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Does The Punishment Fit The Crime?

The chair that ended the lives of Julius and Ethel.

The stench of ammonia saturated the air. Ammonia and death. Before the three jolts of electricity killed him, Julius had urinated involuntarily and now the guard was mopping the floor and seat with ammonia. Moments later, Julius' wife Ethel was led to the same chair. But Ethel was stubborn to the very end, even after the three jolts surged through her body. It was not until two more long shocks and almost five minutes of electricity that she was finally pronounced dead.

For what crime was this couple executed in the summer of 1953?

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were Communists convicted of espionage, of transmitting American military secrets to the Soviet Union. It was the first time anyone was executed for espionage during peacetime.


Family Fun

Communists and spies? These were two of the worst labels you could have in the 1950s. A fear of foreign thought, particularly communism, was sweeping across the nation. Although this fear was nothing new (it had originally spread after World War I), it seemed much more real this time, much more widespread. The House Committee on Un-American Activities was at its peak, grilling people about their Communist connections. Senator Joseph McCarthy fueled up the second Red Scare and gave Americans a common enemy, a scapegoat to blame the country's problems. With Hollywood movies, large-circulation magazines, and newspaper editorials joining in on the effort, the fear of communism became part of the national culture.

When the United States got involved in the Korean War, this sentiment intensified. As author John Earl Haynes puts it, "American soldiers are getting killed every day fighting communist troops. That's not an atmosphere that makes one feel generous to communist spies."

The Rosenbergs lived on Death Row for two years

It was in this environment that the Rosenberg spy case was brought to light. Who was it that pointed the finger at this New York couple? None other than Ethel's brother, David Greenglass. Actually, the Rosenbergs were last in a line of falling dominoes. First came Klaus Fuchs, a German scientist who pleaded guilty to espionage but also stated that he had an American messenger to transmit the information to the Soviets. Harry Gold pled guilty to being that messenger and this in turn led to the arrest of Greenglass who had been working on the development of the atomic bomb at the Los Alamos laboratories in New Mexico.


Greenglass testified that he had made sketches for Julius from memory after his brother-in-law asked him to get information for the Russians. He said that Julius had given him half of the cardboard top to a box of Jell-O and told him that he should give the information to a man who would show up in New Mexico with the other half. Gold added to this testimony by saying he was the one with the other half of the Jell-O box top and had been told to contact Greenglass saying "I come from Julius."

Can you keep a (military) secret? If not, the FBI will come after you!

In 1951, in a trail that lasted 21 days, the Rosenbergs were convicted of transmitting military secrets to Russia. And what was Ethel's role in all of this? She was considered an accomplice because she allegedly typed all her husband's notes. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover actually opposed putting Ethel to death, believing it was too harsh a punishment. But the Justice Department wanted to be tough, hoping that it would pressure Julius to confess.

The town changed its name from Sing-Sing to Ossining so as not to be associated with the infamous prison.

Julius and Ethel spent two years living on death row at Sing-Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. Throughout the trial and appeals and imprisonment, they continued to insist on their innocence.

And on their love for each other.

The night after they received their death sentences, Julius and Ethel sang to each other across their adjoining jail cells. They were then kept in separate detention facilities but wrote frequent and affectionate letters to each other and were allowed to see each other behind a visitor's screen every Wednesday-"wondrous Wednesday," as Ethel called it. Only once were they allowed to be in the same room without any sort of separation.

Julius and Ethel were kept in separate sections so they wouldn't smooch each other all the time.

Their lawyer had arranged for a private conference but as soon as the couple was together, they rushed towards each other, embracing and covering one another with wild and passionate kisses. They had to be dragged apart by the guards. After that affectionate display, there were no more meetings allowed unless the two were handcuffed and sitting on opposite ends of the table.

Daphne and Peghi chat about the Rosenbergs.

They may have loved each other, but they were definitely not loved by everyone. Peghi Clark, a staff member from the Community Center in Ossining shared some memories with us. "My grandma used to tell me stories about the Rosenbergs. She would say that people would stand outside the prison with signs that read 'Red Hot Rosenbergs' and 'Get 'Em While They're Hot.'" For many people, the Rosenbergs became a symbol of the enemy-communists trying to destroy America.

The story was one of great public interest and curiosity. The day after the execution, the tabloids were all over the story. On the front page was a picture of Julius, put to death in an electric chair. "Dead!" the accompanying headline screamed. A journalist had snuck in a camera secured to his ankle and lifted his pant leg right as Julius was killed.

Did the tabloids go too far?

Fred Starler gave us an even more first-hand account of the Rosenbergs - he was a guard at Sing Sing from 1939-1976. Although he worked in a different part of the prison than where Julius and Ethel were detained, he still recalls the commotion. "The day they were executed brought up a lot of history. I remember the protesters." And indeed, there were protesters, as many people felt that the Rosenbergs were not given a fair trial and were instead the victims of a government witch-hunt.

Were the Rosenbergs put to death merely for having the wrong beliefs at the wrong time? Yes, it's true that their trial came at a time of mass anti-Communist hysteria. Yes, the majority of the evidence in the case came from convicted spies and known liars who were offered leniency in their own sentences if they testified. But new evidence, specifically the release of the VENONA files (previously top-secret documents), point more compellingly to their guilt.

The execution caused a lot of hubbub and ballyhoo.

I cannot comment on the definite guilt or innocence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. But what I can speculate on is the punishment. Did the punishment fit the alleged crime? When Judge Irving Kaufman pronounced the sentence he said, "I believe your conductů has already caused the Communist aggression in Korea with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 Americans and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason." I of course do not think it is a good idea to be handing out secrets on how to make an atomic bomb. I do believe that treason and espionage, especially of such a serious nature, deserves harsh punishment. But is it fair to blame the Rosenbergs for all the casualties of the Korean War? Is death too severe a punishment? None of the others involved in the espionage case received more than 30 years imprisonment - why did the Rosenbergs get death? Perhaps the Justice Department was trying to make an example of them, to deter other would-be spies. Perhaps it was because Julius and Ethel refused to cooperate. Maybe it was because they showed no regret.

Yes, once national secrets have been given away, that is not something you can take back. But once that electricity surges, neither is the stench of death.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


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