Albert Einstein spoke out, as did Jean-Paul Sartre, Dashiell Hammett and Frida Kahlo. Pope Pius XII appealed for clemency. Ether Rosenberg herself wrote a desperate plea to President Eisenhower from her cell. All to no avail.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg died in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in New York on 19 June 1953 for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. They were the first US citizens executed for espionage.
Julius was executed first. He died after the first electric shock.
Ethel’s execution did not go smoothly. After she was given the normal course of three electric shocks, attendants removed the strapping and other equipment only to have doctors determine that Ethel’s heart was still beating. Two more electric shocks were applied, and at the conclusion, eyewitnesses reported that smoke rose from her head.
The testimony of Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass (who supplied the stolen documents to Julius) condemned her. He later confessed he had lied to protect his wife, Ruth, the actual typist of the documents.
For decades, the Rosenbergs’ sons Michael and Robert Meeropol and many other defenders maintained that Julius and Ethel were innocent of spying on their country and victims of Cold War paranoia.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, much information concerning them was declassified, including a trove of decoded Soviet cables, codenamed VENONA, which detailed Julius’s role as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets and Ethel’s role as an accessory.
There is a consensus among historians that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were guilty, but their trial was marred by clear judicial and legal improprieties and they should not have been executed.
The Rosenberg children say that their father did not deserve the death penalty and that their mother was wrongly convicted. They continue to campaign for Ethel to be posthumously and legally exonerated.