A woman was honored by New York City Council members and Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer on Monday, September 28th, on what would have been her 100th birthday. But she didn’t make it to 40. She died at the young age of 37, in an electric chair in Sing Sing prison on June 19, 1953, minutes after her husband was electrocuted. Her sons–Robert, 6 and Michael, 10–were now orphans. Her name was Ethel.
Ethel and her husband, Julius Rosenberg, were the only civilians in American history ever executed for espionage during peacetime and their trial took place during the Cold War at the height of Red Scare hysteria. The case is extremely complicated and controversial, but here are some of the facts that aren’t disputed and that are key to understanding the story. In 1950, Klaus Fuchs, a German-born British scientist who worked on developing the atomic bomb was arrested for passing top secret information to the Soviet Union. Fuchs named American Harry Gold as his liaison with the Soviets. Gold in turn, named David Greenglass and his wife, Ruth. And Greenglass named his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, the husband of David’s sister Ethel. Julius was arrested on June 17, 1950, and Ethel was arrested on August 11.
While it appears true that Julius Rosenberg and David Greenglass had been involved in sharing information with the Soviet Union, the U.S. Ally during World War Two, Julius’s role was much more minor than the government stated and it certainly did not deserve the death penalty. This isn’t just a moral or ethical position, but a legal one. The Rosenbergs were indicted for “conspiracy to commit espionage,” which doesn’t carry a death sentence.
And even more egregious is the fact that Ethel was arrested and charged to pressure her husband into naming names. And the entire case against Ethel was based on the testimony of her brother David, who would later admit that he lied about his sister to protect his wife. Greenglass himself admitted this to journalist Sam Roberts in the 1990s:
I told them the story and left her [Ethel] out of it, right? But my wife put her in it. So what am I gonna do, call my wife a liar? My wife is my wife. I mean, I don’t sleep with my sister, you know.
And previously sealed grand jury records, that were only released this summer, corroborate that Greenglass did perjure himself when he implicated his sister. While testifying in front of the Grand Jury, Greenglass said he had no knowledge of Ethel’s involvement: “My sister has never spoken to me about this subject,” he said at one point. On another occasion he stated, “I never spoke to my sister about this at all.” He had also confessed to handing information to Julius on a New York street corner. But right before and during the actual trial, David sang a very different tune. Only ten days before the start of the trial against his brother in-law, David claimed that he handed off the documents in the Rosenbergs’ apartment. Then Ruth told FBI agents that “Julius then took the info into the bathroom and read it, and when he came out he told [Ethel] she had to type this info immediately. Ethel then sat down at the typewriter … and proceeded to type the info which David had given to Julius.” And that was the version they stuck to during the trial. It was Ethel’s alleged typing of notes that got her charged, convicted, and ultimately executed.
But what is more disturbing is the fact that the government was aware that they lacked sufficient evidence against Ethel. According to then FBI Director (and Martin Luther King-hater) J. Edgar Hoover, “There is no question… [that] if Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities, it would be possible to proceed against other individuals. [P]roceeding against his wife might serve as a lever in this matter.” In the same vain, Assistant U. S. Attorney Myles Lane told a Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy,