Thaw was acquitted, for reasons that make the White case a true Gilded Age murder, said Larry Fleischer, a New York lawyer who has made a study of murder cases in late 19th-century and early 20th-century New York.
"Hovering over the case is something called the unwritten rule," he said. "It's a quasi-legal concept that took hold, especially in New York state, and said that husbands could bump off their wives' lovers, plead temporary insanity and get off." Thaw, as it happened, probably was insane, which did not hurt.
The exhibition includes a striking series of candid photographs taken at a wild party at the studio of artist William Merritt Chase that captures White as he plants a major-league kiss on an unidentified woman. It also has a facsimile of the red swing.
Inspiration for movie
It was a different sort of seat that awaited Ruth Snyder, whose involvement in the murder of her husband, the mild-mannered editor of Motor Boating magazine, sent her straight to the chair.
Thomas Howard, a photographer for the Daily News, was present for the execution at Sing Sing, equipped with a secret camera strapped to his ankle. He snapped the picture the moment the switch was thrown. The shaky image that resulted, included in the exhibition, remains one of the most powerful images in photojournalism. The headline was a masterpiece of concision: "Dead!"
New Yorkers shed no tears. Gov. Al Smith, who almost routinely commuted the death sentence for female prisoners, bowed to public sentiment in the case of Snyder, whose story inspired the film "Double Indemnity."
Her lover, a married corset salesman from New Jersey named Judd Gray, committed the actual murder, with stunning ineptitude: He bludgeoned the victim with the weight from a window sash, applied a rag soaked in chloroform, and then strangled him with picture-hanging wire.
Damon Runyon, who covered the trial, called it the Dumbbell Murder, "because it was that dumb."
But it was Snyder who emerged as the brains and the will behind the operation. Gray called her Momsie. Runyon described her as "a chilly-looking blonde with frosty eyes and one of those bet-you-will chins." She was not a popular figure.
By current standards, the murder was ordinary. So why did it appeal to New Yorkers? In large part, because the Snyders, living in what was then a far-flung suburb, were so ordinary.
"Back then, murders took place in big cities, or among the lower orders," said Mary Betts, the curator of the exhibition. "Your next-door neighbor in suburbia didn't kill her husband."
Those who are curious about the hot seat will not be disappointed. Betsy Gotbaum, the executive director of the historical society, managed to secure a vintage chair from the state Department of Corrections that was used for 26 prisoners at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., from 1892 to 1913.
The crime rate may be down elsewhere in New York, but it's way up at the historical society.
Exhibition: "In Cold Blood: Murders That Shocked New York," an exhibition on five sensational murders that occurred in New York City from 1836 to 1964, is on view through April 7 at the New-York Historical Society, 2 W. 77th St., Manhattan.
Admission: $3; $1 for children and the elderly. Special events are to be held in conjunction with the show and are included in admission.
Viewing hours: Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Information: For a complete schedule of events, call (212) 873-3400.