Medium 9781574413175

Vengeance Is Mine

By: Bill Neal
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The 1912 Boyce-Sneed feud in West Texas began with a torrid sex scandal at the core of a love triangle, featuring Lena Snyder Sneed, the high-spirited, headstrong wife; Al Boyce, Jr., Lena's reckless, romantic lover; and John Beal Sneed, Lena's arrogant, grim, and vindictive husband, who responded to Lena's plea for a divorce by having her locked up in an insane asylum on grounds of "moral insanity." The chase was on after Al rescued Lena from the asylum and the lovers fled to Canada. That's when the killings began. No one who knew the vengeful John Beal Sneed doubted for a moment that he would go after his wife’s lover with lethal intent. Frustrated by Al's escape to Canada, Sneed assassinated Al's aged and unarmed father, Colonel Albert Boyce, a wealthy Amarillo banker and former manager of the huge XIT Ranch in the Panhandle during the late nineteenth century, who had been defending his son against Sneed's legal machinations. Newspaper headlines predicted the upcoming murder trial would be the "greatest legal battle ever fought in Texas Courts." Sneed's well-paid legal team first earned him a mistrial. While awaiting his second trial, Sneed ambushed and killed Al Boyce, Jr., who had foolishly returned to Amarillo and was shot in the back, with witnesses present, while walking the main street. Sneed was acquitted in his second trial for killing the father, and later acquitted for the killing of son Al Boyce, Jr., as well--his legal team skillfully invoking the self-help justice of the unwritten law defending one's marital home. Bill Neal, attorney and writer, tells the full story of this sordid affair with special analysis of the trial tactics that were so carefully crafted to resonate with the jurors of this era and ensure Sneed's acquittal.

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Prologue

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PROLOGUE

FOR FOUR MISERABLE DAYS the two would-be assassins sweated in the heat of early September. The small house they had rented for their intended ambush had no air-conditioning, but then nobody had air-conditioning in 1912 Amarillo. Still, most folks at least opened their windows to catch an occasional breeze. But not the assassins. They nailed the shades over all the windows, leaving only a narrow space for a peephole at the bottom.

When, several days earlier, John Beal Sneed heard that his prey had come to Amarillo, he and his deputy assassin, Beech Epting, caught the next train to town. Already anticipating his prey’s arrival, the leader had grown a full beard, and now, instead of wearing his usual business suit, he donned a pair of faded overalls. Adding to this disguise a rather bizarre touch, he wore, as one witness subsequently described it, “a pair of blue goggles.” Then, under aliases, he had

Epting rent what would later be referred to as “the death cottage” along a street they knew their target would have to walk, sooner or later, en route to the downtown area. Ironically, the death cottage was just across the street from a venerable Amarillo landmark—the

 

Chapter 1: The Three Families

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The Three Families

Settling in Antebellum Texas

BY HAPPENSTANCE, the Sneed, Boyce, and Snyder families all

settled in the same place, a wild and sparsely populated area a few miles north of Austin around the central Texas village of Georgetown. The three families were bedrock Texans, all arriving before the Civil War—some even before statehood in 1845. During those early years, the families shared the same struggles and hardships in that harsh, dangerous, and unforgiving frontier where there was the constant threat of Indian depredations. They also shared many of the same qualities. They were intelligent people and reasonably well educated for that day: ambitious, bold-spirited, hardy, independent, and, most of all, determined—determined not only to survive, but also to prosper. They were a religious people, devout Methodists. All three families, years later, joined to help found Southwestern University in Georgetown, a Methodist-sponsored college that received its official charter in 1875. Over the years, the lives and destinies of the three families became intertwined.

 

Chapter 2: A Secret Too Big to Keep

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A Secret Too Big to Keep

“Let the Old Men Settle It”

FAMILIAR FOLKLORE has it that the husband is always the last to know. John Beal Sneed may not have been the last to discover his wife’s affair, but he certainly wasn’t the first. By the early fall of 1911, the intensity of the affair had become so heated that some family members and even some of the neighbors had become aware of it.

Unlike Al Boyce and Lena Snyder Sneed, they all fully appreciated its gravity and how explosive that powder keg was in 1911 Texas society. But what to do?

Al’s father, Colonel Albert G. Boyce, and the Colonel’s wife were aware of the affair by early July 1911, and they were alarmed by its implications. They attempted to discourage Al from continuing the relationship and proposed to take Al in New Orleans to see a doctor whom they believed might cure Al of his infatuation. Al refused to go unless Lena gave her consent. She agreed, but before the end of the month Al returned—still uncured and still infatuated with Lena.

 

Chapter 3: A Man with a Plan

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A Man with a Plan

Escape, Flight, and Pursuit

AT FIRST IT MUST HAVE SEEMED IMPOSSIBLE for John Beal

Sneed to concoct any one plan that would accomplish all of his goals.

Revenge had to be exacted—not only against Lena but also against

Al. Both had publicly humiliated him. His battered hubris had to be assuaged; his honor in that Victorian society had to be restored.

And he had to do all of that while publicly portraying himself in some heroic role. In 1911 Texas society he could kill Al, even waylay him from ambush and most likely get away with it—maybe even be applauded for it. After all, there was still a statute on the law books of Texas that justified the killing of a libertine provided the enraged husband caught him in bed with his wife.1 But what about Lena?

She had to be punished too. However, as any southern gentleman knew, killing a woman, even a cheating wife, was out of the question.

There was just no way that slaying a woman could be portrayed as the act of a proud, courageous, manly southern hero. On the other hand, after it became public knowledge that Lena had committed adultery, he couldn’t take her back—couldn’t permit that soiled dove to return to the marital bed—without incurring public disdain and therefore disgracing himself.

 

Chapter 4: The Gathering Storm

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The Gathering Storm

The Killings Begin

WHILE THE WINNIPEG PRESS was whetting the voyeuristic appe-

tite of its readers with blow-by-blow accounts of John Beal Sneed’s windmill-tilting tactics with the Canadian immigration officials, the Fort Worth press carried an entirely different kind of story— different, but one that was equally fascinating to its subscribers. Colonel Boyce and his wife had come to Fort Worth to testify before the grand jury on behalf of Al. While in town they were interviewed by a

Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter. The story he filed was not nearly as humorous as the Winnipeg musings, but it certainly was a lot more inflammatory. Colonel Boyce was quoted as saying this: “Nobody will believe that my son abducted Lena Sneed . . . She is as sane as anybody . . . I know that they sent Mrs. Sneed to the sanitarium to get her away from my son . . . She planned the whole thing, and I am going to see that my son’s name is cleared of this false charge.”1

But the quote attributed to Al’s mother topped that. Mrs. Annie

 

Chapter 5: To the Courts

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To the Courts

From Guns to Gavels

AS THE STORY OF THE BLOODY Boyce-Sneed feud continued

to unfold for more than two years—more melodramatic than any modern soap opera—lurid newspaper accounts of a scandalous romance, the stalking, the killings, and the sensational murder trials titillated readers all across America and Canada (where the press continued to take an unusually condescending and voyeuristic interest). Every twist of the tale seemed even more unbelievable than the last, and it not only shocked the nation but shook the pillars of West

Texas society.

The courtroom dramas, riveting enough as they were in their own right, also served to bring into sharp focus the marked differences between the liberal values emerging in the northern states and the traditional Victorian morals, customs, and religious beliefs still so deeply imbedded in southern culture—all this at the dawning of the new century when these “Old South” values were first beginning to be seriously challenged.

<=

When they slammed shut the jailhouse door on John Beal Sneed for the killing of Colonel Boyce, the entire drama abruptly shifted

 

Chapter 6: “The Greatest Legal Battle Ever”

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“The Greatest Legal Battle Ever”

The 1912 Fort Worth Murder Trial of John Beal Sneed

WHAT A TANTALIZING TREAT was in store for trial spectators

poised on the edge of their seats breathlessly waiting to witness what had been billed as “The Greatest Legal Battle Ever Fought in Texas Courts”1 featuring those larger-than-life characters they had heard and read so much about—John Beal Sneed, Lena Snyder

Sneed, and Al Boyce—who would disgorge all those juicy, intimate details of the scandalous romance and the killing of a Texas pioneer icon. As fascinating as that promised to be, yet another riveting story would unfold as the trial progressed—one that only the more seasoned courtroom railbirds were likely to have anticipated. How could any trial lawyer, no matter how skillful, experienced, or imaginative, devise and execute a viable trial strategy that would stand any chance of keeping John Beal Sneed’s neck out of a noose? Public sentiment in Fort Worth was tilted in favor of the prosecution: the defendant had killed an unarmed old man—a prominent and respected pioneer—whose only crime was an attempt to protect his son from unjust prosecution. The state’s case seemed to have “slam-dunk” written all over it. One thing was certain: to have any chance of success, the defendant would have to enlist the services of a courtroom wizard. Or wizards. Plus, perhaps,

 

Chapter 7: Protecting a Home or Protecting a Killer?

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Protecting a Home or Protecting a Killer?

The Conclusion of the 1912

John Beal Sneed Murder Trial

IN SPORTS CONTESTS, there comes a time during most games

when the momentum shifts to one of the teams. At that point it is crucial for the other team to reinvigorate, to shift strategies, to seize the initiative and stop that momentum before the game turns into a rout. So it is with most hotly contested jury trials. That crucial point in the Sneed murder trial came when McLean concluded his direct examination of John Beal Sneed. Beal’s virtuoso performance, enhanced by the tearful accompaniment of his two daughters, had been carefully orchestrated; it hit all the right notes at the right time to captivate the hearts and minds of the rural and unsophisticated jurors imbued with Victorian values. When McLean ended his direct examination and announced, “No further questions,” momentum was clearly with the defense. It was now or never for the prosecution.

It was also precisely at that point that an excellent opportunity was presented to the prosecution to turn the tide by attacking the

 

Chapter 8:The Waiting Game

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The Waiting Game

Ambush at the Death Cottage

JUDGE SWAYNE DECLARED A MISTRIAL in the prosecution

of John Beal Sneed for murdering Colonel Boyce on February 29,

1912, and that was the day the waiting game began. Retrial of the murder case was scheduled to begin in the same Fort Worth district court in November 1912—eight months later. It would prove to be a very long eight months indeed.

Cone Johnson, in his closing argument for the defense, made a very curious comment: “There has been enough sorrow . . . The

Boyces ought to be satisfied. The Sneeds ought to feel that there’s been enough calamity.” Perhaps. But that certainly didn’t accurately reflect the sentiments of the three principals in the tragedy, none of whom were satisfied with the status quo. Lena was not satisfied. She wanted Al. But John Beal Sneed was in the way. Al was not satisfied.

He wanted Lena. But, again, there was the John Beal Sneed impediment. Al also wanted to avenge the murder of his father—personally.

Beal was not satisfied. He wanted more calamity. He wanted Al and

 

Chapter 9: “Because This Is Texas”

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“Because This Is Texas”

The Second Fort Worth Murder Trial of John Beal Sneed

LODGED IN THE POTTER COUNTY JAIL in Amarillo under

indictment for the murder of Al Boyce, John Beal Sneed once again petitioned for bail.1 The Amarillo district attorney, H. S. Bishop, opposed it. District Judge J. N. Browning agreed, finding that “proof was evident” that Sneed was guilty of having committed the offense of premeditated murder. As Sneed’s defense lawyers had done only nine months earlier in Fort Worth, they contended that proof was not evident that Sneed had committed premeditated, first-degree murder.

Just as they had done in the Colonel Boyce murder case, McLean did not deny that Sneed killed Al Boyce or deny that Sneed had killed him intentionally. Nevertheless, McLean contended, the most that the state could prove against Sneed was a manslaughter charge, and therefore, Sneed was entitled to have appropriate bail set for his release. In making this argument, McLean relied on the “insulting words or conduct” directed toward a “female relative” statute as he had during Sneed’s first murder trial. The effect of that statute was to reduce the grade of that offense from what would otherwise have been premeditated murder to manslaughter, two to five years, provided that the defendant killed the libertine at their “first meeting” after the enraged relative learned of the insulting words or conduct.

 

Chapter 10: “Making ’em Believe in Ghosts”

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“Making ’em Believe in Ghosts”

The Beech Epting Murder Trial

A MONTH AND THREE DAYS AFTER the Fort Worth jury cleared John Beal Sneed for the killing of Colonel Albert Boyce, he was involved in another murder trial. But he was not the defendant in this one. His cohort, Beech Epting, was on trial for his role in the killing of Al Boyce, Jr.

Al Boyce was killed on September 14, 1912, in Amarillo, and a

Potter County grand jury had promptly indicted Beal Sneed and

Beech Epting, jointly, for murder.1 “Wild Bill” McLean once again was captain of the defense team, and he wasted no time in winning three major tactical victories during pretrial proceedings.

First, McLean argued for a change of venue to transfer the trial out of Potter County. With considerable water under his paddle, he argued that on account of the sensational nature of the killing as well as the massive publicity that followed, it would be impossible to get an “unpolluted” jury in Amarillo. There was another factor of which McLean was mindful: although a hung jury was a victory for the defense in the first Fort Worth murder trial, nevertheless, he and Beal Sneed were determined to win this trial—12 to 0 for the defense. In Amarillo, sentiment was bitter and split down the middle between Boyce partisans and Sneed partisans. Hence, it seemed most unlikely that any twelve Amarillo jurors could be found who would agree, unanimously, on any verdict.

 

Chapter 11: “No Trial for the Dead”

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“No Trial for the Dead”

The Vernon Murder Trial of John Beal Sneed

The Scene: The district courtroom in Vernon, Texas, February 11, 1913.

The Billing: The State of Texas v. John Beal Sneed, a murder trial.1

That billing, however, was somewhat misleading. What the packed courtroom witnessed when the curtain parted was less of a solemn, dignified, dispassionate judicial pursuit of truth and justice than . . . well, what would you call it? Part tragedy, part comedy, part farce, part melodrama, part pathos, part bare-knuckle brawl?

Whatever you called it, it was well larded with generous helpings of hyperbole, nonsense, and old-fashioned tent-revival-style hallelujahs and hellfire damnations.

The judicial cast for both sides was the same as it had been during the Beech Epting trial except the prosecution added Vernon lawyer Cecil Story to its roster while the defense added Vernon lawyer Harry Mason. Judge James Nabers again presided.

Jury selection proved both entertaining and revealing. Each prospect was tested on his views on the unwritten law. Several candidly admitted that they believed the unwritten law was higher than

 

Chapter 12: The John Beal Sneed Wars Continue

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The John Beal Sneed

Wars Continue

Combat in the Courts, Firefights in the Streets

JOHN BEAL SNEED walked out of the Vernon courthouse a free

man on February 25, 1913. For almost two years he had soldiered on through physical, mental, and emotional ordeals that would have worn out the body and crushed the spirit of an ordinary man— all the confrontations, the bloodletting, the killing of two human beings, and then being run through the emotional wringer during four murder trials—in three of which his own life hung in the balance. On top of all of that, his family life had been devastated.

In the end, John Beal Sneed’s iron will, his callous disregard for anyone except himself, and his grim determination to prevail, whatever the cost, did prevail. He had succeeded in ending the love triangle between his wife and Al Boyce; he had publicly vindicated his wounded pride by killing Colonel Boyce and Al Boyce; he had forced a woman who hated him to remain his wife and live with him; and finally, he had defeated all the criminal charges lodged against him. It would seem that any mortal man who had been through all that John Beal Sneed had just endured would have been more than

 

Epilogue: A. Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Defeat

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EPILOGUE

A. Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Defeat

Spin-Doctoring, Dirty Tricks, and Whatever Else It Takes

WHEN AT THE END of Sneed’s second Fort Worth murder trial the jury shot back a “not guilty” verdict without even bothering to deliberate, much less to read the court’s jury instructions, Judge

Swayne was flabbergasted—stunned is perhaps a better word. Both

Judge Swayne’s words and his actions during and after the trial clearly demonstrated that he had no doubt—reasonable or otherwise—that

John Beal Sneed had intentionally killed Colonel Boyce without any legal justification. How, he puzzled, could the jury have gotten it so wrong?

Better question was, how did the defense manage to snatch victory from the jaws of a seemingly certain defeat? How did McLean and company manage to lay the sins of the son at the feet of the father and then convince the jury that it was somehow necessary to slay Colonel Boyce in order to “protect the home” of the killer?

And they did all of that despite the efforts of Judge Swayne during the second trial to rein in the excesses of the McLean team. Admittedly the judge was not entirely successful at that, but then what mortal judge could have totally repressed the combined aggression and forcefulness of McLean, Johnson, Scott, and John Beal Sneed himself—particularly when the prosecution lawyers did so little to assist him?

 

Epilogue: B. Reflections, Speculations, and Unsolved Mysteries

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VENGEANCE IS MINE

How skillfully, how masterfully, did McLean, Johnson, Scott, and even Beal Sneed himself when he took the stand, play on those prejudices, those fears of female eroticism, which, unless decisively restrained, threatened their own manhood and honor, those fears that a northern encroachment of modernism was threatening their core values and their way of life. In the end, the only patriotic thing the jurors could do to protect the home of John Beal Sneed, and— even more importantly—to protect their own homes, and to protect the homes of all upright and right-thinking citizens of Texas was to send forth a clear and resounding message that this was not the North; that henceforth free love, promiscuity, female eroticism, lightness in women, easy divorces, as well as lustful libertines, and any other brand of northern modernism would not be tolerated.

Henceforth Texas homes would be protected!

Because . . . well, after all, because this was Texas.

In the end, it seems more than probable that the jurors, at least the jurors in the second Fort Worth murder trial, didn’t really believe that Lena was insane, didn’t really buy into that “moral insanity” charade. But they were willing to give Beal Sneed a pass on that to salvage his tattered pride. What the jurors did buy into, however, was the “protecting the home” fiction that the McLean-Johnson-Sneed team orchestrated so masterfully to resonate so well with the jurors’ inherited Victorian culture.

 

Appendix One: The Rest of the Tragic Story of Hugh D. Spencer

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APPENDIX ONE

The Rest of the Tragic Story of Hugh D. Spencer

Miss Lillie Was a Rover

HUGH D. SPENCER was the district attorney who prosecuted Beech

Epting and John Beal Sneed for the murder of Al Boyce, Jr. The Epting trial began on January 4, 1913. Some seven years later almost to the day—January 5, 1920—Hugh Spencer was a central figure in another sensational murder trial, this time in Decatur, Texas. The local newspaper, the Wise County Messenger, called the trial “one of the strangest in the annals of criminal jurisprudence.”1 It certainly lived up to its billing.

Although John Beal Sneed had no direct connection with the

1920 Decatur killing and its resulting murder trial, nevertheless the bizarre story of that killing and the murder trial begs to be told as a part of—and not merely as a footnote to—the equally bizarre Sneed story. While Spencer played a role in each, that was only the beginning of the similarities. The killings, the murder trials, the reactions of the jurors as well as the mind-set of the society of that time and place were almost a mirror image of each other. Eerily enough, the killing in the Decatur case was an identical twin, factually, to the assassination of Al Boyce, Jr.: a killer who fired three shots into his unsuspecting victim; a killer who readily admitted that he shot his victim with intent to kill; a killer who never denied that he shot his victim without a warning and without giving him a chance to defend himself; and a killer who was immediately identified and arrested.

 

Appendix Two: Timeline

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APPENDIX TWO

Timeline

1839

“Parson” Joseph Perkins Sneed, Tennessee circuit-riding

Methodist preacher, migrates to Texas and settles in Central

Texas area north of Austin.

1839

Tennessee native James Boyce migrates to Texas and settles in the same Central Texas area.

May 8, 1842

Albert Gallatin Boyce, son of James Boyce, is born near Austin.

1854

Dudley H. Snyder, Mississippi native, migrates to Texas at the age of twenty-one and settles a short distance north of

Austin.

1856

John Wesley Snyder, younger brother of Dudley H. Snyder, migrates to Texas, soon followed by a third Snyder brother,

Thomas Shelton Snyder. All settle in the same Central

Texas area.

July 24, 1875

Al Boyce, Jr., son of Colonel Albert G. Boyce and wife, Annie

Boyce, is born.

Dec. 30, 1877

John Beal Sneed, son of Joseph Tyre Sneed and wife,

Lillian Beal Sneed, and grandson of Joseph Perkins Sneed, the Methodist parson, is born.

Aug. 15, 1879

Lenora (Lena) Snyder, daughter of Thomas Shelton Snyder, is born.

Mid-1880s

Famous three-million-acre XIT Ranch carved out of Texas

 

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