Scandalous, horrific and heroic

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When Ruth Snyder of Queens Village was executed Jan. 13, 1928, the story emblazoned the front pages of most New York City newspapers but the Daily News didn't stop with a mere headline. Page 1 of the News was filled with a photo of the murderess seated in the electric chair at the instant the switch was thrown.

It was the kind of journalistic bases-loaded home run that the more than 1 million readers of the Daily News had come to expect and that came to define the tabloid newspaper of that pre-television era as the premier purveyor of the scandalous, the pathetic, the heroic and the horrific.

Visitors to the Queens Museum of Art's exhibition, "New York Noir: Crime Photographs From the Daily News Archive," are greeted by a giant enlargement of the Snyder execution photo.

It is one of 130 black and white photos, many of them of bodies sprawled on streets in pools of blood, of gangsters with names like Frank "Big Boy" Davino and Edward "Poochy" Walsh. Most of the photos were taken in the late 1920s through the early 1950s by Daily News photographers, although some were shot by free-lance lensmen, including the legendary Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee.

Queens scenes figure prominently, including a 1931 group photo of a nine-man, one-woman armed robbery team glaring at the camera in the 108th Precinct in Long Island City; Joseph Ashley Schwartz, 27, and Ann Downey, 18, just before their December 1935 wedding in Queens County Court and weeks before Schwartz was executed in the electric chair for murder; the body of a slain police detective on the pavement outside an elevated A train station in South Ozone Park; and the scene of a foiled holdup by three robbers at a bank in Hollis.

A 29-year-old Bayside mother is shown in a police station after neighbors complained that she and her husband left their three small children unattended at home.

One of the more compelling photos is of a funeral procession in the mist and rain Feb. 12, 1932 with professional pallbearers and a dozen mourners trudging through mud for the burial of Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll, a 23-year-old mob assassin. There is also mob boss Frank Costello as he was surrounded by teenagers on his release from jail, and a police lineup photo of Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, chief killer for Murder, Inc.

The era was one in which pomaded hair, three-piece suits, shined shoes and snap brim hats were de rigueur for both detectives and gangsters as well as their bodyguards and for criminals of all but the lowest levels. Press photographers of those days wielded the Speed Graphic, a large camera using 4-by-5 inch sheets of film so lacking in light sensitivity that it required a powerful flash to take pictures at night or indoors. That was provided by a flash gun using 100-watt-sized bulbs and synchronized with the shutter, which along with the lens and the focusing, had to be done by hand since the point-and-shoot camera was decades away.

The stories offered by the Daily News and its competitors were touted by newsboys shouting such phrases as "Extra! Extra! Five Quizzed in Ax Fest." Extras were special editions printed when a particularly sensational story occurred.

The pictures in the exhibition were selected by William Hannigan, an archivist in the Daily News photographic library. It was Hannigan who discovered the original negative of the Ruth Snyder execution, The Snyder photo is accompanied by an explanation of how Daily News photographer Tom Howard managed to take the photo using a tiny camera strapped to his ankle to get around a ban on death house photos. One photo shows how Howard lifted his trouser cuff and operated the shutter with a cable running to his waist.

Hannigan's book, "New York Noir: Crime Photos From the Daily News Archive" came first (Rizzoli International Publications Inc. Copyright 1999, Daily News).

"We had an exhibition of oils and sketches by William Glackens scheduled for the same time," said Valerie Smith, Queens Museum of Art director of exhibitions. "Since these were somewhat pastoral scenes, I was looking for something to complement the Glackens exhibition. I found out, upon talking with the International Center of Photography, about Bill Hannigan's book and the exhibition followed."

Although the Daily News sold 500,000 extra copies (at two cents per copy) during the two days it ran the Snyder photo, top editors at the newspaper were not unanimously in favor of printing it. To the critics of the Daily News, it was evidence that the paper had gone too far. It was, however, approved by Managing Editor Frank Hause in the absence of Publisher Joseph Medill Patterson, who supported the decision when he returned.

The Daily News defended itself by saying, in part: "We doubt that many readers of The News want any apology from us for having obtained and printed this picture. We think that picture took the romance out of murder."

The fascinating sociological view of life in New York City more than 60 years ago runs through April 30 at Queens Museum of Art, New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, 592-9700 Admission by suggested contribution: $4; students and seniors $2. Children under 5 free.

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