Tompkins Square Park stands out as one of the larger parks of lower Manhattan: 10 whole acres—remarkable in a city cramped for space. On weekend afternoons, I sometimes walk over to admire the beauty of the park’s trees and marvel at the diversity of the people who gather there, well-off and poor, of varied racial and ethnic origins. But just steps away, cater-cornered from the park’s entrance, at number 103 Avenue A, is the apartment building where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg lived in the 1940’s with their two young children. A newspaper photo of the Rosenbergs, taken during their trial on espionage charges after the Second World War, shows them near a court house.
They are conservatively dressed in winter clothes, with Ethel wearing the kind of small hat popular at the time. She looks directly at the camera, while Julius, bespectacled, stares straight ahead. Both bear themselves with dignity, though you sense their weariness. They appear young. In fact, they were only in their mid-30’s at the time of their execution, on June 19, 1953, at Sing Sing, the grim prison on the banks of the Hudson River north of New York City.
Their deaths shocked many, even among those who believed them guilty. They were, after all, the parents of two young children. But part of the horror also lay in the fact that their executions were carried out almost simultaneously. Witnesses described both Julius and Ethel as remarkably composed. Indeed, on arriving at the death chamber, Ethel kissed the prison matron on the cheek. She was placed in the electric chair shortly after her husband’s lifeless body had been removed. But then, in an especially gruesome turn of events, one account tells us that once Ethel was strapped into the chair, the executioner had to throw the switch that controlled the surge of electricity not once, but five times, “because the leather cap with the electrodes was too large for her head.”
Now, whenever I pass the Rosenbergs’ former home in the modest six-story yellow brick apartment house on Avenue A, with its fire escapes in front, they come to mind. I learned that this was their residence only by chance, on reading Bruce Kayton’s Radical Walking Tours of New York City. Like other parents of young children, they would often have taken their own two to play among the park’s walks and grassy areas, where many continue to go for relaxation.
It is the kind of park that attracts families, with lots of space and benches for resting. Where in Tompkins Square Park might the Rosenberg children have most liked to play? Surely one of their favorite spots might have been the cobblestoned central area, with a large elm tree in the middle.
Partly encircled by wooden benches, that central area serves as a gathering place for young and old alike. I once watched a Hare Krishna group in saffron-colored robes chanting there in front of a dozen spectators on folding chairs. Later, a long line formed as they served a substantial meal of chicken, rice and condiments—free of charge, though a container for donations sat on one end of the table.
A plaque on the elm tree in the middle informs us that it was there, in the fall of 1966, that the followers of the Society for Krishna Consciousness assembled for their first outdoor gathering. With them was the poet Alan Ginsberg. Their chanting is always prayerful, a helpful balm as I think about the Rosenbergs’ former presence at that spot with their children.
Capital punishment is still practiced in the United States, but perhaps not forever. Polls show that public support has been dropping. As Holy Week began last spring, moreover, the U.S. bishops announced their Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty. In launching it, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, of Washington, D.C., pointed out, “Human life is a gift from God that is not ours to take away.” The bishops’ various documents opposing capital punishment have been in circulation for years, but only lately are the bishops putting their full weight into emphasizing the documents’ abolition message.
That campaign is well under way, with a special Web site created to make its thrust widely known: www.usccb.org/sdwp/national/deathpenalty. As individual states continue to abolish the use of capital punishment, one can hope that grim scenes like the one at Sing Sing in 1953 will never be repeated.