It was one of the most dramatic trials in American history -- two New Yorkers, a man and his wife -- were convicted of passing on atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.
And on an evening in late June, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg paid the penalty for their crime. They were electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison in upstate Ossining.
I was at Sing Sing, assigned by my city editor, at the World-Telegram and Sun, to cover the scene outside the prison gates on that fateful day. The tension had been building, not only in New York but throughout the world as the execution date drew near. A second reporter for the newspaper became part of a “pool” to cover the execution itself. The noted reporter-columnist Bob Considine, covered the execution, then briefed other reporters on what he witnessed.
I was just 29, still wet behind the ears in this business. And I was nervous about how well I would handle the assignment. There was tension throughout the world. For months demonstrators in many countries had demanded that the United States not carry out the executions. In Washington and New York demonstrators appealed to President Truman and, then, President Eisenhower to spare the Rosenbergs.
At the 11th hour, when the Rosenberg attorneys made a plea for executive clemency, Eisenhower turned them down. Eisenhower issued a statement declaring: “I can only say that, by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death millions of innocent people all over the world. The execution of two human beings is a grave matter. But even graver is the thought of the millions of dead whose deaths may be directly attributable to what these spies have done.”
On June 19, the day of the execution, I found a spot on a hill overlooking the prison courtyard. In the course of a tense afternoon I saw two prison physicians, who would later certify the deaths of the prisoners, arrive by car. Julius Rosenberg’s brother, David, got out of another car and sprinted to the prison gate. The Rosenbergs’ two young children, Robert, 6, and Michael, 10, came for a last visit with their parents.
In the last hour, the setting sun sent a golden shaft down the Hudson River. A Coast Guard helicopter circled overhead. There were rumors that thousands of pickets might try to storm the prison gates.
Barricades were set up; hundreds of prison guards, state troopers and Ossining policemen assembled to handle any threat. But none came.
On the porch of a frame house on the hill near the courtyard sat gray-haired Mrs. Natalie Jackson, one of four Death House matrons. She was listening to the radio for the latest news from the prison.
She talked of Ethel Rosenberg: “When I saw her today, she was as calm as ever. She is a quiet one. I’ve seen five women go to the chair but she was the calmest. The only sentence I heard from her was when she talked about her children. “
At 7:20 almost all conversation ceased. At 7:52 a trooper said: “I understand one is dead.”
Tension was at its peak.
At 8:18, a blue-shirted guard in Tower 13, high above the main gate, crossed his arms, then spread them out like an umpire signaling a player safe at home.