The Daily News's front-page photo of Ruth Snyder's execution (New York Daily News)
For several months in 1927, the nation's newspapers were filled with lurid stories under banner headlines about the murder in March of New York magazine editor Albert Snyder by his wife, Ruth, and her lover, corset salesman Judd Gray.
During their murder trial, the tabloids pumped up the case, telling how Snyder and Gray strangled Albert with a picture-frame wire, struck him in the head with a window-sash weight and "killed the greatest thing in the world — love!"
Playwright Damon Runyon described Snyder and Gray as "a chilly looking blonde with frosty eyes and one of those marble, you-bet-you-will chins, and an inert, scaredrunk fellow that you couldn't miss among any hundred men as a dead setup for a blonde, or the shell game, or maybe a gold brick."
In May, Snyder and Gray were found guilty. The sentence: death. Their execution was set for Jan. 12, 1928, at Sing Sing prison. Snyder would be the first to be taken to the electric chair.
Cameras were not allowed at Sing Sing, but that didn't stop the New York Daily News from "importing" Chicago Tribune photographer Tom Howard to cover the electrocution. In one of the most sensational news images ever taken, Howard snapped Snyder at the moment of death, using a miniature camera strapped to his ankle, hidden by his pants leg.
To take the picture the Daily News hailed as the "most talked-of feat in the history of journalism," Howard steadily aimed his shoe and released the camera's shutter using a cable that ran up his leg. Editors cropped out the legs of a matron and prison attendant to get the close-up of Snyder. For pulling off the most famous sneak shot in journalism, Howard received a $100 bonus.
The Daily News splashed the photo across the next day's front page with the screaming headline "DEAD!" The paper sold a million extra copies, double its normal newsstand sales. The caption under the photo reported Snyder's last words: "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing."
The photo outraged some Daily News readers, but managing editor Frank Hause was unmoved. "Are we to have secret executions? Are Americans afraid of the facts?" he said.
The incident led prison officials nationwide to tighten surveillance of all who witnessed executions. No state, then or now, has allowed the photographing of executions.
The camera, along with Howard's and Snyder's stories, is featured in the News Corporation News History Gallery.