At 8:11 on the evening of June 19, 1953, Ethel Rosenberg was strapped into the electric chair at the New York State prison known as Sing Sing. She was 37 years old and the mother of two young sons. The chair, made of oak and iron, had killed hundreds of convicted criminals over the years, including her husband, Julius Rosenberg, a few minutes before. But the chair was not always reliable, which was one reason inmates gave it the cynical name “Old Sparky.”
Two years earlier, when both Rosenbergs were convicted of spying for Moscow, Federal Judge Irving R. Kaufman had handed down their death sentences. The Rosenbergs’ crime, he said, was “worse than murder.” But in fact the penalty was not about justice. It was about vengeance for a loss the American public felt was so enormous that someone must be made to pay a horrible price.
It was “as if a society turned its magnifying lens on these people until they caught fire and were burned alive,” said novelist E. L. Doctorow, whose The Book of Daniel was a fictional account of the case.