Double Indemnity: The Real-Life Murder That Inspired a Crime Noir Classic

    The ‘Dumb-Bell’ Murder changed noir history.

    While covering the trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, Damon Runyon nicknamed their crime the “dumb-bell murder case”—not because the pair had used dumbbells to murder Snyder’s husband, but because “it was so dumb!”

    Runyon was rightly scathing of how the lovers murdered Ruth’s husband Albert. By any standard, the murder was badly planned, poorly executed, and left the two without a chance of getting away with it. It did, however, cause a media sensation. The legacy of this case remains with us even today.

    Thirty-four-year-old Albert Snyder and 21-year-old Ruth were mismatched from the very start of their marriage in 1915. Albert was a homebody with a notoriously short temper. Ruth was an archetypal flapper, even before the Roaring Twenties made it fashionable.

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    Ruth was as provocative by nature as Albert was bad-tempered. By 1925, they were fighting nastily and often. In June of that year, she met corset salesman Henry Judd Gray through a mutual acquaintance. They quickly began an affair. And soon after, Ruth began trying to enlist Gray’s help to murder Albert.

    Aided by crooked insurance agent Leroy Ashfield (later fired and jailed for his role) she took out three insurance policies on Albert without his knowledge, paying the premiums herself. The largest ($45,000) had a double indemnity clause: doubling the payout if Albert died as a result of either accident or crime. Crime was very much Ruth’s intention, although it took until March 1927 to coerce Gray into agreeing to help. 

    double indemnity
    The police carrying out Albert Snyder's body
    Photo Credit: Murderpedia

    In the early hours of March 19, 1927, the Snyders arrived home. Albert, thanks to Ruth’s encouragement, was very drunk. So drunk that he didn’t fight too much when Gray leapt out of the shadows. Albert was beaten with a sash window weight, garroted with picture wire, and smothered with chloroform-soaked rags.

    The crime had been committed—but the payout was very different from the pair’s expectations. Police soon noted no sign of forced entry. They also observed that Ruth had been poorly and loosely tied up. Professional burglars don’t often beat homeowners to death. If they hit someone hard enough to leave them unconscious for several hours, there are always signs. Contrary to Ruth’s story, there weren’t.

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    Nor was anything taken: The “stolen” jewelry was quickly found under Ruth’s mattress. When burglars look for valuables, they don’t usually throw cushions or open kitchen drawers, either. By now entirely skeptical, detectives told her as much.

    She immediately implicated Gray, putting all the blame on him. According to Ruth, it had been his idea and he’d acted alone. She’d only helped fabricate the crime scene after Gray committed the murder. The bloodstained sash weight Ruth claimed the killers had taken was soon discovered in the basement. Gray was found and arrested. Confronted with Ruth’s story, he too confessed, blaming Ruth and stating they’d killed together.

    double indemnity
    Henry Judd Gray, their lawyer, and Ruth Snyder
    Photo Credit: Murderpedia

    Ruth and Gray hid her jewelry, opened drawers, and threw pillow cushions around the home to ape a burglary gone wrong. Ruth then had Gray tie her wrists and ankles together and leave her on the bedroom floor. She waited until her daughter, Lorraine, a mere nine years old at the time, discovered her and called the police.

    The press and public loved the story. It had doomed love, desperate violence, betrayal, illicit sex, and a brutal murder. It would conclude with a double electrocution and, in the case of young Lorraine, the loss of her other parent.

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    The trial began at Long Island County Courthouse on April 18, 1927, only a month after the murder. By then the case was public property. Among the attendees were Damon Runyon, D.W. Griffith, Peggy Hopkins, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Aimee Semple Macpherson, Will Durant, Nora Bayes and crime reporter James M. Cain.

    double indemnity
    Tom Howard's picture of the execution of Ruth Snyder in the electric chair at Sing Sing
    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Both sides ran a cutthroat defense. Snyder’s lawyers blamed Gray entirely. Gray admitted his role and testified that Ruth was an equal partner. Public debate was heated and opinions sharply divided. Gray, for whom people had some sympathy, was nicknamed the ‘Putty Man’ for his submissive nature. Snyder, for whom sympathy was very limited, was dubbed the “Iron Lady”, the “Iron Widow”, and the “Granite Widow”. Gray’s confessions drew sympathy. Snyder’s self-serving testimony, often rebutted by the actual evidence, didn’t. 

    Public sympathies made no difference. First-degree murder in New York at the time carried a mandatory death sentence, and both were convicted. Trial judge Townsend Scudder had no choice. They were duly sentenced. On January 12, 1928, both walked their “last mile” at Sing Sing Prison. At the end of that road lay Sing Sing’s most notorious resident: Old Sparky.

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    Even after the criminals’ deaths, the story grabbed headlines. Newspaper photographer Tom Howard entered Ruth Snyder’s death chamber with a hidden camera strapped to his right leg. Howard got a shot nobody had previously managed: A death row inmate in Old Sparky as 2,000 volts ripped through her. It’s still one of tabloid photography’s all-time standout shots.

    double indemnity
    Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity"
    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Snyder and Gray were now dead. Yet their case lived on—most famously, in the imagination of crime reporter-turned-author James M. Cain. In 1934, Cain published his novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. The book tells of an unhappily married woman named Cora who together with her drifter lover Frank Chambers plots to kill Cora's husband. In 1936, Cain's work Double Indemnity first appeared in serial form in Liberty magazine. The narrative, which drew direct inspiration from the Ruth Snyder Judd Gray case, centers on Walter Huff, an insurance agent, who falls for a married woman named Phyllis Nirdlinger. Phyllis is curious about acquiring accident insurance for her husband—complete with a double indemnity clause. Soon the lovers hatch a plan for the perfect murder.

    Cain's tale led to the Hollywood film of the same name. Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder and written for the screen by Wilder and detective fiction luminary Raymond Chandler, was released in 1944. Today, it is considered a silver screen classic, and a landmark achievement in the film noir genre.

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    There’s a certain bitter irony that, long after the deaths of Snyder and Gray, their sordid drama still has a life of its own. Bitterest of all, perhaps, is the fate of Snyder and Gray’s children. While Ruth and Judd died for their crime, their orphaned children had to live with it—including the many pop culture portrayals of their murderous parents.

    A bitter legacy indeed.

    Featured photo of Henry Judd Gray via Murderpedia and Ruth Snyder via Wikimedia Commons

    • James M. Cain
    • dumb-bell murder case
    • Ruth Snyder


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