354 Hunter Street, Ossining
A little after 8 p.m. on June 19, 1953, New York State executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the death house at Sing Sing Correctional Facility for crimes of espionage conspiracy. Smoke rose from Ethel’s head after five electrical pulses rushed through her veins.
There may not have been a more infamous trial and execution than that of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. A jury of the Southern District of New York found both of them guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States and on behalf of the Soviet Union.
From the time of the arrest, the guilt of the Rosenbergs was a matter of heated controversy. The prosecution’s primary witness, David Greenglass, the younger brother of Ethel, worked for the Manhattan Project. The FBI arrested him for sending information to Julius Rosenberg about the construction of the atom bomb. Greenglass pleaded guilty in order to reduce his sentence and protect his wife from charges of involvement. Greenglass’s testimony was the main evidence used to convict Julius of providing classified information to the Soviet Union. More recent documentation proves Julius’s involvement, but the documents also show that he only gave information about general weapons and never had any atomic information to send to the Soviets. The guilt of Ethel, however, is far from certain. Greenglass admitted in an interview that he had lied about his testimony that Ethel had typed up notes for Julius to send to the Soviets. It appears the only thing Ethel was guilty of was knowing what her husband was doing.
Among the concerns raised in regard to the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs was that of anti-semitism. Various Jewish groups, while not contesting the jury’s decision, took issue with the harshness of the sentence. At the time of the trial, there was a strong relationship between anti-communism and anti-semitism. Many U.S. Jews expressed fears that the Rosenberg case played into the stereotype that conflated Judaism and communism.
After the jury’s verdict in March 1951, there was a global uproar in protest of the Rosenberg’s death sentence. Many begged President Truman to provide clemency, but he chose not to address the issue before his term ended. The decision then fell to President Eisenhower. Eisenhower stated that he trusted the jury’s decision and the justice system. He also justified the severity of the sentence. “The nature of the crime for which they have been found guilty and sentenced far exceeds that of the taking of the life of another citizen,” he declared; “it involves the deliberate betrayal of the entire nation and could very well result in the death of many, many thousands of innocent citizens.”
Between Harris Smiler on July 7, 1891, and Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963 (the last person executed at Sing Sing), 614 people would take their last breath in the death chamber at Sing Sing. Sing Sing’s “death house” was an entirely separate section within the prison. It had an independent hospital, recreational area, and contained 24 individual cells, plus 3 extra cells for women. The day before their execution, inmates were allowed in a space referred to as the dance hall, which led into the death chamber. Executions at Sing Sing traditionally took place on Thursday nights.
From 1914 until 1963, all New York State executions took place at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. New York State officially abolished the death penalty in 1984. The death house today is a space for vocational programs.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are the only U.S.citizens ever executed for crimes of espionage during peacetime. They left behind two sons, Michael (10) and Robert (6). Today, Michael and Robert Meeropol (they took the surname of their adopted parents), continue to fight for the exoneration of their mother, who they believe to be innocent of the crimes for which she was convicted.
Coming from north or south of Ossining along the east side of the Hudson River, take the Metro North Hudson Line to Ossining station. The prison is less than a five-minute walk from the station. If you are coming from west of the river, take the Haverstraw-Ossining ferry.
Nearby sites of interest:
Sing Sing Prison Museum, 127 Main Street, Ossining.
To learn more:
Edward F. McGrath, I Was Condemned to the Chair, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1934.
Anne Sebba, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021.