On April 5, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to the electric chair for committing espionage for the Soviet Union.
For the next 14 months, a flurry of appeals, pleas, and protests was hatched to try to save the lives of the husband and wife convicted spies, ages 32 and 35, both natives of the Lower East Side.
In March 1952, their lawyers filed an appeal in Federal court, claiming the conduct of the sentencing judge, Irving R. Kaufman, denied them a fair trial.
That appeal was denied, as was an appeal to the Supreme Court claiming the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment.
“Doomed couple in Sing Sing for 18 months take news calmly,” a headline read in October 1952.
A stay of execution pushed back their scheduled March 9 date with death. Meanwhile, a clemency plea to the president was dismissed in February 1953.
Eisenhower replied that “their betrayal of United States atomic secrets to Russia could bring to death ‘many, many thousands of innocent citizens,'” wrote The New York Times in May 1953.
In May, the Supreme Court ordered the stay vacated. Electrocution was set for the week of June 15.
Religious leaders around the world cabled President Eisenhower and asked for clemency for the couple. Protesters marched in Boston, Los Angeles, and outside the White House.
A final Supreme Court ruling, with only Hugo Black and William Douglas dissenting, paved the way for their deaths on June 19.
In New York that afternoon, 5,000 supporters rallied at the north end of Union Square, spilling onto East 17th Street (above).
But the execution proceeded that evening at about 8 p.m.
Julius went first. “As a clean-shaven Rosenberg neared the brown-stained oak chair he seemed to sway from side to side,” wrote the Times.
Ethel “entered the death chamber a few minutes after the body of her husband had been removed,” said the Times.
Wearing a green polka-dot dress and her hair close cropped, she kissed the cheek of a prison matron and was then strapped into the chair, a leather mask put over her face.
After five shocks, she was pronounced dead.
Whether the death penalty was an appropriate punishment is still a contentious topic. Both admitted no culpability, but Soviet-era files later revealed that Julius was indeed a spy.
Ethel appears to have been implicated by her own brother, who testified against her to spare his own wife from prosecution.
[Top photo: AP; second and fourth images, NY Daily News; third and fifth photos: Getty Images]