Albert Einstein and Pope Pius XII urged the death sentence be set aside
The so-called Atom Bomb spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were electrocuted for supposedly passing secrets to the Soviet Union. Both were born on the Lower East Side of New York, the children of Jewish immigrants, Ethel Greenglass on 28 September 1915 and Julius on 12 May 1918.
They married on 18 June 1939 and had two sons, Michael Allen and Robert Harry. Julius worked as an engineer for the army from 1940 until February 1945 but was sacked for lying about his membership of the Communist Party. Between 1945 and 1950 he organized three small businesses, two of them machine shops run by his wife’s brothers Bernard and David Greenglass. On 17 July 1950 J. Edgar Hoover personally announced Julius’s arrest on charges of selling secret information about American atomic research.
In January 1950 Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury for denying his involvement in spying. The following month, Klaus Fuchs was arrested and, in March 1950, sentenced to 14 years in prison for spying. His courier Harry Gold named David Greenglass as someone who had given him secret information. Greenglass was arrested on 15 June 1950 and he in turn said that Julius Rosenberg had recruited him in 1944. On 11 August Ethel was arrested and, a week later, Morton Sobell, a schoolmate of Julius.
The trial of the Rosenberg Spy Ring began on 6 March 1951 in New York. The lead witnesses against the Rosenbergs were David Greenglass and his wife Ruth. The decision of the Rosenbergs to testify turned out to be unhelpful as Ethel incriminated herself. Despite the fact that the entire government case was based on the testimony of David (he had pleaded guilty in October 1950) and Ruth Greenglass, all four defendants were convicted on 29 March 1951. On 5 April Judge Irving R. Kaufman passed sentence. David Greenglass received 15 years in prison; Morton Sobell was sent down for 30 years and the Rosenbergs were sentenced to die on 21 May 1951.
Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York, USA
Friday 19 June 1953
For two years lawyers fought to have the sentence commuted or to gain a new trial and thousands of people in America and overseas pleaded for clemency for the Rosenbergs. They wrote to each other from their prison cells and the letters were published in a book.
Albert Einstein, the president of France and HH Pope Pius XII all urged the death sentence be set aside. The Supreme Court refused three times to review the case and on 19 June 1953 the court voted 6-3 to vacate the stay of execution. Later that day, the Rosenbergs were electrocuted at Sing Sing prison in New York. FBI documents later revealed that Hoover had recommended clemency for Ethel but not Julius. In September 2008 evidence emerged that the conviction of Ethel Rosenberg was based on perjured testimony.