[Editor’s Note: Kathy Olmsted is back, sharing some of the material she used in her last book As always, thanks, Kathy, for your help.]

On this day in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison, in retribution for committing what FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover called “the crime of the century”: stealing the “secret” of the atomic bomb.

The archives of the former Soviet Union reveal that Julius was indeed the leader of a Communist spy ring, though he was not a source of critical atomic information for them. But scholars have found no evidence that Ethel was a full-fledged agent. Instead, she was simply an accessory to her husband. How, then, did she end up in the electric chair? Short answer: because she came to symbolize the worst fears of the men in the White House, the FBI, and the media.

The press, of course, did not treat either Rosenberg kindly. In general, reporters painted them as Communist robots. A common accusation was, as Judge Irving Kaufman explained when he sentenced them to die, “their love for their cause” was greater than their love for their family, even their own children.

But Ethel was singled out for special treatment by the media and government officials. As a woman, she was supposed to be more emotional, more committed to her family and children, less interested in politics. Indeed, in private, Ethel was a deeply sensitive person, suffering from black periods of depression, crying herself to sleep at night, aching with loneliness for her husband, worrying about her children’s future. She had been an attentive mother to her two young sons, and she was horrified at the trauma they were experiencing. But in public, she refused to give her enemies the satisfaction of seeing her cry.

Her emotionless mask in public made her seem more unnatural, more evil even than Julius. “There is a saying that in the animal kingdom, the female is the deadlier of the species. It could be applied to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,” wrote the World-Telegram and Sun. The Journal-American told its readers that Julius’s “deceptively lumpish” wife had been “even more immersed in communism and its requirements for regimentation” than her husband.

She was three years older than Julius, which was portrayed as both unnatural and as proof that she dominated her husband. As Judge Kaufman said when he sentenced her to death, “She is a mature woman, three years older than her husband. She was a full-fledged partner in this crime.” Writers also liked to emphasize the extra jolts of electricity required to kill her. Julius had been killed on the first try. Bob Considine, a Hearst reporter allowed to witness the execution, proclaimed: “As in life, Ethel was stronger than Julius when death came toward them.”

Reporters covering the case were disappointed with Ethel’s looks: of all the “red spy queens” of the forties and fifties, she seemed the least likely to be a Mata Hari. As the Journal-American reported with regret, “Beside the voluptuous shake artist of World War I Ethel Rosenberg presents a drab picture.” She was short, a little overweight, and favored hats “vintage 1917.” Considine of the Hearst press learned to reconcile Ethel’s appearance with his preconceptions of female spies: her average looks, he concluded, were part of her disguise. He liked to use the adverb “deceptively” when describing Ethel, as in the “deceptively soft-looking, dumpy little woman.” The World-Telegram’s reporter, however, had a different analysis: Ethel’s unassuming appearance explained her motivation. In an article headlined “Mrs. Rosenberg Was Like a Red Spider,” he explained that Ethel, a “homely girl,” had early on “felt a need to dominate a man.”

Later writers and artists would continue this theme of the domineering woman who was the master of her weak husband. Trial lawyer Louis Nizer, who believed the convictions were justified, put great emphasis on Ethel’s determination. “Her life and death confirmed an extraordinary will — a will to rise above her environment, a will to become an artist, a will to be a revolutionist and a superhuman will to live against a death current powerful enough to have destroyed two other lives.” A largely sympathetic writer, E.L. Doctorow, painted a similar portrait of Ethel. His fictionalized account of the Rosenbergs, The Book of Daniel, described a household run by an icy, controlling wife and mother — a woman the government knew was stronger than her husband. In paintings and dramatizations of the case, Ethel is sometimes portrayed as being as tall or even taller than Julius, Robert Meeropol, the Rosenbergs’ younger son, has noted. Ethel was barely five feet tall, while Julius was five-foot-nine.

However, while reporters and artists widely believed that Ethel dominated Julius, the men with access to all the evidence in the case initially did not share that view. At first, the FBI and the federal prosecutors regarded Ethel simply as a pawn in their game to break Julius. Days before Ethel and Julius were sentenced to death for conspiracy to commit espionage, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover stated that Ethel was only an accomplice “presumed to be acting under the influence of her husband.” No one at the FBI appears to have wanted the death penalty for Ethel. However, the prosecutors and the judge thought the threat of death would motivate Julius and Ethel to start talking.

When Ethel joined her husband in his refusal to cooperate, however, the government’s image of her began to shift. The men with the most power over her life and death, Hoover and President Eisenhower, came to see her as the key to the conspiracy. Hoover was particularly influenced by a report written by Morris Ernst, the ACLU’s leading “expert” on Communism and its dangers. Ernst psychoanalyzed the Rosenbergs, whom he had never met, and concluded “Julius is the slave and his wife, Ethel, the master.” Hoover accepted this conclusion, and withdrew his objections to Ethel’s execution when he heard reports that Ethel was a bad daughter and mother.

Eisenhower would not consider clemency for Julius or Ethel, explaining in a letter to a friend that Ethel was “the more strong-minded and the apparent leader of the two.” He returned to this theme in a private letter to his son. “In this instance it is the woman who is the strong and recalcitrant character, the man is the weak one. She has obviously been the leader in everything they did in the spy ring,” he wrote.

My graduate student Lori Clune, who has a terrific chapter on the Rosenberg clemency petition in her dissertation, says that Eisenhower denied clemency to Ethel in part because he feared that doing so would encourage the Soviets to use women agents and that legions of Mata Haris would soon overrun the country. Such glimpses into the paranoid fantasy life of American presidents are as chilling as they are rare. In this case, Eisenhower’s gender anxiety may have cost Ethel Rosenberg her life.