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Chapter 11: “No Trial for the Dead”

Bill Neal University of North Texas Press PDF

11

CHAPTER

“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

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Chapter 6: “The Greatest Legal Battle Ever”

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6

CHAPTER

“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,

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Appendix Two: Timeline

Bill Neal University of North Texas Press PDF

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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Prologue

Bill Neal University of North Texas Press PDF

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

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Epilogue: B. Reflections, Speculations, and Unsolved Mysteries

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252

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.

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