812.

Barron was court-martialed and suspended from service after a humiliating process that was presided over by Stephen Decatur. Over the course of the next several years, many lengthy and venomous letters were exchanged between the two men. After much arguing, Barron issued a challenge to Decatur that the two men meet on the field of honor. It seemed a one-sided battle. Decatur was known as an expert marksman and Barron was extremely near-sighted, a troublesome handicap when dueling. Pistols at eight paces were agreed upon with the additional provision, in deference to Barron’s eyesight, that each man would take deliberate aim at the other before the count.

Barron, Decatur and their seconds met at the Bladensburg Dueling Ground on the morning of March 22, 1820. After they had taken up their positions, Barron spoke to Decatur: “Sir, I hope on meeting in the next world, we shall be better friends than in this.” Decatur, who had told friends that he only intended to wound Barron, replied: “I have never been your enemy, sir.”

After the call, shots rang out in single thunderous noise and both men fell, crumpling to the ground at almost the same time. Each of them believed that he was dying and lying in pools of blood, only a few feet away from one another, they both spoke to each other. Stephen Decatur said: “I am mortally wounded; at least I believe so. I wish that I had fallen in the service of my country.” Making his peace, Barron begged for forgiveness. Decatur forgave him but “not those who have stimulated you to seek my life.”

The two men were carried from the field. Decatur was returned to his Washington home and he died from his injury later on that night. Barron, however, survived the duel but he had little reason to celebrate. Like Aaron Burr, he lived to face the anger of a country that was grieving over its fallen hero.

The earth of the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds tasted more than its share of blood. A year before the duel between Barron and Decatur, another fatal battle took place between General Armistead T. Mason, a former senator from Virginia, and his cousin, Colonel John M. M’Carty. Mason had questioned M’Carty’s right to vote at the polls in Leesburg, Virginia, an insult that so enraged the other man that he immediately challenged Mason to a duel. However, his challenge set the terms and conditions for the fight, which went against the Code Duello. The code specifically stated that only the challenged party had the right to place conditions on the fight. On that note, Mason declined but informed his cousin that he would gladly accept if a proper dueling offer was extended.

M’Carty ignored him and painted Mason as a coward. Mason now challenged M’Carty but he was dismissed due to his earlier refusal to fight. Although seething with anger, Mason took the advice of friends and let the matter drop --- until a future U.S. president convinced him to take the matter up again.

Andrew Jackson, a man who had spilled blood in many duels, bluntly told Mason that he needed to challenge M’Carty again. Inspired by the man they called Old Hickory, Mason wrote a note to M’Carty and informed him that he had resigned his commission in order to be free to challenge and fight a duel. He dispatched his second with the note and offered Mason any distance and any weapons that he chose could be used in the duel. Once again, M’Carty refused, citing Mason’s original cowardice. It was only when Mason’s second threatened to slap him that M’Carty reluctantly agreed to the battle.

Whether he was inspired by Mason’s determination for bloodshed, of afraid of it, M’Carty proposed that they settled their differences once and for all by jumping off the dome of the U.S. Capitol. Mason’s second rejected this as a violation of the code (and obviously insane) and then M’Carty proposed that they blow themselves up with a gunpowder keg. Finally, he withdrew his ridiculous suggested and accepted a fight with muskets, charged with buckshot, at a distance of 10 feet. Mason’s second, based on his friend’s instructions of any distance and any weapon, was forced to accept. It was bound to be suicide for both men but, thanks to a friend, the conditions were modified to 12 feet with a single ball.

The two cousins met at the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds on the morning of February 6, 1819. Even though the grounds were blanketed with snow, M’Carty stripped to his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. Mason stood watching him in a heavy overcoat. They were presented with their weapons and warned not to fire before the count of three. With the muzzles of their weapons almost touching, the men fired at the same time. Mason fell dead, his aim apparently thrown off by his heavy coat. M’Carty’s shoulder was shattered as Mason’s ball entered his wrist and tore a path through his arm. He survived the duel but he lost the ability to use his right arm. In the years that followed, he never forgot that horrific, blood-soaked morning and he eventually lost his mind.
In spite of all of this, though, the seconds who were present that day were able to report that “the affair, although fatally, was honorably terminated.”

Those same words could not be used to describe the pathetic 1836 duel that took place between two congressmen, Jesse Bynum of North Carolina and Daniel Jenifer of Maryland. Jenifer had denounced in the House what he felt was the poor course of President Jackson’s party, which caused Bynum to leap to his feet and declare that it was ungentlemanly of Jenifer to say such words. Jenifer insisted that Bynum take back his words but the other man refused. Minutes later, they were on their way to the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, with fellow congressmen serving as seconds and witnesses.

Both men stood on the field, 10 feet apart, and each boasted of what a fearsome marksman that he was. The first shots were fired but neither man was hit. The pistols were re-loaded three more times but after the fourth volley of shots, both men were still standing, unscathed.

Before the sixth shot, Bynum’s pistol discharged, probably accidentally, and one of Jenifer’s seconds prepared to shoot the man. This was a rigid rule in the Code Duello, stating that if a man fired early, his opponent’s seconds had the right to shoot him down. But Jenifer ordered the man not to shoot, and he took aim himself, fired – missed again! After six missed shots, the duel was, mercifully, called a draw.

More and more blood continued to be spilled on the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds and public concern began to rise about the continuation of this legalized murder. Unfortunately, Maryland laws did not apply to the residents of Washington, so even if a law was passed to prohibit duels at Bladensburg, it would have any effect on those who used the grounds with the most frequency. Then, finally, in 1838, an incident occurred that caused such a public outcry that Congress was forced to act.

A popular congressman from Maine named Jonathan Cilley was shot to death by another congressman, William Graves from Kentucky. Graves had been a stand-in for a New York newspaper editor named James W. Webb. Cilley had accused Webb of corruption and Graves, a close friend of the editor, took exception to the accusation.

Graves, knowing weapons quite well, challenged the inexperienced Cilley to a duel. Cilley believed the whole thing foolish and never expected the duel to actually take place. But on the morning of the duel, he found himself at Bladensburg with a rifle in his hand. The two men took up positions 80 yards apart and both fired, but no one was struck.

Jonathan Cilley

The shots were repeated and still, no one was hit. The seconds reached an agreement that each man would receive one final round. If no one was hit this time, the duel would be declared a draw. The agreement proved fatal for Cilley. His leg was shot out from under him, cutting away an artery and he died in a matter of seconds on the cold ground.

This fatal encounter caused a national uproar. The fallen congressman was young and left a wife and three small children behind. In the minds of many, Graves had killed him in cold blood. Newspapers called the duel “horrid and harrowing” and even former President Andrew Jackson, who had seen more than his fair share of blood and dueling, stated: “I cannot write on the murderous death of poor Cilley. If Congress does not do something to wipe out the state of the blood of murdered Cilley from its walls, it will raise a flame in the public mind against it, not easily to be quenched. Cilley was sacrificed.”

And Jackson was right, public outcry was strong after Cilley’s funeral and it forced lawmakers to do something to appease it. The next session of Congress was forced to make dueling, or accepting or making a challenge, a criminal offense.

The law appeased the public, but it did not bring an end to the dueling. The challenges were declared in secret and the duelists met in at Bladensburg under the cover of darkness for many years after dueling was declared illegal. It would not be until the Civil War before the "sport" of dueling would die out completely.

The Blood-Stained Halls of Congress
The first recorded physical clash between congressmen started over spit. In 1798, Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont ran across the floor of the House and spit into the face of Connecticut’s Roger Griswold. He did so because the Connecticut man had made fun of his Revolutionary War record. A resolution to expel “Spitting Lyon” didn’t pass, but Griswold managed to get his own revenge.

Two weeks later, Griswold walked over to where Lyon was sitting and struck him over the head with a large hickory cane. Stunned and bleeding, Lyon managed to get to his feet, grabbed some fire tongs and began swinging back at his attacker. They tumbled on the floor, swung, scratched and pummeled one another for a few minutes before this undignified melee could be broken up. The two men signed a pledge the next day, promising not to commit any act of violence toward one another again.

This battle ended peacefully but there is no denying that a precedent had been set.

The practice of dueling eventually fell from favor as means of settling disputes (and became illegal after Congressman Graves killed fellow legislator Jonathan Cilley in 1838) but the U.S. Capitol still remained a very violent place. This was especially true during the years leading up to the Civil War, when differences over slavery and state’s rights intensified to a dangerous level. Legislation was sometimes ended for the day over what amounted to nothing more than a murderous look between exchanged between two opposing lawmakers. Congress was often described as “seething like a boiling cauldron” and it was an often stated fact that every man on the floor of both Houses was armed with a revolver. James Hammond of South Carolina added that some men carried “two revolvers and a Bowie knife.” Senator Benjamin Wade walked about with a sawed-off shotgun draped over his arm. One day, a pistol that was concealed in one House member’s desk went off, causing quite a disturbance. Representative William Holman of Indiana, who was present that day, recalled that after the weapon discharged: “There were fully 30 or 40 pistols in the air.”

Without a doubt, the most disturbing incident from those troubled times was the brutal beating of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. On May 19, 1856, the ardent abolitionist delivered his famous “Crimes Against Kansas” speech, in which he harshly criticized the efforts of Southerners to force slavery into the territory. Sumner’s speech was overwrought with fiery rhetoric and took a number of sharp digs at Andrew Pickens Butler, a pro-slavery senator from South Carolina. At one point in the speech, Sumner referred to Butler as one of slavery’s “maddest zealots.” He also went on to refer to slavery as Butler’s “harlot”, which was “polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight.”

Butler would have been angry, and even justified in striking Sumner, if he had been present in the Senate chamber to hear the speech. He had not heard it but a relative and fellow Carolina representative, Preston S. Brooks, was there and he was enraged over Sumner’s insults.

Three days later, Brooks quietly entered the Senate chamber and found Sumner working at his desk. He cleared his throat and when he had Sumner’s full attention, he announced to him: “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”

Then, without any sort warning, Brooks produced a heavy cane and began pummeling Sumner over the head with it! He beat the man until the cane splintered and the Massachusetts man was on the floor in a pool of blood.

A newspaper illustration of the attack on Charles Sumner

People in the north reacted to the assault with horror but in the South, Brooks was hailed as a hero. Southerners sent him commemorative canes with the words “hit him again” inscribed on them. The event was later seen as an ugly foreshadowing of the Civil War to come.

Sumner’s injuries kept him out of the Senate for three years and his empty chair was displayed as a symbol for the abolitionist movement. Several weeks after the attack, a House investigation committee concluded that it was a breach of congressional privilege. The report stated that it was an aggravated assault on not only Senator Sumner, but on the right to freedom of speech itself. Debate raged in the House over whether or not to dispel Brooks, but eventually, he decided to resign on his own. But he did not stay away for long. He ran for office again and was sworn in just two weeks after his resignation.

Ironically, Brooks died five months later from liver disease. His victim, Charles Sumner, returned from his convalescence and served in the Senate until 1874.

Not all of the murderous attacks at the Capitol involved one congressman attacking another. One of them actually involved a former politician and the newspaperman who had effectively ruined his career. The congressman, William Preston Taulbee, saw his destruction in a single headline: "Kentucky's Silver-Tongued Taulbee Caught in Flagrante, or Thereabouts, with Brown-Haired Miss Dodge."

The story beneath the headline was written by another Kentuckian, Charles Kincade, Washington correspondence for the Louisville Times. While the facts of the scandal are still being argued today, Taulbee chose not to run for re-election after the story had broken. Instead, he did what many other former lawmakers have done --- he became a lobbyist.

William Preston Taulbee

Since this career choice continued to bring Taulbee to Capitol Hill, it’s not surprising that the former congressman and the newspaper writer frequently ran into one another. Each considered the other man to be ungentlemanly and beneath contempt. Taulbee frequently insulted Kincade in the corridors of the Capitol and occasionally, would reach over and snatch the reporter’s nose or one of his ears, giving it a sharp tug. According to custom, this meant that Taulbee did not consider Kincade man enough to be worthy of fighting.

On February 28, 1890, Taulbee and Kincade met for the last time on a set of marble stairs leading up to the House of Representatives Press Gallery. Earlier that day, Taulbee had entered the House chamber and he and Kincade had exchanged insults. Taulbee could have easily overpowered the reporter, who was barely five feet tall, weighed less than 100 pounds, and was in poor health. Instead, the burly lobbyist humiliated him by tossing him around by the collar and laughing at him.
Kincade left and went home for a pistol.

Around 1:30 p.m., Taulbee and a friend went down the marble stairs for lunch in the House dining room. The staircase is in a “Y” shape – twin staircases from the second floor to a landing, with a single flight leading down from the landing to the first floor. Taulbee and his friend came down one staircase and Kincade took the other. The reporter caught up to them just below the landing.

"Can you see me now?" Kincade reportedly asked the former congressman.

As Taulbee turned toward Kincade, his friend (perhaps catching a glimpse of Kincade’s pistol) fled back up the stairs. Before Taulbee could answer the reporter’s strange query, Kincade fired. The bullet struck Taulbee in the face, just below his eye. He collapsed onto the steps, blood already pooling beneath him. Moments later, a policeman rushed to the scene and demanded to know what had happened.

Kincade was still standing on the steps, his pistol dangling from his fingers. He spoke softly to the policeman and said: “I did it.”

The former congressman was rushed from the scene and taken to Providence Hospital. He clung stubbornly to life for almost two weeks before succumbing to his wounds at the age of 39.
Kincade was tried for murder but the jury ruled that he had acted in self-defense and he was set free. He died in Cincinnati in 1906 while working as a reporter.

To this day, a stain remains on the marble stairs at the exact place where William Taulbee was shot. Legend has it that it is a stain that was left behind by the former congressman’s blood. Merely a legend? Perhaps, although some of the older guards and maintenance workers at the Capitol will tell you that no cleaning agent has ever been able to remove that stain. It endures, leaving a lasting mark on the sometimes dark history of Capitol Hill.

One strange Congressional incident did not end in death but it did include the attempted murder of a Senator, right in the Senate chamber. On May 29-30, 1908, a Wisconsin senator named Robert M. Lafollette was leading a filibuster against the Aldrich-Vreeland bill. The bill was perfectly legitimate and was designed to allow the United States currency to expand during times of panic. For some reason, Lafollette was violently opposed to it. Little did he know, however, that there were men who were just as adamant about seeing it passed.

Lafollette began his filibuster, a method used by lawmakers that allows them to talk about anything that they want to in order to prevent a vote on a bill they do not like, at 12:20 p.m. on the afternoon of May 29. Lafollette continued for hour after hour. The rule of a filibuster is that you must remain talking and you cannot leave the Senate floor. As evening approached, the senator requested “energy drinks” of milk and raw eggs to be brought to him every so often from the Senate dining room.

Robert M. Lafollette

At some point between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., he received another of these mixtures and he began to drink it. Suddenly, his face took on a sour expression and he started to choke. He put the glass down immediately and it occurred to him that someone was trying to poison him. Lafollette was sure that one of his many enemies had decided to get rid of him. The senator had a reputation for being a man who could not be bought. So, were they trying to kill him instead?

A few minutes later, Lafollette, still leading the filibuster, began to feel nauseated. His symptoms quickly got worse. His stomach churned, his bowels roiled and shooting pains stabbed his abdomen. Although hunched over and wincing in pain, Lafollette refused to leave the Senate. Heroically, he stayed on for another half dozen hours. Finally, he surrendered at exactly 7:03 in the morning. 

Lafollette had continued talking for 16 hours and 43 minutes – the longest filibuster in history at that time. Unfortunately, it was not long enough. Later on that say, the Aldrich-Vreeland bill was passed.

A short time later, a laboratory reported on the mixture that made the senator sick. According to the chemical analysis, the egg and milk drink also contained a poison called ptomaine – and there was enough in it to kill a man. Someone had tried to kill a filibuster by murdering the senator who started it. The figurative phrase that had been used up until that point, “kill a filibuster,” took on a haunting, literal meaning.

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.