Ethel Rosenberg: a gruesome death by execution that shocked the world

‘I think it is the most horrific story. Her death was so barbaric’ – biographer Anne Sebba

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, following their arrest by the FBI in New York city for espionage, 1950. They were convicted and executed in 1953. Photograph: Kypros/ Getty

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, following their arrest by the FBI in New York city for espionage, 1950. They were convicted and executed in 1953. Photograph: Kypros/ Getty

 

Ethel Rosenberg was 37 and the mother of two small sons when she was executed in New York in 1953. Her husband, Julius, had been executed a short time before her. They were both found guilty of the crimes of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.

Much has been written of Julius Rosenberg, but little about his doomed wife. She had the unhappy distinction of being the first woman in the US to be executed for a crime other than murder.

Anne Sebba’s biography of Ethel Rosenberg, a book five years in the research and writing, has just been published. Sebba, who lives in Surrey, dug into archives containing Ethel’s letters written during the three years she spent in prison, and grand jury testimony papers of the trial. She also interviewed both Michael and Robby, the Rosenberg’s sons, now in their 70s. 

Ethel Greenglass met Julius Rosenberg in New York City in 1936, when she was 21 and he was 18. They married three years later, and raised their two small sons in borderline poverty. Both were members of the Communist Party, with Julius being the far more active member.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg sitting in police van after being convicted of espionage.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg sitting in police van after being convicted of espionage.

In the United States of the late 1940s and 1950s, “Fear was the overriding motif of the age, and fear breeds hysteria,” Sebba says. “There was genuine fear that the Russians and Stalin would launch an atom bomb on America. There was a fear of communism.”

She describes Julius Rosenberg as “a naive idealist”. He worked for a time at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where research was going on into radar, missile controls and electronics. He had been recruited to spy for the Soviet Union – which was far from uncommon in those days – and he subsequently passed on  information about what was happening at Fort Monmouth.

It was never in doubt that Julius Rosenberg had conducted acts of espionage. There was proof, which was later produced in court. But when he was arrested, his wife’s arrest also followed soon after, although there was no proof of any active espionage involvement on her part.

“The Rosenbergs were small fry, but the government or the FBI – or both – were absolutely determined to make an example of them. Ethel was arrested to put pressure on Julius and they didn’t want to kill her. They hoped merely by arresting her on these trumped-up charges, surely Julius would talk, because that’s what everyone else had done.”

Except that is not what happened. There were no confessions, no names produced of other Americans spying for the Soviets, and no admission of guilt by either Rosenberg. How much does Sebba think that Ethel knew?

“I find innocence quite a difficult word to use with Ethel,” she says. “I think she was clearly innocent of the charges but, on the other hand, I think she was supportive of Julius. She knew what he was doing... She was complicit merely by knowing, so that’s why they charged them with conspiracy to commit espionage.”

The subsequent trial of the Rosenbergs made news all over the world. Ethel’s own brother, David Greenglass, testified against her, in a blatant act of perjury. Her mother disowned her. Her children were shunted around and then went into care.

Robert and Michael Rosenberg, Julius and Ethel’s six and 10 year old sons, pictured at the home of Bernard and Sonia Bach, friends of the Rosenbergs, New Jersey, before their parents’ execution.
Robert (6) and Michael (10) Rosenberg at the New Jersey home of famiy friends Bernard and Sonia Bach, before their parents’ execution
A letter from Michael and Robert Rosenberg pleading for the life of their parents. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/ AFP via Getty
A letter from Michael and Robert Rosenberg pleading for the life of their parents. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

Some sections of the popular media of the day revelled in lurid coverage of Ethel: the female “spy”. She was impassive in court, and poorly turned out, due to the fact they had very little money: Julius Rosenberg embarked upon espionage for his ideals, not for monetary reward. She didn’t cry in public, and the media gleefully judged her unfeeling and, by implication, guilty of the accused crime, as a result. 

“She was absolutely judged for her appearance,” Sebba says.

Both Rosenbergs were sensationally sentenced to death by electrocution. There were protest marches held around the world at their sentence, including in Ireland. 

“It was the wrong advice to them to go on pleading the Fifth Amendment because it made it seem as if they were on trial for being communists, which at some subliminal level, of course they were. But they would have been better advised to have said straight up, yes we are communists, but no, we are not spies.”

I ask Sebba how culpable she thinks Julius Rosenberg was in his wife’s death sentence.

“I have spent ages agonising over that. What could he have said? Okay, I am a spy, but my wife isn’t? Would they have believed him? Or he could have thought, if I admit I am a spy, I will have to name names? Or was he more likely to get off by pleading innocence for both of them? I think he believed there was no evidence against him, which was not the case.”

Sebba says the only lesson history offers is that there are no lessons to be learned.

I ask if she can think of a modern equivalent of Ethel’s predicament: incarceration by association. “Well yes,” she replies. “The young journalist [Raman Pratsevich] arrested in Belarus with his girlfriend [Sofia Sapega]. A country prepared to flout the law, to instil fear, and to also arrest his girlfriend: does that not strike you as terrifying?”

She was removed from the electric chair after three charges, only for it to be discovered her heart was still beating

The Rosenberg children were permitted to visit their parents during their incarceration. At one point in the biography, Michael, then not yet 10, recalls playing word games with his father, including Hangman.

Three years after the trial, on June 19th, 1953 the Rosenbergs were executed. Ethel’s execution was botched. She was removed from the electric chair after three charges, only for it to be discovered her heart was still beating, so, gruesomely, she had to be strapped back into it. There was international outrage at her death.

“I think it is the most horrific story,” Sebba says. “Her death was so barbaric. And the newspapers reported that because she was tougher, she needed more of a jolt. There was no compassion.”

Michael and Robby Rosenberg were 10 and six respectively when their parents were executed. After going through various state organisations, they were adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol, whose surname they took.

Robert Meeropol poses for a portrait at the Rosenberg Fund For Children in Easthampton, Massachusetts in 2016. Robert and his brother, Michael, asked president Obama to pardon their mother. Photograph: Craig F Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty
Robert Meeropol poses for a portrait at the Rosenberg Fund for Children in Easthampton, Massachusetts in 2016. Robert and his brother Michael asked President Barack Obama to pardon their mother. Photograph: Craig F Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty

The Meeropols were both teachers, and Abel was also a lyricist. He wrote Strange Fruit, a song made famous by Billie Holiday, and the royalties from that and other songs kept the family comfortable. The boys went on to make successful careers in economics and law, and have families of their own.

In the intervening decades, it has since been conclusively proved that David Greenglass committed perjury against his own sister. Will there ever be a pardon for Ethel Rosenberg?

“An exoneration is what the two sons would like,” the author says. “I think there could be some kind of exoneration, in that she was convicted on the basis of perjury, and for someone convicted on the basis of perjury, there should be a form of pardon. I believe there should be.”

Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy, by Anne Sebba, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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