- Death Row Women: Murder, Justice, and the New York Press
A former New York City police detective, Mark Gado has turned his attention to long-settled cases, looking not so much to reopen them, but to examine the role of the media in their prosecution. Although Gado is not a historian—he writes primarily in the true-crime genre—and provides overly general historical observations at times, this volume’s contribution is in its succinct re-telling of six cases of women put to death by the state of New York. While there were actually eight executions in this period, Gado chooses to exclude the still controversial story of Ethel Rosenberg, as she was actually prosecuted as a federal prisoner for espionage during the cold war, as well as the lesser-known 1909 case of Mary Farmer, who was the only one not executed in Sing Sing prison’s notorious electric chair. The author largely uses New York City newspapers, as well as some prison and court records, and autobiographies (notably those of Sing Sing prison warden Lewis Lawes and executioner Robert G. Elliott, both of whom actually opposed the death penalty) to narrate events.
In his most compelling chapter, Gado describes the 1927 story of Ruth Snyder, a young Queens housewife who, with her lover Judd Gray, bludgeoned to death her husband for the insurance money. Reporters commented endlessly on Snyder’s dangerous, modern sexuality, symbolized most clearly by her clothing and hairstyle, and demonized her as a monstrous mother who would leave her nine-year-old daughter in hotel lobbies while she carried on her affair with Gray. The tabloid coverage and public participation in the trial created a great spectacle, which lives on even today in a gruesome photograph captured surreptitiously by a reporter at the moment of Snyder’s electrocution.
The themes of women’s proper sexuality and motherhood that featured so prominently in the Snyder/Gray case appeared in many others as well, including Eva Coo (1935), Mary Frances Creighton (1936), and Martha Beck (1951). Coo, a roadside inn and brothel owner, engaged a female accomplice to murder a young man whom she had taken in when his mother had died. Coo planned to collect on an insurance policy she had purchased on his life. Creighton, previously tried and acquitted in the killing of her mother-in-law and her own brother, was convicted of poisoning a female boarder. Creighton had been having an affair with the woman’s husband, and had also been supportive of a simultaneous affair between her lover and her own teenaged daughter. The sordid details enthralled the public, just as they did in the Beck case when she was accused of abandoning her children to live with a con man who scammed single women corresponding with “lonely hearts” clubs. Beck eventually became jealous of her boyfriend’s targets, and killed one of them; the pair then went on to kill another woman and her two-year-old child. During the trial and execution, the tabloids frequently mentioned Beck’s large size and used her weight symbolically to de-feminize her.
Where the press labeled Coo, Creighton, and Beck as vicious, unnatural women, [End Page 494] it actually portrayed Anna Antonio rather sympathetically and often emphasized her diminutive stature. Antonio received the death penalty in 1932 for the contract killing of her husband, an abusive drug-dealer and father of her three children. In the two years leading up to her death, through several stays of execution, many thought of her as a good wife and mother and expected the governor would commute her sentence. On the other hand, the 1944 execution of Helen Fowler, for the robbery and murder of a man she had met in a bar, received almost no press coverage at all. Though Fowler was African American, and it had been over a hundred years since the state had executed a black woman—a fact that Gado considers makes her case “historic”—he chalks the press’ lack of interest up to...