A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion

I have just finished reading “A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion” by Ron Hansen, which led to my favorite time waster: googling. I liked the book, but if you are into googling, this book lends itself to your guilty passion.

This book was touted as fiction …which it was since there were conversations, descriptions of rooms and scenery that could only come from the imagination of a writer. However, about half way through the book,I discovered that the main characters, Ruth Brown Snyder and Henry Judd Gray, were real. More on this in a minute.

The story takes place in the 1920s. Ruth is an unhappy housewife who is “sylph-like” if the book is correct. More on that later. She begins an affair with Judd Gray, as he is called, a corset salesman whose wife has lost interest in him. Ruth and Judd each have a daughter at home.

Ruth is the stronger of the two. She is angry at her husband who is still mooning over his dead fiancee, and she has begun to hate him and want him dead. Judd Gray stumbles into the affair–literally since he is an alcoholic–and feels guilty about it, although not so much as to make him stop.

After a few years of carrying on, Ruth decides to off her husband, Albert. First she takes out a double-indemnity insurance policy on him. Then she tries crushing him under a car he is working on, kicking a ladder while he is on it, closing the garage door while his car is running, but damn it all, the man refuses to die. Imagine!

She is burning mad by this time and browbeats Judd Gray into helping her. He shows up in the dead of night, dead drunk, and hits Albert over the head with a sash weight, which merely stuns him. They (mostly Ruth) try other means as well, but end up garrote-ing the poor man.

They toss the house (of course) to make the murder look like a robbery gone wrong and empty her jewelry box, hiding the stuff under the mattress (the police will never look there. Hah!). Since Judd is too drunk to do so, Ruth hits herself over the head with the sash weight and ties herself up (but not so tightly as to leave unsightly marks). No one is fooled, especially the police.

To make a long story short, they both get sent to Sing Sing’s death house where Old Sparky awaits.

At this point, I wondered whether this was maybe based on a true story, because it is written with dates and places that make much of it sound real. So I googled Ruth Brown Snyder. Ruth and Judd did exist, did kill Ruth’s husband, did get executed. It was a sensational case at the time. Thousands jammed the street for the trial, newspapers from one end of the country to the other carried the story even though it takes place in New York City, Queens to be exact.

One report claims that the movie Double Indemnity is based on this crime, although Ruth didn’t get any insurance money due to the dishonest nature of the whole situation.

There are photos of Ruth and Judd online. Ruth is not a looker, at least not in my personal opinion, although one of the online stories notes that she gained weight in jail. Or something. If there was ever a sylph-like creature there, I sure couldn’t see it. And I looked. For far, far too long.

A site that specializes in describing last meals (why?) said that she had chicken parmesan, noodles Alfredo, two milkshakes and a six-pack of grape soda. This seems like an awful lot to eat when one is preparing to meet their maker or just preparing to die, but what do I know?

Sorry, I have fallen down an internet wormhole …

One more internet-related note: Twenty journalists were allowed into the death chamber when Ruth met her fate. One had a mini-camera strapped to his leg and snapped a picture as the current surged through her. This picture is online. It’s shadowy and vague, but still creepy.

Back to the book … As true crime stories go, this is a good one. It held my interest, which is not always the case, but I suspect that in part it is because some of it was fictionalized.

Anyway, if you are a fan of “crimes of the century” this is a must read. Be sure to google the main characters. The photos and little snippets are as interesting as the book itself.

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