Richard S. Newcombe (1880-1930) led a life dedicated to public service, most notably as Queens Country District Attorney from 1924 to 1929, where he prosecuted some of the most famous cases of the 1920s.
Newcombe was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and New York Law School and was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1900. He served as Queens Commissioner of Public Works from 1916 to 1918, managing to avoid scandal despite working under the corrupt Borough President Maurice Connolly (1881-1935). In 1923 Newcombe was elected District Attorney of Queens by 11,346 votes and, three years later, was reelected by “the largest plurality ever given a candidate in Queens County.” Newcombe’s skills as an investigator allowed him to uncover evidence of sewer contract graft in regards to a $16 million project in Jamaica, which led to the resignation of Connolly.
During his tenure, Newcombe accomplished the impressive feat of staying focused on his cases despite intense media coverage. Newcombe served as prosecuting attorney for the Snyder-Gray murder trial, a case that became well-known for the intense press that it received. On March 19, 1927 Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray murdered Snyder’s husband, magazine editor Albert Snyder, in the couple’s Long Island home. The Jamaica Police Department quickly unraveled the robbery alibi concocted by the couple and Gray was seen in several places near the Snyder residence after the act was committed. Gray and Snyder had recently taken out a double indemnity insurance policy together, one that would pay twice the amount of the policy if Mr. Snyder died accidentally. Thus, the motive for the crime was also quite clear.
One hundred thirty two newspapers covered the trial. More than 50 extra telephones for reporters were installed specifically for the case, an incredible number for the 1920s. Yet, Newcombe remained unaffected, calling 58 witnesses to the stand to counteract the contradictory testimony given over the course of the four-day trial. As a result of Newcombe’s efforts, both Snyder and Gray were convicted and received capital sentences. During Snyder’s execution, a reporter took a picture with a concealed camera, illustrating the sensational press coverage of the case. The circumstances of the murder became even more widely known through the 1944 film noir classic, Double Indemnity, which was based on the events of the trial.
Newcombe also made the notable decision not to prosecute millionaire Edward West Browning during a 1926 scandal. Browning, who gained custody over his daughter Dorothy after his 1924 divorce, placed an ad in the Herald Tribune looking for a fourteen year-old girl to become Dorothy’s “sister.” However, rumors surfaced soon after regarding Browning’s alleged improper intentions in the matter. Despite calling his actions “disgusting and revolting,” Newcombe decided to stick to the letter of the law despite public pressure to prosecute Browning.
Newcombe was elected Surrogate of Queens County in 1929 and served as president of the Boy Scouts Sustaining Association of Queens. Robert Newcombe’s work for the Boy Scouts was the inspiration for the 1929 dedication of Camp Newcombe in Wading River, Long Island. After his death from heart failure on May 9, 1930, more than 1,000 mourners attended Newcombe’s funeral at his home at 75 Greenway Terrace. The crowd was so large that an overflow of mourners gathered in nearby Hawthorn Park. Later that year, Newcombe Square was dedicated, the location being chosen due to its proximity to the Queens Criminal Courts.
The square, which features a plaque dedicated to Newcombe, a brick lined sitting area, trees, and various plantings, was developed as a Greenstreets project. The Greenstreets program, a joint project of NYC Parks and the NYC Department of Transportation, began in 1986 and was revived in 1994, with the goal to convert paved street properties, such as triangles and malls, into green spaces.
Thursday, Nov 01, 2001