On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of conspiring to pass U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets, were executed at Sing Sing Prison. Though the couple made headlines throughout the early 1950s, here are five interesting facts you may not have read in the papers...
It Was Ethel's Brother Who Ratted Them Out. According to the FBI investigation and outside accounts, the Rosenbergs were actively conducting spy activities for the Soviets from 1942 until their arrest in the summer of 1950. Together they recruited several members of the top-secret "Manhattan Project" including Ethel's brother, David Greenglass. The FBI caught up with Greenglass in June 1950, and he quickly implicated Julius while (at first) denying his sister's involvement. That all changed when prosecutors threatened to put Greenglass's wife, Ruth, behind bars along with him. In exchange for immunity for Ruth, Daniel testified that Ethel had an active involvement in her husband's ongoing relations with the Soviets. In a 1996 interview with The New York Times, Greenglass admitted he lied in his testimony to protect his wife.
Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and Pope Pius XII All Pled For Clemency. Julius and Ethel were both convicted of espionage and sentenced to death in the spring of 1951. Many Americans believed the allegation against them to be false and the sentence to be far too harsh. There were widespread claims of antisemitism and major cultural figures like Einstein, Picasso, the Pope, Frida Kahlo, and Jean-Paul Sartre all advocated for President Eisenhower to intervene and reduce the Rosenbergs' sentence. He declined, and on June 19, 1953, doctors at the Sing Sing prison in New York executed the couple.
Ethel Did Not Go Easy. The United States Federal Bureau of Prisons did not operate an electric chair of their own, and so the couple was transferred to Sing Sing to meet "Old Sparky," as the chair was called. Julius was first. He died almost immediately from the first shock. Ethel was not so fortunate. She was administered three different shocks before doctors checked her heartbeat—and found she was still alive. The administered another two jolts before she finally passed. It took four-and-a-half minutes to execute Ethel.
The Rosenbergs' Sons Continue to Campaign for Their Mother's Exoneration. One of the most unfortunate parts of the whole story is that the Rosenbergs had two young sons that were orphaned as a result of the executions. Today, the sons largely accept their father's role in the affair (though they do claim that Julius was not guilty of atomic spying and therefore received too harsh a sentence). But, they maintain their mother's innocence. In the final weeks of Obama's presidency, the two brothers attempted to get Ethel exonerated but did not succeed. To-date, they have not attempted to do so with President Trump, likely because Ray Cohn—a former lawyer and advisor to President Trump—served on the legal team against the Rosenbergs.
But, Historians Believe It's Likely They Both Were Guilty. Despite the claims of innocence by the Rosenberg boys, historians who have dedicated time and research to studying the Rosenberg case all largely agree that in all likelihood, both Julius and Ethel were guilty of espionage. Declassified FBI documents show Ethel hid money, acted as an intermediary communicator, weighed in on potential recruits, and was present in meetings with Soviet contacts.