April 5th 1951: Rosenbergs sentenced

On this day in 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for alleged spying. The couple were American citizens, but were convicted for espionage after they were accused of giving information to the Soviets about the atomic bomb. They were both arrested in 1950, and became the face of the supposed Communist conspiracy, the fear of which gripped Cold War United States throughout the 1950s and beyond. The couple insisted upon their innocence, but they were still convicted and sentenced to die. In the years between their conviction and execution, public opinion was divided on the guilt of the Rosenbergs. Despite the reservations of some, they were executed on June 19th 1953 by electric chair. It remained unclear whether the pair were indeed Soviet spies, but due to evidence which has since come to light Julius Rosenberg does appear to have been guilty.

Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel kiss in the back of a prison van outside the court house in Foley Square, New York, after they were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage during a time of war, passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. After a controversial trial and appeals for leniency from famous figures, they became the first US civilians to be executed for espionage on 19 June 1953.


Pictures via

Daily News, June 20, 1953


Julius Rosenberg (1918-1953) and Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg (1915-1953) were American communists executed for conspiracy to commit espionage, specifically, of passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. They were sentenced to death on 5 April 1951 and electrocuted at sundown on 19 June 1953 at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York.


It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

(The Bell Jar, Chapter One)

Obit of the Day: “The Man Who Turned His Family In”

On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed. Strapped into the electric chair at Sing Sing prison, the couple were found guilty of espionage against the United States for passing secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. And yet Ethel Rosenberg might have escaped her fate if not for the testimony of her own brother, David Greenglass.

Seven years Ethel’s junior, Mr. Greenglass met Julius Rosenberg as a teenager and later described the bespectacled electrical engineer as his “hero.” On Mr. Rosenberg’s suggestions, Mr. Greenglass joined the Young Communist League and became a fervent - and blustering - Marxist.

When drafted into the Army in 1943, he did nothing to tone down his Communist rhetoric. Which made it all the more surprising when he was later stationed at both Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the military was enriching weapons-grade uranium, and then Los Alamos, New Mexico, home of the atomc bomb. Mr. Greenglass purposely distorted his political record and had friends lie on letters of recommendation to gain his security clearance at the military sites.

When Mr. Rosenberg heard about Mr. Greenglass’ new position at Los Alamos he recruited his brother-in-law as a spy for the Soviets. Until the end of the war Mr. Greenglass passed along notes, sketches, and other information to Harry Gold who passed it on to the Soviets. Although the value of the information was dubious (both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. played down its value), Mr. Greenglass thought he was taking heroic actions by creating a worldwide nuclear “balance of power.”

Occasionally Mr. Greenglass and Mr. Rosenberg collaborated directly, most famously at the Rosenberg’s apartment in September 1945. In a moment that ended up decided Mrs. Rosenberg’s future, Mr. Greenglass brought notes to the Rosenbergs where they were typed up. 

In 1950, the U.S. government finally caught up to Mr. Greenglass and Mr. Rosenberg who were named by Harry Gold as spies. Mr. Greenglass agreed to confess to his actions in order that his wife, Ruth, would not be indicted. At the same time Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both arrested, but the government’s case against Mr. Greenglass’ sister was circumstantial at best. Until Ruth was taken into custody. 

Just days before the Rosenberg’s trial Ruth told prosecutors that Ethel typed up the notes at the September meeting. When presented with his wife’s new testimony, Mr. Greenglass changed his and claimed that Ethel had, in fact, typed the notes.

What resulted was the conviction, sentencing, and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. This left their two sons, Robert and Michael, orphaned. (They were adopted by another family.) And it gave Sen. Joseph McCarthy fuel for his anti-Communist fire.

It would take nearly fifty years for the truth to come out. Having gone into seclusion after his release from prison, where he served 9 years of an 18-year sentence, Mr. Greenglass was left alone. Until he was found and interviewed in 2001 by Sam Roberts of the New York Times

Mr. Greenglass spoke with Mr. Roberts for over fifty hours. The bulk of that conversation became a book: The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case. It was during that interview that Mr. Greenglass admitted that he had no idea who had typed up the notes at the 1945 meeting, but believed it was probably his wife.

Even decades later Mr. Greenglass was defiant about the choice he made. “I told them the story and left [Ethel] out of it, right? But my wife put her in it. So what am I gonna do, call my wife a liar?” He went further: “My wife is more important to me than my sister. Or my mother or my father, O.K.? And she was the mother of my children.” He had not only chosen his wife over his sister, he had sent his sister to her death*.

Mr. Greengrass lived a quiet life outside of New York City working as a machinist and inventor for the remainder of his days. He passed away on July 1, 2014 at the age of 92 in a nursing home, but his death was not made public until October. His wife, Ruth, died in 2008. 

Sources: NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post and Wikipedia

(Image of Ethel Rosenberg and David Greenglass, during World War II is courtesy of the New York Times.)

* Julius Rosenberg denied he worked with the Soviets up until his death. However in 1995, the FBI declassified cables from the USSR that identified him as a spy. It also mentioned his wife as a source for recommending Ruth and David Greenglass as potential recruiting targets.

I decided to come here so I could see could I forgive you. You who I have hated so terribly. I have borne my hatred for you up into the heavens and made a needle-sharp little star in the sky out of it. It’s the star of Ethel Rosenberg’s Hatred, and it burns every year for one night only. June Nineteen. It burns acid green.
I came to forgive but all I can do is take pleasure in your misery. Hoping I’d get to see you die more terrible than I did. And you are, ‘cause you’re dying in shit, Roy, defeated. And you could kill me, but you couldn’t ever defeat me. You never won. And when you die all anyone will say is: Better he had never lived at all.
—  Ethel Rosenberg, Angels in America
Sylvia Plath and The Rosenberg Execution

On this day (19 June) in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of conspiring to pass U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets, were executed at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York.

Sylvia Plath began The Bell Jar with this sentence: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

“What is this Ethel, Halloween? You trying to scare me? Well you’re wasting your time ‘cause I’m scarier than you are any day of the week! So beat it, Ethel! Boo! Better dead than red! Somebody trying to shake me up? Hm, hm? From the throne of God in heaven to the belly of hell, you can all fuck yourselves and then go jump in the lake because I am not afraid of you or death or hell or anything!”

-Roy Cohn, Angels in America by Tony Kushner

Spies, Fingerprints and a Book Fish
- This Week in Dark/Strange History

- June 19, 1953
At 8pm, June 19, 1953 Julius Rosenberg is executed via electric chair in Sing Sing Prison, New York. He was dead after the first shock passed through him. On being pronounced dead he was unstrapped and his body taken away.

Only a few minutes later Ethel Rosenberg is brought into the chamber. One might imagine that the smell of singed flesh and hair was still lingering in the air as she is strapped in to the same chair her husband had died in only minutes before hand.

After the three shocks were passed through her body doctors examined the body and found she still had a heart beat. Two more shocks were applied, smoke rose from her head and after the body was cool enough she was once again examined. She was pronounced dead at 8:16pm.

What were the crimes that this married couple had committed in order to see them put to death?

In July 1950 Julius Rosenberg was arrested on a charge of ‘conspiracy to commit espionage’. A month later his wife joined him and in the following year, 1951, the couple were trialled and found guilty for heading a international spy ring said to be passing top secret information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. They became scorned by the nation, their actions were seen to be a cause for the death of millions of US people in the case of a nuclear war with the Soviets.

After a very brief trial the couple were sentenced to death, to be carried out on June 18, 1953, and sent to Sing Sing Correctional Facility to wait out their days before the ultimate punishment of the law could be carried out.

Appeals were presented to the courts, the punishment was seen as cruel and unusual (as said by their attorney) but no one was to hear anything of it. June 17, the day before the execution they were awarded a stay which was eventually overturned on Friday June 19.

The Rosenberg’s must have gone through much anxiety as they wondered when the next execution date would be. They did not have to wait long, 8pm that night Julius, aged 35, was taken from his cell and sent to eternity with his wife Ethel, aged 37, following soon after.

They maintained their innocence right to the very end and today many believed they were victims of hysteria borne from the cold war. They were buried in Wellwood Cemetery, New York and left behind two sons.


June 19, 1892
Six year old Ponciano Rojas and his four year old sister Teresa Rojas were found brutally murdered in their home in Argentina. Francisca Rojas, the children’s mother had earlier rejected a man named Pedro Velazquez sexual advances and upon returning home later that day found him fleeing the home. When she went inside she found her two children dead.

Police arrested Velazquez and utilised some painful interrogation techniques (i.e. torture) but he denied any involvement in the murder. Since pain could not convince him to confess the law enforcers tried something else, something quite ghastly.

They tied Velazquez to the children’s corpse and left him with them overnight.

When this also failed to result in a confession they tortured him for a further week still without results.

A new investigator was put onto the case who learnt Velazquez had an alibi and was also able to provide an interesting piece of information – Velazquez had heard Francisca Rojas boyfriend say he would never marry her while she still had “those two brats”.

Investigator Alvarez re-examined the crime scene and found a small brown mark on a bedroom door, later found to be a bloody fingerprint. He then removed the section of the door containing the fingerprint and took it back to the station. Here he requested Francisca Rojas to be fingerprinted. The prints were compared, found to be identical and upon being confronted with the evidence Francisca confessed to the murder and was eventually convicted.

It was this case that saw fingerprints to be a viable form of identification, especially in criminal cases and its popularity spreading throughout the Spanish speaking world.


June 23, 1626
A fish vendor in the Cambridge Markets, England, was cleaning fish ready for sale when he discovered something strange. Upon opening the fish and removing its insides, he discovered a small book, wrapped in sail cloth, half digested in its stomach.

Dr Joseph Mede, a scholar of Christ’s College, Cambridge was happening to walk by when the discovery was made. Mede took the book for identification and after cleaning it he realised this was quite the discovery.

The book was found to be a sextodecimo, each page made up of a larger sheet folded into sixteen sections. Interesting in itself but more interesting was the content. They were a collection of short theological works written by a man named John Frith written while he was in prison.

The book had been printed 80 years earlier, in the mid 1500’s. Frith had been imprisoned for introducing and encouraging reform ideas (essentially seen as heresy against the church) in prison of which he was eventually burned at the stake in order to 'save his soul’. The book found in the fish was one of his illegal works, thought to have been destroyed.

It is not known how the book ended up in the belly of the fish. The book was republished as 'Vox Piscis’ – The Book Fish


Until next week…

Ashley Hall 2013

Photos: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Inset left: Francisca Rojas’s Fingerprint card.
Inset right: Reprint of the Book Fish.

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