The Story of a News Photo

During the 1920s, a daily newspaper would go to outlandish lengths to top its rivals. If you were the first one with the big story, you sold more papers.  Ditto if you had an exclusive story—a “scoop.”  Ditto again if you had an exclusive photo.

Tom Howard being fitted with his ankle camera

Tom Howard being fitted with his camera

Tom Howard was part of this milieu. In 1928 the young Chicago Tribune photographer took one of the most famous photos in newspaper history.  And it all began with a scruffy little murder in Queens, New York.

Ruth Snyder was an unhappily-married housewife in her early thirties who was having an affair with a corset salesman named Henry Judd Gray. On March 19, 1927 they killed Ruth’s husband Albert for the insurance money.  They tried to make it look like part of a robbery gone wrong.

But the lovers proved to be inept criminals. The police quickly demolished their story, and they wound up accusing each other of dreaming up the scheme.  Ruth and Henry were tried for first-degree murder.  Both of them were found guilty, and sentenced to die in the electric chair at the state prison in Sing Sing.

The New York Daily News was a tabloid that had built its reputation on sensational news photos.  Ruth Snyder was going to be the first woman executed in several years, and publisher Joseph Medill Patterson wanted a picture of the execution.  Trouble was, photographing an execution was not allowed, and prison authorities knew all of the Daily News photographers.  So Patterson phoned his cousin, Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick.

McCormick agreed to lend Tom Howard to the Daily News. In New York, Howard obtained press credentials to attend the executions as a writer.  On January 12, 1928 he arrived at the prison with a miniature single-shot camera strapped to his ankle.  A wire attached to the shutter ran up his trouser leg to a trigger-release concealed in his coat.

Howard waited while Henry Judd Gray was executed. Then came Ruth Snyder’s turn.  Howard edged forward.  As the current surged through her body, Howard squeezed the trigger release.  Then it was over, and he rushed back to the Daily News offices in Manhattan.

The famous photo

The famous photo

Howard had no way of knowing if the plan had worked, until the photographic plate was actually developed. But it had worked.  Four hours after Ruth Snyder’s execution, Daily News extras were on the street, the entire front page filled with Howard’s photo of her death throes.  The headline simply read “DEAD!”

Prison officials were outraged by the picture. They talked about bringing charges against Howard and the Daily News.  But since no laws had actually been broken, the matter was dropped.  Still, in the decades since, anyone admitted to an execution site undergoes a thorough search for concealed cameras.

Tom Howard returned to his career in Chicago. When he died in 1961, he was the chief photographer at the Sun-Times.

—30—

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